Desolation and grace

May 25, 2021 in News

BILL TONER SJ :: Is Rahner’s ‘experience of grace’ similar to ‘desolation’ in St. Ignatius Loyola?

In a recent blogpost in, I drew attention to a short but profound piece by Karl Rahner SJ called ‘Reflections on the experience of grace’. Rahner brings to mind some of the darker moments we can all encounter:

Have we ever been absolutely lonely?… Have we ever tried to love God when we are no longer being borne on the crest of a wave of enthusiastic feeling? Have we ever tried to love God when we seemed to be calling out into emptiness and our cry seemed to fall on deaf ears, when it looked as if we were taking a terrifying jump into the abyss?…

Rahner goes on to say that if we find such experiences, then we have experienced the spirit. When we let ourselves go in this experience of the spirit, then it is not merely the spirit, but the Holy Spirit who is at work in us. This is the hour of his grace… The chalice of the Holy Spirit is identical in this life with the chalice of Christ… [Theological Investigations 3; Ch.6]

‘Desolation’ in St. Ignatius

Those of us who are familiar with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the little handbook which has served as a guide for many Catholic ‘retreats’, may recall how St. Ignatius contrasts different ‘movements of the soul’ that people may experience during a retreat, when they are trying to make progress in their spiritual lives. Some of these movements are caused by what Ignatius calls ‘the good spirit’, who brings ‘consolation’, and some by ‘the bad spirit’, who brings ‘desolation’ (we can, if we prefer, think of the ‘good and bad spirits’ as tendencies hidden deep within our psyche rather than external personal forces).

It is, says Ignatius, characteristic of the good spirit to give courage and strength, consolations, and peace. The bad spirit tries to prevent the soul from making progress and generates desolation, which Ignatius describes as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclinations to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances, and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love… The soul is separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.

It may strike the reader that the dark experiences that Rahner describes as ‘the hour of his grace’ look rather similar to the experiences that Ignatius described as ‘desolation’. So when these dark experiences overcome a person, how are they to know whether they are caused by the bad spirit or are part of what Rahner calls ‘the chalice of Christ’? Is there a conflict here?

The importance of context in Ignatius

In looking to the Spiritual Exercises to try to resolve this apparent conflict between Rahner and St. Ignatius one should first appreciate the nature of the Exercises as a piece of writing. It is not really a ‘book’ in the modern sense of the word, but a series of notes which were only to be used by a retreat director or spiritual guide, and were not intended to be read by the retreatant. Moreover, as Louis Puhl observes, they were written in what Puhl calls ‘limping Spanish’ by a Basque nobleman who had only the elements of an education when he began to write the book. Inevitably this may have led to what looks like over-simplification and incompleteness when the book is approached as a compendium of spirituality rather than as a collection of notes compiled over a decade. Ignatius did not always try to reconcile one piece of advice with another piece of advice that might at first sight seem to conflict with it.

It also has to be pointed out that Ignatius composed different ‘rules for the discernment of spirits’ for different stages of a retreat, which he saw as extending over four ‘Weeks’ (though it could be adapted for a shorter period). One of these rules is perhaps more applicable to a person’s whole spiritual life than to the early stages of a retreat, which is the way it is presented in the Exercises (“rules more suited to the First Week”.) Ignatius states that in the case of those who are going from one serious sin to another, the bad spirit will egg them on, and give them a kind of ersatz consolation. And in the same circumstances, the good spirit, while not bringing actual desolation, will ‘rouse the sting of conscience and fill them with remorse’. In other words, the spirits can, in certain circumstances, act in almost the opposite way that one might expect.

Ignatius wrote rules for the discernments of spirits for the ‘First Week’ (when retreatants are trying to bring their sins to mind and then leave them behind), and also for the ‘Second Week’ (when retreatants are trying to respond to the call of Christ). But, for whatever reason, Ignatius did not write separate rules for discernment for the Third or Fourth Weeks. In the Exercises, the Third Week is devoted to a contemplation of the Passion and Death of Christ. Ignatius states that what we should desire and pray for at this stage is “sorrow with Christ in sorrow, anguish with Christ in anguish, tears and deep grief because of the great affliction Christ endures for me” (Second Contemplation, Third Prelude). And in a further note he states tellingly that “I will take care not to bring up pleasing thoughts, even though they are good and holy… Rather I will rouse myself to sorrow, suffering, and anguish by frequently calling to mind the labours, fatigue, and suffering with Christ our Lord endured…”.

