Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Getting Here (IX): Ignatian Encounter

I wish that I could do justice to the experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. This is the first time I've tried to write about the process in any depth (other than in the voluminous journals I kept for myself), and I think some brief notes will have to do for now.


Ignatius wrote the Exercises (1530s-1540s) out of his own experience of creating them as, recovering from a battle injury, he spent months contemplating the life of Christ. You can pick up a little paperback containing the Exercises just about anywhere, but it's not something I'd recommend. It's not of much use in the absence of guidance. (Of course, I ignored that advice when I got it. I knew that I was an intelligent and insightful reader, so I purchased a copy, took it home, and curled up to read. I lasted maybe, oh, five minutes, six max. The book is really written for the guidance of the one giving the Exercises, not the one doing them. It is, unless you have a helper, almost completely unintelligible.)


The Exercises are divided into four "weeks" of contemplation. We might call them "sections" rather than weeks; they were never intended as chronological weeks. Week One addresses the creation of the universe and humankind and our subsequent fall from grace; the retreatant contemplates God's creativity and love and his or her own separation from same (otherwise known as "sin"). Week Two (usually about ten days in a Thirty Day Retreat) addresses the ministerial life of Christ and includes the famous discernment portion of the Exercises. Weeks Three and Four are shorter; their themes are the Passion and Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.

I'm sure that there are countless ways in which to present and experience the Exercises. My director (who doesn't much care for that word) does so with great fluidity. The booklet I used, a gentle and contemporary guide, offers reflections and questions and several Scriptural passages for contemplation each "day." (I think it contains about 30 "days," which took me most of a real-time year.) Some weeks (real life weeks), I would be almost comprehensive in my coverage of the material. Some weeks I would spend all my time ~ hours of it ~ on a few sentences. Sometimes my director (for want of better shorthand) would ask if I had read this or that novel, or play, or poem, and suggest that I give some time to that alternative.


The Exercises presume a variety of prayer forms. "Contemplation" in Ignatian-ese means an imaginative form of prayer, not the self-emptying sort of prayer so often implied in the use of the term. Ignatian contemplation involves imagining yourself into a scene or event or conversation in the Bible, or imagining one of them into your own life. It's an extraordinarily powerful way of experiencing God, Christ, the Holy Spirit ~ especially when you practice it day after day after day.


The weekly or so conversation with a director is an integral part of the Exercises. It is often said that the "real director" of the Exercises is the Holy Spirit ~ but you do need a regular human being to help with the work. For me ~ a person always caught in the tension between individuality and community ~ it was nothing short of spectacular to receive the gift of another person's calm, kind, and thoughtful consideration of what I had to say about my life of prayer as it became entangled with everything that was going on in my most ordinary of daily lives. As I look back now, I find myself extremely moved by the very existence of the Exercises, created as an offering within the community of the church but passed on from one individual to another over a period of four and one-half centuries. I am particularly touched that in my case the "passing on" was from a seventy-something Jesuit priest to a fifty-something Protestant woman. The Holy Spirit does create the most miraculous possibilities.


Some people use the Exercises primarily to learn to pray: to listen and be in relationship with God. Some, to make a major decision. Some, to find a way to follow Christ more closely in the lives they are already leading (also a major decision!). The advantage of pursuing all of those objectives in the form of a 19th Annotation retreat is that your movement in and out of your daily life (as opposed to a 30-day withdrawal to a retreat center) enables you to bring almost anything and everything, just as it is happening, to the table of prayer and discussion.


Everyone's retreat is his or her own. In some ways, the course is probably fairly predictable. There is a certain pattern. Many of us may think that we want to demonstrate some kind of brilliant and unique spirituality, but in reality, the growth of a spirituality is like any other kind of growth, and what we really want is for it to follow a healthy pattern ~ just as we want to see our children grow from healthy infants into healthy toddlers and so on. Of course, as with anything else, sometimes dramatic differences emerge. But for most of us, our retreat is unique within some fairly typical parameters.


I found that my retreat, in retrospect, seemed to fall into three sort of "chapters." At first, I experienced a great deal of resistance. I didn't give up, but I think that I had a very strong sense of self-preservation which was being challenged, and it was quite difficult to abandon my sense of control and fall into the process. Then I began to sense strongly that Christ was walking around in my life. I can't claim to have found comfort in that. I was . . . alert, observant, curious, challenged ~ but not comfortable. And then, finally, I began to feel that I was walking around in his. The world, and all of us in it, took on a different appearance to me.


I said to someone a few weeks ago that the Exercises do not change who you are; they make you more of who you are. When I first came into the church, I was captivated by the sermons I've mentioned in an earlier entry on the topic of "What would Jesus do?" By the time I had finished my retreat (if, that is, one ever really finishes), I had a different question. We are not Jesus, and so the real question becomes: what would Jesus have you do? You may see anew, with eyes that have been changed by Christ, but it is still you doing the seeing and you who must respond. How would you live your life, the exact one given to the unique person you are?


Doing the Exercises, excavating your spiritual self and developing a depth of aquaintance with Jesus Christ, is serious business. There are frustrations and tears and sometimes there is terrible sadness. But there is also a great deal of laughter and tremendous joy in finding that you really are created and called to be exactly who you are, and that in who you are you do have much to share and a role to play in Christ's continual gift of recreation.


RevDrKate said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I made an Ignatian retreat when I was in the convent and remember that even for that short time it was hard, hard work but that there was something very wonderful about it as well. I so appreciate the clarity with which you are able to articulate your process in this journey.

Cynthia said...

Ever since you've started writing about your Ignation retreat, I've wanted to do one. Perhaps one day, that will come for me as well.

