Of all the many wonderful spiritual practices at our disposal, I would suggest that the most important, most fundamental practice of the spiritual journey is quite simply paying attention. In a world where we are surrounded by the “noise” of constant activity, by information overload in all of its marketing glamour, and perhaps most damning of all, by our own internal subconscious narratives, it is difficult to stop and focus our attention on much of anything, much less something as invisible and unobtrusive as the spiritual story of our lives.
And nothing matters more! Nothing.
470 years ago, a Spanish priest named Ignatius (now known as Saint Ignatius of Loyola) articulated the terms “consolation” and “desolation” as tools for paying attention to the movement of God in our lives. Consolations are those things that move us closer to God, closer to life, closer to love…while desolation is its opposite: those things that move us further from God, from life, and from love.
As we pay attention to the spiritual ebb and flow of our lives, we begin to notice experiences, conversations, activities, and situations—both large and small—by looking at them through these lenses. Over the course of an hour or a day or a week, what are these spiritual forces and how do we respond to them formatively?
Saint Ignatius also structured this consolation/desolation exercise as a daily practice he called the Examination of Conscience…or the Daily Examen for short. At the end of each day, sit down in a quiet, peaceful setting—either alone, with a spouse, or with a spiritual friend—and tune in. Some light a candle. Kellie and I like to add a glass of Chardonnay and some cheese to the experience. J
Allow your mind to scan back across the events of the day, asking Jesus, “Where were you in my day? What were the spiritual movements within my soul? What would you want me to notice or change or celebrate from my day?” Take turns sharing those consolations and desolations with one another…and respond in prayerful silence or with a gentle affirmation.
This is one of the simplest and most powerful practices for paying attention to your spiritual journey. It can also shape the spiritual atmosphere of a family or community. Ultimately, both consolations and desolations are meant to move us toward God as we grow in our ability to notice and respond to God’s work in our lives over time.