Conversatio Divina

Part 12 of 18

Painful Moments

Clues to Healing and Recovery in Past, Present, and Future

Mark E. Thibodeaux

01.  Introduction

Sometimes I have trouble feeling God’s presence in my life. There are painful, difficult periods that our Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola sometimes referred to as “desolation.” This understanding of the cycle, or mood-swings, of the human heart is not a novel idea. It’s part of the ancient wisdom we Jesuits call “the Ignatian way.” One important factor in this kind of deep reflection is the significance of memory, including painful memory. In such dark times I remember that God is present even when I have no evidence of his presence. Holding the memory before me, I know that even within the painful moment there is a promise of future consolation and meaning.

In the Jesuit scheme of things all life is seen under the influence of memory, and the painful moments always contain a promise of future blessing and consolation. At the same time, the future—which is unknown to us—is filled with the promise that, whether we sense it or not, God is present “in all things” and will make himself known to us again, maybe with a sudden sense of blessing at some future time.

That’s my own experience, but it’s not unique to me. I see this experience in the lives of people I work with as a pastoral counselor and director. I help them to do what I have learned to do myself as a Jesuit. After a difficult time I look back to see how God was with me all along, guiding me and loving me. That kind of reflection deepens me, increasing my delight in the present and my hope for the future. This kind of process helps me to act in faith, confident that God is with me every step of the way.

Take, as an example, the story of Duy Nguyen, a Vietnamese diocesan priest. As a gift from the parishioners, Father Duy made a thirty-day Ignatian retreat. The first few days, Fr. Duy spent thanking God for his life, which was fulfilling and enriching. He had good friends and good relationships with his congregation. His relationship with God had grown only stronger over the years. More than anything, he rejoiced over the precious gift of the priesthood, looking back over his fifteen years as a priest. Duy found that nothing made him more fully human and fully alive than the times he was able to be Christ for the people who came to him for priestly help.

As the retreat days stretched on, however, Duy went further back in his memory to his violent and traumatic escape from Vietnam, and his harrowing sea voyage to America. The experience had left a deep wound, one that he would carry to his grave. The more he meditated on this deep wound, the greater the anger he felt at God for allowing him to go through this. For two full days of prayer, God seemed to be silent while Duy asked, “Why, Lord?” over and over again. Finally on the third day of praying over his tragic experience, he felt a strong sense of God’s healing presence. Although God seemed to give no answer to Duy’s question, still, God’s warm embrace was a balm for the open wounds. Duy had no more answers than the day before, but he experienced a soothing, quiet consolation.

On the fourth day, God seemed to lead Duy in an imaginative exercise. God offered to give Duy a little peek at the divine plan played out in his priestly life. Duy saw one scene after another of him ministering to God’s people in extraordinary ways. He watched as he brought spiritual healing and relief to so many through the sacrament of reconciliation and through pastoral counseling.

As in the first few days of the retreat, he was flooded with joy and consolation for these experiences. But the second time around, God showed him precisely how his tragic past played a role in his priesthood. For the first time in his life, Duy noticed how much he used his painful past to get in touch with the pain of those he counseled. He seldom spoke of the tragedy during these sessions, but every word he exchanged with them, every tear he shed with them, every prayer he said with them, came from the common experience of God’s steadfast love in the midst of tragedy.

There was one couple in particular who had lost their nine-year-old in a freak accident. The couple came to see Duy often during these long bouts of grief. Though they had little in common (the couple were white Americans from wealthy backgrounds) the three of them bonded in the pain, tears and prayers. It was the most important experience of Duy’s priestly life, and he could see clearly now how his own tragic past played a necessary role in the healing process of this couple’s grief.

In Duy’s prayerful imagination, God said to him, “I am almighty and powerful. If you ask me to, I will take you back in time to your birth and remove the entire tragic experience of your immigration. I will replace it with an easier, less painful past.” Duy thought about all God had done with his wounded past—how God had somehow found a way to make it an instrument of salvation for him and for those to whom he ministered. He saw clearly how integral his tragedy was in the most important moments of his adulthood, and especially of his priesthood. He turned to God with tears streaming down his face, and said, “No thanks, Lord, I’ll keep it all.”

It was the most joyful moment of his life.

02.  Some Helpful Practices

We have easy access to several practices that can greatly help us prepare for future times of desolation. These are means of processing our experiences and reflecting on them. From our reflection comes wisdom; in fact, reflection is a key emphasis in Ignatian practice, because only when we reflect on our experience can we engage our interior life effectively and learn from it.

The first practice is spiritual direction and/or mentorship. Let’s not be like the adolescents I sometimes work with, who come for counseling only as a means of putting out fires and not for fire prevention. They are a bit overconfident, it seems. From their perspective, when we feel strong, healthy and happy, we can discontinue our visits with directors and mentors. We think that because we’re fine, we no longer need these visits.

But Ignatius would beg to differ. If we’re really going to work on reviewing the past times of discouragement, on shoring up vulnerabilities and looking out for false consolation, and on seeking God in the painful parts of our past, we will need the objectivity that only someone on the outside of the experience can provide. There are simply too many chances for denial and avoidance as we work on these touchy areas of life.

Spiritual journaling is the second helpful practice when preparing for or reflecting on desolation. One of the difficulties of working with these vulnerabilities, desolations, and painful past events is the lack of clear thinking that often accompanies these times. Walking through fog might be an apt metaphor for our experience. Consolation may offer a better perspective for clear thinking, but even from this better vantage point, objective reasoning can be difficult.

