Consolation and Desolation: Old Wisdom for Tired Protestants by Elizabeth Glass Turner
Summer is a season for seeing people we normally don’t get to visit much: family reunions in park pavilions, vacation at a camp where we hug people we only see once a year, travel to relatives several states away.
The widespread family of faith isn’t really all that different, and sometimes when the flowering tree is in bloom and the breeze moves slowly under the weight of humidity, we bump into spiritual relatives we don’t see very often. They are strange and familiar at the same time, like an aunt you see every few years who wears different clothes than your mother or grandma but carries recognizable features, a familiar laugh, an identical profile.
Now that we’re historically removed from burning each other at the stake, for the past half-century Catholics and Protestants have been venturing into the park pavilion with nervous, eager smiles, carrying potato salad and ready to try an afternoon’s visit for brief family reunions – so to speak. No, we still don’t share the Eucharist, yes, most Protestants still have deep misgivings about the fine line of venerating Mary or asking Mary to intercede, and praying to Mary as Co-Redemptrix; and yes, many Catholics still have deep misgivings about Protestants’ tendency to swing back and forth theologically with every knee-jerk trend under the sun; but you don’t bring up famous family fights of holidays past at the one time of year everyone’s together for a few hours, and overall ecumenical efforts on the parts of Catholics and Protestants have been a very good thing indeed.
Which brings me to Ignatius on a site largely shaped by Wesleyan Methodist theology. Sometimes you bump into a distant relative and wonder how you’ve never connected before. Ignatius is that guy.
Assuming you have Google and Amazon, one can let you research a bit about him on your own time; today, large likelihood of being Protestant reader, we’ll briefly sketch an appreciative note on his concepts of consolation and desolation. Some wisdom is deep and hard and rich but at the same time feels like good old-fashioned common sense: this is that kind of wisdom.
It cuts against the #blessed trend, it cuts against cynical pessimism, and it cuts against the insidious assumption that anything we experience in our life must result from our own smarts or stupidity, holiness or hollowness. It is deeply personal without being damningly individualistic.
Simply put, “For Ignatius, the ebb and flow of consolation and desolation is the normal path of the Christian life.” There will be times of consolation – when there is a sense of noticeable, personally experienced growth or blossoming, when God’s presence seems close and the means of grace seem easy and quick at hand. There will also be times of desolation – similar to the “dark night of the soul” – when, whether from wrongdoing, or attacks of the enemy, or times of struggle or challenge, God’s presence seems distant or even simply absent, when our growth seems stalled or the habits that sustain us feel unusually heavy.
Ignatius counsels that in a time of consolation, followers of Christ should practice gratitude; resist self-satisfied pride, by remembering how limited we were during seasons of desolation; capitalize on the presence or abundance of energy available; and determine not to back out on the resolutions we’re making while things are going well, when later they do not. If Ignatius had been a midwestern farmer, consolation might be described in part as, “make hay while the sun shines.”
He also counsels that in a time of desolation, followers of Christ should practice the habit of recalling God’s faithfulness in prior times of desolation; resist the temptation to see suffering as pointless; resist desolation through meditation and prayer; avoid making big decisions, “because desolation is the time of the lie—it’s not the time for sober thinking. That is, in our disheartened state, we’re more prone to be deceived”; pay attention to the spiritual insights found during desolation; and confidently look for the quick return of a season of consolation. If Ignatius had been a leader in Great Britain in World War II, desolation might be described in part as, “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”
Yet Ignatius manages to avoid painting seasons of consolation and desolation as solely discerned by individualistic feelings, and gives wise counsel for how to discern when a choice, circumstance, or perspective moves us toward God and others, and when a choice, circumstance, or perspective is moving us away from God and others.
Overall, for Ignatius, Christians shouldn’t be surprised when desolation gives way to consolation, and we shouldn’t be surprised when consolation again gives way to a period of desolation; but, whether we perceive it or not at the time, God can use both to form and fashion our character and our loves, and the more prepared we are to encounter either season, the better we will endure the challenges that come with both abundance and affliction.
Do you know any tired American Protestants who might take heart from this old wisdom? It certainly has relevance for the constant question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” It has relevance for the “health and wealth” preachers. It has relevance for the “self-made man” portrayals. It has relevance for the depressive Goths tempted to believe that desolation is the season of truth, not the time of the lie. It has relevance for large church pastors who are too preoccupied with attendance, scale, and platform. It has relevance for the tired nun, the tired mom, the tired aunt. It has relevance for someone you know in your life who is going through something awful that you can’t understand.
Good things come to those who –
To those who what?
To those who wait.
“Wait,” Ignatius murmurs over a paper plate of fried chicken on a hot summer afternoon at the ecumenical family reunion. “Your time of consolation will give way – so store up now. Your time of desolation will resolve – so resist at every turn.”
(Good things come to family reunions, too.)
Sometimes, if you’re tired, finding an old relative (or a dead one) will give you some new perspective. Whether you’re in a season of consolation or desolation – thank God for Ignatius.