Ignatius describes the inner dynamics of discerning the spirits as consolation and desolation. Consolation is the interior movement of the heart that gives us a deep sense of life-giving connection with God, others, and our authentic self. We may experience it as a sense that all is right with the world, that we are free to be given over to God and love, even in moments of pain and crisis. Desolation is the loss of a sense of God's presence; indeed, we feel out of touch with God, with others and with our authentic self. It might be an experience of being off-center, full of turmoil, confusion, and maybe even rebellion. Or we might sense our energy draining away, tension in our gut or tears welling in our eyes.
Consolation and desolation are not mere emotions. They are visceral, in-the-body experiences that precede emotion or affect, alerting us to truth that is sensed and known in the inward being before we are conscious of it. For instance, you might be going through something very difficult—perhaps the death of someone close, or quitting a job, or ending a relationship that is not good for you. There certainly is sadness or fear and concern about the future. But underneath these emotions, you might also identify a deep sense of wellbeing—"the peace that passes understanding" (Philippians 4:7), God's presence comforting or leading you. This is consolation.
It can go the other way as well. You might experience something that seems good to you or others—a promotion at work or an advantageous relationship. But deep inside you sense anxiety, disease, dread. You sense that you will not be able to maintain the truest aspects of yourself. This is desolation. Your body knows and is telling you something your mind doesn't want to know or may not be ready to know yet.
This aspect of discernment, says Ernest Larkin in Silent Presence, "depends greatly on our spiritual and psychological maturity. If we are ambivalent and divided by chaotic emotions and neurotic conditions, our affective states will provide no positive guidance. Our task will be to understand our condition and bring order into our affective life. But as we come to achieve that discipline, in proportion as we die and our lives are hidden with Christ in God, discernment becomes more effective."
An Invitation to Choose Life
In Deuteronomy 30 God addresses the whole company of Israel through Moses and says, "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live" (Verse 19).