I made my first eight day individually guided retreat in 2001 at Loyola Hall. I have been writing about my journey from that point in the Diary of a Sunflower. It was a lifetime ago, and I feel like a completely different person now compared to who I was then. My retreat this year, which was booked for next week at St. Beunos in North Wales, has been cancelled due to the pandemic, and this will be the first summer since that first retreat that I will not have gone away to spend eight days in silence with God, as I promised all those years ago. It would be easy to be upset about it, but to be honest, I was not surprised by the cancellation and I have accepted it. I am still going to do a retreat this week, at home, starting today, Sunday, and I have found a director who will meet with me online every day.
I have to say, doing spiritual direction online, both giving and receiving, has been one of the wonderful surprises of lockdown and I would never have imagined it to work as well as I have experienced it. So much so, that I am intending to expand into giving spiritual direction online as a matter of course from September, regardless of any lockdown situation or easing, so watch this space!
I have reservations about all the distractions at home of course, and since my daughters live with me, complete silence might be an issue. But, they are prepped and cooperative, and I can go into my room and shut my door. I have room to sit and be, and a prayer corner in there. I have prepared meals in the feezer, and my laundry done, and I have a garden. My computer will go in the drawer, and I will have my artboard on my desk instead.
While the nitty gritty of my preparations are probably uninteresting and do not really need to be shared, the point here is that I am creating a space – physical and psychological – to encounter God, to spend some time in deep with Him and away from all the distractions, and I am creating an environment that is conducive to that process. It is the principle described from the sixth to the ninth additions of the Spiritual Exercises:
I should not think of things that give pleasure and joy, as the glory of heaven, the Resurrection, etc., for if I wish to feel pain, sorrow, and tears for my sins, every consideration promoting joy and happiness will impede it. I should rather keep in mind that I want to be sorry and feel pain. Hence it would be better to call to mind death and judgment.
Ignatius gives these additions on the context of the First week, when we are contemplating sin and the grace we are asking for is sorrow and shame for our sins. The general idea is to make our enviroment conducive to our prayer.
So, here I am, I have finished my work for a bit and prepared my environment and my mind to spend this time alone with God in these unusual circumstances. I am up to date and taking a pause from my Journey with Julian of Norwich to be open to the process with the director. Am I concerned about distractions? about the world crowding in? Yes I am, and I am already prepared for how I might handle that. It comes in the form of a story in Anthony de Mello’s book, The Song of the Bird, called The Monk and the Woman:
Two Buddhist monks, on their way to the monastery, found an exceedingly beautiful woman at the riverbank. Like them, she wished to cross the river, but the water was too high. So one of the monks lifted her onto his back and carried her across.
His fellow monk was thoroughly scandalised. For two hours he berated him on his negligence on keeping the rule: Had he forgotten he was a monk? How did he dare touch a woman? And worse, carry her across the river? What would people say? Had he not brought their holy religion into disrepute? And so on.
The offending monk patiently listened to the never-ending sermon. Finally, he broke in with:
Brother, I dropped that woman at the river. Are you still carrying her?
So, I will not be despondant that this is not the ideal situation in which to make my retreat: I will not listen to the desolating voices seeking to disrupt this time and I will not hold on to the noise around me, or the distractions, or any interruptions, if my daughters do not quite understand and ask me something, or if I have to answer the door. I am doing all that I can to be available to the One who loves me as if I were the only person in the whole world, and if it is enough for Him, it is enough for me. I am looking forward to it as much as I have any other retreat.
I will see you on the other side. There will be no Journey with Julian or Reflection next week, but the Prayer and the Diary entries are already scheduled, and I will be back to normal after next Sunday.
The Spirituality Committee, where I represent my diocese, in response to the need for social distancing and self isolation, has offered some ideas, suggestions and resources for Making it a retreat. Some members of the committee have also set up a Facebook group. There is great fear abound in the world at the moment, and in the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius recommends that in times of such spiritual desolation:
…it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves. We can make an effort in a suitable way to do some penance.
