Ignatian Discernment for Unitarian Universalist Congregations

I spent the better part of last year working on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  I will admit that when I began the process I was not looking forward to it. I was raised Catholic. I had some experience with the Exercises and I knew that my world view, my theology, and my spirituality was decidedly different than both Ignatius’ 16th century Catholicism and that of most of my ecumenical classmates.  I found out that the Spiritual Exercises still have a lot to offer anyone, even a Universalist with a largely humanistic outlook on life and Christianity.  The exercises are really, at their core, about discernment. And discernment is how to make a reasoned, holistic decision. One of the more compelling concepts from the Exercises about discernment that I keep returning to for both its personal and congregational implications is that of desolation and consolation.

Desolation and Consolation are two terms/ideas from Ignatian Spirituality that talk about feeling God’s (use your inner translator) absence or presence.  When the holy is absent and we are moving through life feeling disconnect from it, Ignatius calls this desolation.  When we feel the loving presence of the holy and feel connected to it and feel it is helping us through life he calls this being in consolation.  I did a year-long non-traditional Ignation retreat last year as part of my training in spiritual direction.  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about consolation and desolation.  I’ve paid a lot of attention to the movements in my own spiritual life from consolation to desolation to consolation.  It’s led me to dive into the connection between the spiritual life and the emotional life and how they seem intertwined.  I’ve also been fascinated by how consolation and desolation seem to ebb and flow in the life of congregations as much as the life of individuals.

Consolation and Desolation come out of Ignatius’ work on discernment of spirits.  When Ignatius of Loyola developed the Spiritual Exercises he was healing from battle wounds. He noticed interior movements that would leave him happy or sad, closer to God or farther away.    My own spirituality is less overtly supernatural than that of the 16th century Catholic Ignatius.  I am not concerned with literal devils and angels, literal evil or good spirits, affecting me and my life.  I am however very concerned with the totality of my life, the deep inner movements of spirit, emotion, connection, human nature, and existence both within and beyond me that I name God and that I am in relationship with at all times.   I don’t see it as divorced or separate from the natural world, but all of an integrated whole.  This is the life of my spirit. It has positive and negative movements.  Thus as part of my work in discernment, I find the concepts of consolation and desolation useful and insightful both for individuals and communities.

Margaret Silf explains desolation and consolation succinctly in her book Inner Compass.  I’ve edited her list slightly (or “adapted” as we say in the prayerbook) for my Unitarian Universalist perspective:


  • We turn in on ourselves.
  • Drive deeper into our own negative feelings.
  • Cut ourselves off from community.
  • Feel like giving up on things that are important to us.
  • Give up on our distant vision/mission/calling.
  • Lose sight of our landmarks and guideposts.
  • Feel a drain of energy and motivation.

What we do / what to do in times of DESOLATION:

  • Tell God/someone else/Spiritual Director, etc how you FEEL and ask for HELP.
  • Seek out companionship.
  • Don’t go back on decisions made in consolation.
  • Hold strong and remember your inner map and best convictions.
  • Recall times of consolation, imagine them, meditate on them.
  • Help others, get out of yourself.
  • Repeat as necessary.


  • Direct our focus outward beyond ourselves.
  • Lift up our hearts to see and experience the joys and sorrows of others.
  • Bond more closely with others in community.
  • Generate new inspiration and ideas.

What we do in times of CONSOLATION:

  • Give thanks for blessings (to God if that’s what you do).
  • Store the moment/time in memory for times of desolation.
  • Add this time or period of your life in a meaningful way to your life map.
  • Use the energy to further your deepest desires (follow your bliss, pursue your calling).
  • Use surplus energy and motivation fuel the things you don’t like doing but have to get done and do them (with vigor).
  • Repeat as necessary.

Consolation and Desolation are a given in Ignatian spirituality.  I think it is reasonable to say that everyone and every community goes through periods that could be described as desolation and consolation. I’ve come to agree with who say consolation is required for proper discernment.  Too often I have made decisions in a state of desolation.  Proper reasoned discernment requires a state of consolation.

Working from a systems perspective that is endemic to congregational life, a state of high anxiety doesn’t allow for consolation.   Anxiety is almost a pre-requisite for desolation. Having experienced congregational life from the pastor’s seat for a few years now I have rarely seen congregations (my own or other congregations I’ve experienced or worked with in some capacity) actually discern what to do in consolation, rather there seems to be a predisposition in congregations I’ve experienced to make decisions in times of desolation.

Yet congregations are really just collections of individuals and many individuals who come to the Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve experienced have themselves seemed to be in desolation.  How can a community made up of many people in personal desolation get to a place of communal consolation?  I think our task in the congregation as a people and especially as pastors and religious leaders is to lead the way to consolation.  Part of our work is to facilitate the spiritual movement from desolation to consolation.  Frequently we are asked (or called or compelled or invited) to do this with people who have no reference points for the journey they are on, no vocabulary for the spiritual work they are trying to do, and in some cases to even suggest reference points or vocabulary sends individuals (and sometimes communities) deeper into desolation.  So what is to be done?

Sitting. Listening.  Waiting.  Witnessing to one’s own experiences of desolation and consolation. Witnessing to one’s own experiences of love and justice and peace and grace.  Move the spirit.  Move the people.

One thought on “Ignatian Discernment for Unitarian Universalist Congregations

  1. Tony, I love this. It speaks so clearly not only about my own journey, but about the function of balance in a congregation between inner work and outreach. I’d like to use this in our Wellspring II ingathering if I may. Keep the faith, baby.

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