If you follow this blog you’ll know that my life has had its share of difficulty, discouragement and suffering. A spiritual word for that is desolation. Desolation can be circumstantial, coming with the death of a loved one for instance. It can also be spiritual, like the “dark night of the soul” described by St. John of the cross. That kind of desolation is where God feels distant and you spirit feels dry. For six years I met monthly with a spiritual director who walked me through some difficult times. But now and then I would go to see her and feel, surprisingly, like things were going well. My children were doing fine, my job was good, my husband was happy, I was at peace. She called those times, consolation.
The problem was, it was hard for me to relax during those times of consolation because I was bracing myself for the inevitable desolation to come. I’d spiral into “what ifs:” What if this happens? What if the bottom drops out? It’s really hard to relax when you are bracing yourself for the next set of problems. The Bible calls that “borrowing tomorrows troubles” and warns against it, but boy – is it hard to get out of that habit.
There are so many bad things that could happen, it’s easy to miss the good things when they come. So I wanted to stop and talk a minute to talk about consolation. The Desert Mothers and Fathers talked a lot about consolation and desolation. Both were an expected part of life and both are important. Of course we generally learn the most from our desert places, the dark times, the desolation. There are things we just cannot learn without facing grief, loss, and pain. But there are also things to be learned from consolation, the good times where you can let down your guard a bit, and rest.
Here are six spiritual disciplines to practice when things are going well:
- First, notice that things are going well. Don’t miss it. Savor it, enjoy it, celebrate it!
- Force yourself to stay fully present in consolation and don’t allow yourself to start up with the “what ifs.” It is tempting to live in the future. This is the time to stay present.
- Talk to people about the good times. Let them know you are happy, that life isn’t all dips and valleys. There is plenty of bad news these days and it’s easy to become a Debby Downer, but in times of consolation, spread the joy. You might help someone who is suffering to know a better day will come.
- Be thankful! Sometimes, when things are going well, I feel guilty. Why is so-and-so suffering while my life it going well. It reminds me of the time our favorite antagonist, Judas, got mad at Mary for pouring oil on Jesus feet. He said the costly oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus’ famous reply was basically, “the poor will always be with you, but I won’t.” Hard times will always be happening in our world and it is perfectly fine, in fact necessary, to dump out some oil out and celebrate when we can.
- It is important to use the times of consolation to process the times of desolation. When you’re in the middle of desolation, it can be hard to see the lessons. But when things have settled down, you can sift through the difficult experiences by journaling and pondering to discover what things you want to keep and what to let go. For instance, you may need to let go of some bitterness or unforgiveness. You may want to keep the surprising strength of character you found during that difficult time, or the new skill you had to acquire.
- Enjoy Life! It’s not more spiritual to suffer. Joy is spiritual too. Joy, laughter, thanksgiving, gratefulness flow from us during consolation. Let them flow. The world needs that, we need that, it is a gift, open it.
How do you celebrate times of consolation? Has being present during good times been a struggle or does it come naturally to you?