Here I would like to describe the context and ideas I presented at the retreat day yesterday on Positive Penance: Preparation for Lent.
It occurred to me that many of us have in the past, and perhaps still do, view penance as being a self inflicted punishment for sins committed, a bit like Dobby, before he became a free elf: I would call him a penitent elf:
I have felt very dissatisfied with this underlying perspective of penance when I heard it in church, or listening to people. This albeit subconscious understanding of it seemed to me to lead to anger, resentment or self loathing and not to spiritual consolation. Dobby is not expressing sorrow and a heartfelt desire to do and be more in the scene above. When I was studying the Spiritual Exercises, it was skimmed over uncomfortably and pointed out that it was of the time. Again, it left me feeling frustrated and with a sense of there being so much more to it than all of this. So, I chose to study the Tenth Addition of the Exercises on Penance and to write my theory paper in the second year of my course on what I had learned. The retreat I led yesterday is the fruit of that work.
The Catholic Church gives the reasons for making Lenten observances in the Catechism:
…in contrast to those who had once provoked God during forty years in the desert, Christ reveals Himself as God’s servant, totally obedient to the Divine will.
And has drawn the traditional Lenten practices of fasting, alms-giving and prayer from scripture:
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16 for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 And the world and its desire[a] are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.
Where fasting is a means to acting against the desire of the flesh; alms-giving a means to act again the desire of the eyes, and prayer to act against the pride in riches. To act against spiritual desolation is the principle of “agere contra”, which is also described in the Spiritual Exercises, and there is no contradiction with what I am presenting: I am looking for the more in it.
Ignatius describes three powers of the soul that we employ in our spiritual lives: the first memory and imagination together, the second the understanding and thirdly, the will, where the latter is the heart, rather than our modern day interpretation of mind over matter. Have you ever felt:
I know what I should do here, but I just don’t have the heart to do it.
I believe that to be the difference, and meaning of the will in this context, what it is that is in the heart to do, even if it does not seem to make much sense.
On the imagination, I have frequently heard it questioned, or where other people have questioned what another means when they talk about God speaking to them. The conversation between the inquisitor and Joan of Arc sums it up for me:
“You say God speaks to you, but it’s only your imagination.” These are the words spoken by the inquisitor to Joan of Arc during her trial for heresy.
“How else would God speak to me, if not through my imagination?” Joan replied.
The principal reason for performing exterior penance is to secure three effects:
(i) To make satisfaction for past sins;
(ii) To overcome oneself, that is, to make our sensual nature obey reason, and to bring all of our lower faculties into greater subjection to the higher;
(iii) To obtain some grace or gift that one earnestly desires. Thus it may be that one wants a deep sorrow for sin, or tears, either because of his sins or because of the pains and sufferings of Christ our Lord; or he may want the solution of some doubt that is in his mind
In another translation of The Spiritual Exercises, by Michael Ivens, he uses the word reparation, rather than satisfaction. The sense of this latter word is more, because it goes beyond punishment, beyond evening the score, to making it right. I gave an example from my own experience.
I can be a bit work obsessed and years ago I was marking some coursework on a Sunday afternoon – I shiver in horror at the thought of doing that now – and my younger child had an invitation to a birthday party. I was trying to get the work finished by three thirty to get her to the party on time at four. She came through several times asking if it was time to go yet; she must have been around six or seven. I finished marking the last piece at three thirty and asked her to bring the invitation with the address on it and we would go, but to my horror and grief I saw that the party finished at four, not started. We would get there in time for the end. I was immediately distraught as the neglect I had shown my own child overwhelmed me; it broke my heart and I started to cry. It was a third power of the soul response. I told her I was sorry, I asked her to forgive me and I offered her to choose something else we could do instead. So we went out for pizza. My penance showed her the sincerity of my remorse and the intensity of my desire to make it right with her, to repair the damage I had done to our relationship with my negligence. I could have been angry and resentful that she had inconvenienced me with a party invitation when I had so much work to do; I could have beaten myself up with self loathing for being a bad mother; but to express my deep and sincere sorrow, to ask for forgiveness and to do what was in my power to do to repair the situation, was the more loving response. And with her generosity of heart, she forgave me and allowed me to make it right with her, to the extent that she had forgotten all about it until I reminded her recently when I was preparing for this retreat.
