The meaning of consolation in the Spiritual Exercises
Having dealt with the theme of desolation, let us now look at the other great pillar of the discernment of spirits proposed in the Spiritual Exercises (SE): consolation. While certainly more attractive than its sister, desolation, it is not without pitfalls and dangers for those who, as exercitants, seek God’s will. This is because there are also consolations that are good only in appearance and can deceive with ease (cf. SE 329-336). Coping with them requires maturity (not to be dazzled by what seemingly glitters), capacity for critical evaluation, and above all inner freedom.
Ignatius presents spiritual consolation in these terms: “Consolation is understood to occur when an interior stimulus is produced, whereby the soul is inflamed with love for its Creator and Lord, and thus cannot love any of the realities of this world for itself, but only for the Creator of all; likewise when one sheds tears that bring one to the love of the Lord, whether from the pain of one’s own sins, or from the passion of Christ our Lord, or from other motives directly ordered to his service and praise. Finally, consolation is understood to mean every increase in hope, faith and charity, and every inner joy that stimulates and attracts to the heavenly realities and salvation of the soul, giving it tranquility and peace in its Creator and Lord” (SE 316).
A description of an inner situation is offered here, certainly not a definition. The first characteristic is that it is an “intimate movement,” not a superficial one, which touches deep inside but is not conspicuous. Secondly, this inner situation is linked to the central pillar of the Exercises, the “First Principle and Foundation” (“loving all things in their Creator”). From this perspective even pain can become a reason for consolation (so it is very different then from a simple sense of “feeling good”), because it leads back to the truth of the relationship with God. The decisive turning point in Ignatius’ life is linked to the wound he suffered at Pamplona, which saw him needing a long convalescence: that time became the occasion for a radical transformation of his relationship with God. Finally, it is interesting that in naming the theological virtues, Ignatius begins with hope, understood as that which points the way.
But consolation, as noted, can also become a temptation, in that one can try to “possess” it, becoming dependent on it to the point of preferring it to one’s relationship with God, interrupting one’s journey. For Ignatius, on the other hand, it is the oasis where one finds refreshment, to then resume one’s path more effectively (cf. SE 323).
As with desolation, it is important to clarify that “feeling” is not the criterion for discernment, but rather the content to be interpreted, in light of one’s history. Mere “feeling” can be extremely ambiguous when isolated from context.