For weeks, I was eagerly anticipating the Eucharistic Congress, which was held last weekend. Peter Kreeft was the featured speaker and is one of my favorite authors. It would be great to hear him speak. The spiritual energy that flows from the procession is powerful, as is the witness of so many people lined up along the sidewalks and balconies in uptown Charlotte. I was looking forward to being with my brother deacons. The hour of adoration with thousands of others always renews my faith. I even dropped off my alb at the dry cleaners just for the occasion.
Then a couple of days before the event, I started having doubts. The voice in my head started whispering all of these reasons I should not go: The traffic is going to be bad… I won’t be able to find a place to park… No one will miss me… I really don’t belong… It’s going to be a waste of time… I’ve got better things to do… I even forgot to pick up my clean alb, so the voice added, And you’ve got ‘ring around the collar’!
I was experiencing a special type of spiritual attack called Pre-Event Spiritual Desolation. It happens when a person decides to do something that will be spiritually enriching. It could be attending a parish event, going to do some enriching ministry, or deciding to embark upon a program of increased prayer. In the days and hours immediately before, the doubts begin to flood in. The voices speaking against following through with this good and holy decision become loud and persuasive. It’s been a common experience for me, but since I started working at the conference center I realized I’m not alone. I’ve been shocked at the number of people who decide at the last minute not to attend a retreat – many for some of the most bizarre reasons.
To combat this little second-guessing devil, Saint Ignatius provides some guidance in his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits. When experiencing spiritual desolation, never make a change in a decision you made when you were in a better frame of mind, or in his words spiritual consolation. (Week 1, Rule 5) Father Timothy Gallagher explains this wonderfully well in a Podcast on Pre-Event Spiritual Desolation.
In short, when you do have second thoughts about embarking on a good and holy activity, Saint Ignatian offers three simple steps. Be aware. Understand. Take Action. First, be aware that pre-event spiritual desolation is real. It happens to everyone. Second, seek understanding on your particular circumstances and parse out the contradictory voices speaking to you. Are they the voice of the Good Shepherd or some other voice? Having recognized and discerned, the last step is to take action toward the good.
In my own situation, with a little determination, I ignored those contrary voices speaking to me before the Eucharistic Congress. As a result, I had a wonderful experience. Though there was a little residual anxiety driving in, I was flooded with a wave of love and belonging as soon as I parked the car. I rode that beautiful wave throughout the day and all of the way home.
May God give you the grace to overcome any pre-event spiritual desolation that may come to visit.