On the second reason Ignatius gives, Gerard W. Hughes sums it up beautifully in God in All Things:
Self denial is life giving and a doorway to freedom when it is understood in terms of denying our superficial desires the right to dominate our lives and determine our actions. The self that we are asked to deny is, in fact, the false self, the self of superficial desires which has the power to frustrate and dominate our true self, which is drawing us into the life and love of God. This true self must never be denied.
The first sentence of this quote was a complete revelation to me when I first read it. It caused a paradigm shift in my understanding and experience of lent, and is the basis of my dissatisfaction thereafter, with the perspectives I described at the beginning. In The Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr gives an insight into what is meant by the false and true self:
I perceive the movement of penance as a deconstruction of the false self, and a reconstruction of the true self, when we focus our attention on God. I visualise it in the artistic composition of The Ecstasy of St. Francis, a great penitent of the third order of humility, by Caravaggio, by all accounts, a renowned sinner. The downward movement represents the deconstruction of the false self, and the upward movement, the reconstruction, focused on God, that draws us nearer to our true self.
The third reason Ignatius gives for doing penance is not to be understood as a bargaining with God, but more as a pleading; it is the means of expressing the sincerity, depth and intensity of our desire for the grace for which we are asking. In the party incident with my youngest, my tears and offer of a treat of her choosing, were expressing the profundity of my remorse, and my sincerity and the depth of my desire for her forgiveness, and to make the relationship right again.
From the end of the presentation at this point, retreatants were invited to do the One Man and His Dog reflective exercise. I have made the worksheet from an exercise described by Gerard W. Hughes in God in All Things. The shepherd represents God, the dog alert and focused on the shepherd represents the soul and the sheep represent our scattered desires. The idea of the exercise at this point is to name our desires, without any judgement or resolution, just to notice what they are.
Then we spent some time in prayer with an imaginative contemplation, using the Ignatian structure of preparation, prayer and review; and then in paired sharing. After lunch, laying down some context for the afternoon continued in a second, shorter presentation.
Ignatius separates penance into interior and exterior:
Interior penance consists in sorrow for one’s sins and a firm purpose not to commit them or any others. Exterior penance is the fruit of the first kind.
And I suggest that the movement can be in either direction: I can feel remorse and sorrow (interior) as I did with my daughter, and that initiates an external response: or, with my reason I can recognise that I am not the person God is calling me to be in an aspect of my life: for example, I was a coffee addict at one point drinking five of six cups a day. I recognised that it led me to be dismissive of children in school and irritable and impatient, because I needed a cup of coffee. I decided I needed to give up coffee one year (exterior) because it was driving my behaviour in a way that took me away from who I was called to be. Now I mostly limit it to one a day, with the occasional two cup day as a special treat. I am unable to drink three cups because it makes me feel sick. It is a long time since I dismissed someone, or delayed doing something because I needed coffee. So, the exterior penance, the action or behaviour, sinks deeper until the internal desire falls into line. It is effectively being the change you want to make.
Living modestly between the extremes of harm and superfluous is described by Ignatius as temperance and is more of a general lifestyle recommendation. Penance is something that should not cause harm if practiced in the short term. As a scientist I am aware that the body has mechanisms to deal with mild, short term disruptions to its needs in terms of food, sleep and pain, but should any of these become extreme or chronic then deeper health problems ensue. Ignatius suggests that we do a little more, and adjust until we find the right level for us. Ignatius himself practiced extreme penances and had to be nursed back to health, and it may be this reason that the tenth addition is dealt with as being of its time, and a little uncomfortably. In my opinion, what he has written in the Exercises is the fruit of his experiences and radically moderates the extreme practices of his time, and also demonstrates principles that are still relevant to us today.
