“Non-Spiritual Consolation” by St. Ignatius of Loyola

Consolation can be generally understood as a happy uplifting movement of the heart.

When we reflect on consoling experiences in life, only certain movements of the heart have a direct and immediate reference to our life of faith.

Non-spiritual consolation should be accepted as:

  1. Important and enriching gifts from our loving Creator.
  2. Potential springboard for specifically spiritual consolations.

Spiritual consolation can often emerge from non-spiritual consolation (a good workout at the gym, a beautiful walk in nature, a healthy meal, a warm conversation with a good friend, listening to Beethoven, etc). Therefore, for the sake of our spiritual lives, it is important that we have a certain amount of healthy non-spiritual consolation because very often it will become the space in which God brings grace – the rich soil in which God’s work can bear fruit.

  • I like to think of non-spiritual consolation as “natural” consolation, as distinct from spiritual consolation as “supernatural” consolation.

Keep in mind. Although non-spiritual consolation is good, we do not want to base discernment in spiritual matters based on it.

Avoid drawing spiritual conclusions from non-spiritual movements

  • Just because you experience a sense of freedom at the thought of leaving the demands of a certain job, vocation, or task does not mean that the “sense of freedom” is from God.
  • Just because a married man or a priest finds himself drawn to a woman of the parish and experiences an uplift of the heart when speaking to her (non-spiritual consolation) does not mean in any way that this is from God!
  • Just because you feel really good after a bowl of ice cream does not mean that you should eat another!

Although we can often bring about non-spiritual consolation though good choices, we cannot bring about spiritual consolation – it is a gift from God.

The key question that distinguishes spiritual from non-spiritual consolation:

Does this consoling experience lift my heart to God?

Examples of non-spiritual consolation leading to spiritual consolation:

Example # 1:

On June 7, 1897, in the final summer of her life, St. Thérèse of Lisieux visited with her older sister, Pauline, in the garden of their Carmelite monastery. Pauline recounts the incident that occurred that day:

  • “Descending the steps leading into the garden, she saw a little white hen under a tree, protecting her little chicks under her wings; some were peeping out from under. Thérèse stopped, looking at them thoughtfully; after a while, I made a sign that we should go inside. I noticed her eyes were filled with tears, and I said: “You’re crying!” She put her hand over her eyes and cried even more. “I can’t explain it just now; I’m too deeply touched.” That evening, in her cell, she told me the following, and there was a heavenly expression on her face: “I cried when I thought how God used this image in order to teach us his tenderness toward us. All through my life, this is what he has done for me! He has hidden me totally under his wings! Earlier in the day, when I was leaving you, I was crying when going upstairs; I was unable to control myself any longer, and I hastened to our cell. My heart was overflowing with love and gratitude” (John Clarke, O.C.D., trans., St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Last Conversations (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1977), 60).

Therese’s development:

  1. Experience of non-spiritual consolation: Therese’s heart is uplifted in a beautiful scene in nature.
  2. Connecting natural to supernatural: I cried when I thought how God used this image in order to teach us his tenderness toward us (cf. Mt 23:37; Ps 63:7).
  3. Personal connection to God: for me! He has hidden me totally under his wings!
  4. Spiritual consolation: love and gratitude. 
Example #2:
  • A mother gazes at her infant daughter in repose and delights in her beauty = non-spiritual consolation.
  • As she gazes, a warm stirring of gratitude to God arises in her heart, as her delight in this moment tells her of God’s goodness to her throughout her life = spiritual consolation.
Example #3:
  • A man finishes a demanding project at work, knows that it is done well, and feels good about the project = non-spiritual consolation.
  • As he reflects on this, he finds himself filled with joyful confidence that the Lord will accompany him in all the difficulties of his life = spiritual consolation.
Example #4:
  • A woman listens to stirringly beautiful music and finds her heart uplifted = non-spiritual consolation.
  • As she listens, her heart grows warm with the awareness of God’s beauty and closeness to her = spiritual consolation.

“In these and in many other examples we might give, healthy nonspiritual consolation has become the space into which God has infused the grace of spiritual consolation” (Gallagher, SCF, 52).

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