There is little doubt that Ignatius is inviting us here to try to enter into the experience of Jesus at the end of his earthly life. And a reading of the relevant Gospel passages will leave us in no doubt that Jesus experienced terrible darkness towards the end. We see that first in the passage known as the Agony in the Garden, where Jesus tells the apostles, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death”. And Jesus then prays to the father to let this ‘chalice’ pass. Most poignant is the cry of Jesus from the cross of execution, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, echoing the opening lines of Psalm 22. So it could be said that Ignatius is inviting us to enter a kind of desolation in order to appreciate more fully what Jesus has suffered for us.

Has desolation more complex causes?

In a further note in the Exercises Ignatius offers us more complex reasons why we may suffer desolation in the spiritual life. Without attributing any particular role to the ‘bad spirit’ Ignatius says we may suffer desolation for three reasons: The first is simply our own fault: it is because we have been tepid or slothful or negligent in our exercises of piety and through our own fault spiritual consolation has been taken away from us. The second reason is “because God wishes to try us, to see how much we are worth, and how much we could advance… without the generous reward of consolation…”. The third reason, rather like the second, is that God wishes us to have a perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion. We notice here that it is God (not the bad spirit) who seems to be bringing us desolation, in some cases without any obvious fault on our part. As Bradford Hinze observes:

Could it be possible that desolations have at times their impetus and motivation in good and holy desires and affections? Might they sometimes have their ultimate source in the Spirit of God groaning in the self, the community and in the world…? [Prophetic Obedience, Orbis Books, p.87]

In the context of an Ignatian retreat, Brian O’Leary S.J. talks of certain retreatants

… for whom the Third Week is an experience in sheer darkness. The person’s main preoccupation may be the effort to keep awake – like the apostles in Gethsemane who are unable to endure what they are seeing and hearing – or it may be an apparently lost battle with a host of trivial or even lascivious distractions. [To Love and to Serve, Messenger Publications, p.66.]

O’Leary goes on to speak of a whole range of inner reactions – thoughts, feelings and emotions similar to those experienced by anyone who spends time with a loved one who is dying in pain.

Incidentally, the desolations described by Karl Rahner – and he mentions many more than are quoted above – do not all have a specific religious connection. Loneliness, for instance, is a universal affliction. While Jesus often speaks of suffering in the context of following him – “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23) – there is also a strong Christian tradition, supported by many biblical texts, that all suffering is somehow integrated into the suffering of Christ, and has a redemptive value, especially if it is accepted from the hand of God, and even, perhaps, when it is not. In this way, as Rahner contends, even the darkest moments in our lives can be appropriated as experiences of grace.


To answer a question posed above – Do the kind of dark experiences described by Rahner come from the ‘bad spirit’ or from the Holy Spirit? – this question can only be answered (if at all) by the person who experiences them, with the help of a spiritual director or adviser. In this context, it is worth noting that Ignatius placed a lot of emphasis on paying attention to where our thoughts lead us. If they lead us to something “less good than the soul had formerly proposed to do” it is a sign that they come from the bad spirit. This is one criterion that can be applied, but it is an important one.

Of course, some dark experiences, such as loneliness, can have natural causes. Or they can be due to depression or other psychological conditions. However, Rahner leaves open the possibility that they can come, as a personal grace, from God; Ignatius does the same when he says that God can send them as a test, or in order to give us a true understanding of ourselves (in Rules for the First Week). Many other spiritual writers have written of the ‘dark night’ of the soul as a stage in spiritual progress. What is important is our reaction to these periods of darkness. Like many other things in life they are a cross to bear. Many spiritual commentators will agree with Bert Ghezzi when he interprets Luke 9:23 as meaning that Jesus made the bearing of personal crosses a daily requirement for all his followers.