After this point, we again spent some time in prayer, with another imaginative contemplation, which took off from where the morning one left off. Again, the structure of preparation, prayer and review was followed, and then by paired sharing. The One Man and his Dog reflection was brought back into play. The purpose of the dog (soul) is to be attentive to God, and to gather up all of the scattered sheep (desires) in an ordered arrangement and have them moving in the direction God desires them to go. Then there was a personal reflection on My Unruly Sheep:
Retreatants were asked to pick up one or more of the little characters above and to try to name any pertinent disordered desires that might have come to the surface during the day. They were encouraged to ponder how this desire may be getting in the way of their deeper personal relationship with God, and to resolve to amend it during lent by making a decision on an action they could take, an exterior penance, that would help them draw closer to God. At least one person left the retreat, after the group sharing and closing prayer, having identified a habit to give up for lent that would open up the time and space for more spiritual reading, contemplation and prayer. It is consistent with the purpose of the retreat day and with what Ignatius has to say about our choice of penance:
Now since God our Lord knows our nature infinitely better, when we make changes of this kind, He often grants each one the grace to understand what is suitable for him.
On a personal level, I was extremely tired after the day and being used to teaching teenagers all day, I was not expecting that. It was a blissful, contented tiredness, replete with God’s pleasure and joy. I am as yet unaware of all the graces I received myself, and I am grateful for the graces received by those who came, some of which were evident. I look forward to noticing the fruit these seeds bear in the future.
So , here is a question for you:
What personal penance are you planning for the forthcoming lent?
If you have not thought about it, or decided yet, maybe you could try, with prayer, the One Man and His Dog exercise, and then contemplate your Unruly Sheep. Something relevant to you and your relationship with God may very well surface. I wish you a fruitful and holy season of lent.
During Lent, the Church encourages us to unite ourselves to the mystery of Jesus in the desert, to act against the desire of the flesh, of the eyes and the pride in riches by fasting, giving alms and prayer. The practice of such penance may feel judicial and be difficult to maintain for the whole season of lent, perhaps because of its general sense of understanding. In “The Spiritual Excercises”, St. Ignatius writes about the practice of penance in the Tenth Addition, and the discussion is often passed over uncomfortably and put into the context of his time. My discomfort with both approaches compels me to present this retreat day.
Ignatius presents the idea of penance as a form of desire for more in our relationship with God and he makes it personal. He says:
Now since God our Lord knows our nature infinitely better, when we make changes of this kind, He often grants each one the grace to understand what is suitable for him.
My intention is to provide the time, space and stimulation for each one to notice the desires and motivations for their feelings and actions; to notice the direction of the movement in those desires, whether they are towards God (spiritual consolation) or away from God (spiritual desolation); the latter being identified as inordinate desire; and, with the grace and help of God, to choose the most pertinent of our own inordinate desires and resolve to amend it or them. The resolve to amend will form the basis of our chosen lenten practice, which will be personal in the context of our own relationship with God and drawn from the desire for more in that relationship. Fuelled by this desire, may we find sustenance to maintain our lenten observance for the duration, and allow it to impact a deeper change in our lives beyond lent.
The process will be facilitated with two short presentations, The Examen prayer, Guided Imaginative Contemplations, Personal reflection and paired and group sharing. To ensure safety, sharing should be only what you are comfortable with, and should remain confidential within the context of the person or group it is shared in.
