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Grief AND thankfulness compared with consolation and desolation

Lynne Baab • Saturday January 18 2020

Grief AND thankfulness compared with consolation and desolation

The words “consolation” and “desolation” have a variety of meanings in everyday use. In Ignatian spirituality their meanings are quite specific and shed an interesting light on this journey of grief AND thankfulness that I’ve been writing about. (The first post in this series describes the challenge of hold grief AND thankfulness in each hand.)

Consolation and desolation, in Ignatian thinking, are about our trajectory in any specific moment – whether we are moving toward or away from God. According to Vinita Hampton Wright, writing on the Ignatian Spirituality website, we experience consolation when we are “moving toward God’s active presence in the world. We know we are moving in this way when we sense the growth of love or faith or mercy or hope—or any qualities we know as gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

We experience desolation when we are “moving away from God’s active presence in the world. We know we are moving in this way when we sense the growth of resentment, ingratitude, selfishness, doubt, fear, and so on. . . . I am resisting God or, if not actively resisting, I am being led away from God by other influences.”

A little background. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) was a Spanish Basque Roman Catholic priest, who co-founded the religious order we know today as Jesuits. They served the pope as missionaries. Ignatius was a gifted spiritual director, and he wrote a detailed set of spiritual exercises – still used today – for spiritual directors to use with their directees. The specific definitions of consolation and desolation that I’m writing about today come from Ignatius. The Ignatian Spirituality website, which I’ve been quoting from, describes these movements very clearly, and the whole website has a lot of great resources.

Of the two topics of this blog series – grief AND thankfulness – I want to look first at what desolations and consolation can teach us about grief. When we are feeling sad about something, we can be moving toward or away from God. If I’m sad about my friend’s illness, the challenging day I’ve just had, my relative’s difficult behavior and my angry response, or anything else, we have a choice about what to do with that sadness.

We can turn toward God with our grief, asking God for help, peace, perspective, wisdom, or simply the comfort of Jesus beside us and the Holy Spirit in us and with us. We can express our anger and frustration to God, trusting (at least on some level) that God accepts all the emotions we consider to be negative and trusting that the best thing to do with them is to bring them into God’s presence.

We can also turn away from God when we experience grief of any kind. For me, a common form this movement takes is self-criticism. What’s wrong with me that I was so reactive with that challenging relative? What kind of a person would get so angry in that situation? What’s wrong with me that I’m feeling such intense negative emotions? Why can’t I just move forward with optimism in middle of this challenge? These thoughts turn my focus inward in self-criticism and away from God.

I notice that other people, when they feel sad about something, often turn their thoughts of judgment outward. What kind of a God would allow my friend to be so ill? Or, on a totally different topic: I hate seeing so many homeless people around town. What kind of a life are we going to have here  if homelessness continues to increase, and why aren’t people at city hall fixing it?

In the description above from the Ignatian Spirituality website, note the specifics about desolation: “when we sense the growth of resentment, ingratitude, selfishness, doubt, fear, and so on.” Those words provide helpful categories for evaluating whether we are moving away from God in our grief about anything.

The Psalms give such a powerful model for bringing all our emotions to God. Last week I gave links to numerous psalms of lament, where the feelings and thoughts we view as negative are brought into God’s presence, and God ultimately, sooner or later, transforms those negative thoughts into faith.

I’ve been pondering whether in times of thankfulness we can be moving away from God, and I have decided we can. It depends on who or what we are thankful for. If I’m thankful I had a great day, and I’m pretty sure my own competence enabled me to thrive, I am looking at myself, not God. If I’m grateful for my safe, warm house, and I’m feeling pretty cocky about having earned the money to buy it, I’m not moving toward God with my thankfulness.

Therefore, here are the questions for today: When I’m sad, where do I go with my emotions and thoughts? Toward or away from God? When I’m grateful, who or what am I grateful for?

Next week – Grief AND thankfulness: How to pray for others. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love to get new subscribers! Sign up below and you’ll get an email when I post on this blog.

Lent begins on February 26 this year, only six weeks from now. If you’re looking for a Lenten devotional for yourself or for a group, consider Draw Near (available for free download as a pdf), which I wrote and my husband Dave illustrated. Each day of Lent has a psalm for you to ponder, with questions for reflection/discussion.

My book on this topic – Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Lifenow available as an audiobook as well as paperback and kindle.

A previous blog post and an article where I mention the effect of self-criticism:

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