There comes a time and a season when the community is called to gather as one and to prayerfully discern and to decide together the next steps or the new paths to forge. This discernment has to do with the operational every-day things such as leadership roles, the running of the community, the works and the direction those works will take, and with the spiritual aspects of the community – is there spiritual growth? A sign of spiritual maturity?  A deepening of vulnerability and honest sharing? Are people working hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit? Are people drawn to join the community by the witness it is living?

The process of discernment is often practical and down-to-earth, and the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola may be deployed to help us find the way ahead. For one, communities which are discerning together tend to ignore feelings, or to dismiss them altogether. Yet feelings are integral to who we are as human beings. A step to authentic discernment begins when people get in touch with their feelings and are able with awareness to name and to acknowledge their feelings. This begins the process of an honest conversation with Jesus, very much like how we would approach conversations with a trusted friend. The Lord already knows our innermost thoughts, and there is nothing to hide from Him, yet there appears a lack of intimate dialogue with Him, and we fail to converse candidly about our feelings and thoughts, almost as if we are embarrassed of them.  Much of the anguish of a lack of proper discernment comes from how communities are not taking time to sense situations together, to feel together, and to explore their feelings first as individuals and then as a community. Many times, feelings are brushed aside or ignored.

Many people when considering discernment also view discernment as solely existing in the realm of the spiritual. Nonetheless, it is in the ordinary that co-exists with the spiritual, that we are called to discern in as well. It is not so much of “feeling spiritual” (Hanna), but more often than not, discernment has to do with whether one is feeling rested or tired, arguments with the community, daily schedules and keeping to timelines, and the choices that are made together as a community – whether healthy or unhealthy; whether they lead us closer to God and glorify His Name and works, or whether they glorify ourselves and sing the praises of our own egos. (cf. Hanna)

The Church taking its cue from the writings of St Ignatius refers to these two movements which stir our souls as Consolation or Desolation. First, Consolation – an orientation that takes us closer to God, second, Desolation – an orientation that takes us further away from God. (Loyola Press) Fr John Bartunek, LC, writes, “These terms refer to the felt presence of God in our soul (consolation), or the absence of that feeling (desolation). By faith we know that God is always thinking of us, with us, interested in our lives, and loving us with a personal, determined love.  We know that by faith. But we don’t always feel that in our emotional world. In fact, sometimes we can feel an intense and painful emptiness inside. Sometimes we can feel absolutely no excitement or pleasure at the thought of spiritual things. Sometimes we can feel dry as a desert even when we are at prayer: emotionally, we don’t even want to keep praying. We are like children with their homework: they know it is good for them to do it, and they know they should do it, but they just don’t feel like doing it. This lack of the felt presence of God, a lack of emotional pleasure or resonance regarding God’s will for us, is usually referred to by spiritual writers as sensible desolation. The contrary is sensible consolation.” (Consolation and Desolation) 

Consolation and Desolation are states that our soul feels – either from the presence of God, or the absence of God, and human beings oscillate varily from one state to the other in different times and seasons. These states are not to be confused with the human emotions of happiness or sadness. For example, I could feel on the surface “happiness” having vindicated myself by gossiping about someone, but actually perturbed and unsettled in reality underneath, knowing that I did not choose to act out of charity. Or I could be feeling “sad” on the first level, that I have left my current employment, yet feel a deeper joy and peace, knowing that the choice led me one step closer to God.

According to St. Ignatius, Consolation and Desolation may both take the forms of “Easy” or “Difficult”. As Fr. Eric Hanna elaborates, “Consolation can be hard or easy. Desolation can be hard or easy. A life of faith and love can be hard, requiring effort and pushing us through experiences of loss or struggle. The mark of consolation in hard times is a continued willingness to bear all with Christ and a resolution to love, no matter what comes. The same resolution occurs when the consolation is easy: life isn’t all hardship. Life is given to be enjoyed and its enjoyment can lead us closer to God. Desolation in hard times is marked by a focus on the self: hurtful guilt rather than healthy sorrow for sin, or fear or resentment of the causes of hardship. Desolation isn’t all hardship either. Easy desolation may involve indulgent abuse of pleasures rather than healthy enjoyment of them, or selfish pride when things are going well. In easy times and hard, we can be led closer to or further from God. These deep feelings are complex – but they can be navigated with the help and guidance of the Spirit in prayer. No matter what happens, prayer is vital.” (Hanna)

Our interior movements are key when it comes to discernment, however in a nutshell, feeling “good” does not automatically equate to consolation, neither does feeling “bad” necessarily mean a state of desolation.

Easy Consolation

  • It is enjoyable, pleasurable, peaceful, and leads to a greater love of God.
  • For example, the joy that comes from receiving Christ in the Eucharist, or having the burden of one’s sins confessed at Confession, or the peacefulness that one feels from watching the view at the top of a mountain.
  • When we find ourselves in state of Easy Consolation, the recommendation is to pray in gratitude, and to build an arsenal of good habits here.

Difficult Consolation

  • Difficult, but leads to greater trust, resolve in God. Resultant fruit of peace.
  • For instance. walking away from a toxic work environment, or saying goodbye to an abusive relationship; saying “no” to an unhealthy coping mechanism, vice, or bad habit.
  • When we encounter Difficult Consolation, the recommendation is to pray for help and to trust that we can rely completely on God, for example St. Peter crying out “Save me!” and Jesus immediately rescuing him from the waves.

Easy Desolation

  • Pleasurable and enjoyable.
  • We feel good about it.
  • The marked absence of good fruit.
  • For example, talking bad about and slandering someone’s reputation, or committing sins of the flesh, scrolling through pornographic images and videos.
  • When we find ourselves in this state, the recommendation is to pray for a deeper desire for God.

Difficult Desolation

  • Difficult, intense spiritual dryness, leads to distance from God
  • Results in a lack of joy and peace
  • For instance, a period of desertification and prolonged reluctance and dryness in prayer, or the seeming absence of God in our everyday experience.
  • When we realise that we are in such a state, the recommendation, even though it seems difficult, is to intensify our prayer, invite God into the desolation, and to keep in mind that this state shall pass in time.

As a community, are we in a state of Consolation? If so, sing praise and give thanks to God. Are we in a state of Desolation? Here, we are called to stay the course, to persevere, pray more, and to remember the moments of consolation. “Desolation is not a fault to fight in ourselves; rather it is simply the state we are in sometimes. We do not “overcome” desolation – rather, when we notice it we are encouraged to pray more intensely for God’s help and grace, to renew the spark of our desire for God and to choose what brings us closer to God as best we can.  Nor is consolation a virtue that we can take credit for. Consolation is a gift, the proper flow of grace through us.” (Hanna)

Noticing these states is a first step. We are to take these states to prayer, understanding that we should not undertake a decision in times of desolation, but to bring it to greater intensity of prayer.

By the Grace of God,

Brian Bartholomew Tan



Bartunek, LC. John. “Consolation and Desolation… What does it really mean?” 7 November 2011

Hanna S.J., Eric. “Praying Feelings: Ignatian Spirituality and The Discernment of Spirits”. Ibo et Non Redibo. 1 April 2013.

Loyola Press. “Discernment: Consolation and Desolation” Loyola Press. (cf. Margaret Silf’s The Inner Compass).