It was all an accident.
I had been working on a master's degree at the local Jesuit university forever. One course at a time. I really wanted to pursue a Religious Studies degree, but what was I going to do with it? And I was by that time a teacher of high school English and Social Studies who had to justify some of her graduate work to a school committee, so I went with Humanities. In reality, a stealth Religious Studies program. A course on the Middle Ages? I wrote about the medieval church. A course on Michaelangelo? I researched the dome of St. Paul's. History? I explored Islam. You get the idea.
Early on in my program I needed a course, and there was nothing I wanted to take that semester, except possibly one called something like Spirituality and Narrative, which did sound right up my alley, could be justified on the grounds that the syllabus included Shakespeare and Faulkner and Jewish lore (Ha! I was teaching in a Jewish day school), and had a professor who was described to me by a department secretary as "new, but supposed to be good."
Yeah. Like, rock star good. So I took his next course, too, which was called Spirituality and Autobiography, and focused on Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, all via Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own. I had some difficult stuff going on, and so I read every word of every book and poured hours of effort into my papers. A way out and back into the light.
And then, having exhausted my need to satisfy The Powers That Be, I took the same professor's course on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and, a few weeks into that, asked if he would guide me throught the Exercises themselves, to which the answer was a surprising, "Sure." It's a huge committment and he's got plenty more of them to his Jesuit community, many of which take him out of town and around the world. But he said, "Sure."
I don't know what I thought I was doing. At that point, I had some idea of the Exercises, and some idea that Jesuits led disciplined lives of prayer and service, and I thought that I could turn into that kind of person. I thought I would turn into a person with an organized spiritual life. I thought, rather vaguely, that I would address that lurking sense of a call to ministry, because the Exercises are often used as a tool for discernment ~ but I wasn't too concerned about that, because I was confident that God would never call me into ministry. And it certainly did not occur to me that I would grow into any kind of experience with God, because I knew that I was destined for a life of faith within the limited confines of intellect and reason. In other words, I was completely delusional about my capacity for organization, God's capacity for irony, and my capacity for growth. As good a place as any to begin, I suppose.
I really had no idea what I was doing.
Here's how I described the Exercises in April of 2006, by which time eight months had passed and I had decided to start the process that would take me to seminary:
"St. Ignatius developed the Exercises in the mid-1500s as an imaginative process for exploring the life of Christ and encountering God. His basic idea was that individuals would engage in an intense 30-day retreat, following and praying over a specified range of readings and contemplations, and meeting daily with a spiritual director to discuss the internal journey that inevitably happens.
Thankfully for most of us, Ignatius was nothing if not practical, and in the context of a series of Annotations at the end of the Exercises, the 19th one to be precise, he mentions that some people might do the Exercises in the context of their daily lives, spending time each day in prayer and meeting with a director periodically. As a result, today there are 3-day retreats (more of a sampling, I think), 8-day retreats, 10-day retreats, 30-day retreats, and 19th Annotation retreats, the latter consisting of the orginal 30-day retreat spread across whatever time period it takes. A 19th Annotation retreat has the potential, as far as I can tell, to run on past eternity for those of us with busy lives and more of a mosying style of moving through the spiritual layers thereof.
I got started on my retreat in October and am finding it to be one of the most astonishing experiences I've ever had. I meet almost weekly with a Jesuit priest, in the midst of a life that includes teaching in an Orthodox Jewish school and active participation as an elder in the Presbyterian Church. I read the Bible, I read the Exercises, I read a lot of questions, I read novels and plays and poetry, and I rummage through Christ's life and my own. It's about as complicated and surprising and all-encompassing as it sounds."
I would describe the experience a little differently today. It would take a book! But maybe just a little more in another entry.