It was just a regular Wednesday. I was running errands with my children and then, seeminly out of nowhere, my heart just sank within me. All the world seemed hopeless and the future ahead seemed like this giant unplanned void. I found myself bombarded with voices questioning whether or not there was any real meaning to life and if God was even real or if I have just made Him up. And a general sense of malaise settled into my soul and for three days I could not shake the fog and despair.
This isn't the first time I have had a sort of existential crisis. But I have never liked these thoughts and feelings and I have always been afraid of them. I have tried desperately to distract myself and ignore the thoughts of meaninglessness and the feelings of hopelessness. The feelings always did dissipate if I could keep myself distracted for long enough. My coping strategy was to look for new books or a new hobby, Youtube interviews with celebrities or social media feeds - anything to distract me from this loss of hope.
After about three days I finally mentioned to my husband that I had been feeling this way - feeling both ashamed and guilty for even questioning these things when we have a great life together. His response was, "It’s okay. You’re in desolation."
Desolation - not a word we use very often in Evangelical circles but there is a long Christian tradition about the examination of our inner worlds using the terms desolation and consolation. Desolation is a word to describe feelings of turmoil, sadness, darkness, restlessness, apathy, tepid attitudes about our Christian life, loss of love, loss of faith and loss of hope and general disconnectedness with our Creator and Lord. In short, a lack of inner peace. Consolation refers to the feelings of love, joy, hope, peace and deep love for God.
The regular Christian life is made up of many seasons of both consolation and desolation. And yet, when you are in desolation, it can be hard to recognize it for the fog it creates in your mind, body, and soul. It is especially difficult if you aren’t in the habit of taking a daily account of where your heart and mind and soul are at.
Even as I scan over my own experience recently I can see the signs but only after having it pointed out. I was flooded with darkness, sadness, and loss of hope. Then filled with shame, guilt, and fear. I felt the need to hide and was compelled to try and figure it out on my own, never once thinking about asking God about these feelings. I was fleeing, ignoring and distracting myself. A basic classic experience of desolation. And if you are experiencing or have experienced these feelings I will tell you an important truth - this is never the presence of God's Spirit. This is never how God moves in our lives. These feelings are so contrary to his nature. And I even know this in theory but until someone spoke into my life - I couldn't seem it.
The words desolation and consolation come from St.Ignatius of Loyola. He founded the Jesuit order and spent his life teaching spiritual discernment - a spiritual gift and discipline that allows us to judge between right and wrong, truth and error, the voice of evil and the voice of God. Well before psychologists were talking about the importance of acknowledging our feelings and that our inner worlds provided insight into the current state of our minds, St.Ignatius was teaching others how to examine their own inner life and discover deeper intimacy with God. He believed that what happens to us personally - in our emotions and thoughts -are actually places we can sift and sort and hear God, know his leading and direction, and thus discern wisely.
Until the other night when I realized, with the help of my husband, that I was in desolation, I had never considered standing still and facing these emotions, these existential doubts, these feelings of meaningless. I had never considered that this is a place I could invite Jesus into or meet with Him in. I had only lived in guilt and fear and shame of having these thoughts for years.
We all have our own forms of despair. While you might not struggle with existential crisis' like myself, I am sure you know what yours are. They are lies we have allowed ourselves to believe, ways in which darkness seeps into our souls and it is hard to know what to do with them. We look for someone to blame for “making” us feel this way. If you have ever been to a counsellor, you know no one can make you feel anything. But we do not have a lot of teaching on this. Mostly, we are taught that emotions are bad and intellect is right OR emotions are central to our faith and intellect takes away the joy and freedom of the Holy Spirit.
But Ignatius believed we needed both our emotions and intellect to discern the voice of God. He believed that we could look at what was happening inside us and bring some principles to help us discern what was happening. He strongly cautioned that we were to never try and face desolation on our own. I needed my husbands insight and friends that I trust. Ignatius taught that only in the power of prayer, informed by the Word of God and with the insight of trusted Christians could we endure and discern desolation and all that was going on inside our hearts.
These voices and feelings of despair that we feel are in fact places God wants to be with us. And while God, according to Ignatius, never brings desolation into our lives - He can continue to work in significant ways in this time. Teaching us about ourselves, about Him, giving us wisdom and insight into the inner working of our lives, and bringing about our growth so that we might know that everything is a gift from Him. God is able to redeem all things and He cares about these voices. Only with His truth about who He is and who we are in Christ can we move through desolation.
I wish I could tell you that once you realize you are in desolation that you then receive consolation and all will be well. That might happen but it also might not. Desolation has to be endured with patience. Satan would tell us to flee, to avoid, to hide and we must stand and wait, pressing into God while we do. Only by moving in the opposite direction to what the desolate voices are telling you, can we hope to endure the desert.
I remember a time when I first moved to another city and was very lonely - change almost always brings about a period of desolation. I felt I was floundering in my studies and Sundays were the worst days because I was without a church or a community of friends yet. I felt so very alone, sitting in a large church and knowing no one. I was at such a loss as to how to combat this loneliness. The only thing I could think to do was while sitting in the pew, I would physically open my hand and then close it as if I was grasping Jesus' hand, desperately trying to remember I was not alone and trying to act in opposition to how I was feeling.
Desolation is not something God is disappointed in us about. He is not angry and frustrated with us that we might have times of darkness. And our instinct might be to hide and loathe both the feelings and ourselves. But it is actually a time when we can hold onto the imaginary hand of Jesus. To sit with the very real presence of Jesus in our darkest places and hear his voice clinging to the reality that God is not distant but with us whether we can hear his voice or not. We can, with others and prayers and the Bible examine our feelings and the voices in our heads and see where God's truth needs to go deeper into our lives, to repent of lies we have believed and embrace a new the wisdom and truth God longs to give us in these times.
The most important thing to remember about desolation is that it will always pass. The other lie Satan would have us believe is that we are stuck in this forever. But we aren’t. In a few weeks times we will celebrate the very reason we know desolation will not last forever. The resurrected one is on our side. Willing and incredibly able to look at whatever might be inside us and see us through the desert.
*I have barely scratched the surface of this deep and rich topic. If this discussion of desolation and consolation has sparked your interest, I suggest reading Weeds Among The Wheat by Thomas S Green S.J. Or The Voice of Jesus by Gordon T Smith.