Consolation and Desolation

In the last scene of the season’s final episode of Joan of Arcadia, Joan’s parents are quietly talking in Joan’s hospital room. Helen had talked to a priest earlier in the day…

Helen: He said that we go through times on consolation and desolation. Consolation is when things are flowing, and everything makes sense, and you feel connected, and you’re aware that God is present and has plans for you, maybe, even likes you a little bit. You remember that?

Will: Sometimes.

Helen: Desolation is the other thing. When you are scared and confused and alone and out of step, and your cell phone doesn’t work, and your daughter gets sick, and the cops come to the door and say there’s been an accident. God retreats, and you’re left with your own thoughts, and those thoughts are dark. There are answers there. He told me. And strength.

Will: How long does desolation last?

Helen: As long as it needs to.

This reminds me of the Law of Undulation from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. From Letter #8:

Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. …As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. …periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty.

If you are not familiar with Screwtape, he is a devil with some considerable authority in the hierarchy of Hell. He writes a set of letters to his nephew Wormwood on the finer points of being a first-time tempter of humans. Later in Letter #8, there is a brilliant piece describing the difference between the objectives of Hell and Heaven, and it concerns humans with the Law of Undulation, in particular, in experiencing the troughs or desolation of our lives. Be forewarned, the following quote is from the perspective of the devils and their attitude is kind of backwards.

Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, [God] relies on the troughs even more than the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. The reason is this. To us a human is primarily food; or aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which [God] demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but the appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He as absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world which [Satan] has drawn all other beings into himself: God wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.

And that is where the troughs come in. You must have often wondered why [God] does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone the duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients [humans] along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with, the better. He cannot “tempt” to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

The operative word here is seems. God is always there. He is always with us, in us, around us. It only seems like He is not. And that is where trust, hope, and faith come in.

Persevere my friends…

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