Saint Ignatius of Loyola was known for his skills in spiritual discernment. These skills enabled him to find God in all things, particularly in times of confusion, difficulty, and hardship, like the one we currently face. The persisting COVID-19 pandemic manifests itself in the rise of cases and deaths, and in the loss of jobs that has led to a serious economic downturn. In the light of our present context, we can learn from Saint Ignatius how to discern good from bad spirits so as to find hope in God and in life. To help us to reflect on our current situation, I would like to raise the question: How do we effectively cope with the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic and discover meaning in it?
The question presupposes the belief that our human spirit can endure difficulty and hardship when it is transformed by God’s spirit. It also presupposes that God is the Creator who cares for us in times of confusion and uncertainty. In other words, we can interpret our current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic from the point of view of the Christian God who is not distant from us, but who cares for us and understands our problem, just as Jesus cared for the people of his time and healed them from their infirmity.
Our current situation of facing a pandemic can be described in terms of light and darkness. We can assert that while darkness and confusion persist, these traits do not necessarily reflect Saint Ignatius’s description of desolation in The Spiritual Exercises. In other words, what we perceive as times of darkness and confusion might well be the opposite of what Ignatius might have intended to mean by the term “desolation.” If that is true, then our present situation of the COVID-19 pandemic could be perceived as consolation rather than desolation in Ignatian spirituality.
The terms “consolation” and “desolation” are unique to Ignatian discernment. Consolation and desolation are not mere feelings, though they denote certain feelings we have about a given situation. Consolation is a spiritual movement influenced by God, one that enables us to perceive our reality from the light of faith, hope, and love in God, self, and others (The Spiritual Exercises, Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, No. 316). However, to know if we are actually experiencing consolation, we need to base our judgment on the spiritual movement more than our feelings. In general, consolation generates in us a sense of peace and harmony amid the confusion we feel as a result of either the external reality (like the pandemic) or the internal conflict we experience (in anxiety, fear, and worry elicited by the pandemic). In contrast, desolation is a spiritual movement away from God, self, and others, even when the external reality of our life manifests itself in an outward but deceptive sense of peace and harmony. Our spirit, however, experiences a contrary movement; that is, we experience disturbance of peace, disharmony, and lack of faith, hope, and love in ourselves, God, and others (The Spiritual Exercises, Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, No. 317).1
It is important to recognize what a state of consolation or a state of desolation is. Yet, it is also important to remember what Ignatius often described as “false consolation,” and to contrast it to “true consolation.” I have found that applying the distinction between consolation and desolation rather than pleasure and pain, to be helpful ways to approach our current circumstances. The late Jesuit theologian, Father Michael Buckley, once observed: “Spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation are obvious states of affectivity, but they are not denoted by their sensible or even spiritual enjoyment, but by their direction, by their terminus.” (Buckley, 1973, p. 29).2
I find Fr. Buckley’s distinction between spiritual movement and mere feeling enlightening and particularly relevant to our present context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Externally, we have experienced a high level of anxiety as the coronavirus has spread and caused sickness and death. In addition to the number of cases of infection and deaths, the prolonged pandemic negatively impacts the economy and leads to a high rate of unemployment. Internally we are faced with anxiety and fear when we lose jobs or are facing the possibility of losing our jobs; when our relationships are challenged in the face of social distancing, which has caused isolation and depression; when we consider the disproportionate effect of the virus on communities of color; when we are uncertain about how the coronavirus continues to develop and change. On a surface level, we would have to say that our current situation of COVID-19 pandemic fits the Ignatian description of spiritual desolation in that our time creates uncertainty, confusion, and doubt.
But if we observe more carefully how many people, in particular healthcare workers, have responded to the situation of COVID-19 over the past year in selflessly caring for the sick and the dying, we would have to say that we experience a mixture of consolation and desolation. I would venture to say that if we reflect more deeply on the current situation from the point of view of divine providence, we would see that God has been with us, in and through one another, and because of this, we have experienced more consolation than we appreciate.
To use an analogy of light and darkness again, we can say that in a similar situation, consolation can be described as a time of light and desolation as a time of darkness. But in our current context when things seem to be mostly in the dark, we need to imagine a possibility that God can be present with us in the darkness of our lives. Reflecting on an example from Christianity, when Jesus was unjustly condemned to die on the cross, he must have been doubtful and confused about his life’s purpose, but he did not lose faith in God. Jesus died, but that was not the end of the story. Rather, God raised him up to eternal life. For those who believed in Jesus’s resurrection, the apparent darkness of the hour of his death became the light in his resurrection. But they did not experience the light of Jesus’s resurrection in an instant. Rather, they must have reflected on his words and deeds, and they must have remembered him in sharing their spiritual life of prayer and their material lives of action.
I believe that God’s light, that is the consolation God offers us in our current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, can be dimly shining but surely affirming for us that there is a deeper dimension of life than what we have seen and experienced. The question we can ask ourselves in times like this is: “What is life ultimately about when health can quickly be deteriorated, life security can easily be dismantled, and riches can be washed away in an instance as a result of the current pandemic?”
This kind of question stirs in us a sense of life’s meaning that we know we all yearn for but often do not take time to reflect on or know how to answer. Yet there is the possibility of being awakened to the truth that our riches and security that often come and go are not the primary things that give our lives meaning. The lasting values of life lie in the companionship we share, in the care we offer to those in need, and in the consoling words we offer to those who most need to hear us.
Our vulnerability in times of difficulty and hardship can change into companionship; our poverty (both actual and spiritual) can become the means for sharing life and love with those in need; and our worry and anxiety can move us to reach out to others for help. Not only do vulnerability, companionship, and solidarity comprise the essential ingredients in what Ignatius called spiritual consolation, but they also are the human qualities that reflect the divine attributes we human beings yearn for and hope to embody. If this is true, then are we not in fact experiencing consolation rather than desolation amid the COVID-19 pandemic? Let us take time during the apparent darkness to seek out the light.
- Ignatius of Loyola, Saint. (1951). The spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius: A new translation based on the language of the autograph (L.J. Puhl, SJ, Trans.). The Newman Press. (Original work published 1548.) ↩
- Buckley, M. (1973). The Structure of the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits. The Way. Supplement 20 (Autumn 1973), p. 29. ↩