Thursday, November 3, 2011

Consolation or Desolation?


The storm that blew through the northeast a few weeks ago was unexpected and devastating. The photo (above) is of a once-beautiful maple tree in my front yard. The tree split nearly in half because of the weight of the snow, and as result will now be removed. 

In addition to destroying a lot of trees, those fallen branches resulted in some pretty massive power outages, as well, since many of them knocked out power lines as they fell. Madison, for example, lost power for two days. At first it seemed a short-lived novelty; okay, no power? No big deal. We'll manage. 

But then the hours stretched into a day, and when no one could tell us when the power might be back, our optimism rapidly turned to frustration. We were forced to reflect not only on our dependence to Jersey Central Power & Light, but in a greater sense our dependence on many things we discovered during the storm we took for granted––things like warm homes, hot water, and stoves to cook our food. Things like lights, so we could see, and electric outlets to power up our computers and cell phones. There was, of course, no internet, no cable TV (or any TV, for that matter), and no e-mail. 

And I found, somewhat to my surprise, that I loved it. I loved being unplugged. I loved that sense of community we had, with people stopping by the church to see if anyone else was there (there was). I loved having a potluck lunch at the church with people bringing food to share that they'd cooked as their freezers began to thaw. There was a sense of getting back to basics––getting back to relationship, getting back to what's really important––that brought out the best in people (well, some people, anyhow!).

As I reflected on this unexpected turn of events, I found myself thinking about the spiritual concepts of consolation and desolation. I'd learned about them recently in my spiritual direction class and was surprised to learn that these concepts are not as self-explanatory as they seem. I'd always thought of a "consolation" as a life event that made you happy, while a "desolation" was one that didn't. 

I learned, however, that that's not exactly true. A consolation is more properly understood as an event that brings you closer to God, while a desolation is one that creates distance from God. And though it sometimes happens that consolations are happy events, that's not always the case. An "unhappy" event in your life can actually make you feel quite close to God, while, conversely, a "happy" event can create distance. It all has to do with where God is in any given event in your life.

During the power outage, for example, which was most definitely an unhappy event for most of us, I found myself drawing closer to God. I wrote more in my journal; I read more of my bible, as well as other books; I had more time to slow down, think, and really rest in a way I'd not been able to do for weeks. The power outage, for me, was like a miniature Sabbath retreat in that it brought me closer to God. Although inconvenient, it was absolutely more of a consolation than a desolation for me.

How did you experience the storm? Did it bring you closer to God, or distance you from God? It's important for us to identify the consolations and desolations in our lives, for it's through these events that the Spirit guides us to a deeper intimacy with God. 

Roman Catholic contemplative St. Ignatius, for example, recommends that we do a "daily examen" every evening of the consolations and desolations we encounter every day.  This prayerful reflection not only helps us detect God’s presence in our daily lives, it also helps us discern God's direction for us in life. We should seek out and engage in life-affirming activities that help us feel close to God, while minimizing, where possible, those that distance us from God. 

The daily examen helps us to see God at work in our lives––even in the midst of October snow storms and extended power outages. You just never know when a "desolation" might turn out to be a consolation in disguise.

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