08 July 2015

Consolation and Desolation: a reflective exercise

“During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”   (from Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn)

Each day, the authors of this story practice various forms of the Examen. The Examen is a practice that was developed by Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits. Most of the time, the authors of this story do the Examen work together. It is a good way to build relationship and receive support from each other. The Examen is predicated on the reality that each day carries with it the potential for one or both of the following: consolation and/or desolation.

“Consolation” is the experience of feeling close to God or others. “Desolation” is the experience of feeling far away. In a simple form of the Examen you could simply ask yourself at the end of the day:

“When did I feel closest to God and when did I feel furthest away?”

Then, in your review, thank God for the times of consolation and ask for God’s help with the times of desolation.

Alternatively, you could consider one of these pairings they include in their book:

For what am I most/least grateful?

When did I feel the most alive? When did I feel life draining out of me?

When did I have the greatest/least sense of belonging to self, others, God?

When was I happiest/saddest?

What was today’s high/low point?

What was invigorating? What was challenging?

Though it is important to consider both the positive and negative, sometimes you may just need to pay attention to the positive. For example, you may want to review your day with this question:

“When did I give/receive the most love?”

 ...or something similar.

Though this is a practice you could use by yourself, it is also great to practice with others. I invite you to consider using this regularly. Don’t make it long...Here is how you could approach it:

1. Decide if you’d like to do a consolation/desolation pairing or solely consider consolation. If you are doing this with others and one person does not feel like doing the pair, simply focus on the consolation part.

2. Pick one of the variations listed above. Which pairing or which question above would you most like to use as a frame for your reflection? Click here for a printable you can use as a reminder of the variations available to you. Feel free to add your own variations to this handy print-out.

3. Light a candle and use it as a visual focus to quiet your heart and mind. Put your hand on your heart for some brief moments as a gesture that you are bringing your heart to the process. Take some moments to reflect silently. Search for your consolation. If you are doing the pair, search for your desolation.

4. Share with each other your consolation and desolation. If you are listening, do not advise, critique or interpret what you have heard. Simply listen. If you feel compelled to comment or notice something, keep your words brief and positive…accepting.

5. When you are finished, take a very brief time to pray…giving thanks for consolation and asking God’s help for desolation.

That’s it. Don’t make it a long, drawn-out thing. Just keep it simple and short.

If you are a parent, keep in mind that this is a simple, doable exercise children can appreciate as well. Do it together as a family. The authors of the book have even had their neighbors join in. It’s a great community building exercise.

I wanted to invite you to practice this because it is a non-threatening way of daily sharing your authentic self with each other without being too “heavy” and raising arguments. It’s a good way to listen to God and each other, to see what God is doing…accepting and appreciating that. Basically, it’s a way to notice what is life-giving to you, holding the bread that helps you rest in God.  


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