Spiritual Consolation

By Martina O’Shea

In preparation for the November 4 Next Steps Parish Forum, we offer these thoughts to aid your discernment about how you might be called to respond to the sex abuse crisis in our Church.

You recall that, while Ignatius Loyola was recuperating from being hit with a cannonball in 1521, he began to pay attention to his inner experiences—his thoughts, imaginings, feelings, and desires. In The Pilgrim’s Journey, Father Jospeh Tylenda, S.J. tells how Ignatius began to “marvel at the difference between the spirits that agitated him, one from the demon, the other from God.” It dawned on Ignatius that what he was noticing were clues to understanding God’s direction for him. What a gift for our own spiritual journey…we too might sense clues to God’s direction for us!

Ignatius believed that these interior experiences came from what he called the “good spirit” or the “evil spirit.” Good Spirit meant God’s Spirit…God’s action in our hearts. It also meant God’s working in us through grace, and through all of those influences for the good that surround us in the world and draw us toward God—acting from our “true self.”

When Ignatius used the term “evil spirit,” he was using his own 16th century language to recognize a 21st century truth: sometimes we can encounter obstacles when we try to place God at the center of our lives. For Ignatius, such obstacles came from an “enemy of our human nature.” Today, we might conceive of the “evil spirit” as a dark force that tempts us, using our vulnerable places of wounds, fears or self-doubts, away from being faithful to our relationship with God. Or it could refer to the sinful world around us.

For Ignatius then, discernment of spirits is paying attention to our inner experiences to understand where they come from—from the Good Spirit, or from the evil spirit—and where they lead—toward God; or away from God and toward being “stuck in self.”

Non-spiritual consolation
Imagine a magnificent sunset and how you are moved by the multitude of colors: reds, oranges, and violets— spreading across the western sky as the sun gradually sinks below the horizon. Or, imagine holding a newborn baby, and marveling at the perfection of her fingers and toes; her tiny eyelashes. Being consoled with such beauty, might evoke feelings of peace, joy, good energy, a sense of expansiveness or being uplifted. This ‘everyday’ consolation is non -spiritual, and is not what Ignatius was talking about.

Spiritual consolation
The consolation that Ignatius explores is spiritual consolation. Consolation becomes spiritual when the consolation is experienced as being God-oriented, or God-connected. So, in spiritual consolation, you experience the beauty of the sunset or the wonder of a newborn baby and you are lead to give glory and thanks to God for God’s mercy and love - you are being drawn to praise the Creator. If you freely go along with this feeling and the overall direction that it is pointing you toward, you might be drawn into a deeper faith, hope and love in your Creator and Lord. This is the spiritual consolation that Ignatius discusses in his Spiritual Exercises and encourages us to follow.

Resources consulted: Gallagher, T.M., The Discernment of Spirits; McDermnott, B.O., The Role of Spiritual Consolation in Christian Decision Making: A Plea for Ignatian Consensus, Manuscript submitted for publication; O’Brien, K. The Ignatian Adventure; Toner, J.J., A Commentary on St. Ignatius’ Rules for Discernment of Spirits.