There are many ways to pray.
But three weeks into the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, I can say this: The Ignatian Way, for me, is like filling up with high-octane gas.
They had me at Day 1, actually.
“I have called you by name, you are mine,” Isaiah 43. “You are precious in my sight…”
Day 2 wasn’t bad either, or Day 3:
“He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul,” the 23rd Psalm.
This week we read Isaiah 55: “Why do you spend money on what is not bread and your wages for what does not satisfy? Come to me and let your soul delight itself in abundance … I will make an everlasting covenant with you.”
Between worrying about Isis and Ebola — and the assorted fears and torments of our own anxious lives — this is reassuring, consoling stuff to contemplate, to sink into, to read slowly, repeatedly. That is assuming you, like me, are attracted by the notion of being loved, held as precious, restored in green pastures by still waters, satisfied, delighted, and promised a covenant that never ends.
Really, what is not to like?
Besides, as we also read in Luke 12, “Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?”
The spiritual exercises I’m doing — over eight months from now until May — ask retreatants to contemplate and pray from different psalms and parts of scripture every day for a half hour to an hour. In my case, it’s first thing in the morning, in the dark, my coffee and my bible.
A group of fellow retreatants meets together every other week. In my case there’s about 30 of us, all ages, gathered on Sunday afternoons in the downstairs of my Jesuit parish at Boston College. It’s perfectly named for the endeavor: St. Ignatius of Loyola. Between group meetings, we all meet as well with a spiritual director to guide us. For me, it’s a long-time Jesuit who’s guided many on this adventure in prayer, community, and spiritual companionship.
Learning to pray for this long takes practice, patience, encouragement, we’re told. Sometimes readings resonate, sometimes not. Some of them we cannot even understand.
The purpose and hope, if we keep at it? To grow closer to God, to encounter God intimately, to live with more freedom, love, faith — and less fear. To learn to discern what comes from God and what does not. To “trust in the slow work of God,” as the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it. To find God and fall in love “in a quite absolute and final way,” as another Jesuit, Pedro Arrupe, once wrote so beautifully. For what you are in love with affects everything, he wrote:
“It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
“what you will do with your evenings,
“how you will spend your weekends,
“what you read,
“whom you know,
“what breaks your heart,
“and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.”
Again, what is not to like?
According to Ignatian Spirituality, the exercises are a compilation of mediations, prayers, and practices put together by St. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus, in 1539. They’re often given in 30-day retreats. Jesuits — and Pope Francis is, of course, the first Jesuit pope — typically do them twice during their formation. The longer retreat we are doing, called the 19th annotation, enables lay people to do the exercises at home during daily life.
Later we will meditate on sin, not a particularly appealing concept. We will follow the life of Christ: his early life and preaching, his passion and resurrection, in sync with the liturgical season. We will imagine ourselves in scenes from the gospels. For example, we’ll put ourselves at the manger in Bethlehem, smelling the animals, seeing stars and shepherds, hearing the baby Jesus cry, maybe even touching him or speaking to Mary, and imagining her speaking back.
This imagining part seems nearly impossible to me to pull off. We will see. The third week, where I am, is still an introduction. So I am a beginner, but an enthralled one. Catholics are not usually taught to sit with the Bible, to read the psalms and gospels slowly, over and over, to let words — most thousands of years old — wash over you, and soak in. Now that I have begun, I could not wait to meet with my director this week, to tell him how consoling and just plain fantastic it felt to pray the prayer in the morning and then later in the day — at the coffee machine or walking the dog or driving through pouring rain — to have the words, unexpectedly, came back to me.
Every day will not be like this, not even close, veterans of the exercises have told me. But be persistent, persevere, trust that He will give you as much as you need. He promised in the oh-so-familiar Luke 11, remember?
“For everyone who ask receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be given.”