St. Ignatius and I go way back to my college days when as a junior I took a theology course called “Ignatian Spirituality Today.” Prior to that class, I knew nothing about Ignatius, discernment, or the founding of the Jesuits. Ignatius of Loyola’s transformation from 16th century playboy to patron saint of retreats is an accessible narrative that was surprisingly resonant for a young woman of the late 20th century. The concept that God speaks to us through our life experiences affirmed my natural inclination to trust gut instincts and to notice internal movements of spirit. The Society of Jesus, which Ignatius founded, has been a strong presence to me ever since college through our parish, then later through my husband’s employment as a high school teacher, and now our sons’ attendance at that school. This weekend I enjoyed reconnecting with Ignatius through a workshop on discernment given by Fr. Michael Sparough, SJ, based on a book that he co-authored called What’s Your Decision?. Like all the best reunions, the encounter both recovered the familiar and invited new discovery.
The terms consolation and desolation were used by Ignatius to distinguish whether particular feelings and thoughts come from God or from “the enemy,” and it was good to be reminded of the subtleties involved in the distinction. Many authors have interpreted these terms in various ways, but Fr. Sparough uses a simple and straightforward definition. Consolation is any increase in faith, hope, and love. What direction do feelings and thoughts take you? If toward more faith, hope, and love, then it’s of God. But consolation is not the same as happiness; in fact, it can be revealed in the midst of grief. Desolation, then, produces a decrease in faith, hope, and love but is not synonymous with depression. Fr. Sparough urged that we attend to the “after-taste” of an experience, because desolation can arise in response to pleasurable things.
An “a ha” moment occurred for me during his presentation on the Ignatian Examen, a daily prayer format that I have heard of often in the last few years but never really understood. It’s a simple process, really, of attentiveness and listening. Engaged regularly, the Examen serves as a crucial tool for discerning the movements of consolation and desolation. Suddenly I got the point. Ignatius advised that the Examen be done twice a day, in the middle and in the evening, for 15-30 minutes. “If you do no other prayer, do this.” Again there are many variations, but the following five steps presented by Fr. Sparough were composed by Fr. Dennis Hamm, SJ.
1. Pray for Light – To see the truth of my life
2. Review the day in Thanksgiving — Notice what blessings I’m taking for granted.
3. Review the feelings that surface in the replay of the day – Pay attention to what’s going on.
4. Choose one feeling (positive or negative) and pray over it – Talk to God as if to a best friend, realizing that true friends tell you hard truths when necessary. Remember to listen for God’s response.
5. Look toward tomorrow with hope (not fear) – Believe that God wants to grace us.