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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Spiritual Exercises, past and present

I read an interesting paper today - My Expreience of the Spiritual Exercises, by Charles L. Moutenot, S.J.

One of the things noted was the different way in which the Exercises retreat is given now than in the past. The paper cites William A. Barry SJ on what it was like to make the 30 day Spiritual Exercises retreat when he first joined the Order ... at that time it was more of a group "preached" retreat than the individually guided one of today.

Towards the end of the paper, the author discusses a variation of the Spiritual Exercises that's being given more often now, and more often to lay people - the 19th annotation retreat - a retreat in everyday life . This is like the Creighton University Online Retreat that I've mentioned in other posts, and the paper goes into some detail about this retreat.

Here below are the relevant parts of the paper ...


From those I interviewed for this talk, it seems that after the suppression the Exercises were given, at least in Jesuit formation, as a "preached" retreat. This is the way Bill Barry speaks of his experience of the Exercises in October of 1950. "The novice director gave five talks each day, giving us 'points' for the meditation or contemplation that was to follow. (Perhaps some of you were like me. I used to hope that he would talk a long time so that the time for personal prayer would be short.) We saw the novice master once or twice a week for an individual conference. I have no recollection of what happened during those conversations except that I was relieved when I left the room, much as I was relieved when confession was over. I recall feeling like a grunt in the spiritual life since I could not create the scenes in my imagination for the contemplation of the life of Christ. And yet, I do recall having moments out in the woods around Shadowbrook of great longing and love for God, moments which reminded me of similar times before I entered the novitiate. But, as far as I could tell, no one ever expected that we would talk about such moments and their meaning with the novice master, let alone anyone else. For the next 14 years of my Jesuit life I dutifully made the Spiritual Exercises for eight days each year. Again these retreats were led by a director who gave four or five talks each day as points for personal prayer. Usually retreats were given to at least 100 of us so that there was little time for individual conferences with the retreat director." (He relates that the same method was used for his tertianship). "The idea of one on one direction of the Spiritual Exercises never entered our minds during all those years. If someone had ever asked us how we thought that Ignatius gave the Exercises to the first companions in Paris, I suspect we would have presumed that he gave talks such as our novice masters, our tertian directors and our retreat directors did." Barry concludes "..., I am not assigning blame. No one knew any better. None of us were operating out of an experience based belief that God wants to engage each one of us in a personal relationship."

It is instructive to recall the forces at work in moving us away from the group, "preached" retreat to what George Ganns called the "authentic Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius" which are prevalent today ..... the Vatican II document Perfectae Caritatis was published .... "...they are to be renewed by a continuous return to the sources of all Christian life, to the spirit of the founder, and to the originating inspiration of the Institute." This return to the sources inspired and opened up the possibility for a return to the "authentic Exercises." ..... Henry Birkenhauer, tertian instructor at Colombiere College in Clarkston, Mich., wrote that a retreat master "in the sense of a man who 'preaches' a retreat, would have been meaningless to St. Ignatius. In his day, the Exercises were given to one retreatant or very few at a time; and the 'director' was a 'resource person' who briefly explained the subject on which the prayer was to be made and who offered counsel and guidance in the discernment of spirits." ......

(big snip)

Andy Alexander, S.J., Vice President for University Ministry at Creighton University and Maureen Waldrin, Director of Collaborative Ministry, coordinate a retreat in everyday life given over the Internet. The idea began two years ago when they were giving a retreat to 170 Creighton faculty for 6 weeks during Lent 1998. They began to post the Scripture readings on the web. The retreatants asked that they continue through Easter. Andy and Maureen asked why not do a retreat on the Internet inspired by the possibility of a middle annotation for our time. The 18th is for people with little ability; the 19th for people with ability but little time; the 20th for people who have both time and ability. How about people who have the ability, the desire, but who don't have the time, and whose culture is the Internet? What would Ignatius think about our use of this culture? An "online experience of the movements of the Exercises" was born. The web site gets 1000 hits a day from all over the world: an RCIA Director who adapts it for her program; a retreat house which gives the address out as a way of follow-up for those who have made retreats; a parish doing the retreat together; a woman from Haiti who goes to the site when the electricity is on; a woman from Kuwait who is searching for some retreat experience; a Jesuit from the Philippines who prints out the material for others to use. Photos by Don Doll, S.J. illustrate the theme of each week of the Exercises.

The retreat is very simple, very easy to move through. Internet users can jump in anytime and do it at their own pace. Instructions can be found on what to do. Each retreatant can share what they would like of their prayer through e mail. Andy and Maureen screen these sharings and post them for others to read. These notes can be quite personal. "I'm stuck in Second Week". "I have difficulty accepting God's love for me." "This has changed my life." Although Andy and Maureen do not call themselves directors, they do try to respond to such e mails, perhaps 5 to 10 per day. Wanting to avoid any hint of dependency they advise those who join the retreat to get a spiritual director, use a journal, get into a group. Ongoing support for those who finish the retreat can be found on the web site. Larry Gillick, S.J. writes a reflection column based on the Sunday readings to help people to continue to find God in their lives. The retreat, the follow up, cost nothing, except for the time of the coordinators and contributors.

Where is it headed? First, they are reaching people for whom the Internet is a culture and who are thinking less linearly and more in terms of hyper text. Retreatants can easily and instantaneously go back and forth in the retreat, link up with photos, or with documents illustrating, explaining, some point or doctrine, or giving another point of view. Use of this culture requires learning to think this way and to adapt the Exercises to this way of thinking. Second, if and when a wider band width is available - more data more quickly over the Internet - it may be possible to hook retreatants up with directors all over the world who could communicate instantaneously through the Internet with live pictures of retreatant and director, live text and/or voice. Andy and Maureen believe that this is a distinct possibility .....

I see the recovery of the "authentic Exercises" and their attention to religious experience as key in how we use the Exercises in our ministry today. Care in listening to and handling people's experience in giving the Exercises and in spiritual direction is a service of the contemplative space that can open them to a profound trust in God and a willingness to search courageously for God's will .....


- check out the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola here


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