Why does God allow spiritual desolation?

St. Ignatius experienced the loss of faith, hope and love — from this he offers insights for dealing with spiritual darkness

By Father William Watson

Women pray rosary in Haiti
Women gather after Sunday Mass to pray the rosary in the town of Chambeau, Haiti, in this file photo. (CNS photo/Patrick Murphy-Racey)


Whether we are aware of it or not, each of us is influenced by spiritual inspirations throughout our lives. We are always in a state of either consolation or desolation. We may be oblivious to these spiritual states unless we enter a “school of discernment” and learn how to become aware of their influence.

In last month’s column, we explored definitions of spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation as embedded attitudes or lifestyles that can shape our life story. This month we will consider St. Ignatius’ wisdom on the reasons for spiritual desolation and his advice for our response.

As we considered in previous columns, we experience a loss of faith, hope and love when we are in the grip of desolation. Why would God allow this?

Three reasons for spiritual desolation
St. Ignatius discerned that desolation is the result of following the false logic of counter-inspirations. When we make wrong choices in our thoughts, words and deeds, God allows us to experience the darkness of our sins as a holy warning. This experience of desolation is meant to stir our consciences and return us to authenticity.

The second reason God allows desolation is directly linked with our human growth and spiritual progress. God wants to awaken our whole being — spirit, mind and body — to become aware of our hidden wounds.

Desolation reveals the ways in which sin has taken root in our spirits, minds and bodies. Spiritual progress is possible only when we “wake up” and confront these damaging patterns.

We might feel discouraged by the darkness in our hearts, minds and bodies at such times. In this moment, however, we must reaffirm our hope in the Lord, who is gradually uprooting the source of the darkness in our being, with our cooperation. Ignatius reminds us that when we feel lost, God is closer to us than ever.

Third, desolation may appear during times of spiritual advancement. One example might be a period of peace in divine inspiration after a period of purification marked by struggle. At such times, we may be tempted to believe that we have “arrived,” and have reached the end of our spiritual journey.

This is an illusion. When we find ourselves in these moments of pride and self-satisfaction, the counter-inspirations of desolation return. God allows desolations at these times as a warning, to remind us that although we have grown in authenticity and holiness, we are still susceptible to the narcissism and destructive pride that will halt all our progress.

Four guidelines
In addition to identifying the reasons God allows desolation, Ignatius developed guidelines for how we should act when we feel the discouragement, hopelessness and frustration that accompany it.

First, St. Ignatius taught that we should never change course when in desolation. Ignatius warns that it is a clear sign of counter-inspirations at work when we feel compelled by an “anxious urgency” to reach a decision or engage an action.

Second, during times of desolation we need to redouble our efforts to open and orient our hearts to God, even if it feels useless. Prayer, examination of conscience and simple penance or fasting is helpful as we seek God’s grace. (see Mark 9:29)

The third guideline is to remember that God will give us the grace we need, building on our natural abilities. When we feel overwhelmed by temptations, or the darkness of spirit associated with disordered attractions and compulsive behaviors, there is always sufficient grace for salvation, even if the counter-inspiration indicates otherwise.

Finally, we must be intentional in our efforts to cultivate patience and perseverance in the religious practices of our faith when influenced by the counter-inspiration of desolation. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Remember that God holds you fast during the divine inspirations of consolation, and holds you even closer during the cleansing times of desolation. Affirm your faith in God. Hold fast to your spiritual disciplines and the practices of your faith. Seek stability and fidelity both in times of peace and calm and in times of turbulence and struggle.

Next time, we’ll consider some of the strategies the enemy employs to attack our authentic human nature and obstruct our spiritual progress.

Jesuit Father William M. Watson is the founder of Seattle’s Sacred Story Institute.