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Spiritual Exercises in daily life: A 21st century perspective

EOIN GARRETT :: The celebration of the Ignatian Year 2021/22, brings memories of a previous Ignatian Year in 1990/91. At a seminar in The Milltown Institute Dublin, I recall a lecture by Philip Sheldrake on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. It was a revelation to me to hear that when Ignatius had the experiences that led to writing the Exercises, and when he then brought others on the same journey, he was not a priest: and those whom he first accompanied in the Exercises were mostly lay. This was something I did not remember hearing as a Jesuit novice and scholastic in the late 1960s and early 70s; if it was said, I hadn’t noticed. A few months after the seminar, I myself (more than a decade after leaving the Jesuits and now married) was experiencing the Exercises in Daily Life (EDL).

Origin and content

Ignatius’s original intention was that the person doing the Exercises (the “exercitant”) be led by a director through the experience during a 30-day retreat, as his first Jesuit companions were led by Ignatius himself, and as I first experienced the Exercises as a Jesuit novice.

For readers unfamiliar with the Exercises, let me here insert a brief summary. The Spiritual Exercises is not strictly a book to be read. It is, rather, a manual for the person accompanying the one experiencing the journey of the Exercises. For the exercitant, the Exercises is an experience which brings them through four “weeks” or phases of meditative and contemplative exercises. After some time of preparation, and consideration of “The Principle and Foundation” (Ignatius’s summary of the purpose of our creation), the exercitant experiences the 1st Week in which material relating to sin and sinfulness, in the context of God’s mercy, is considered. With deepened awareness of this mercy, the exercitant is invited to respond to God’s call in the 2nd Week, a call to follow Jesus Christ. This phase focuses mainly on praying with gospel scenes relating to Jesus’s life on earth, from the Incarnation to just before the Passion. It also incorporates an opportunity to make what Ignatius calls an “election”, that is, a decision to commit to following Jesus in a new way, or to deepen a commitment already made. In the 3rd Week the exercitant is invited to suffer with Christ suffering through the events of the Passion, and in the 4th Week to rejoice in the joy of the Risen Christ through the appearances after the Resurrection. In the final “Contemplation to Achieve Love”, the invitation is to experience God’s presence and activity in all of creation, including one’s own life.

The journey of the Exercises has been described variously as a school of contemplative prayer, or as a way of learning to discern the will of God in particular or general circumstances.

Annotation 19 and later developments

In the text, Ignatius allowed for an alternative way of doing the Exercises for those who could not free themselves for the 30-day experience. This is commonly referred to as “Annotation 19”, which involved continuing with one’s daily life and responsibilities while devoting a set amount of time daily to the Exercises. This would spread the experience over a period of months. The Annotation 19 practice continued to the end of the 16th century.

There is then no further mention of this way of experiencing the Exercises in the copious Jesuit records until the 1960s. The probable explanation for this is “the birth and the proliferation of ‘retreat houses’ at the beginning of the 17th century, which gradually imposed a particular way of giving the Exercises”. Preached group retreats and “popular missions” became the favoured formats for imparting the Exercises well into the 20th century in Jesuit retreat houses world-wide, including in Ireland, and for parish missions.

After Vatican II

One of the fruits of Vatican II was the renewal of religious life, in particular the return to the original inspiration of founders of orders and congregations. So it was that Jesuits in Belgium, Canada, and France began, simultaneously and unknown to each other, to explore applications of Annotation 19, or, as they became increasingly known, The Exercises in Daily Life (EDL).

By the early 1980s the EDL was being offered in both the UK and Ireland. In an article in The Way Supplement in 1984, Brian Grogan SJ distinguished between Annotation 19 and the EDL, describing the latter as an adaptation of the former to our cultural situation, which is so different to that of Ignatius. He concluded by suggesting that Ignatius might address those now engaged in this ministry along these lines: “‘Don’t get obsessed with only one method of giving the Exercises. Learn their inner dynamics. Be ready and able to adapt them.’”

EDL in Ireland

Brian Grogan was, in fact, the official co-ordinator of the EDL for the Irish Jesuit Province from 1982 until 2000. After 2000, when Brian became President of the Milltown Institute, the co-ordinator role lapsed.

On completion of training as a Spiritual Director at the Manresa Centre in 2005, I was invited to join a panel of Spiritual Directors which was being formed just then, who would be available to give the EDL. I have been involved in that ministry ever since. The EDL co-ordinator role had been reestablished and taken on by Finbarr Lynch SJ, who interviewed applicants and matched them with spiritual directors. In late 2017, as Finbarr Lynch approached his retirement from the Manresa team, I was asked to take over his role.

While the EDL is intended for those unable to give the full-time concentration of a 30-day retreat, it does entail a certain commitment. Applicants are expected to have some prior experience of spiritual direction, shorter directed retreats, and regular prayer. They are asked to complete a detailed application form, followed by an interview, before being allocated their individual director, who may be female or male, lay or religious, Jesuit or otherwise. Meetings with the director can be weekly or fortnightly. In between, the exercitant commits to approximately an hour of prayer and reflection daily. The EDL usually takes up to nine months or more, depending on the pace at which the individual moves through the material under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and their director. Every couple of months there is a support meeting held, when the exercitant can meet fellow-exercitants to share experience in a prayerful atmosphere of solidarity. A wide variety of people have completed the EDL in recent years. These have included home-makers, religious sisters, diocesan priests, an arts administrator, a laboratory worker, serving and retired nurses, lecturers and teachers, a healthcare assistant, a legal secretary. Ages have varied from 30 to 70 plus.

As for many other activities, the Covid-19 pandemic forced a rethink of how the EDL is conducted. Happily it has been possible to continue the EDL without interruption, with interviews and individual sessions being conducted on Skype, Zoom and even occasionally by phone. Group meetings, both of exercitants and directors, have taken place on Zoom. Overall, while all concerned look forward at the time of writing to meeting again in person, there is a consensus that these alternative ways have served the process well and may continue to be an option into the future. While participants may have been anxious initially as to whether the same level of communication could be maintained, they have been pleasantly surprised. The spirit of adaptation initiated by Ignatius’s example, is expressing itself in ways he could never have foreseen.

For further information, see the Manresa website », phone 01-833 1252, or email [email protected]