Our Lady of The Annunciation has excellent facilities. There is a beautiful church, with the Thirkettle Room attached, and it is here that the first presentation will be given at 10am. The Conference Centre has further space and a kitchen, where refreshments will be available from 9.30am. There is Mass in the church at 9.00am and the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be available on the day. There may also be access to the gardens, weather permitting. Plenty of parking is available on site.
I am running this retreat day, based on the tenth addition of The Spiritual Exercises, to prepare for lent. If you are thinking that you would like to enter more deeply into this special season of the church and you are able to get yourself there, you are most welcome. Please let me know, by leaving a comment or email, if you do intend to be there (not written in stone) just to help me to estimate the numbers of resources I need to prepare. And please do share with anyone you think may be interested. Thank you.
I went to the Saturday retreat day at St Julian’s Church (below) and found an oasis in space and time. There has been a lot of stress in my life recently, and to stop in the midst of it all was, literally, a Godsend.
I was, and was looking for, quiet, and at least until lunchtime, I maintained a quiet solitude within myself. And then to my surprise, I found myself engaged in easy conversation with a variety of different people, who brought me out of myself, in spite of myself.
When I was studying to be a Spiritual Director, in the first year, we spent some time learning about all sorts of different spiritualities, not just the Ignatian Way. We spent a day looking at Hermits and Anchorites, Solitaries and the Beguines were also mentioned. In the meditation at the end of that day we were asked to notice our own internal response to what we had been learning. I noticed that I had found it extremely interesting, and in my reflective log later commented that I found it interesting that I had found it interesting. I have since recognised my own solitary nature, and that the longing in my own spiritual journey is for solitude: to go into my room alone with God and to close the door. I had observed a few years before that the more time I spent alone, and alone with God, the more open I was, in a non attached and free way, to other people. It seems a strange paradox, but was evident at the retreat day. I am drawn to Julian of Norwich, partly for this reason, partly because she was a woman writing about God and something of the non-patriarchal attitude in her writing is attractive, and in a similar way to St. Ignatius, she comes at our createdness from the perspective that we are like God “in nature”, that:
The soul…is accorded with God.
A Revelation of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich.
rather than the common perspective than we are doomed sinners. Please do not get me wrong, there is no denial of sin either from Julian or from Ignatius, it is just that holding that our true nature is in God, and that we are completely loved by Him, is hopeful and opens us more freely to allow ourselves to accept the love of God, and to love Him more fully in return. It is the process by which we are transformed. I listen to people who begin from the point that they are doomed and they are so full of guilt that it gets in the way, or they have a subtle nuance in their thinking that they can achieve their own salvation by being good. They seem defeated before they even start, and I am sure I have felt like that at times too.
There was a guided meditation on a hazelnut.
Then He showed me a little thing, no bigger than a hazelnut, as it seemed to me, lying in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought:
What can this be?
And I was answered generally:
It is all that is made.
I gazed with astonishment, wondering how it could survive because of its littleness. It seemed to me that it was about to fall into nothingness. And I was answered in my mind:
It lasts and always will last because God loves it.
And so, everything receives its being from the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three truths:
God made it.
God loves it.
God keeps it.
A Revelation of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich.
I was reminded of an imaginative contemplation I had during the exercises on The First Principle and Foundation, where I had been praying with Psalm 139, and pondering my own creation, and I found myself in a repetition of that prayer, focusing on a consolation I had received at that time. I was my small inner child, around four years of age, in the garden with God, wearing my purple sparkly wellies and a simple white dress: I kid you not. Who would put a child in a white dress to do gardening? With my nose running like a burn, as they say where I am from, we were planting sunflowers in a large round flowerbed. He had shown me how to do it, and was over on the other side of the flower bed working, when I stopped to stare at the seeds in my hand. The phrase from the psalm repeated again and again in my mind:
when I was being formed in secret,
textured in the depths of the earth.
Psalm 139: 15b
I remember He noticed me standing transfixed, and asked me tenderly:
Sunflower, are you okay?
I whispered to Him in awe:
You made me. Just like this, you made me.
