“When we receive a consolation without preceding cause, we should pay close attention to it. Because they are certainly from God, these consolations will have some important meaning to us.” (Fr. Greg Cleveland, OMV)
I stood up and moved to the door to leave. Unsettled, unsure, I kept my gaze down. I turned as I reached the door to ask one question. “But how can I know what God is saying?”
The Jesuit who was my spiritual director at the time understood what my soul was going through. The need for certainty. The desire to respond wholeheartedly to God’s will. The torment I felt as possibilities danced before me as wisps of smoke, disappearing as I grasped them. His answer was, “Through the feelings in your heart, the movement of consolation…” I left, still unsure of what he meant, but at peace knowing that there was, somehow, a way of connecting to God.
St. Ignatius was a master of the spiritual life, and he knew the journey well—all its detours, its mountains and valleys, its consolations and desolations…. In his hands, the soul is an open book as he facilitates God’s relationship with the person, safely navigating the paths to holiness.
When I was in my mid-twenties I discovered Ignatius’ spirituality. Every year I immersed myself for several months in a book on reflections on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius by Hugo Rahner, SJ. In my thirties I rescued a binder by Joseph Tetlow, SJ, that offered another experience of the Spiritual Exercises. Order, clarity, and inner consolation were restored every time I prayed my way through the Spiritual Exercises’ meditations.
Through this reading and reflection, I slowly learned how to understand my own heart-experiences and to discern between spiritual consolations and spiritual desolations. I learned that it’s more likely I will hear the Lord speaking to me when his voice is accompanied by spiritual consolations. Ignatius describes how these feelings and experiences of consolation can come after meditation, encountering the beauties of nature, and in the liturgy. But sometimes they come out of the blue. His own experience was walking into a chapel and being overcome by a total love of the Trinity. It was accompanied by tears and a deep sense of God’s closeness to him.
Recently in a moment of raw self-knowledge, I realized I wasn’t the person I thought myself to be. The person I was presenting to others was a figment of my imagination. Deflated, I realized that I had become the person I accused others of being. Yet strangely enough, it was this moment that was a spiritual consolation for me! The painful awareness was connected to an awe at God’s loving and everlasting mercy that will hold me up forever in time and eternity, as someone who is broken and sinful and still having a place at the wedding of the Lamb. The humility was sweet as I realized that this was my true place and nowhere else. I need not pretend or strive or seek to become anything. I can hide my sinful and loved brokenness in the wounded side of Jesus, the one who loves me and gave himself for me.
In the quote above from his book Awakening Love: An Ignatian Retreat with the Song of Songs, Fr. Greg Cleveland points out that these spiritual consolations, especially consolations that are “without cause” (we could say “out of the blue”) have important meanings for us. Tracking God’s voice and call to us is not that mysterious when we learn from a spiritual master like Ignatius. Fr. Cleveland goes on, “When these kinds of consolation without preceding cause happen to us, we should pay close attention. As they are certainly from God, we can expect these consolations to have some important meaning to us. The experience may tell us something significant about our relationship with God.”
The other two books I referred to are now long out of print, but Awakening Love creatively pulls together the spiritual mystery of the book in the Old Testament the Song of Songs with the Jesuit method outlined in its foundation in the Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive, accessible, and spiritually rich introduction to the spiritual life which responds to the deepest question of the human heart—how do I know what God is saying?—Awakening Love is your best and greatest next step.
Sr Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP