Desolation

aldrin on the moonBlack sky in broad daylight, charcoal gray underfoot, and no water to drink or air to breathe. I believe it was one of the Apollo astronauts, Buzz Aldrin, who referred to the lunar landscape (image credit, right) as “magnificent desolation.”

I wonder what Saint Ignatius would have made of the adjective tacked to that term.

I’ve never lived in a desolate place as some deem it, like a desert. Only once did I visit a corner of the Sonora Desert in Arizona. I didn’t find it desolate, but rather filled with interesting life. Just not as plentiful and green as Iowa.

When I think of the experience of desolation, I think of blizzard scenes: life in deep sleep, air nearly too cold to breathe, and bitter winds biting into the most insulated body. Everything whited out. Antarctica would be desolate I’m sure. When God seems absent, things seem washed out, frigid, and lifeless.

The spiritual life gets desolate, so the guides tell us. What does that look like? Black skies even in daytime? Our footpaths through ashes? Or bitter cold tearing at our clothing and sneaking in any possible crack we’ve left vulnerable?

I imagine Buzz Aldrin had hundreds of procedures and numerous back-ups in case he and his partner Neil Armstrong ran into trouble on the voyage to the moon and back. NASA engineers planned for every conceivable snafu on those Apollo missions. And between those guys and the astronauts, they were smart and experienced enough to deal with the unforeseen, if need be.

Do we take the obstacles in the spiritual life as seriously? Or do we run away from desolation, magnificent or otherwise?

Thomas Fischer sums up eight approaches to spiritual desolation here. I imagine things like this would be strapped to our instrument panel or EVA suit were we in the physical desolation in space or on the moon.

  1. When In Desolation, Stay The Course

  2. In Desolation, Remember God Is Really There

  3. The Most Important Thing In Desolation Is Patience

  4. In Desolation, Think Long-Term

  5. Starve Desolation With Increased Spirituality

  6. Use Times Of Consolation Wisely

  7. Know The Enemy

  8. Consider The Reasons For Your Desolation

This list might tilt us to zeroing in on one or two favorites. I find that while my gaze is usually drawn to number 5, or 3, or 1, in that order. But sometimes my desolation is an opportunity to go a little deeper. Perhaps I have been slack in the spiritual life and #8 is in play. Perhaps I need to think back to consoling times: the sixth approach.

I like how the article is summed up in this quote from the saint in his Spiritual Exercises:

A person who is in desolation should recall that he can do much to withstand all of his enemies by using the sufficient grace that he has, and taking strength in his Creator and Lord.

Sufficient grace, like 2 Cor 12:9-10. I think if we are able to find, cling to, and embrace that sufficiency, then even the most desolate of circumstances might grow into something magnificent for God’s glory, and our salvation.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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One Response to Desolation

  1. Liam says:

    Desolation, especially those that involve an absence rather than a specific event (like losing your job, separation/abandonment, illness, death), is something we generally flee from. We don’t even get close enough to dread it. And the absence of active engagement with the experience of that kind of desolation as a *normal* part of the spiritual life (indeed, more normal than consolations) is to my mind the single most fundamental problem in our Christian (including Catholic) culture. The problem is pervasive and insiduous. And it’s in our spiritual-cognitive blindspot.

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