I imagine Julian’s astonishment as she contemplated the vision of the hazelnut to be something similar. In this repetition, I heard those words directed to me:
I made you.
I love you.
I keep you.
I am keeping you very safe.
The last sentence here is another from Revelations of Divine Love, and it is one I hold close to me regularly. Previously I wrote about how Ignatius has said that we should store up the experience of consolation to strengthen us in periods of desolation. This last phrase is one of my consolations that I bring to mind when I notice that I am feeling fearful. Julian says that there are only two sins: anxious fear and despairing fear. Both are a lack of trust in God. Ignatius identifies both the want of faith and the want of hope as signs of desolation, of being pulled away from God. I said earlier that there has been a lot of stress in my life recently, and it has certainly led to me feeling unsafe and fearful at times, and despairing. To hear Him affirm me this way in prayer has shifted my perspective since the retreat day. I spent some time considering the people who have been, and still are, supporting me: friends, family, at Church and particularly my colleagues at work, and for their kindness and tenderness towards me, I am deeply grateful.
It was also mentioned on my course that Revelations of Divine Love could be used as a prayer programme or retreat, in a similar way to The Spiritual Exercises. That possibility I found extremely interesting and wondered how it could work in practice. What would the process be? I thought that when I had finished my training I might go back to that idea and look at it more closely. At the Julian Centre on the day of the retreat, I found the book “40 Day Journey with Julian of Norwich”, Lisa E. Dahill, editor. There are a whole series of 40 Day Journey with… books with a selection of inspirational people. So, feeling inspired by what I have found, it is my intention to go on this 40 day journey with Julian, as a sort of 19th annotation, like in The Exercises, where one day in the journey takes a week of everyday life. I intend to begin at the beginning of the liturgical year: the beginning of advent, so I have some time to ready myself for the journey. Wish me Bon Voyage!
I have recently returned from my annual IGR, this year at Penhurst Retreat Centre in Kent, and I have been reflecting on conversations I have with a variety of people who have never had this experience.
I’ve been going on this type of retreat ever year for such a long time now (this year was my 19th IGR) that perhaps I take the process, but never the opportunity, a bit for granted.
As a PhD student, I was involved with the Catholic Student Council (CSC) and was the secretary on the Team for a year. As part of our preparation, we did a team retreat for three days, which started off in silence. I took to the silence as if I was designed for it. After a day and a half though, I had a chat with someone, not involved in the retreat, who told me that it was okay for me to talk. I lost something in that conversation: I can only describe it as if I had been in a dreamlike state that you might enter walking alone along a beach, where hours can pass and it seems like minutes, and then I had been forcefully brought back into the noise, chaos and pressure. It was something that I was unable to get back at that time, and I longed for more of it for years afterwards.
Over ten years later, I booked into Loyola Hall for an eight day IGR, and looked forward to spending that time alone with God. When you remove yourself from the world in this way, it is like the world stops turning, until you enter back into it at the end of the retreat. Certainly, you arrive there with your agenda and concerns, the things you want to talk to God about, and you may want Him to address, but after a day or two, you move onto His agenda. And often, the things that were so important when you arrived, seem less so at the end: you have a whole different perspective, even perhaps when you have not thought about them, other than at the beginning of the retreat. It is also a common experience that problems have resolved themselves, and answers have presented themselves without dwelling on them at all, once they are handed over to God at the beginning. Letting go and trusting Him are not to be underestimated.
