Discernment, as we have seen in the previous catecheses, is not primarily a logical procedure. It is based on actions, and actions also have an affective connotation, which should be acknowledged, because God speaks to the heart. Let us then turn to the first affective mode, an object of discernment: desolation. What does this mean?
Desolation has been defined as follows: “Darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to things low and earthly, the unquiet of different agitations and temptations, moving to want of confidence, without hope, without love, when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, sad and as if separated from his Creator and Lord” (Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 317). We have all experienced this. I think that, in one way or another, we have all experienced this, desolation. The problem is how to interpret it, because it too has something important to tell us, and if we are in a hurry to free ourselves of it, we risk losing this.
No one wants to be desolate, sad: this is true. We would all like a life that is always joyful, cheerful, and fulfilled. Yet, in addition to not being possible — because it is not possible — this would also not be good for us. Indeed, the change from a life oriented towards vice can start from a situation of sadness, of remorse for what one has done. The etymology of this word, “remorse”, is very beautiful: the remorse of the conscience, we all know this.
Remorse: literally, it is the conscience that bites [in Italian, mordere], that gives no peace. Alessandro Manzoni, in The Betrothed, gave us a wonderful description of remorse as an opportunity to change one’s life. It is the famous dialogue between Cardinal Federico Borromeo and the Unnamed, who, after a terrible night, turns up exhausted before the Cardinal, who addresses him with surprising words: “You have some good news for me; why do you hesitate to tell it?” “Good news?” says the other. “I have hell in my soul […]. Tell me, tell me, if you know, what good news could you expect from such a one as I”. “‘That God has touched your heart, and is drawing you to himself’ replied the Cardinal calmly” (Ch. 23). God touches the heart, and you feel something within: sadness, remorse for something, and it is an invitation to set out on a new path. The man of God knows how to notice in depth what moves in the heart.
It is important to learn how to read sadness. We all know what sadness is: all of us. But do we know how to interpret it? Do we know what it means for me, this sadness today? In our time, it — sadness — is mostly seen negatively, as an ill to avoid at all costs. Instead, it can be an indispensable alarm bell for life, inviting us to explore richer and more fertile landscapes, which transience and escapism do not permit. Saint Thomas defines sadness as a pain of the soul. Like the nerves for the body, it redirects our attention to a possible danger, or a disregarded benefit (cf. Summa Theologica I-II, q. 36, a.1). This is why, it is indispensable for our health. It protects us from harming ourselves and others. It would be far more serious and dangerous not to feel this, and to go ahead. At times sadness works like a traffic light: “Stop, stop! It’s red, here. Stop”.
For those, on the other hand, who have the desire to do good, sadness is an obstacle with which the tempter tries to discourage us. In this case, one must act in a manner that is exactly contrary to what is suggested, determined to continue what one had set out to do (cf. Spiritual Exercises, 318). Think of work, study, prayer, a commitment undertaken: if we abandoned them as soon as we felt boredom or sadness, we would never complete anything. This is also an experience common to the spiritual life: the road to goodness, the Gospel reminds us, is narrow and uphill, it requires combat, self-conquest. I begin to pray or dedicate myself to a good work, and strangely enough, just then, things come to mind that need to be done urgently — so as not to pray or do good works. We all experience this. It is important, for those who want to serve the Lord, not to be led astray by desolation and by this, “but no, I don’t want to, this is boring…” — beware. Unfortunately, some people decide to abandon the life of prayer, or the choice they have made, marriage or religious life, driven by desolation, without first pausing to consider this state of mind, and especially without the help of a guide. A wise rule says not to make changes when you are desolate. It will be the time afterwards, rather than the mood of the moment, that will show the goodness or otherwise of our choices.
It is interesting to note, in the Gospel, that Jesus repels temptations with an attitude of firm resolution (cf. Mt 3:14-15; 4:1-11; 16; 21-23). Trials assail him from all sides, but always, finding in him this steadfastness, determined to do the will of the Father, they fail and cease to hinder his path. In spiritual life, trial is an important moment, as the Bible recalls explicitly, and says: “if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation” (Sir 2:1). If you want to take the good path, prepare yourself: there will be obstacles, there will be temptations, there will be moments of sadness. It is like when a professor quizzes a student. If he sees that the student knows the essentials of the subject, he does not insist: the student has passed the test. But he must pass the test.
If we know how to go through loneliness and desolation with openness and awareness, we can emerge strengthened in human and spiritual terms. No trial is beyond our reach; no trial will be greater than what we can do. But do not flee from trials: see what this test means, what it means that I am sad: why am I sad? What does it mean that in this moment I am in desolation? What does it mean that I am in desolation and cannot go on? Saint Paul reminds us that no one is tempted beyond his or her ability, because the Lord never abandons us and, with him close by, we can overcome any temptation (cf. 1 Cor 10:13). And if we do not overcome it today, we get up another time, we walk and we will overcome it tomorrow. But we must not remain dead — so to speak — we must not remain defeated by a moment of sadness, of desolation: go forward. May the Lord bless this courageous path of spiritual life, which is always a journey.
Pope Francis’ GENERAL AUDIENCE, Wednesday 26 October 2022
Summary of the Holy Father’s words
In our continuing catechesis on discernment, we now consider what the spiritual masters call “desolation”, those moments when we experience interior darkness, unrest, and distance from God and from the consolations of faith. For our spiritual growth, it is important to confront these dark nights of the soul and to discern what the Lord wishes to tell us through them. At times, desolation can be a summons to acknowledge our sinfulness and to embrace God’s offer of love and forgiveness. Saint Thomas says that our souls, like our bodies, can experience a kind of pain that makes us aware of threats to our spiritual health. At other times, the experience of desolation can be a temptation to grow slack in prayer and in the discipline of the Christian life. Here too, the great spiritual teachers urge us not to yield to this temptation, but to persevere, confident that by this testing the Lord will guide us to a fuller understanding of his gracious plan for our lives and a deeper union with him in faith, hope and love.