A couple of years ago, when Helen Stewart became a campus minister at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, she began the fall semester by leading the Spiritual Exercises for a group of 20 students. Participants meet with a spiritual director and as a group once a week, and while college students may be the last group one would think is in search of some quiet contemplation, Stewart says some see it as an integral part of their time at Saint Joseph’s.
“They are looking for a closer relationship with God,” Stewart says. “What the Exercises do is help you realize how God is present in your life everyday. You just have to start to notice, to become aware, and that happens through the Exercises. Ten students signed up last year, and they all finished. The fact that they’re at a Jesuit university gets them -- they think, ‘This is part of the Jesuit experience; I want to do this.’”
Even the 19th Annotation requires a significant allocation of time, and Stewart cautions students who express interest to be ready to immerse themselves in the experience.
The HEART of the MATTER
Exploring the Spiritual Exercises
By Thomas W. Durso, SJU '91
In a culture in which e-mail and voicemail are now considered hopelessly slow means of communication, in which our children have busier schedules than we do, in which we have cell phone conversations while working out at the gym, in which we take our Blackberrys to the beach, in which the only permissible answer to the question “How’s work?” is “It’s busy,” it seems inconceivable that a nearly 500-year-old instruction manual that emphasizes prayer, introspection and slowing down should find itself enjoying unprecedented favor.
Yet it is precisely that hyperactive aspect of American society that seems to be driving the desire to return to a more contemplative time. Across the The Maryland Province and around the country, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, that linchpin of Jesuit training, are being made by more and more lay men and women who wish to rediscover a relationship with God and spend some time, however brief, regularly delving into their own hearts and souls. The Society of Jesus has had to do some creative adapting to answer the call for more spiritual direction.
If the people can’t come to Ignatius, it seems, the Jesuits and their colleagues will bring Ignatius to the people.
ADAPTABILITY IS THE KEY
Two hundred pages long and written in the first quarter of the 16th century, the Spiritual Exercises are “a month-long program of meditations, prayers, considerations and contemplative practices that help Catholic faith become more fully alive in the everyday life of contemporary people,” according to Fr. Robert Egan, SJ , professor of foundational theology and spirituality at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. The book of the Spiritual Exercises is not to be read through such as a work of non-fiction, but exercises to be prayed through, usually under the guidance of a trained spiritual director. The Exercises present “a formulation of Ignatius’ spirituality in a series of prayer exercises, thought experiments, and examinations of consciousness — designed to help a retreatant experience a deeper conversion into life with God in Christ, to allow our personal stories to be interpreted by being subsumed in a story of God,” according to Egan. They are divided into four separate parts:
• consideration of God’s generosity and mercy and the complex reality of human sin;
• an imagining of the life and public ministry of Jesus, his proclamation of the gospel, his sayings and parables, his teachings and his miracles;
• Jesus’ last days, his arrest and interrogation, whipping, public mockery, passion, crucifixion and death;
• Jesus’ Resurrection, his Ascension, and the pouring-forth of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and Christ’s continued life in the world through the Spirit today and in the Messianic people called and missioned to his cause.
Ignatius originally intended the Exercises to be made over a period of 30 days in silent contemplation away from home. Ever concerned with a spirituality that reaches people in their everyday lives, however, he recognized that not all who wished to make the Exercises could afford to carve an entire month out of their lives to shut themselves away and pray in isolation.
“If you look into the book of the Exercises, the first thing you see are 20 annotations, primarily notes, and the point of the 20 is precisely how adaptable the experience is,” says Fr. George Aschenbrenner, SJ, rector of the Jesuit community at the University of Scranton. “If you do the experience fully, Ignatius is clear that it takes 30 days, more or less. But in Annotation No. 19, Ignatius himself suggests another way of making the full Exercises for people whose work didn’t allow them to get away for 30 straight days.”
According to a translation of the Spiritual Exercises by Fr. Elder Mullan, SJ, the 19th Annotation begins: “A person of education or ability who is taken up with public affairs or suitable business, may take an hour and a half daily to exercise himself.” Ignatius then goes on to delineate specific topics on which to meditate and pray and includes specific lengths of time that the person making the Exercises should devote to it.