Spiritual Highs and Lows
But soon after the temptation just now related, he began to experience great changes in his soul. Sometimes his distaste was so great that he found no relish in any of the prayers he recited, or in hearing Mass, or in any kind of prayer he made. At other times everything was just the contrary, and so sudden, that he seemed to have got rid of the sadness and desolation pretty much as one removes a cloak from the shoulders of another. Here he began to marvel at these changes which he had never before experienced, saying to himself: “What new kind of life is this that we are now beginning?” At this time he still spoke occasionally with a few spiritual persons who had some regard for him and liked to talk with him. For although he had no knowledge of spiritual things, he showed much fervor in his talk and a great desire to go forward in the service of God. There was in Manresa at that time a woman of many years, who for a long time had been a servant of God. She was known as such in many parts of Spain, so much so that the Catholic King had called her once to tell her something. This woman, meeting one day with this new soldier of Christ, said to him: “May our Lord Jesus Christ appear to you some day!” He was surprised at this and, giving a literal meaning to her words, asked, “And how would Jesus Christ appear to me?” On Sundays he never missed his weekly confession and communion.
Anyone who embraces the “new kind of life” which is the spiritual life must at some point contend with the phenomenon of spiritual “highs” and “lows.” Saint Ignatius, who before had described the great consolations which he received from attending Mass or from his personal prayer, is now finding that sometimes he doesn’t receive any consolation from these practices. Indeed, he even describes these less than satisfactory experiences of prayer and worship as “distasteful.” Most of us know the experience of finding Mass boring, or of dry and uninspiring prayer. Imagine what this experience must be like after one has seen visions or received mystical graces! It could cause one to think that God had lost interest in him or her. Saint Ignatius’ contemporary, Saint Teresa of Avila, is said to have experienced years of such aridity in her prayer life, yet she remained faithful. She also is known to have said to God at a particularly trying moment, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!” Some might think it impertinent to speak to God this way, but I have always been of the opinion that God would prefer we speak to him in anger, rather than not at all. Such fluctuations in our experience of God in prayer and worship might tempt us to stop talking to God, and perhaps to think that God has abandoned us. St. Ignatius, in The Spiritual Exercises, suggests a way for dealing with this eventuality, an insight which perhaps has its roots in his Manresa experience. He suggests that we store up in our memory the consolations which come with our “highs” in prayer so that when the “lows” come we might find some solace in recalling the consolations of the past. He also in this passage seems to suggest another way of “staying in the game” when we are in something of a spiritual slump—conversation about the things of God and the spiritual life with other spiritual people.