Paul said...

I wish I could relate to this stuff even a little...well, it IS well-written. But I suppose the Holy Ghost gets the credit for that.

Gannet Girl said...

Paul, it's so nice to see you back! Your loyalty to your friends IS undying, even when it's hard to find common ground. I think I will just happily accept the compliment.

Hot Cup Lutheran said...

sounds like quite the process of growth and for me a little reminiscent of seminary itself

Diane said...

yes, I'd like to do an Ignatian retreat sometime too. right now it's far back and a little too connected with 17th century poetry for me.

Anonymous said...

A lot to think about...maybe I'll get a chance to do this some day.

mompriest said...

I've done Ignatian work through a reflection journal series my Spiritual Director led me to. The books each take about 6 weeks, again, depending on one lives the week and moves through the contemplation. They were written by a Roman Catholic sister and a lay woman (?) and are broken down thematically: Surrender, Freedom, etc. a little easier to approach on ones own, but even then I think it is useful to have a guide.

Thank you for this reflection and nudging me further along my own contemplation of solitude and silence...as I am not exactly sure what it is all about, just yet.

Jodie said...


"the real question becomes: what would Jesus have you do? You may see anew, with eyes that have been changed by Christ, but it is still you doing the seeing and you who must respond. How would you live your life, the exact one given to the unique person you are?"

That is a true breakthrough. At least it was for me when it came to me.

I've never done the Ignation exercises per say, but I find that in leading a Bible study, when I ask people what they would have done or said in the place of a character in the story, the lights come on.

Great reading here.


Magdalene6127 said...

Gannet Girl, I enjoyed this post so much. Jesuit educated, I have still never had any direct experience of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius... could you name the contemporary "little booklet" you mention in the post?

With gratitude,


Widening Circles said...

Thank you so much for this very interesting and enlightening explanation.

Gannet Girl said...

Mags, the book is Moment by Moment by Carol Ann Smith and Eugene Merz. I just took a look at a new copy that I've had to purchase for a class and, while it reflects a deep understanding of The Exercises, it could easily be followed in a very meaningful way by an individual or group with no prior information or knowledge of the context.

Magdalene6127 said...

Thanks, GG... I've just ordered it. You have inspired me.


Lightyears2Venus said...

This entry was a gem for me to find, too, with interesting, thoughtful comments. Thanks for the name of the Smith & Merz booklet, and I'm wondering about the book "mompriest" is referring to as well. Reading your journal can be a retreat at times.

mompriest said...

The books are from the "Take and Receive" series which include "Love," "Forgiveness,"
"Birth," "Surrender," and "Freedom." Written by Jacqueline Syrup Bergan and S. Marie Schwan. St. Mary's Press, 702 Terrace Heights, Winona, MN 55987-1320. (Copyright for Surrender is 1986).

I like the series, having done them all over the course of several years (1996 - 1998... BUT, for my Episcopalian blood, portions were a bit too heavy on the "aren't I an awful sinner"...if you are able to appropriately embrace that theology or if you can get past it, (I did) then I think you'll find them rich.

Thanks GG for pointing me back here for the question, which I am happy to answer and share!

Gannet Girl said...

One of the benefits of working with a sensitive director -- there are any number of places in a retreat in which you could get bogged down; it's hard not to obsess over certain aspects of your life. And a retreat isn't intended as therapy. A good director can help you see where God has been at work and move forward, appreciating the areas in which you are challenged but not allowing them to consume your prayer or your thoughts.

mompriest said...

Indeed. It was my spiritual director who lead me to these books ( and who lead me through the books (and so much more...) over the years. Which was helpful...on my own, who knows?

Stratoz said...

Hey Gannet Girl

here I was thinking I should try to find someone new, typed in 19th annotation... and look who I found. I am struggling with being with Jesus during his last days, but that seems little as to what you are experiencing right now. Though we have never met, I have been moved by your friend's death and wish you well.

bkr said...

Hey, very nice reflection on your experience of the Exercises. Well written and illuminative. -bkr-

Joseph Fromm said...

Dear Gannet Girl,

I spent three years under spiritual direction of a Jesuit Priest, engaged in the Spiritual Exercises according to according to the 19th annotation.

I started with the same book,

Moment by Moment
by Carol Ann Smith and Fr. Eugene Merz, S.J.

I honestly found Moment by Moment quite unrewarding and spiritually chaotic and with in few weeks switched to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, of which Moment by Moment is based.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is born of the mystical experience and real encounter of Jesus Christ and St. Ignatius at Manresa.

If under the proper conditions,the spiritual director is no longer your retreat master, Jesus Christ himself becomes your direct retreat Master. You will in effect have the same or similar mystical encounter that St. Ignatius experienced at Manresa.

During this Jesus encounter at Manresa, St. Ignatius arranges under His guidance in a proper order, so the selected 50 passages of scripture become the basis of communication between you and Christ.

The tragedy of the short 8 day retreats is that they help in prayer but are not long enough to change your life.

I am making an honest assessment when I say that if the ultimate aim of your participation in the Spiritual Exercise is not to become a Roman Catholic than the continued participation in the Exercises will lead you ultimately to that end anyways.

For the Spiritual Exercises are not for studying Scripture, which they do, they are not primarily for praying, which they are. They lead to a total and complete dedication to Jesus Christ as lived through the Sacraments of the Catholic Church. For this reason is why they were created by Jesus in the first place.

I encourage you to read more about St. Ignatius, his biographies are easily found on the web. His is a story of conversion, constant conversion.



at http://goodjesuitbadjesuit.blogspot.com/