Rules one through four
Rules one through four lay out what he means by consolation and desolation and how the good and evil spirit operate upon us: the good spirit (i.e., the Holy Spirit, good angels) gives peace and builds us up with consolation by a growth of faith, hope, and love, giving us a greater sense of God’s presence in our lives, often making it easier to pray and overcome sin. The evil spirit (the devil, demons, our sinfulness) tries to bring us down with desolation by an increased anxiety and a sense of God’s absence, leading to discouragement and a decreased desire to pray and engage in spiritual exercises. As we will see, both consolation and desolation fall under God’s providence, but in different ways: for Ignatius, the good spirit gives consolation, while God only permits the evil spirit to give desolation.
Rules five through nine
Rules five through nine offer counsel regarding what to do in desolation and how to think about it when it occurs.
Rule five stipulates that, in desolation, never make a (spiritual) change. Ignatius here counsels us to stick to the spiritual resolutions we came to while in consolation. The reason is because desolation is the time of the lie—it’s not the time for sober thinking. That is, in our disheartened state, we’re more prone to be deceived. This could pertain to big or small matters. For example, suppose I had planned to begin every morning with a Scripture meditation; and one morning, I wake up and I just don’t feel like praying. For Ignatius, if I give in to this temptation, my desolation is likely to worsen. But if I resist and hold fast to my initial resolution, I may find my desolation beginning to wane.
in our disheartened state, we’re more prone to be deceived.
In terms of larger matters, suppose someone entertains doubts about their vocation in a time of intense desolation—say, a priest, a married person, or a consecrated religious. Since desolation is the time of the lie, it’s likely that the enemy is at work. Ignatius’ counsel again is to stick resolutely to the decision we came to while in consolation, before the desolation set in.
Rule six asks us to actively resist desolation, particularly by prayer and meditation. However, when we’re in the midst of desolation, the last thing we want to do is pray or meditate, since God feels so absent from our lives. For this reason, the very act of praying, of crying out to God for help, already works to undo the movement of desolation. For even in our faint prayer, there is a hint of faith that believes someone is listening.
As for meditation, it is helpful to meditate on a past time when God brought us through desolation. This can give us hope that he can and will bring us through the present desolation as well. For in desolation, we’re likely to doubt the reality of our encounter with God in the past; we’re tempted to see it as simply the product of our imagination. Thus, actively remembering and bringing to mind the reality of God’s work in our lives in the past helps to awaken our hearts to the possibility of his work in our lives in the present.
Rule seven calls us to think about desolation as a trial permitted by God; that is, to think about our desolation in a faith-based way. This runs contrary to the movement of desolation; for in desolation, the world feels meaningless. And the experience of meaningless suffering tends to erode our hope and confidence. Whereas, if we see meaning in our suffering, if we choose to see it as a trial permitted by God, it can give us strength.
Rule eight gives us a glimpse of the spiritual boldness of Ignatius. He counsels us, when in desolation, to choose to believe that consolation will return soon. This again is contrary to the movement of desolation, since in the midst of it, we are often tempted to see it as a permanent state—that it will always be like this. But by believing that consolation will return soon, one is already undermining the power of desolation.
In rule nine, Ignatius pauses to consider God’s purposes for allowing desolation. The first reason is due to our negligence. We might be pursuing the Lord actively in most of our life, but perhaps in one area we’ve become spiritually negligent. Desolation can then be a “wake-up call,” calling us back to renew our conversion. The second reason is to teach us some spiritual lesson, and the third is to show us our absolute need for grace—our radical dependence upon God. In desolation, we should examine the first reason (negligence), and once we rule that out, we can be assured that God has either the second or third in mind for us.
Rule ten switches gears and offers counsel for what to do in consolation. Here, Ignatius calls us to prepare for future desolation. For Ignatius, the ebb and flow of consolation and desolation is the normal path of the Christian life. It is what we should expect. Desolation is often so devastating precisely because it takes us by surprise. But if we realize that the present consolation will eventually give way to desolation, and we anticipate this ahead of time, we are better prepared to withstand the trial of desolation.
the ebb and flow of consolation and desolation is the normal path of the Christian life.
In consolation, when our spiritual energy is high, we should anticipate the temptations we’re likely to face when desolation comes. For example, we can firm up our resolve now:
Not to change our spiritual resolutions when desolation hits (rule 5)
To choose to pray and meditate upon God’s prior faithfulness to us in the midst of desolation (rule 6)
To choose to think of future desolation in the light of faith, when the experience of desolation will suggest that our suffering is meaningless (rule 7)
To believe consolation will return soon, even though the experience of desolation will often make us think otherwise (rule 8).