“I should notice and dwell on those points where I felt greater consolation or desolation, or had a greater spiritual experience.” - Spiritual Exercises #62
St Ignatius of Loyola advises anyone who prays to go back to a significant experience in prayer to listen deeper or look longer for what God may further reveal. It is easier for me to heed this counsel particularly with consolation (e.g. peace, love, joy or obvious grace). It’s the experiences of desolation (e.g. sadness, disappointment, pain or obscure grace) that I find difficult to stay with.
In the past month, I have been taught to stay with obscure grace. Albeit blessed in many ways, I left World Youth Day in Madrid with sadness. For reasons that I cannot adequately describe, I felt sad that opportunities to engage young people, particularly young adults, were missed. Many longed for a deeper connection with God. As I tried to pay attention to this sadness, I began to discover that my feelings echoed those of Jesus. As in the passage in Mark 6:34, Jesus was moved with compassion because the people were like sheep without shepherd. It even felt poignantly painful at times. Since I was uncomfortable with these difficult feelings, I avoided them in prayer (or when they surfaced inconveniently at other times).
However, my wise spiritual director challenged me to return to Jesus’ sadness. To listen more. It was not easy, nor was I that generous with God. Nevertheless, I did try, frequently confessing to the Lord that I really didn’t want to. Gradually, something surprising happened. The sadness subsided and turned into gladness, a joy deeper than the sadness. As this joy unfolded, something else emerged. I noticed an invitation to engage this unmet need among young adults for a deeper connection with God. Not only was it deeper than what I have noticed these past several years, I had a clear sense that it came from God and not from me. The Lord wanted me to join in this endeavor. I saw in his eyes, full of trust and confidence. He wanted me as companion, partner, friend-in-mission. I am unable to put it into words, but this sense is clearer to me than daylight, than my own solid body, than anything I can see with my physical eyes. This sense of Christ’s trust and confidence has been deepening in me throughout these past two weeks. Its poignancy surpasses the sadness I felt previously. At several occasions on the Discover U retreat this past weekend with college students from Toronto, Montreal and Syracuse, NY, tears of joy flowed freely, as I found resounding from within, “who am I that You trust so much to serve Your young people?” In the openness of my small group as well as others on retreat, I felt a trust that humbled me.
I realize that what I describe may seem strange to some of you. Perhaps thoughts like this may have crossed your mind: “I am not holy like that … I cannot pray like that … I am not a priest … or weird like that, etc…” Fair enough. Yet, I suspect that most of you have had a similar experience like this: in looking back at a painful experience, with God or focusing on Jesus’ presence, you understood things more positively, in a more life-giving light. Pain and hardship gradually gave way to a deeper peace or greater meaning. Some of the most painful moments of my childhood, when revisited with Jesus and turning to look at him when I suffered, gradually become carriers of grace. They become “wounds of love,” to quote St John of the Cross. An in-breaking of the Paschal Mystery.
Let us stay with grace. Let us savor the consoling moments in our life at this time. Let us wait where things seem difficult or painful, and turn to Christ. The God of surprises will work wonders in our hearts and lives.