As regular readers will know, I am currently preparing to run the London Marathon in support of Jesuit Missions and their fundraising appeal to provide medical supplies and expertise to the war-torn Syrian cities of Homs and Damascus. The marathon training has been a great experience that has pushed my physical boundaries and has had plenty of ‘ups’ and some ‘downs’ too. It struck me that, in making the Spiritual Exercises over the past month, there were similarities between the two processes – and the Spiritual Exercises can certainly be described as somewhat of a Spiritual Marathon.
The Spiritual Exercises are a difficult experience to describe. I have deliberately waited a couple of weeks before writing this blog, and yet I still feel unable to describe the process with great lucidity, hence why I have already began with a laboured analogy and will probably continue with a series of tenuous metaphors! I totally sympathise and echo Stephen’s poignant words about the emotional spike he felt on leaving the Exercises, myself sharing an emotional rawness with him on the first few days after leaving our retreat and re-entering the real world.
I also feel that part of the magic of the four weeks was due to my naivety and ignorance about what to expect – following the advice of our Novice Master I deliberately avoided reading-up on the Exercises prior to making them – this made me more fragile and open to the experience and undoubtedly deepened the effect they had on me. I would wholeheartedly recommend this widely accepted approach to anyone who has not made the Exercises. With this in mind I find myself in the strange position of wanting to write a blog explaining a topic without giving anything away about the same topic for fear of spoiling the future Spiritual Exercises of our readers, particularly those of you considering joining the Society and the novitiate! Fortunately I think it is still possible to discuss the experience generally in order to illuminate an understanding of this major novitiate experiment without delving into the content and my personal Spiritual Exercises.
When making the Exercises, you’re invited to spend four or five hours a day in prayer, which is complemented by being in silence all of the time, thus making almost every aspect of daily life (from walking in nature to eating meals) a prayerful experience. Once the silence has entered you, anything becomes an instrument through which God and His Spirit may communicate with you.
At the same time, there is certainly a feeling of solidarity both with your fellow retreatants around you, and with those not present who hold a place in your heart. A consistently meaningful period of the day for me was the communal adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at the end of each day. During this time we were invited to prayer for those around us making the retreat. As well as engaging in this (and feeling closer to everyone around me as a result), I also found myself praying for my loved ones by name: my family, the members of our community back in Birmingham, those in the Society who had assured us of their prayers, the people I work with on my apostolates – all those who I knew were praying for me at that time. And the most powerful reflection I can share today is that I genuinely felt their prayers for me working in the many graces I experienced during the Spiritual Exercises. An unspoken deepening of bonds, of gratitude and of solidarity took place that connected me to the world outside St Beuno’s in spite of my increasing physical and spiritual isolation from the real world.
To slide swiftly into a more light-hearted reflection, one element of Ignatian prayer that I found an interesting ‘opponent’ was that of the ‘colloquy’. This is the practice of engaging in conversation with the ‘characters’ of the Gospel whilst imagining oneself present in the scene. My novice-master and I shared a laugh when I tried to compare my shyness and inability to converse with Jesus Christ to the (one) time I met my childhood hero Alan Shearer. Although I had so many things I wanted to ask him about and spend hours reminiscing over, all I could muster was a solitary ‘Alright Alan?’ before I let him continue on his way. Fortunately during the Exercises the Holy Spirit was at work to soften this dryness and my colloquys flowed more easily as the retreat progressed!
So now, two weeks on, I find myself on my next experiment – working at Jesuit Missions in London. I’ll reflect on this in more detail in future but, in tying in with this blog, I can say now that I have already felt blessed to experience the Exercises at work in my daily life (the ‘Fifth Week’ of the Exercises, as it is known in Jesuit circles). The insights God led me to, the new ways of looking at the world, have already become part of my daily life and I hope and pray I can maintain the prayerful relationship with God and His Son that allows this to be possible.