Jane Austen on Prayer with Sensible Consolations

The title of this post is slightly disingenuous; Jane Austen doesn’t actually write the stage of prayer in which God consoles the soul with “sweet feelings,” but this passage of Sense and Sensibility seems to me a excellent likeness of what seems to be meant by such expressions:

Edward was now fixed at the cottage at least for a week;—for whatever other claims might be made on him, it was impossible that less than a week should be given up to the enjoyment of Elinor’s company, or suffice to say half that was to be said of the past, the present, and the future;—for though a very few hours spent in the hard labor of incessant talking will despatch more subjects than can really be in common between any two rational creatures, yet with lovers it is different. Between THEM no subject is finished, no communication is even made, till it has been made at least twenty times over.

It is recounted of Msgr. Ronald Knox that immediately after his conversion he was receiving many sensible consolations, and that sometimes he would run on his way to Church in his impatience to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.


4 thoughts on “Jane Austen on Prayer with Sensible Consolations

    • Waugh’s biography of Ronnie Knox is really, really good.

      I don’t think that St. John of the Cross is against emotions per se, but only that one has to free the heart of any to great attachment to created things, including created emotions of love for God. Only God Himself can be loved without measure. Emotional desolation seems to be a necessary step in the sanctification of the soul. And Christ is the exemplar of it: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”


  1. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that the contemplative life has something to do with our emotions:
    On the contrary, Gregory says (Hom. xiv in Ezech.) that “the contemplative life is to cling with our whole mind to the love of God and our neighbor, and to desire nothing beside our Creator.” Now desire and love pertain to the affective or appetitive power, as stated above (I-II, 25, 2; I-II, 26, 2). Therefore the contemplative life has also something to do with the affective or appetitive power.

    “I answer that, As stated above (Question 179, Article 1) theirs is said to be the contemplative who are chiefly intent on the contemplation of truth. Now intention is an act of the will, as stated above (I-II, 12, 1), because intention is of the end which is the object of the will. Consequently the contemplative life, as regards the essence of the action, pertains to the intellect, but as regards the motive cause of the exercise of that action it belongs to the will, which moves all the other powers, even the intellect, to their actions, as stated above (I, 82, 4; I-II, 09, 1).

    “Now the appetitive power moves one to observe things either with the senses or with the intellect, sometimes for love of the thing seen because, as it is written (Matthew 6:21), “where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also,” sometimes for love of the very knowledge that one acquires by observation. Wherefore Gregory makes the contemplative life to consist in the “love of God,” inasmuch as through loving God we are aflame to gaze on His beauty. And since everyone delights when he obtains what he loves, it follows that the contemplative life terminates in delight, which is seated in the affective power, the result being that love also becomes more intense. ”

    That’s question 180, article 1, from the Second Part of the Second Part.


    Still, it would seem that sensible consolations are often a gift God gives to beginners in order to more effectively draw them towards Himself. Many saints have written about the process of purification. I recall seeing it termed as “the dark night of the senses” (or the passive purification of the senses, as distinct from one’s own active ascetic practices). Sometimes, in Christian writing, the term “dark night of the soul” is applied to such experiences although the “dark night of the soul” is more of an attack on the theological virtues rather than sensible consolations (although I may simply be misremembering).

    A brief, almost off-topic point. Much was made of Mother Teresa’s long years of not feeling the presence of God. In a footnote in the second volume of his Three Ages of the Interior Life, Fr. Reginald Garrigou Legrange mentions some souls he was personally aware of who, after reaching the unitive way. suffered in a special way sometimes for decades. He also mentions how St. Paul of the Cross suffered in such a manner even after reaching union with God in his twenties. So, it would seem, for certain souls, even after the passive purification of the senses and of the soul, extra sufferings could be awaiting. Fr. Garrigou Legrange speculates that such suffering could be necessary for the well being of one’s religious order, if one is a founder of it, or for the salvation of souls more generally.


    • I’m not sure that I entirely agree with your reading of that article from the Summa. As St. Thomas teaches in another place (http://newadvent.org/summa/2026.htm) there are three kinds of “appetite”: natural, sensitive, and rational (the will). In the reply to the first objection to the article you quoted, St. Thomas writes: “From the very fact that truth is the end of contemplation, it has the aspect of an appetible good, both lovable and delightful, and in this respect it pertains to the appetitive power.” But truth is the object of reason, and so the appetite that he is talking about here must be rational appetite, i.e. will. No one denies that one has to delight in God always with the will, the question though is about sensible delights–i.e. the satisfaction of the sensitive appetite.

      St. Thomas does teach elsewhere (http://newadvent.org/summa/2003.htm#article3) that in *heaven* there will be an “overflow” of delight from the rational part of the soul into the sensitive part of the soul. On earth however, sensitive delights, seem to be–as you say–a help for beginners in the spiritual life.


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