Almost everyone who participates in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius has a conversion experience. For the past 3 years New College Berkeley has been offering this 30-week “retreat,” based on the “19th annotation” to Ignatius’ record of his own conversion experience, and I’ve been privileged to direct this retreat at Byron United Methodist Church where I serve as pastor.
I made the retreat myself many years ago at Mercy Center in Burlingame, and I’ve led the retreat quite a few times using the format used at Mercy Center. Ignatius structured the retreat to be given over 30 days, but he said (in the 16th century!) that if because of family or business obligations a person couldn’t go away for 30 days, this retreat could be given over 30 weeks. Mercy Center found that sustaining the commitment to such an intense spiritual discipline was supported by being part of a small group. There have been 6 people making this retreat with me this year at Byron.
I believe St. Ignatius was a spiritual genius, knowing just what “exercises” people could do to give them an intimate, heartfelt knowledge of Jesus,” and to grow their spirits most efficiently. Ignatius’ way of praying encourages a person to be completely him- or herself before God, while being open to the direct guidance of God.
A few unique aspects of the retreat are: learning how to pray with Scripture in a new way, entering into the stories of the life of Jesus with all our senses, and either identifying with a participant in the passage or finding ourselves inserted as a narrator, an observer, or a character (not necessarily written about in the text). Praying with Scripture like this creates an immediacy which makes Jesus come alive to us, and that inspires commitment to him in every aspect of our lives.
We have just completed what Ignatius called “the 3rd week” of the Spiritual Exercises during which the grace we pray for is to accompany Jesus to his death, just as we would a friend who is dying. We pray with the Passion narratives (the last week of Jesus’ life) for the whole six weeks of Lent. Some of the group has found this very challenging and painful, and a few find themselves wishing the story could end differently.
People benefit from this retreat to the extent that they are able to commit to 30-60 minutes of prayer a day, focusing on the assigned texts, meditations, and contemplations. Some people find it really challenging to dedicate this much time to praying “for themselves,” and not praying for others as they’re used to doing. It’s part of Ignatius’ “genius” that he teaches people how to pray contemplatively, asking what messages God has for them personally in each of the passages and meditations.
Ignatius (in his “Principle and Foundation” of the Spiritual Exercises) made a most challenging statement: I want and I choose what better leads to the deepening of God’s life in me. This prayer is the life-giving result of making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and carries over into our lives beyond the retreat as we seek to “find God is all things.” Thanks be to God!
Rev. Christine Shiber is a minister at Byron United Methodist Church and a New College Berkeley spiritual director.