In this piece, I continue my reflection on the 30-day silent retreat in which I was led through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Today I’ll talk about the exercises in general and aspects of my experience of the first week.
As I begin this reflection, allow me to offer a disclaimer. These writings are about my personal experience of the Ignatian spiritual exercises. They are not meant to lead one through the exercises or offer a comprehensive understanding of the exercises. There are some great works on the exercises that offer a more in-depth understanding. I’ve listed two at the end of this post for your reference.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola are a set of Christian meditations designed to be carried out over 30 days under the direction of a spiritual director. In addition, they can be offered over a period of nine months. In the nine-month experience, referred to as the exercises in everyday life, the individual meets on a weekly basis with the director and commits to pray for an hour each day. In these two forms (30 days and 9 months), the directee is led through the Spiritual Exercises in its entirety – four thematic “weeks” of varying lengths. A third format consists of a spiritual director leading an individual through the spiritual exercises in smaller bites–generally in monthly spiritual direction and/or on silent retreats from three to eight days. Rather than leading the directee through the four weeks, the director assesses the directee’s current state and discerns the foci of the exercises that may be best suited for them at present.
The four weeks of the Spiritual Exercises address different themes. The theme of the first week is a contemplation of God’s love alongside one’s sin or separation from God. The second week is an immersion in the life and ministry of Jesus. The third week focuses on the passion of Christ and the fourth week has as its theme the resurrection of Jesus and again the love of God.
My Experience of Week One
The ancient church mothers and fathers spoke of the process in which God works in our lives through orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. The exercises certainly fulfil this function. My experience with Week 1 was rich and disorienting. As stated previously, the focus of the first week is a contemplation on God’s love alongside one’s sin or separation from God. It begins with the Principles and Foundation which are, in essence, an invitation to (1) know God as love, (2) approach God with reverence, and (3) contemplate on how to enter into Gods work of love in this world. As the name suggests, these lay a foundation for the four weeks and set the tone for the transforming work of God in the retreatant. One grace I received from the week came with a reflection at the beginning of the week on my history with God. I chose to envision my journey of knowing God artistically as represented by a flowing river. I drew the river with still waters designating times of calm and peace and with rapids and falls representing the challenging times. Seeing it laid out on paper allowed for a fuller perspective. I saw that most of my journey was calm and peaceful and that the times of rough water always launched me into growth. This recognition fostered a sense of gratitude–a blessing that I came back to repeatedly throughout the month in retreat.
This week was also a time of “arriving.” It took me a while to settle in and adjust to the schedule and community. I recognized my retreat was going to require discipline to remain present to what God wanted to do in me. Although in a context of silence and amid community with a common purpose, the temptation was ever present to flee—perhaps not physically but psychologically and emotionally. Removing myself from the physical distractions by coming away to the retreat center certainly helped in focusing my attention on God. What was most difficult, however, were the internal distractions. I could easily find other things on which to fix my attention. The structure of the four to five prayer periods each day helped with this by bringing my attention back for scheduled conversation with God. And what I found surprising was that the times of coming up for breath were vital to my ability to stay present during the prayer times. Giving attention to art, walking, sitting on the coast, and even reading non-spiritual books gave me the mental break I needed to come back with renewed tenacity and vigor for the periods of prayer.
The focus on my sin this week was, of course, difficult. It was hard to stay present to the mirror that God held before me, yet I did not feel condemned or judged. God’s love bathed me as I examined the choices I’ve made that separate me from God—my sin. I was blessed with some significant insights. One of the greatest gifts that came from these reflections was the recognition that my wounds are a grace. I knew that I was blessed despite my wounds and that God was always with me during the times I was being wounded. However, it was a surprise to hear God’s invitation to see the wounds themselves as a gift. This caused some dissonance, and I initially resisted this idea. However, as I let the message sink in, I began to experience a sense of freedom. I heard an invitation to let go of my righteous indignation and anger and place my focus on the privilege of having served as an instrument of the kingdom. This was one of the most significant gifts of the retreat.
This time of focus on my sin and separation from God also opened my eyes to the reality of my imperfection and great need for the mercy of God. This was not a new concept, but the opportunity to spend concentrated time in prayer gave me eyes to see at a deeper level. Again, it was challenging to face the times I had stumbled. I realized the wisdom in having a spiritual director walk with me in this process. The line between shame and guilt can be fine and the director helped keep my attention on the vast love and mercy of the Creator.
The next post will offer glimpses into the additional weeks of the retreat. Thank you for letting me share this experience with you. It is a blessing to relive it. It brings the lessons to life once again.
Grace and peace to you,
O’Brien, K. (2011). The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in Daily Life. Loyola Press.
Salai, S. (2020). The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola: With Points for Personal Prayer From Jesuit Spiritual Masters. TAN Books.