During extended periods of isolation, we are likely to be more-than-usually sensitive to changes of mood. Ignatius of Loyola’s own experience of this led him to develop techniques to respond to feelings of ‘darkness and disturbance’.
By exploring Ignatius’s reflections on his experience of isolation, prayer and discernment, I have found them to be useful in offering us valuable help in our present circumstances.
It is a common experience that in circumstances of isolation, we tend to become more aware than usual of changes of mood, while the moods themselves can be more intense, pronounced and difficult to negotiate.
They can be more powerful and demand our attention more insistently when we’re in solitude, confined to a small space or deprived of our usual conditions for working and mixing with family, friends and colleagues.
Ignatius himself went through two periods of isolation, one a necessary convalescence at Loyola, the other several months of voluntary self-isolation in a cave at Manresa.
When he was reading or thinking about the life of Christ and the lives of the saints or the romances of chivalry that he loved, he had the same reaction: he was fired with a desire to imitate the great deeds of the people he admired in the stories.
It was experiences like this and his months in the cave at Manresa that led Ignatius to stress the importance of the distinction between two kinds or groups of moods, which he called “consolation” and “desolation”.
His description of consolation may involve, for example, an experience of being profoundly moved by love of God; it also includes “every increase of hope, faith and charity”, thoughts and feelings that lead us to the service and praise of God, or an “interior happiness” that draws us towards heavenly things and leaves us quiet and at peace in God.
Desolation is the opposite of consolation. Its typical features are “darkness and disturbance” of spirit, an attraction to what is base and of the earth, anxiety arising from agitations and temptations, leading to a lack of confidence, a weakening or loss of hope and love so that one becomes “lazy, lukewarm, sad” as if cut off from God.
From Ignatius’s descriptions it is clear that with regard to a person’s spiritual health and growth, one essential question about feelings and moods is not so much their intensity or duration or their psychological significance, important though these are, but the moral direction in which they are leading.
Consolation tends to increase or strengthen confidence in God, hope and generous love of God and neighbour. Desolation, on the other hand, if it is allowed to govern a person’s attitudes, choices and actions, is potentially destructive.
We cannot change our affective moods simply by choosing to do so, by deciding to feel differently, but we can choose to change our thoughts.
Ignatius recognises that there is two-way traffic between thoughts and feelings: feelings give rise to thoughts and influence what and how we think, and thoughts affect what and how we feel.
One of the tactics in times of desolation that he proposes has to do with memory and thought: choosing to remember and reflect on previous experiences of consolation as a response to desolation and as a way of sustaining, strengthening or restoring confidence in God, hope and love of God and neighbour.
There are biblical precedents for this approach. In times of oppression, suffering and crisis or when confidence and hope are weak and God seems to have abandoned his people, different biblical texts encourage recalling and retelling the stories of the deeds done by God in creation, history and personal life.
Rather than continuing to cry out in grief, pain and protest, turn to memory, focusing no longer on his/her own anguish but on God and God’s “work”:
“I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord,
I will remember your wonders of old,
I will meditate on all your work,
And muse on your mighty deeds” (Ps 77:11-12).
I am suggesting that in a time of pandemic, when many of us are struggling to find or sustain confidence and hope, or to live in love and charity with ourselves and others, the prayer of “Contemplation for love of God” in the Spiritual Exercises can help as an effective response.
Thus Ignatius invites us to “bring to memory the benefits received – creation, redemption, and particular gifts’, and to ponder ‘with great affection how much God our Lord has done for me, and how much he has given me of what he has…”.
His purpose is to evoke, sustain, strengthen or restore in us – whichever is needed – a reciprocal response of love, confidence and hope. It is this aspect of this exercise that seems to me to be well suited to our present predicament when, particularly in conditions of isolation and reduced social interaction, we can feel so helpless and be so susceptible to the dangerous experiences of loss of confidence and hope in God, creation and humanity. As it was for the psalmist, prayerful memory of the gifts of God in the past can also inspire in us confidence and hope in a present and a future with God. Catholic News Update Asia
David Lonsdale taught Christian spirituality at Heythrop College, University of London.