When Spiritual Desolation Hits, Here’s How to Fight Back

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Difficult times are also opportunities for us to strengthen the musculature of our faith.

By Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ, Aleteia, Sep 20, 2017

Fourth in a Series on Jesuit Wisdom for Praying through Desolation

As Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say, “Don’t let all that good suffering go to waste!”

Spiritual desolation can be a time of great suffering. Responded to wisely, times of desolation can be transformed from periods of seemingly pointless pain to ripe paths of fruitful victory.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on Jesuit wisdom in times of desolation, we learned what spiritual desolation is and why God permits it. In Part 3, we learned how to resist desolation and not be overcome by it. This week, we’ll look at how we may rally a counter-attack, and thereby gain spiritual strength and maturity.

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5) Spiritual desolation is a time when Satan shouts lies. Our spiritual dryness, physical discomfort and emotional pain are distorted by the enemy, in order to tell us lies about ourselves and about God.

Saint Ignatius Loyola tells us that it is precisely at such times that we must take authority over our thought life and submit ourselves to the truth:

Seventh RuleLet him who is in desolation consider how the Lord has left him in trial in his natural powers, in order to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy; since he can with the Divine help, which always remains to him, though he does not clearly perceive it: because the Lord has taken from him his great fervor, great love and intense grace, leaving him, however, grace enough for eternal salvation.

Rule 7 teaches us how to think during a time of desolation. The decision to think about spiritual desolation during the desolation itself, rather than permitting ourselves to drown in the feelings of desolation, is essential. We must not let go of the truth that exists beyond the emotions attending the present desolation. Fortified with that truth, we can resist and rebuke the lies of the enemy.

“Let one who is in desolation consider.” Three related elements—such a desolation is a trial permitted by the Lord; consider the nature of the trial; consider the divine purpose in allowing this trial.

Consider that the desolation is a trial: This is a challenge that can be overcome, and in overcoming, we can become stronger. Taken as an expression of divine providence rather than abandonment, desolation becomes an opportunity for courage and victory. Until repeated exercise of this rule causes such consideration to become more habitual, our first thoughts will tend to be more confused and focus on the pain itself rather than on opportunities for victory.

The nature of the trial: No fervor. No delight. We fear that all that remains is to make use of my natural powers. We can choose (power of the will) not to shorten a time of prayer; we can read and think (power of the intellect) about a text of Scripture; we can picture a Gospel scene (power of imagination). The nature of the trial is to feel as if we are separated from God. We respond by using our natural powers beyond feelings to contact God.

The purpose of the trial: By resisting, one learns to resist. By undergoing these trials with persevering fidelity, we become increasingly able to bear them without harm.

Virtues develop through repeated exercises of their acts. Repeated experience of desolation followed by repeated resistance is the normal path, according to God’s design, toward freedom from subjugation to desolation. Desolation, humbly and courageously resisted, becomes a crucial spiritual lesson, teaching hope and guiding us towards a spiritual maturity that spiritual consolation alone couldn’t accomplish.

When spiritual consolation is embraced and spiritual desolation resisted, each movement permits its own kind of growth. Both are necessary, in times and ways allowed by God, and both are, as Ignatius tells us, lessons. Through both, we come to the “full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)

God always provides sufficient grace to withstand the trial of spiritual desolation. We can know with certitude that we can resist.

Important:  There are situations where non-spiritual desolations surpass our physical and emotional energies and we cannot face and should not try to face them by dogged resistance alone. If our physical or emotional resources are depleted, replenishment is necessary in order to continue the spiritual battle.

In spiritual desolation, the enemy wants us to forget, and our task is to remember. That’s why daily prayer, meditation and fellowship are so important—to secure our ability to recollect the truth about ourselves and about God: We are not orphans. Our Heavenly Father provides for us. Christ shares his victory with us!

When I write next, I will speak of the spiritual inspirations of Saint Therese of Lisieux. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.