I was with a patient this week making a routine bi-weekly visit. At the end of our time together, as I was getting out of my chair, I wished my friend a “Happy Thanksgiving.” Her eyes began to well with tears and she stated that this time of year for her was anything but “happy”. She then began to share with me part of her life’s journey (that I did not know about) and how she had lost faith in God.
I felt terrible that my best wishes had triggered such raw emotion and that she was experiencing such pain. I stayed for a while until she was calm again and we prayed together for healing and a renewed sense of God’s presence and grace in her life.
As I drove away from the facility to my next appointment, I pondered what had just happened and reflected on how the holidays for many people are not a time of joy and hopefulness but a real sense of what Saint Ignatius called “spiritual desolation.” It is my experience that each and every one of us goes through periods of time when we feel distant from one another, ourselves, and even God. If you read the lives and witness of the saints, you will find that this is a common experience.
The question is: how does one survive a period of “spiritual desolation”?
Saint Ignatius of Loyola was a Spanish priest and theologian, who founded the religious order called the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Ignatius is remembered as a talented spiritual director. He recorded his method in a celebrated treatise called the Spiritual Exercises, a simple set of meditations, prayers, and other mental exercises, first published in 1548. He gave some very specific instructions on working through a period of “desolation.”
Here are some of Ignatius’s guidelines (Rebecca Ruiz, IgnatianSpirituality.com)
1. Call it out. Do not keep these unnerving feelings a secret. Tell your spiritual advisor or a trusted spiritual companion, and name the exact feelings that you are feeling. For instance, one might say, “I feel despair,” “I feel hopeless,” “I feel like God has abandoned me,” or “I feel angry at God.” Do not be ashamed. The Enemy wants us to keep it a secret so that these painful feelings and doubts can fester and grow. Naming the desolation out loud is one of the first steps in removing the power it has over us.
2. Be compassionate toward yourself during this trying time. You are not a “bad” Christian. You are simply working through a very difficult time and, with God’s grace, you will have the strength to get through this intact.
3. Be disciplined. Stick to your spiritual routine. Don’t withdraw from your faith community or stop going to Sunday services. Do not make changes while in desolation.
4. Don’t “go it alone.” Lean on your spiritual advisor and a few trusted spiritual companions. It is critical that you speak to your spiritual advisor during this time. Some of the hallmarks of desolation, in addition to doubts and hopelessness that draws one away from God, are confusion and lack of objectivity. Your trusted spiritual companions know you and your story. They can remind you of all of the blessings God has bestowed upon you over the years, and they can help you see things in a more objective light. And if your desolation is stemming from any other factors, your spiritual advisor can help you identify those factors and guide you through ways of addressing them or finding the professional help to do so.
5. Trust that God has a purpose for allowing the desolation, even though it will likely be impossible for you to see this purpose at the time.
“Spiritual desolation” happens to all of us. It can be very painful. The Body of Christian believers might want to consider actively listening to friends and peers during the next six weeks; to walk with and assist in any way that we can those persons who are struggling during the holidays. Know of my prayers for each and every one of you who reads these words. More importantly, believe and have faith that God loves you, filling you with grace and mercy, and journeys with you to the end.