Thursday, March 6, 2008

Spiritual Exercises FAQ

1. Didn’t you already do this?

Yes, but I'm a slow learner! Actually, every Jesuit makes a long retreat both during their first year as a Jesuit and when they are in this final stage of formation that I'm in now.

2. Do you really have to be silent for 30 days?

It is in fact a 30 day silent retreat. But no, that doesn’t mean we never speak. I’ll talk to a director once a day about the things that are going on in my prayer. I’ll also say all the responses at mass. I might have to ask someone for someone to pass the salt at some point (though for the most part our meals will be in silence, maybe with classical music playing). And oh, we get break days, in which we will most definitely talk.

The real question is, why do you have to be silent? And the answer, we're trying to step away from all the things that usually draw our attention, so that we can be more aware of the invitations and presence of God. So, no email, no TV, no phone calls, no blog posting, no talking. In fact, it might even mean no reading! For those who have known me since I was that kid who walked (or rode) to school with a book in his hand, that might be the real jawdropper.

But the fact is, I can read anytime. I can talk anytime. But retreat is a special opportunity to get closer to God, and I want to do anything I can that might allow that to happen. (Which also means, if talking would help, I should probably do that, too. The rules aren't hard and fast. Most likely, though, I'll pretty darn quiet.)

3. So what will you do for 30 days?

I'll be doing what are known as the Spiritual Exercises. The Spiritual Exercises are a set of well, spiritual exercises (go figure) that the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius, created to help people get closer to God and get in touch with their deepest desires. Ignatius in his early life was a soldier and probably something of a playboy. After a cannonball accident (how weird does that sound?) he began to notice for the first time strong movements of feeling and desire within himself: I think I want to be like the Saints! I think I want to be the chivalric hero! Over the course of the next months and years he grew more adept at noticing these different spirits and how they affected him, and he slowly moved from a sort of hyper-dramatic, romantic vision of Christianity to a very close, intimate relationship with Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Out of the lessons he learned from his own experiences, Ignatius created a set of exercises to feed and focus a person's spiritual life. He organized them into four “weeks”, which correspond somewhat roughly to the four chronological weeks of a long retreat. Each week has a specific theme and graces prayed for: The first week is about getting in touch with God’s abundant love for us, and our own need for his love in the face of our own sinfulness. The second week is the life of Christ, and invites the retreatant to come to know Jesus better and desire to follow him more closely. The third week continues in this vein with the crucifixion, and a desire to witness Jesus’ suffering. And the fourth week is the resurrection.

4. You call it the "long" retreat? Does that mean there are other forms?

Most Jesuits do a yearly 8-day retreat, which is sort of like taking parts of the Exercises or doing the same general pattern, but over a shorter period. But there are other forms of the Spiritual Exercises, too; in fact, you’ll sometimes hear Jesuit-insiders talk about the “19th Annotation” retreat. In the 19th annotation at the start of the Exercises, Ignatius imagines a sort of a busy person's version of the retreat, in which a retreatant might keep on living their lives and move through the dynamics of the retreat over 9 months or a year (or whatever), meeting once a week with a spiritual director. (I suspect today this is the most common version of the Exercises; it definitely is for people who aren't fulltime religious. And it can be just fruitful. (Plus, no silence!))

It's a great thing about St. Ignatius – when it came to mission and the Spiritual Exercises, he was incredibly flexible. If one approach works for you, do it. If it doesn’t, find a different one that does. God is working with each and every one of us, and given that, there can be no one size fits all ministry or retreat method. It’s great advice for all of us.

5. So when will you back online?

Our retreat ends the 13th, after which we'll do some sharing, and then we're away on vacation until the 22nd. I might post some stuff while I'm in Melbourne (the 17th-22nd) but the safe bet is to check back on the 23rd or 24th.

It could be that my blogging is going to slow way down after the retreat, as I'll begin working full time at a parish doing some spiritual direction soon after that. I won't give up entirely, but it may only be a couple times a week. We'll see.

I'm going to leave you with one more thing which I hope you'll enjoy. As of Monday, I'm going to post four entries, one for each week of the exercises. (The one you'll see when you come to the page will be the first week, the next scrolling down will be the second, etc.). Each entry will allow you to listen to different songs that relate to the themes/graces hoped for in that week. So the top post will have songs that I think touch on God's love for us and our own struggles with sin, etc. Most of them are not explicitly religious songs, just pop songs and show tunes that I thought would be accessible and also fit.

I and my classmates would be very grateful for your prayers these next five weeks. And if you're so inclined, take a couple minutes each day or every couple days and listen to the next song down (I'll be putting them in a sort of order from top to bottom). You might find it a nice way to relax or pray at some point in your day; and it might give you a little taste of the retreat for yourself.

OK, talk to you in April!