Discernment of Spirits in Marriage: Spiritual Desolation

Why does a God who loves us permit the enemy to bring these discouraging experiences of spiritual desolation? He could spare us such times: Why doesn’t he? Have you ever asked this question? Have you ever wondered about this when you struggle to pray or live the spiritual life?

Ignatius recognizes the importance of this question and addresses it in rule 9. He writes:

There are three principal causes for which we find ourselves desolate.

“Cause” here indicates God’s reason for permitting the spiritual desolation.

A first reason:

The first is because we are tepid, slothful or negligent in our spiritual exercises, and so through our faults spiritual consolation withdraws from us.

A person may be generally progressing toward God but may, as Father Reed indicates, begin to regress in one or another area. Then God, “who loves me more than I love myself” (Ignatius), may permit us to experience spiritual desolation. The discomfort of the desolation alerts us to the area of regression and so helps us reintegrate it into our growth toward God.

A second reason:

The second, to try us and see how much we are and how much we extend ourselves in his service and praise without so much payment of consolations and increased graces.

At times, even when we are not at fault, God may permit spiritual desolation because we grow spiritually in key ways when we struggle against it. Through that struggle, we are strengthened and we progress in the spiritual life.

A third reason:

The third, to give us true recognition and understanding so that we may interiorly feel that it is not ours to attain or maintain increased devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation, but that all is the gift and grace of God our Lord, and so that we may not build a nest in something belonging to another, raising our mind in some pride or vainglory, attributing to ourselves the devotion or the other parts of the spiritual consolation.

The experience of spiritual desolation teaches us that all spiritual consolation is God’s gift — we know this surely when burdened by spiritual desolation! — and so keeps us humble, with the many spiritual blessings that follow (see Matt. 5:3).

Mark says, “Resisting desolation is easier when I know that these times have meaning, that God permits them for reasons of growth.” This is Ignatius’s point in rule 9.

In fact, when God permits spiritual desolation, he uses the enemy against himself. Through the struggle against desolation, we are healed (from areas of regression), we grow (through the trial), and we avoid a pitfall (complacency). In all this, God’s love is richly at work.


This article is adapted from a chapter in Discernment of Spirits in Marriage by Fr. Timothy Gallagher which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post on Discernment: Cover and featured image used with permission.

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