In general, consolation is the delight or satisfaction experienced when distress or suffering is alleviated or positive support and encouragement are given. The spiritual life alternates between periods of delight and suffering, not only at a given stage but throughout the progress of a soul from the beginning of that life to its culmination in perfection. Consequently, it is lawful to speak of spiritual consolations in the sense of relief from suffering, comfort in the time of trial, or strength for endurance. In this sense spiritual consolations are the counterpart of spiritual desolations.
However, spiritual consolations may also be considered in themselves, either as the concomitant delight that accompanies certain exercises and practices of the spiritual life, or as gifts and favors from God not related to relief from suffering. Psychologically, consolations are experienced in the appetitive faculties of emotions or will, though they may also be of sufficient intensity to overflow to the body itself, as in the case of the gift of tears or ecstatic joy. Knowledge or awareness is required as a necessary disposition, and sometimes the knowledge itself produces a certain delight, as in contemplation, although this is not classified as a spiritual consolation.
Spiritual consolations are always in reference to God or something related to God, though they do not follow by necessity any of man's activities or services in reference to God; rather, the love and service of God may be accompanied by difficulty, suffering, and trials. Therefore, it is important to emphasize the distinction between spiritual consolations and devotion, which is the promptness of the will in reference to those things that pertain to God (i.e., worship, obedience to His laws, performance of duties of state, etc.) and does not necessarily imply delight or sensible consolation. Moreover, spiritual consolations are not a matter of choice, in the sense that one may infallibly experience them through his own efforts, but they tend to proceed naturally from the acts of the spiritual life unless some obstacle prevents them. Some of the more common obstacles are dispositions of temperament (i.e., melancholic or phlegmatic), negative mental attitudes (i.e., sadness, pessimism, scrupulosity, anxiety), internal distractions, habitual sins of intemperance, physical illness or exhaustion, and excessive attachments to worldly things.
As considered in spiritual theology, spiritual consolations are listed as concomitant with activities of the ascetical state (effects of the operations of grace and the infused virtues) or the mystical state (effects of the working of the gifts of the Holy Spirit), or they may be charismatic (extraordinary gifts from God) or preternatural (due to the influence of the devil). Examples of spiritual consolations proper to the ascetical state are (1) the consolation produced by the love of God, known as the fervor or joy of charity; (2) the consolation that accompanies the work of virtue, requiring a relative perfection or facility; (3) the consolation of submission to God's will, experienced usually as a peace and quiet of soul; (4) the consolation that accompanies certain types of prayer, and especially affective prayer and the prayer of simplicity as well as vocal prayer, private or public. Certain physical and psychical factors will foster spiritual consolations: dispositions of temperament (sanguine and choleric), positive mental attitudes (optimism, cheerfulness, empathy, generosity), bodily health, and detachment both from self and from worldly things.
In the mystical state the spiritual consolations are usually experienced as concomitant phenomena of certain grades of mystical contemplation, though immersed sometimes in darkness and alternating with desolations, and in the operations of the virtues perfected by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In this state also one receives any charismatic consolations that God wishes to give, although His giving is not necessarily restricted to those in a mystical state. Normally the devil does not produce consolations, but sadness and aridity, but if he does produce them, it is to deceive.
Since spiritual consolations are gifts of God and related to the spiritual life, they can be desired legitimately. However, there is such a danger of becoming attached to the consolations themselves, or of taking selfish satisfaction in them, that spiritual writers warn souls to use discretion and humble resignation.
Bibliography: l. poullier, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 2:1617–34. j.g. arintero, The Mystical Evolution in the Development and Vitality of the Church, tr. j. aumann, 2 v. (St. Louis 1949–51). j. de guibert, The Theology of the Spiritual Life, tr. p. barrett (New York 1953). john of the cross, Dark Night of the Soul, in Complete Works, tr. e. a. peers, 3 v. in 1 (repr. Westminster, Md. 1963). a. poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, tr. l. l. yorke smith, ed. j. v. bainvel (St. Louis 1950). a. tanquerey, The Spiritual Life, tr. h. branderis (2d ed. Tournai 1930; repr. Westminster, Md.1945).