Live well on the mountain (consolation) and in the valley (desolation)

Mt 17:1-9 (2nd Sunday of Lent, year A)

All advertising, whether it be on TV or the Internet, has one thing in common: it tries to portray its product in the best possible light. In our interactions with others, we usually try to advertise ourselves by making the best impression possible. Looking at the gospel of Jesus’ transfiguration, it seems that He does a pretty bad job in advertising Himself. Jesus has just appeared to some of His followers in all His glory and power. Just after His greatness and identity as the Son of God has been manifested so clearly, what does He tell His followers? Do not to tell anyone what you have seen. Jesus wants His power and divine identity to remain hidden. In fact, this is something that Jesus was doing during His entire life.

A central part of Christ’s mission was that He humbled and emptied Himself. He, though rich, became poor for our sake. Jesus was the Son of God, He could have appeared on earth however He wanted. He could have always appeared as He did on the mountain during His transfiguration: mighty, awe-inspiring and so obviously the Son of God. Looking at Jesus’ life, we must admit that there are few times when we see Him as He is on the mountain of His transfiguration. From His birth to His death, Jesus spent most of His time in the “valleys”. He was humble, poor, rejected and persecuted. He spent His time with social outcasts rather than the popular and powerful. In his lenten message for this year, Pope Francis explains that there is a very good reason for this: love.
Charity, love, is sharing with the one we love in all things. Love makes us similar, it creates equality, it breaks down walls and eliminates distances. God did this with us.
Because He loves us, Jesus wants to be close to us in our weakness and our poverty. For this reason, Jesus rarely appears in all His glory as He does on the mountain during His transfiguration. Rather, He is with us in the valleys of our daily struggles, woundedness and weariness. Jesus humbled Himself for our sake.

Similar to Jesus, we spend most of our lives in the valleys rather than on the mountaintop of the transfiguration. In other words, most of our daily experience is not marked by awe-inspiring glory but rather by a less exciting daily grind. In the TV show The Simpsons, there is a Christian character named Ned Flanders whose always appears happy. It seems like nothing ever will get him down. This is probably not a realistic depiction of a followers of Jesus. St. Ignatius of Loyola explains that during our life we spend our time in one of two states known as consolation and desolation.
  1. Consolation are those times when you are on the mountain of the transfiguration. These are times when you feel joy, fervour and a sense of clarity in your life. Praying and doing good works comes easily and feels good. Fighting temptation is easy.
  2. Desolation are those times when you are in the valley. At these times you can feel discouraged, anxious, restless and a certain heaviness of heart. Praying and doing good is a chore. Temptations feel very strong and hard to fight.
St. Ignatius explains that the times when we experience consolation are relatively fewer. When we follow Jesus, consolation and desolation are both important parts of our spiritual life. Neither is necessarily better than the other. They are not indications of our closeness to God, but rather of our felt experience at a given time. The important thing is that we learn the best way to act when in desolation and consolation so that we can best make use of these times to grow closer to Christ. As was the case for Christ, more often than not we live in the valleys rather than on the consoling mountaintop.

Like the transfiguration itself, times of consolation are given to us by God to strengthen us as we follow Jesus. Our life as Christians can be compared to a long journey on a bus. As anyone who has been on a long bus ride can attest, it is absolutely necessary to make stops along the way, not just to gas-up the car, but also to let the passengers have a break to stretch their legs, get food and drink and visit the washroom. Without these rest-stops, you wouldn’t be able to continue towards your destination. As followers of Jesus, we are on a journey to build up the kingdom of God and grow in unity with Him. Along this journey, times of consolation are like rest-stops. The transfiguration was such a time for the followers of Jesus. Immediately before and after the transfiguration, we find Jesus talking about the demands of discipleship and His own upcoming passion. They required a time of strengthening. Seeing Moses (the one who gave the law) and Elijah (the greatest prophet), in conversation with Jesus, they could better understand that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. The voice they heard from heaven convinced them that Jesus was indeed the Son of God and Messiah. The transfiguration strengthened and encouraged the followers of Christ. Times of consolation function the same way in our own life. St. Ignatius explains that during times of consolation we should do two things:
  1. Give thanks for this gift from God
  2. Take strength and courage for what lies ahead.
Times of consolation are like moments at an oasis in which we are refreshed during our journey to follow Jesus.

Times of desolation are moments for growth. Returning to our bus analogy, though it is nice to be at rest-stops, if we are always at one, we would never reach our destination. Likewise, times when we are not in consolation are moments to grow as a follower of Jesus.  The important thing is knowing how to live these challenging times well so that they can be times for growth and not moments which crush our spirit. In order to do this, St. Ignatius gives some guidance. I find it helpful to remember his advice for how to live well during times of spiritual desolation with the acronym ERGO, which in greek means work. This is a fitting acronym as living well during times of desolation does requires work!
Encourage: We need to encourage ourselves to be patient by remembering that this difficult time will pass. Recall times when you were in consolation before and recall that, just as there is a calm after a storm, consolation will return. 
Regularize: Do not change decisions taken in time of consolation. Remain firm in prayer and works of charity. 
Generosity: During times of desolation we will not want to pray and do good works. In order to face this challenge, St. Ignatius gives some counter-intuitive advice: go against what we are feeling (agir contra, in latin). Feeling tired and want to stop praying? Pray five minutes more. Frustrated with a particular individual? Go out of your way to be kind to them.  
Openness: It is very important during desolation to be open with a friend about what you are experiencing. Receiving encouragement can make all the difference.
If we follow these helpful tips, we can make sure that times of desolation become moments for growth.

When someone first explained to me the fact that as Christians we go through these cycles of consolation and desolation, I was very encouraged. Before, I felt guilty that I would even experience desolation. Now I see that it is a normal part of our Christian life. When we see Jesus’ transfiguration in the context of His entire life, we see that it is normal to spent more of our times in the valleys than on the mountaintop. The important thing is that we learn to live well during both these times. This is particularly true for the more difficult times of desolation. Try to remember the acronym ERGO: encourage, regularize, generosity, and openness. Never forget that all moments in our life - if we are in a valley or on the mountaintop - are opportunities to grow closer to Jesus.