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What Should You Do When You Are Discouraged?

According to St. Ignatius, resist, pray, do penance—but above all, persevere in the love of an always faithful Lord.

How often do you suffer discouragement? We all face discouragement sometimes. We all have felt what the word “discourage” means, “a loss of heart.” We have all had that sinking feeling of fatigue and frustration that prompts us to ask, “Why bother?” I myself struggle against discouragement frequently, as I carry along what has been described as a “melancholic temperament.”  And I try to put myself in good company and as I strive to ennoble, and perhaps even “baptize” my tendency towards gloom, by citing a passage from one of Tolkien’s many letters: “Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’—though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

By grace, I see myself, like Tolkien, as a Catholic and thus on “the winning side,” even as I often struggle against feelings of failure and futility. I know that I am not alone in this apparent contradiction between the tides of history and the biblical promise that “hope does not disappoint.” (Romans 5:5) I do know that if discouragement is not fought against immediately, vigorously and effectively, then the door is opened to temptations towards self-pity, self-indulgence and despair. So, even more important than the question, “How often do you suffer discouragement?” is the question, “What should you do when you are discouraged?”

Here, we can turn to Saint Ignatius Loyola and his Spiritual Excercises, specifically, his “Rules for Discernment,” to formulate a reliable plan of counter-attack when we find ourselves coming into the grip of dispiriting discouragement. (Some of my students have taken to reducing Ignatius’s advice to small print onto a card, laminating it, and keeping the card in their wallet or shirt pocket.)

What I’ve so far been referring to as “discouragement,” Saint Ignatius would call “desolation,” which he contrasts with “consolation.” Regarding the latter he notes, “I call it consolation when the soul is aroused by an interior movement which causes it to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord….” We might also here refer to “consolation” as “encouragement.”  Describing “desolation,” Ignatius notes, “I call desolation…darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, inclinations to low and earthly things, restlessness resulting from many disturbances and temptations which lead to loss of faith, loss of hope, and loss of love.  It is also desolation when a soul finds itself completely apathetic, tepid, sad, and separated as it were from its Creator and Lord.  For just as consolation is contrary to desolation, so the thoughts that spring from consolation are the opposite that spring from desolation.” Can you imagine a better description of discouragement?

Why does God allow us to experience discouragement/desolation? Saint Ignatius says that there may be three reasons God allows it. In brief: 1) We are in desolation because of our own sin (e.g., we shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t have joy and peace when we’re not praying and are in mortal sin); 2) we are in desolation as a test of the purity of our motives (i.e., are we looking for the gifts-of-the-Giver or the Giver-of-the-gifts?);  and, 3) we are in desolation for the sake of self-knowledge (i.e., to be reminded that consolation is always a grace and not the result of our own efforts alone).

What are we to do when in desolation? Saint Ignatius tells us that, “…it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. This can be done by insisting more on prayer, meditation, frequent examinations, and by increasing our penance in some suitable manner.” Our first step is to act against the desolation. (My students understand this when I remind them that this is akin to Homer Simpson carrying in his shirt pocket a card that reads, “ALWAYS DO THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT BART SAYS.”) Please note that Saint Ignatius says that we are to “insist more” on prayer, etc., not “insist upon more” prayer, etc. In other words, we are to be more concerned with the firmness of our resolutions and not with the quantity of our actions.

Let’s start with his advice regarding “frequent examinations.” If I’m in desolation, I will start by asking myself, “Have I been cutting corners on prayer? Have I dropped my guard against sin?” (By the way, the two are always related.) If I have, then I must admit that I’ve brought this on myself, need to repent, and with God’s grace, must start to clean up the mess that I have made.  If I find that I have been faithful to prayer and vigilant against sin, and yet am still in desolation, then I know that the desolation is in fact a painful grace which, if lived faithfully, can bless me with purified motives and valuable self-knowledge.

Turning to “meditation”:  When in desolation, I must recall—meditate upon—God’s past fidelity. In Scripture, in the history of the Church, in the lives of the saints, and in my own life, God has shown Himself to be faithful. By this meditation, I see that God Who was faithful then is still God now. God does not change, and my meditation may help me to trust that God is at work in my present darkness.

Regarding “prayer” in times of desolation: Even if in desolation I feel abandoned by God, I know that I cannot be. Mindful of God’s fidelity in the past, I know that I am not a spiritual orphan now. I am an adopted heir to God’s kingdom, and so may call out confidently in prayer, “Abba, Father!” (Galatians 4:5)  I may ask my Heavenly Father for what I need to endure and overcome in the moment. In my prayer, I must focus on the truth of my adoption, even if I feel like a spiritual orphan. Saint Ignatius notes that one in desolation, “…can resist with Divine help, which is always available to him, even though he may not clearly perceive it.  Although the Lord has withdrawn from him His great fervor, ardent love and intense grace, He has nevertheless left him sufficient grace for eternal salvation.”

Although it seems counterintuitive, Saint Ignatius is wise to urge us when in desolation to “increasing our penance in some suitable manner.” But why?  It’s not obvious why “I feel miserable” will be helped by “I will increase my penance.” When in desolation, the momentum is towards helplessness and despair. If I can do something—anything—even a very small penitential act like foregoing sugar in my morning coffee, then I have concrete proof that I am not helpless. If I can undertake even a small penance, I have proof that the desolation has not vanquished my freedom, my strength, or my hope. Such a penance can be a first step, a small victory that, over time, can lead incrementally to greater victories.

Especially at this time of year, when the secular frenzy of “the holidays” is accelerating, the crush of final exams is descending upon those in school, and the end-of-the-year financial statements seem more red than black, we need to be on the alert for the toxic effects of discouragement/desolation. Following the practical wisdom of Saint Ignatius Loyola, we can learn to persevere during those times of trial, growing in spiritual strength, and, above all, growing in clear knowledge and heartfelt love of God our Lord, Who is faithful, faithful, faithful—even in times of dim light and growing darkness.

When I write next, I will address the issue of what to do when you are not looking forward to going home for Christmas.  Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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Written by Raphael Benedict

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