For years now, when I hear Confessions, one of the penances I sometimes give is this: “I want you to thank Jesus for three things in your life that are going well… and you have to do it with a smile.” And the person usually laughs. Why? Because it helps when we smile; and sometimes we have to choose to do it in order to cheer us up; and this penance shows how a little action can help, right?
We said last week that, in his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul was writing from prison. Today, we read in the same letter: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:4-7). St. Paul’s spirit is that for which we’re aiming when we’re in desolation. He rejoices in Jesus to counteract his desolation!
Today, we’re going to cover Rule 6 of the discernment of spirits, in which St. Ignatius writes, “It is very advantageous to change ourselves intensely against the desolation itself, as by insisting more upon prayer, meditation, upon much examination, and upon extending ourselves in some suitable way of doing penance.”
We said two weeks ago that, when we’re in spiritual desolation, we shouldn’t change our spiritual commitments. But we should change ourselves, in four ways: prayer, meditation, much examination, and doing penance!
1) Prayer: St. Paul tells us, ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’ When we feel far from God and everything’s dark, the devil wants us to pray less, and we ourselves don’t feel like praying. So, we should go against this. We need to rely on God more, not less.
For example, if you feel like cutting prayer short by 10 minutes, you know what St. Ignatius suggests? Extending your prayer by 10 minutes. Remember this applies when you’re in spiritual desolation, meaning you’re trying to finish your prayer quickly. This does not apply when you need to go feed your baby.
Find a book that gives the Bible in a year, or daily meditations on the Gospels, or the meditations of St. Josemaria Escrivá, which are just one or two lines, something on which you can pause for five minutes.
3) ‘Much examination’: In the book we’ve been using, Discernment of Spirits in Marriage, Anne has a very bad day and starts asking questions in prayer, “Jesus, what is happening this afternoon? What am I feeling? How did it get this way?” She’s an education assistant at a school and works with a young boy named Steve, who has special needs, and she realizes that, in the morning, she tried to help Steve and nothing worked. What’s causing her desolation is that she doesn’t know how to help him anymore. So she resolved to speak with her supervisor, who’s always able to help. Now that Anne’s made this decision, she feels better (Fr. Timothy Gallagher, Discernment of Spirits in Marriage, 64).
Some of you might remember this example of journaling:
On one side of the paper we write down what’s bothering us, and on the other side we write down what’s the truth. Once we identify the temptations, then we can ask God for specific graces. I cannot tell you how many sheets of paper I have filled out in my life. Perhaps 50. It’s when I’m at my most frustrated moments, and this exercise saves my sanity and soul.
4) ‘Some suitable way of doing penance’: Smiling is a great penance for us, because it forces us to go against our desolation. Whatever our desolation is pushing us to do, do the exact opposite! If you’ve received bad news, a loss, or have health problems that are affecting you spiritually, then a penance is to go to God to bring you up. Go contrary to where the desolation is leading you. Ven. Bruno Lanteri told one lay person, “For you, [penance] means the effort to live each moment with a gentle and joyful spirit” (Fr. Timothy Gallagher, Overcoming Spiritual Discouragement, 37).
Another example: When we’re in desolation, have you ever noticed how we turn in on ourselves? We don’t want to see anyone, or help anyone. So, do the exact opposite.
St. Paul today says, ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone.’ When you’re feeling down, go and clean the house for your family; volunteer somewhere; send someone a text to cheer them up. Ven. Fulton Sheen says that when we’re suffering an existential crisis, even before praying, we should go out and help other people (Your Life is Worth Living, 5).
If I could mention something to our young adults: Don’t wait for the perfect vocation or perfect calling before you start helping people with your whole hearts. Sometimes you just have to go out and help people and get nothing in return. One misunderstanding, I think, that many young Catholic adults go through is that you try to find a way to serve people in a way that fulfills you. Yes, sometimes that’s good. But sometimes you just need to get out of yourselves and help your neighbour for their sake, not yours. And one reason why you may be very vulnerable to desolation is because your overall life is focused on yourselves: You turn to God for yourself; your career helps other people, but you chose it for yourself; you make most of your choices based on whether they fulfill you. Try turning to God for His sake; try serving others when you get very little out of it. That leads to a lot of spiritual consolation, because you’re becoming like Jesus.
We’re approaching Christmas in under two weeks, and now is a perfect time to turn outwards. It’s dark, so let’s give people light! People feel weary, so let’s give them hope.
For the past two weeks, we’ve been praying daily on our 11:02 prayer cards for the people we love, that they encounter Jesus. Now is a great time to reach out to them, in an intentional way.
How about this? Instead of spending time shopping, could you do something more helpful for them? One statistic says that women spend 20 hours shopping for Christmas gifts, and men 10. I think we spend more time just looking for great deals online. And, you know, when I was younger, I used to buy my brothers gifts that they wouldn’t like, so that they’d give them to me. But, seriously, what does Jesus want from us this Christmas? He wants our hearts, the way He’s given us His. And He wants us to give our hearts to the people we love. There are certain people for whom receiving gifts is their love language—buy them a gift that will console them. However, for some people, they need three hours of our time, not three hours shopping for a gift; for others, they need a hug; for others, one hour writing them a card would mean more than a present; and for others, doing an act of service for them would make this the best Christmas ever. We should focus on these acts of love this Christmas!
In addition, because people are hungering for more in life, for meaning and community, please invite them to Alpha in the first week of January 2022—that’s a gift that only we can give.
Three times in today’s Gospel, different groups of people ask St. John the Baptist, “What should we do?” If you’re in desolation, you know what you should do? Stop thinking about yourself and your desolation, and start thinking about God! Spend more time with Him! And start thinking about rescuing other people from desolation rather than yourself!
If we’re in a kind of prison, St. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”