“Rule #4: Spiritual Desolation” by St. Ignatius of Loyola

“Fourth Rule. The fourth is of spiritual desolation. I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad and as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord. For just as consolation is contrary to desolation, in the same way the thoughts that come from consolation are contrary to the thoughts that come from desolation” (St. Ignatius).”

“spiritual desolation”

  • Spiritual = Out of the many movements in our hearts, some have special “spiritual” significance.
    • As distinct from non-spiritual (“natural”) desolation (click here)
  • Desolation = from the Latin desolatus, “to leave alone,” “is a condition of affective heaviness that instills sadness and depletes energy for living.”
  • Spiritual Desolation = an affective heaviness that directly impacts my Christian life and the pursuit of God’s will.

In like manner to spiritual consolation, St. Ignatius does not define spiritual desolation but rather gives a list of its qualities. A person may experience one or several of these qualities in combination, varying in both duration and in intensity.

1) “darkness of soul”

  • In the perceived darkness, you cannot see or comprehend what is happening spiritually.
  • “Even if we recognize what is happening, it won’t seem as if we can do anything about it. The experience can be so powerful that it feels as though we can’t escape, we can’t fight, or we can’t make the decision we know is right in spite of our knowledge or desire. It is as if we have had a spell cast over us or as if we have woken up on the wrong side of the bed and all is dark and repulsive to us and we can’t conceive of snapping out of it” (Dan Burke, 38). 
  • Keep in mind that “darkness of soul” is much different than “the dark night” that St. John of the Cross speaks of (click here)

2) “disturbance in it”

  • Your mind and heart is disturbed, troubled, unsettled, restless.

3) “movement to low and earthly things”

  • You feel a “downward” pull due to the heaviness of spiritual desolation toward “low” things that weaken our progress toward God, such as “material comforts, the gratification of the body in various ways, memories of such things from the past, immersion in empty trivia, diversion through the media, the Internet, busyness, superficial conversation, and similar occupations” (DS, 63).

4) “disquiet from various agitations and temptations”

  • “Disquiet” may well be the most revealing characteristic of the false spirit b/c it is the disquietude about the other characteristics that reveals its source.
  • Rather than focus on the agitations & temptations, Ignatius focuses on the “disquiet” that comes from them.
    • Why? Because agitations & temptations are a normal part of the spiritual life! If you set out to have no negative moods, thoughts, or feelings, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
  • Focus on your perceptions & attitudes towards negative moods, thoughts and feelings.
  • Ask yourself: What is the extent to which negative movements within me disrupt my peace of mind? 

5) “moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love”

  • “The lack experienced in spiritual desolation does not signify the loss of faith, hope, and love as abiding virtues in the heart of the baptized. What decreases is the conscious, felt experience of these three virtues” (DS, 64).
  • Lack of confidence = doubt.
  • Without hope = despair and worry.
  • Without love = isolation, secrecy, passivity, aggressiveness.

6) “finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad”

  • Slothful (acedia) = (1) “A spiritual lack of care” (Evagrius of Pontus); (2) “Sadness about spiritual good” (Aquinas); (3) “Disgust with activity” (Aquinas).
    • The great challenge is fighting desolation because it often tries to debilitate us.
    • Click here for a summary of a great book on the vice of sloth called “The Noonday Devil: Acedia, The Unnamed Evil of Our Times” by Jean-Charles Nault, OSB
  • Tepid = apathy. The opposite of love is apathy, whereby I don’t care about the person enough to hate him.
    • Worse than feeling distant from God is a lack of desire to be close to Christ.
  • Sad = no joy.

7) “as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord”

  • Out of all the lies presented by the enemy in spiritual desolation, this feeling is the deepest and worst of all. You begin to question your entire relationship with God.
  • But since it’s a lie, St. Ignatius say “as if”. Remember this!
  • Identity crisis = spiritual desolation tries to make the feeling seem as if it is your actual spiritual identity… “this is who you are in fact… spiritually… you are someone who always goes to low and earthly things… you are not someone close to God…”
  • Faith, feeling, fact story (click here)

“For just as consolation is contrary to desolation, in the same way the thoughts that come from consolation are contrary to the thoughts that come from desolation”

  • The affective stirrings of spiritual desolation also give rise to thoughts – desolating movements in the heart lead to desolating thoughts in the mind.

Some working definitions of spiritual desolation:

  1. “Spiritual desolation is the state of being under the influence of the bad spirit” (Fr. Mark Thibodeaux).
  2. Spiritual desolation is “heaviness of heart in our spiritual lives” (Fr. Gallagher).
  3. “Any movement toward our lower nature and inclinations toward doubt, despair, or narcissism caused by the bad spirits” (Dan Burke).
  4. “I am in spiritual desolation when I do not have: a sense of God’s closeness & faith, hope, and love & I experience some combination of: distress, agitation, secrecy, worldly desires.”

Other Notes:

Spiritual desolation is a lie! Either an outright lie or a twisted truth.
  1. Past: SD will try to re-interpret your past and cast a dark shadow over everything that has happened. Don’t accept this lie.
  2. Present: SD will try to present itself as your spiritual identity, that what you are experiencing is who you are. Don’t accept this lie.
  3. Future: SD will try to predict your future by saying that your spiritual life will always be like this. Don’t accept this lie.

A common tactic of the enemy with respect to desolation is to try to draw us out of the present moment, where we are and where God is, into the future (anxiety about future challenges & tasks) or the past (worry about past sins & failures) in order to disable or discourage us in our holy or healthy aspirations.

God permits spiritual desolation.

  • God gives spiritual consolation.
“There is no shame at all in experiencing spiritual desolation” (Fr. Gallagher).
  • Often we can feel shame during times of spiritual desolation, thinking that it’s entirely our fault or that we are the only one who feels such sadness, lack of fervour, and discouragement.
  • But we all go through such experiences. You are not the only one! Spiritual desolation is an ordinary part of the spiritual journey, a normal experience in this fallen, redeemed, and loved world.
  • “Desolations will come; they are, in fact, as normal a part of human life as are rainy days” (Thomas Green, Weeds Among the Wheat, 125). Remember, there’s a lot of benefit from rain! We would have serious problems without rain.

Spiritual desolation will vary in:

  1. Intensity: gentle <—–> strong
  2. Duration: brief <—–> long

Other Rules that Relate to Spiritual Desolation:

  • Rule 5: What is the most important decision I can make when in desolation? (click here)
  • Rule 6: What changes should I make when in desolation? (click here)
  • Rule 7: How Can I Adjust My Thinking While in Desolation in Order to Better Overcome It? (click here)
  • Rule 8: How Can I Better Persevere When I Am in Desolation? (click here)
  • Rule 9: Why Does God Allow Spiritual Desolation? (click here)
  • Rule 10: How Should I Act or Prepare When I Am in Consolation? (click here)
  • Rule 11: How Can Humility Help Me Deal with the Ebb and Flow of Consolation and Desolation? (click here)

Other links:

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