Writing out our reflections in a journal can be helpful, because writing is a visual process rather than simply a mental one. Sketching the step-by-step descent into the most recent desolation, for instance, might be easier if we sketch out on paper the progression of our thoughts. Some people find it helpful to draw pictures or diagrams, another way to work visually with the interior life.

03.  Naming Our Fears

In psychology, we learn that naming things has a freeing, liberating effect. Things that go unnamed in our lives are frightening. When something happens that we can’t make sense of, we experience this as painful. Take as an example the experience of a person who is betrayed by her best friend. She finds the experience traumatic. The name she has given to someone—namely “best friend”— just doesn’t fit any more. But talking it through—letting the deep pain come to the surface—gives her a way to name the experience, to articulate it.

Alcoholics Anonymous offers a certain wisdom about this process of naming. In recovery, we discover that a person who has been alcoholic all along has buried this shameful reality down deep. In that hidden place of denial and despair, the reality of unnamed alcoholism is continuing to cause pain. The alcoholic’s biggest challenge is to admit to himself and to others that he is an alcoholic. Setting aside the fear and the shame—and naming the hidden, painful fact—brings a kind of relief.

Sometimes this part of the experience—the pain that hasn’t been named—is the only part that is causing painful desolation. One example in my own ministry was a seminarian who struggled with depression. After many months of soul-searching, he finally found the courage to say, “I don’t think I really want to be a priest.” The truth is, that thought had been lying deep in his mind and heart for a long time. It was struggling to be expressed—and that struggle found its expression in his soul as depression. On the surface, though, he found it just too frightening to name his reluctance to enter the priesthood. Once he actually mentioned it out loud, he was so relieved. Then the real work of spiritual discernment could begin.

For nine years, I taught and ministered at two Jesuit high schools in Texas. These were happy years for me. I felt the Lord had sent me to that ministry and had graced my work and my life. In my prayer time, I found I was grateful, glad about things, full of thanksgiving. I brought all this gratitude to Christ. In some ways, life was easy.

But all through those same years I had a painful nagging down deep. I kept thinking that my life was too happy, too comfortable. I felt guilty about the things I had in life: three square meals and a comfortable home. Was this what I had signed on for as a Jesuit seminarian and priest? To serve the wealthy instead of the poor? Wasn’t I “wasting” my priesthood? Shouldn’t I be out among the poor, in the mission field somewhere? Through the years I talked this over with various friends and mentors. No matter how often these painful feelings surfaced, I made a conscious choice not to act on these supposedly “holy feelings”—to drop everything and go to the missions. But these thoughts just wouldn’t go away.

Finally, the chance came for me to choose mission work. It came up very naturally as part of my on-going formation work, that is, my own personal spiritual formation. I had a chance to spend four months and I had a choice of which mission to be part of. I asked to work with some of the poorest people in the world, the Sudanese refugees living in exile in “the bush” of Northern Uganda.

Yes, it was a life-changing experience. The Lord taught me a lot of lessons through getting to know these war-weary people.
One of them was Azay.

Azay was a twenty-year-old refugee living in a mud and thatch hut not far from where I lived in the Jesuit Mission Service compound. His story was full of pain and suffering, as well as the promise of future redemption.

When Azay was about nine, the Sudanese Rebel army came to his village. They demanded that each household give up one boy to fight with them in their war against the government. Azay’s parents saw that the whole family was facing certain death if they didn’t comply. So they handed Azay over to the army.

Azay hasn’t seen his parents since.

At first, his little arms were too weak to lift a rifle. He was made to be an indentured servant for the commanders.

As he grew, he became a soldier in a war he wanted no part in. Then one day, in his teens, he and a few other “boy soldiers” ran away. They spent years crossing deserts and splashing through rivers. They learned to dodge crocodiles. Azay ended up in Northern Uganda, built a little mud hut with one of his friends, and settled down.

But here’s the best part of the story. Azay was one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. He prayed a lot. He was funny. He sang songs of praise to Jesus and he smiled almost all the time. He ran a carpentry service, and a chicken farm; he had good friends. This guy had it all together.

04.  The Promise of the Pain

These few examples from my own life and others I know really illustrate how the pain of the past can have a kind of promise. It’s not always a simple equation, an easy problem and solution. But some of us do learn. Father Duy learned how the pain of his past could help him bring hope to others. Azay experienced the trauma of being taken from his home and family at the tender age of nine. His memory of loss and pain was deep. It was simply part of his life. But Azay learned how to find a promise in his pain, how to live well, lightheartedly, in the sight of God.

Not everyone recognizes when spiritual pain—and the memory of physical pain—is buried deep. Not everyone learns how to name it, and what a release that can bring. Not everyone has the grace to learn the ways of Ignatian wisdom or other formal teachings on the spiritual life. But for those who do, Jesus Christ has something beautiful in mind.

I have experienced this kind of release. I have helped others to find this kind of richer present and future. The grace of God is mysterious, hard to track, often hard to explain.

But the joy of it is real, and sometimes very tender.

05.  St. Ignatius of Loyola on Discernment

“In time of desolation never make a change, but be firm and constant . . . because, as in consolation the good spirit guides and counsels us more, so in desolation the bad spirit, with whose counsels we cannot find the way to a right decision.” (Fifth Rule of the First Week, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Gallagher translation)


Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, writer, spiritual director, and teacher who lives and works in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, an internationally known center for spiritual formation and transformation. He is the author of Armchair Mystic and his latest, on discernment, God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to Discover God’s Will.