So, what happens? Usually, there is time to settle in, including a house tour if you have not been to that place before, and dinner in the evening, which is a talking affair. It gives a little time to introduce each other in the group making the retreat at the same time. It is amazing how much you can get to know someone after eight days without speaking to them! Then there is a meeting where housekeeping is presented, and most importantly, you are introduced to your spiritual director for the week. You are shown to where you will meet with them and choose a time slot for your daily meeting. They may, or may not, suggest something from scripture to look at to help you settle into an attitude of prayer and silence, and after this point the silence begins. Each day, you meet with your director and share what is happening in your prayer, and usually, the director will make suggestions what you might pray with next, or they might ask you what you feel drawn to pray with. For me, this year, the director made no suggestions at all to me, and it felt a little scary initially, until I spoke to myself about my own formation as a spiritual director, and that I was more than capable of choosing myself, since I am well able to do it for others. She smiled when I told her of this initial feeling and said:
You seemed to know what you were doing.
It would be an example of the eighteenth annotation of the Spiritual Exercises in practice:
The Spiritual Exercises must be adapted to the condition of the one who is to engage in them, that is, to his age, education, and talent.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
In teaching terms, it is effective differentiation. And speaking of difference, not every retreat, and not every director is the same. And so too for the impact. I have come back from some with a few changes I knew I needed to make; and I have come back from others different, with no idea about how to respond, but just the certainty that life was never going to be the same again, because I had fundamentally changed. After my fifth IGR, the shift was so significant that by the October half term I was feeling that my life as it was was unmanageable and that I had to find a way to live differently within my context. It was at this point that I sought out a spiritual director in everyday life, and his support since then is invaluable to me, and is one thing I am deeply grateful for. With some directors I have felt well met, others less so but we have been able to communicate effectively, and one or two, I have to admit, have brought out my rebellious, stubborn steak. One so much so, that I texted my director in life to ask:
What is wrong with the way I pray?
One year, I went to Loyola itself: Gerry W. Hughes had organised an ecumenical IGR there, and I was very fortunate to get a place on it. In his preamble on the first evening, on talking about the role of the director, he said:
At the very least, we pray not to get in the way.
Gerry W. Hughes, Loyola IGR, 2007.
In answer to my question, my director in everyday life affirmed me about my prayer and told me to trust myself, and also reassured me that it would be appropriate for me to ask for a different director if I felt unable to work with the one assigned to me. I decided to work with the one I had, and focused on my relationship with God, not with the director. In the fifteenth annotation, Ignatius says of the director that they:
…should permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with his creator and Lord.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
I remember this particular point both when I am listening to others and when I am being listened to. Only once have I asked for a specific director: I usually try to remain open and trusting. I once met someone who had done the Spiritual Exercises in the thirty day retreat format and had not connected with her director at all. She continued to work with him for the duration however, and said that in the end, it was irrelevant, because the process was between her and God, and happened regardless. The best situation is where we get the director we need, which may not always be the director we think we want.
Regarding the location, I made myself very much at home at Loyola Hall before it closed, and since then at St. Beunos, where I made The Spiritual Exercises a few years ago. Every so often, circumstances have moved me to a different location, Penhurst this year, which has always been refreshing. The best locations, in my experience, are situated a bit out of the way, withdrawn from the world, where it would take a deliberate effort to put yourself out there. Both Penhurst and St Beunos are in beautiful, quiet, settings, well away from the business of the world. In two places I have been – Loyola and Dunblane – the town was right on the doorstep, and this made it more difficult, but not impossible, to sink deeply into silence and remain there. The business of the world, the shops, coffee shops, cars and streets were always calling, and the temptation to walk out on the silence when it was difficult was always there and easy to give in to. But on the other hand, temptation is just another opportunity to choose God, so choosing to remain in the silence in this situation is a huge deal and a movement towards greater spiritual maturity. It is good training to hold onto our centre when we are back in the world.
