“Where y’at?!”: Consolation and Desolation

“Where y’ at?!”

If you’re from the Midwest, I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, what?”

But if you are from New Orleans, you’d reply: “Doing alright!”

My Jesuit buddies in New Orleans introduced me to this phrase. It is a friendly greeting, meaning, “How are you?” People from certain families in parts of New Orleans are even known as “Yats” because of their frequent use of this phrase.

“Where y’ at?!”“Doing alright!”

This is also a useful question for the spiritual life, isn’t it? “Where y’ at?” “How are you doing?” A good friend or spiritual director will ask this question and listen patiently for your response. With my good friends and closest brothers, my quick answer, “Fine,” or “Ok, I guess,” will elicit a follow-up question from them: “Tell me more about that,” or, “How was that big retreat you led last weekend?”

Sometimes, I find that I must take a moment to reflect before I answer that. “Hmm, how am I doing?” I may feel a mix of emotions: gratitude for a good day of prayer, stress over a big upcoming project, and confusion over a complex conversation with a coworker. “Hey, thanks for asking. Actually, I’m feeling…”

Ignatian Consolation and Desolation

St. Ignatius of Loyola has two spiritual categories that can help us to reflect on this question: consolation and desolation.

Consolation is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who gives “courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations, and peace. This he does by making all easy, by removing all obstacles so that the soul goes forward in doing good” (Spiritual Exercises #315, Puhl translation).

“Where y’ at?” In consolation? Yes – if I am doing God’s will, obeying my legitimate superiors, and finding fruit in my studies or labors. If I am growing in “faith, hope and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator” (#316).

Desolation is the opposite. It is caused by the evil spirit who is apt to “harass with anxiety, to afflict with sadness, to raise obstacles backed by fallacious reasonings that disturb the soul. Thus, he seeks to prevent the soul from advancing” (#315). I know I am in desolation if I experience “darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, an inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love… slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as were, from its Creator” (#317).

Note that these experiences are caused by outside forces greater than I am. And, note that most saints experienced BOTH consolation AND desolation. Even (wait for it), Jesus himself experienced desolation! We see this a few times in the Gospels. Most powerfully, we see his agony in the garden: “He was in such agony, and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground” (Luke 22: 44). Here Jesus experiences a depth of darkness, turmoil, and sorrow. And what does he do? He resists the evil spirit and turns to his Father, praying “fervently.”

Recall the words that the risen Jesus speaks to his disciples in the upper room: “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Also, recall the words the bishop said to you at your confirmation: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, we want to receive and welcome the consolation of the Holy Spirit and resist the lies and harassment of the evil spirit.

“What am I going to do about it?”

Let’s recap. I first reflect on my spiritual experience: “Where am I at?” In the last few days, have I mainly been in consolation or desolation? Once I answer that question, I must answer another one: “What am I going to do about it?”

In times of desolation, Ignatius calls us to “intensify our activity against the desolation. We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation and on much examination of ourselves. We can make an effort in a suitable way to do some penance” (#319). Redouble our efforts. Talk to a trusted friend, mentor, or spiritual director. Do not make a big decision because you are not in a good frame of mind. Crank up your prayer a bit, especially when you are tempted to let it sink down. Recall a famous line from Monte Python’s The Holy Grail: “I’m not dead yet!” Fight back. Resist. And “consider, too, that consolation will soon return” (#321).

In consolation, my response is much simpler: continue on as “the soul goes forward in doing good” (#315). Keep up your prayer routine. Keep studying, serving, and loving. Also, consider how you will conduct yourself “during the time of ensuing desolation, and store up a supply of strength as a defense against that day” (#323-4). In humble gratitude, thank God for this time of grace. This is his loving gift and not your creation. Make some notes in a journal so that you can revisit these graces during future challenges. And keep going.

“Where y’ at?” In consolation or desolation?

And just as important: “What you doin’ about it?”

In consolation, let us turn to God in humble gratitude and keep going. In desolation, we should fight back, resist, and redouble efforts. And know that “consolation will soon return.”

Fr. Joe Laramie, SJ
Fr. Joe Laramie, SJ
Fr Joe Laramie SJ is the new North American director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network [Apostleship of Prayer], based in Milwaukee. He is the author of Abide in the Heart of Christ: a 10-Day Personal Retreat with St. Ignatius Loyola, based on the Spiritual Exercises.

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