The subject header read “Summer Greetings!” and it came from a person of faith I’d admired from a distance for some time. A mutual friend had recommended me for a 30-week course called the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a class at New College Berkeley (NCB) with which I was nominally familiar. The email writer made herself available if I wanted to chat.
I was hesitant at first. Did I really want to invest much more time into spiritual development when things were going so swimmingly in my “Christian life”? I was after all an active worshipper at my church, a prayerful member of a long-standing small group, an engaged reader of Relevant Magazine, and a regular sponsor of impoverished children. I was able to check a number of hallowed boxes.
Then after a quick look at the NCB website, my initial hesitancy morphed into fear. The group was to include clergy as well as laypeople. I struggled to imagine what profound insights I could possibly contribute to a circle of biblical scholars and earnest pilgrims. Would you describe your faith as mature? Can you commit to weekly meetings? Are you able to set aside 30 to 60 minutes a day for prayer? I then asked to have that chat.
Afterward, as I prayed for discernment, my image-obsessed inner voice went mute, replaced by a simple and humble desire to grow closer to God. With gratitude and over time, that fear of being exposed as a theological fraud and intellectual lightweight got transformed into a yearning to better comprehend the depth of God’s love for this world, and for me, by entering the stories of Jesus. God is faithful and His grace is mighty.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius have been practiced for over 400 years and invite the participant to encounter our Creator through consistent prayer, ongoing reflection, and contemplative listening, open to blessings of the Holy Spirit and anchored in the Word of God. As I learned to embrace the daily Ignatian practices, what started as iPhone-scheduled appointments developed rather quickly into a sequence of peace-filled watering holes. No reminder bells were necessary.
As I grew more comfortable with the weekly “circle format,” I began to look forward to Thursday morning’s class as the ultimate oasis, when the busyness and challenges of everyday life took a backseat to a simple calm; when the lighting of a candle reminded us that the God Who Loves Us was present; where paintings, music, poetry, and flower petals aroused the senses; where Scripture and icons, stones and crosses evoked gratitude for the Christ who suffered and redeemed us; where the changing colors of a sycamore tree conveyed the passing of seasons; where it was safe harbor to speak openly with joy or remain silent in sorrow; where prayers of encouragement were plentiful and timely words of humor appreciated.
I’m grateful to say that from this unfamiliar framework sprang an unexpected blessing: week after week we came closer together as an authentic community, listening to each other’s prayers and observations, aspirations and doubts, always in support of each other’s wellness of soul. One Thursday fell on All Saints Day when I learned that Protestants generally regard all true Christian believers as saints (small “s”). Imagine me…a saint! (Ephesians 2:19-21). In silence we were directed to reflect on the Body of Christ and specifically linger on those members of the Communion of Saints who “solicit my heart and my prayers.” How the Lord has enriched my life with a steady current of saints, some known to me, many unknown, and now joined by each of my Ignatian compadres.
To be sure not every waking moment of this journey found us basking in an ethereal state of wonder and bliss. Life on earth happens. Self-doubt, illness, job stress, addiction, financial insecurity, marital strife, even the tragic death of a family member made clear these Exercises do not insure against personal adversity, nor exempt us from feelings of desolation when calamities “of the world” make God appear distant. But they have yielded something I am just now beginning to comprehend. Faithful living does not deny or resist consideration for the shadow side of life, and I am so thankful to have some tools now to explore that; so thankful too that the Light shines in the darkness.
A final thought: I used to pray “God Be With Me, Christ Be With Me, Holy Spirit Be With Me.” Now I understand He is always with me, if only I have the eyes to see Him, the ears to listen, the heart to feel, and the courage to serve the least of these. May it be so for you as well.
Doug Sterne is a recently retired media executive who is excited to learn how God plans to use him in this season of life.