Feelings occur in us all the time and have a big influence on our lives. Sometimes they are pleasant, as when we are touched by the beauty of nature, or marvel at the goodness of people, or rejoice in wonder at the gift of life. At other times feelings can be negative, as when we experience fear before an exam, or suffer anxiety about our health, or mourn the loss of a loved one.
St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, asks us to notice our feelings and to take them seriously. In particular, he suggests that we pay attention to the feelings that draw us towards God, on the one hand, and those that draw us away from God, on the other. Feelings that draw us towards God he calls ‘consolation’; feelings that have the opposite effect he calls ‘desolation’.
Consolation does not always imply totally pleasant feelings. For instance, parents looking after a sick child at night may be irritated by the loss of sleep involved. Still, at a deeper level, they are at peace: they know that this is the right thing to do and that they can do no other. They are in consolation. On the other hand, a person could be indulging in all sorts of superficial pleasures, but deep down feeling empty and dissatisfied. Despite appearances, that person would be in desolation.
Ignatius advises us to be aware of these movements within ourselves, to ‘discern the spirits’. Consolation leads us to genuine fulfilment: it prompts us towards oneness with God, others and ourselves. We should trust the direction it suggests. Desolation, on the other hand, is a warning sign that we are in danger of losing our way by making ourselves the centre of the universe! We should resist the urge to make decisions in times of desolation.
Ignatius devised a short daily prayer – the Examen of Consciousness – to help us keep track of these inner movements.