Discernment of Spirits Week 4: Overcoming Desolation

(Homily for Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time Year B)

Message: This is the rule for moving from desolation to consolation: gratitude - look to God, the source of all good gifts.

Pope Francis comes to the United States this week where he will address a joint session of congress. How our world has changed! When John Kennedy ran for president people feared that he would listen to the pope. Now the only thing Democrats and Republican agree on is that we need advice from the pope!* Well, I hope we will listen to Pope Francis - not in some partisan manner, but with hearts of faith. I have tried to do that in recent homilies.

This is the fourth of five homilies on Discernment of Spirits. So far we have seen the importance of discernment: We are not isolated spirits. Both good and evil spirits affect us. To discern between them we need to take this basic step - talk with God and listen to him. Pope Francis has given us the example of rising early to pray. As we communicate with God we should keep in mind this rule: During the time of consolation - of closeness to God - that is when we can make solid decisions. Then stick with them when desolation comes.

In discussing consolation and desolation we saw that our lives oscillate between peaks and valley - exaltation and depression. One of the ironies of modern life is that you and I belong to the most privileged generation in human history, but we often feel down. We have more things, more opportunities and more freedom than ever before, yet at the same time we experience a strange sadness.

Some observers say we suffer from "affluenza." Overall, we live in houses twice as big as the previous generation and we fill them with twice as much stuff and unfortunately we find ourselves twice as miserable, twice as unhappy.

We seem to experience more depression than ever before. It may have a chemical cause, but in part it is societal. Men are depressed because we're not sure what our role is. And women are depressed for the same reason: because we men don't know who we are! We may get some help this week from the World Meeting of Families. And for sure Jesus will help in the Gospel two weeks from today - but that's a whole other homily.

Depression - confusion about who you really are - is similar to desolation, but not exactly the same. Desolation refers to experiencing God as distant - or even absent. That's what I want to address in this homily: how to overcome desolation.

St. Ignatius gives a lot of attention to overcoming desolation - how to move from desolation from consolation. He observes that during consolation, when God feels close, a person can accomplish great things and make fruitful decisions. During desolation, he insists, a person should hold fast to the good decisions - and recognize that the desolation will pass.

As I mentioned last week, there are two reason why desolation endures. It may be that God is testing a person. Do you love me, he asks, or just the good feelings I give? Augustine uses the example of a woman who receives a ring and winds up spending all the time looking at the ring - and neglecting the beloved who gave the ring. God sometimes withdraws a gift in order to bring us back to our senses. Desolation can call a person back to God.

God may allow desolation for a second reason - to purify a great soul. That apparently happened to Blessed Mother Teresa: Years of desolation when God seemed completely absent. During those decades she felt an abandonment like Jesus on the cross - yet she did not abandon prayer. she had the ability to encourage others and she never lost her wonderful smile.

Now I am not in the same category as Mother Teresa. For me (and you) desolation normally has a more mundane cause - what St. Ignatius calls "spiritual laziness." Sometimes called sloth or acedia, spiritual laziness afflicts us today more than ever. We'd rather spend time with TV, Internet or a Smart Phone rather than quiet time with God. And when we do pray, we may have electronic devices at hand. In August Facebook gave me an unexpected blessing - they blocked my account because I use the title, "Father." It's good to take away distractions and carve out time with God.

In overcoming desolation we need prayer. Spiritual laziness can keep us from prayer. And that laziness can come from sins that alienate us from God. St. James says that where jealousy and selfish ambitions exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. I used the example of the ring. A person can focus on the gift and forget the giver. He may even show off the ring - and think that it makes him superior to others.

That's what happened in the Gospel. The disciples received wonderful blessings from Jesus. Instead of gratitude they began making comparisons about who is the greatest. When we start comparing ourselves to others, we are on the road to desolation.

Ignatius, following St. Augustine, teaches us to focus on the giver of gifts - to be grateful and humble like the child in today's Gospel. This is the rule for moving from desolation to consolation: gratitude - look to God, the source of all good gifts. Stop obsessing about what someone else has. God has given you exactly what you need.

That includes our disappointments and suffering. The late-night comedian, Stephen Colbert, made a remarkable statement about the anguish he experienced in his childhood. He quoted J.R.R. Tolkien: "What punishments of God are not gifts?" It may sound harsh, even shocking. I know many people here are passing through terrible trials - such great anguish that you may be tempted to despair. Please cling to God. Trust him - and above all, thank him. Everything you have is his gift. Gratitude will enable you to move from desolation to consolation.

And there's something else even more important than gratitude, but I will save that for next week - the final homily on discernment. For today I ask you make the words of the Psalm your own:

"The Lord sustains my life...
I will praise your name, O Lord, for its goodness." Amen


*John Carr is source of this humorous quote (8:06)

Spanish Version

Plan for this series:

August 30: Discernment of Spirits: What is it?
September 6: Discernment of Spirits: The First Step
September 13: Discernment of Spirits: Most Important Rule
September 20: Discernment of Spirits: Overcoming Desolation
September 27: Discernment of Spirits: Keeping Focus

From Archives (25th Ordinary Sunday - Year B):

2012: We Are Little People
2009: The Antidote for Envy
2006: The Desire for Wealth
2003: Text in Context
2000: He Placed a Child in Their Midst
1997: Twice as Many Things, Twice as Unhappy

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Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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