Today, the seven first year novices are heading off for our long retreat. We will be making (as it is said) the Spiritual Exercises, which form the centrepiece of Ignatian spirituality. You can find a good overview and a range of in depth articles about the Exercises here. We will be doing the 30 day version, in silence, as part of a larger group of maybe a dozen other people, but with individual spiritual direction. Our novice master, Brendan, has the heroic – but I am sure eminently rewarding – task of providing spiritual direction for all seven of us!
The past week in the house has been focused on preparations for the Exercises and so the week has been semi-structured, with lots of space for us to do our own thing alongside suggestions for prayer, reading and reflection. We’ve all found it a rewarding week in different ways.
One of our suggested tasks was to write a letter or email to a friend telling them about the Exercises and our hopes for them. A few of the guys did this in various and sometimes creative ways and, inspired by this creativity, I thought I would make this blog post my letter.
In so many ways I don’t really know what to expect from the Exercises. My only previous encounter was during the very first retreat I did, almost 3 years ago now, with the late Gerry W. Hughes SJ in Oxford. This was the retreat that set me on the path to applying to the Society and so has a very powerful place in my heart as well as in my vocation story. Father Gerry began that retreat by giving me the First Principle and Foundation, the very starting point of the Exercises, which contains the beautifully simple statement that each of us is ‘created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save [his/her] soul’.
Praying and reflecting on this opened the floodgates for me, generating over the course of the week a series of life-changing realisations about myself, which in essence were encounters with God. Father Gerry only brought the exercises into that first day, but everything else flowed from those first meditations and prayers. I’ve been trying to avoid using and then repeating the word ‘power’ in this paragraph, but that is the sense I have from that one encounter – the Exercises are an exceptionally powerful event where we can encounter God in the deepest possible ways.
My second semi-encounter with the Exercises was more recently at Manresa in Catalonia, where I was helping out at an Ignatian leadership conference. In the entrance hallway of the Retreat Centre at the site of St Ignatius’ Cave are four stunning pictures, representing each of the weeks of the Exercises. The first is a random flurry of swipes and splashes and represents the chaos of thought that, it seems, can be dominant in the first week. By the fourth week, however, the confusion has gone and instead we see clearly the outline of a figure, in radiant white, representing the risen Christ. We move from chaos to clarity in the death and resurrection of our Lord. I very much hope this is a true representation of the journey we are about to embark on.
My personal hopes for the exercises are two-fold. First, over the course of this week’s reflection it became clear to me that my personal vision of Christ is very much limited to the Jesus of the first half of the gospels – the incarnate Christ, the miracle working, teaching, inspiring Christ. It is not, yet, the Christ of the passion, of death and suffering and life restored. I pray, therefore, that I do meet this Jesus and come to see the brilliant, shining, risen figure of the fourth week.
The second hope is perhaps more mundane. Over these past 3 years I have been on a transformational journey and I am very glad that my path has brought me to this point and this place now. I look back and see the distance travelled and so my ultimate wish and expectation of the Exercises is a simple one: please Lord, more of the same. Again, my reflections over these past few days confirm for me that just as God has been guiding me in the past – even when I didn’t know it or sometimes when I was actively fighting against it – God will give me all I need in the days and weeks to come.
In the house this week there has been a real sense of shared purpose and connection, something that the Exercises will deepen and enhance and that too is very exciting. We are about to embark on a shared life-experience, an event that will connect us to each other over time and distance. It is a life-long link to each other and an experience that we will share too with each and every other member of the Society. It will deepen our sense of community at multiple levels.
As Thomas, one of the other novices, said this week, for the first few days of the retreat we will be in silence and then the silence will be in us. That too is a prospect that fills me with joy and anticipation because it is in that silence that God will be most actively at work.
So, please keep us all in your prayers. Pray for stamina for Brendan, our guide, and pray for a deep and enriching, God-filled silence for Christopher, Teo, Patrick, Thomas, Vinnie, Jacques and for me.