While many of our churches are praying for the eradication of COVID-19, healing and physical protection from the virus, I would add a different prayer for us—that we would notice and nurture what God is wanting to do within us during these strange and troubled circumstances.
For many of us, this pandemic has been a season of loss and disappointment, if only through the cancellation and postponement of many things that give us joy. In my own life, several major places where God appeared to be moving have now been put on pause; I’m left to wonder whether they’ll ever resume. The disruption in all of our lives has created in the absence of activities and outings empty spaces, which may be suddenly uncomfortable. Perhaps you’ve even noticed ways you’ve felt an urging to fill them, to help ease anxious moments or re-establish a sense of connectedness.
The movement of these events pressing on our lives today actually isn’t that unprecedented. St Ignatius of Loyola called “desolation” any interior movement that runs contrary to the increase of faith, hope and love—discouragement, disquiet, distraction. Above all, it’s a disorienting movement; the experience of faith, hope and love are no longer guiding us to follow the grain of God’s invitations. All of our senses betray us, because they no longer work as they did to give us joy and peace from pursuing God. As a result, desolation might find us stuck in despair of hope, not knowing where we can seek God’s face, or else flitting around too fast for despair to catch us, trying to manufacture our own consolations, which ultimately leads us further away.
When you stop experiencing the movement of God, how do you respond? How do you notice you’ve responded to some of the empty spaces quarantine has created in your life?
Ignatius also says that there are several reasons why movements of desolation may come into our lives. Interestingly, only one of them has to do with anything we’ve done. The other two are about what God is doing. God may use desolation as a way to encourage us to seek God without the aid of joyful feelings or clear light to guide us, through dryness and darkness. It teaches us to desire God apart from God’s gifts, but more than that, it teaches us that we’re capable of being led without the aid of our senses; it helps uncover and develop a deep interior sense that responds to God even when we can’t see or hear or feel God. In short, through the “dark night” of desolation, God can and will work.
Where can you feel God pressing when you begin to get quiet and still? How might God want to meet you in those places?
So how do we respond in a time of desolation, when even if God is working, it feels like God isn’t? Ignatius gives several counsels, but he places this first among them: Don’t make any changes, and don’t make any new decisions. The idea is simply that consolation is a time when we’re thinking and discerning clearly—in the light of day, as it were. In desolation, it’s not merely dark (darkness itself isn’t bad in the spiritual life, especially when God develops the interior sense I mentioned)—we may also be discouraged and tempted to second-guess ourselves or doubt the direction we’d set off on but without anything trustworthy to guide us. It’s better we trust that what seemed good in the light of day is good even when the shadows distort our path and especially when discouraging inner voices tell us to turn back.
What may be some things the desolating movements of recent weeks have tempted you to go back on, give up on or change your mind about? If your past self from February could speak into your doubts now, what would they say?
Refusing to change our course in a time of desolation doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t make a mistake, but what it does is at least get us out of the way for God to work. Thomas Merton, addressing young monks who continually change their resolutions (according to the winds of desolation?) in misguided attempts to be certain of doing God’s will, wrote, “Be still, and let Him do some work.”
What might be the work that God wants to do in you, if you would be still in this season?
What have you noticed going on inside of you over these last weeks?
If you notice yourself filling up empty spaces with new activity, I encourage you slow down and take some long breaths in the quiet that’s been created. Consider whether God may want to speak or simply to be with you in silence in a way your life wasn’t affording before.
If you notice yourself pulling back from or second-guessing a direction you felt confident in prior to the COVID crisis, I encourage you, don’t be quick to change your resolve. Consider whether it’s being refined in this moment and whether the invitation is for you to recommit your direction without the benefit of comfort, certainty or consolation, trusting that what seemed right in the daylight is also true in the difficult blindness of night.