The day on an IGR follows a rhythm of its own, punctuated by structured periods of communal prayer, liturgy, mass, exposition, the meeting with the director and mealtimes. I’m quite at home with the concept of a timetable, and I usually factor in painting, tai chi and a shower, the latter happening at a different time of day from my usual routine for an unknown reason, but which feels quite natural on retreat. And of course, formal prayer periods. I aim for three one hour periods, but I often have to build up to that, or can only only manage two, or shorter prayer periods. There is a balance between discipline and flow – it is something to neither avoid nor force: it is about noticing how you are feeling and what is drawing you. If I felt I wanted to walk the labyrinth after lunch, instead of tai chi, that is probably what I would do; forcing myself to do tai chi at this point, simply because it was the designated activity on my self designed timetable and I must be disciplined in my spiritual life, may well prove to be unproductive. If I felt like I did not want to go to the communal liturgy in whatever format it took, and I have, quite a lot, I would take careful notice of what was moving in me, before I decided whether to go or not. Discernment is key, even in what we choose to do on retreat, and often, spending time sitting staring into space is required.
As for mealtimes, suffice to say, quite often the inner battles people have manifest themselves in the dining room with either too much or not enough eating, crying, sighing, inappropriate laughing, staring, coming in late…all manner of ways, that perhaps we might consider rude. It is best to be kind in our inner attitude, because we have no concept of how others are being challenged by God, or how the spirits opposed to God are whipping up an internal cacophony within them. And when it is our own struggle, it is still best to be kind in our inner attitude towards ourselves.
So, why do I do this kind of retreat every year? First and foremost, I promised God on the the first one that I would. Secondly, I need to. During the year in between, my edges become a little frayed by the constant bombardment and sensory and emotional overload of the world in which I live and work and the retreat allows me to rest in God for a significant period of time that I cannot replicate in my day to day life. I sink deeper into Him on retreat, and it re-orientates me. Sometimes, the shift is paradigm, like an earthquake, where the plates have been moving gradually for a while, and the tension is such that a huge movement occurs. And sometimes, it is simply much needed rest within His love, where I come back to myself again. If it is not something you have ever done, and you have the opportunity, I thoroughly recommend that you give it a try for yourself.
In the Spiritual Exercises, in the additions, Ignatius says:
The purpose of these directions is to help one to go through the exercises better and find more readily what he desires.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola; trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
and in the third addition he suggests that:
I will stand for the space of an Our Father, a step or two before the place where I am to meditate or contemplate…
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola; trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
The words in bold are mine, and here, I want to spend some time considering the nature of this place. I might just have a chair in the living room – I do, and I use it to pray sometimes. It faces a large picture of Jesus washing Peter’s feet by Seiger Koder. You can find it, with a reflection, at The Society of Jesus in South Africa.
This place is a very comfortable place to pray, and facing the image helps me to imagine how He is looking at me. It is not the place I pray most often though: it is where I go when I am struggling. I have a space set aside specifically for prayer in my room. I was being absolutely honest when I said that I go into my room and be alone with God. Currently it looks like this:
This is my prayer spot: it is a sacred space in my home that is set aside to spend time with God. I change the display and the flowers regularly, trying not to let it become stale. I may have the scripture open at the text I am praying with, but not always, and I have different cloths to change the meaning or mood, depending on what is going on in the liturgical season or in my life. Here, in ordinary time, and with my work on Exploring Personal Prayer, I have been sensing God’s joy and gladness, so I have chosen the brightly coloured cloth, which reminds me of the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit and in general, life in all of its fullness. I am currently using the chair, rather than the prayer stool, because, for some reason, I am resisting the discomfort of the latter. I have changed my position to one which is helping me to resist the resistance to prayer, and is therefore more fruitful, in line with the fourth addition of the Spiritual Exercises. Here are some others I have used at different times:
What about my eyes?
I will fill them with tears.
What about my heart?
I will break it with sorrow.
What about my body?
I will crush and throw it away.
You get the general idea. So why do I go to this trouble? Simply, because I want to communicate with Him how important He is in my life. I’m giving Him space in my life by giving Him space. I take care, and put thought into making my prayer environment a special place in my home. It is a compliment to the One I meet there. It helps me to find more readily what I desire, which is a conscious awareness of His presence, and through it, the grace to become who He would have me be.