Five years ago, Sensus Fidelium produced a talk I gave called Making Decisions Without Fear based on the teaching of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Today we’re going to delve much deeper into that oft-quoted parable of St. Ignatius “Don’t make decisions in desolation.” That is correct.
But the original version from the saint goes like this:
In time of desolation, we should never make any change, but remain firm and constant in the resolution and decision which guided us the day before the desolation, or in the decision to which we adhered in the preceding consolation. For just as in consolation the good spirit guides and counsels us, so in desolation the evil spirit guides and counsels. Following his [the evil spirit’s] counsels, we can never find the way to a right decision.—Spiritual Exercises Rule I.5.
Let’s unpack this. First, by “good spirit” St. Ignatius means an angel. By “evil spirit” he means a demon. Secondly, St. Ignatius is saying that you should not make big decisions when you’re not at your “A-game” spiritually, so to speak. Resolutions should only be made carefully and slowly, under the guidance of traditional Catholicism and a good confessor (and often a good friend to have another set of eyes on the situation.) Big decisions should only be made when you are walking in the light of Christ, finding yourself in spiritual consolation.
What is consolation?
I call every increase in faith, hope and love and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord…[to] attain great devotion [and] intense love.—Spiritual Exercises I.3 and 9
Notice how important it is to have a deep peace in your heart while making big decisions. (That is the point of the video I made linked at the top of the blog.) However, notice that consolation does not necessarily mean “happiness” in the shallow American sense. Rather, “consolation” for St. Ignatius may even occasionally include weeping for one’s sins:
It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord.—Spiritual Exercises 1.3
What then is desolation? St. Ignatius writes:
I call desolation…darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to lack of faith, lack of hope, lack of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were from its Creator and Lord.—Spiritual Exercises 1.4.
It’s extremely important to notice the words “as it were” above. St. Ignatius is not saying that the soul in desolation is necessarily in mortal sin and therefore separated from the friendship of God. Rather, he is saying the desolation that even saints go through can feel distant from God at times, even if you are in sanctifying grace. Such are the times not to make big decisions, even if in grace.
So, you can make decisions when you have tears of consolation or any increase of faith and hope and charity, but you should not make decisions when you are in mortal sin or when you are in sanctifying grace but happen to feel a “darkness of soul or turmoil of spirit.” Keep in mind that “desolation” can have some overlap with psychological depression, but St. John of the Cross’ Dark “Night of the Soul” ultimately has nothing to do with depression, as I explained here.
However, before you do any discernment of spirits at all, you should be aware of this extremely important caveat that St. Ignatius places in his Spiritual Exercises:
We must put aside all judgment of our own and keep the mind ever ready and prompt to obey in all things the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, our holy Mother, the hierarchical Church.—Rules for Thinking with the Church, #1.
This means discernment of spirits must play second-fiddle to Natural Law (common sense) as well as Divine Revelation (the Bible and the Magisterium.) This means that the Bible and the Church must guide your decisions long before your feelings.
Notice that St. Ignatius asserts we must first listen to the true Spouse of Christ, not those flamboyant goons whom Archbishop Viganò has rightly labeled the “parallel Church” and “the servant of the New World Order.” Indeed, we Apostolic Catholics must put our “discernment of spirits” behind the guidance of saints like Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori. For example, if you have “discerned” that your “calling” is to leave your wife for a more beautiful woman, then you have done poor discernment of spirits, even if you claim this is executed in peace and consolation. Why? Because the first rule of discernment of spirits is “to obey in all things the true Spouse of Christ our Lord.” (And one of these teachings is Our Lord’s prohibition against divorce and “remarriage,” cf Mt 19.)
St. Ignatius also writes about this in making big-decisions:
Though in desolation we must never change our former resolutions, it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves. We can make an effort in a suitable way to do some penance.—Rules for Discernment I.6.
Not to sound like a hippy-modernist, but I very much believe that the first type of “penance” we need to execute in order to exit desolation is eat-healthy, stop your addictions and start exercising. It’s not that I’m saying those things will lead you to the unitive stage of prayer like the mortification lived by the saints, but I very much believe that we normally can not get to the point of consolation in prayer if we have bad chemicals floating around our brain and body. I believe that to get physically healthy is truly a way “to intensify our activity against the desolation.”
St. Ignatius is also asserting that if you are in a certain season of your life where you are experiencing desolation (which he defines as “darkness of soul and turmoil of spirit” but does not necessarily say is tantamount to sin) you basically need to stay the course of previous resolutions made in consolation and a clarity of soul. To come out of desolation and again find that pathway back into spiritual consolation or light, you should re-double efforts of “prayer, meditation, examination [and] penance.”
Here’s the summary of today’s advice: Provided you are not making a decision against one of the Ten Commandment, and provided you are not making big life-changes every month in a flighty-manner, you can be pretty sure that if you are at the top of your “A-game” spiritually (experiencing the light of Christ and in good health) then it is pretty safe to make some strong resolutions or even life-decisions, provided they are reasonable enough to attain for a long time and don’t contradict former promises or vows. This is the same advice for big life-decisions made in consolation, but it’s good to have a second pair of eyes on these from a friend or mentor or confessor.
Edit: After writing this article, my friend pointed out to me on text how many good saints were in bad health. She’s correct: ￼People can still make very good decisions about the spiritual life in bad health. The only point I was trying to make above is that you do not want to make life-decision when you’re hungover or after eating three Big Macs.