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Sharing pilgrim wisdom

Brendan McManus SJ was in Cleveland, Ohio recently, and gave two retreats on ‘Praying with Grief and Loss’ and ‘Pilgrimage as an Essential Ignatian Activity’. The events were hosted by the St. Ignatius High School Spirituality Programme for Adults (SPA). Brendan spoke at two retreat centres and then engaged with the Irish Studies students at the High School, where he shared his experience of growing up in Northern Ireland. These students will travel to Ireland in June.

Brendan spoke to the first retreat group at River’s Edge retreat house » about how his 800 km Camino walk a few years ago was a way of dealing with the grief he felt over the loss of his brother. He based his talk on his best selling book Redemption Road: Grieving Along the Camino ».

The following weekend at the Jesuit Retreat Centre », Brendan spoke about his Camino journey. He explained how he integrated the Ignatian method of reflection and discernment as he made the pilgrimage, coping with all the usual challenges pilgrims face, including injuries and unexpected twists, before eventually making it to Santiago Cathedral for the Pilgrims’ Mass. God was not finished with him yet though. In a wonderful providential trip to Finisterre on the Atlantic coast, Brendan was graced with the catharsis and healing he had prayed for, and he shared this moving story with the retreatants.

Brendan used his personal Camino story to illustrate the application of Ignatian tools in figuring out where God was leading at him different moments. For example, at that key moment in Santiago when he was thinking that the pilgrimage was over, Brendan was invited to travel to Finisterre with another Irish Jesuit. In order to make this last crucial journey, he had to overcome understandable internal resistance, tiredness and anticlimactic feelings. This was an example of agere contra, or acting against the temptation to desolation, isolation, and passivity in order be present for what turned out to be God’s unexpected final grace. Discerning that decision and overcoming the resistance was key to the story and the graced ending.

This method of reflecting on a real-life pilgrimage experience allowed attendees to reflect on their own life experience and see where God was in the midst of their own often messy reality. In this way, they were able to discern better where God was calling to them.

Brendan believes that the Camino serves as a great metaphor for the unpredictability of people’s lives, the often futile striving to control events, and the challenge of finding God in difficult situations. “We are often tempted to believe that God has abandoned me, that God’s not interested in my troubles. Or we can go even darker, and because of the scale of obstacles and problems people face they can end up doubting if God actually exists,” he says.

One of the key insights Brendan offered was that of the cross or passion of Christ. “God often works most powerfully in the darkness,” he noted, “and we need to ‘hand over’ or pray the words of Jesus, ‘Into your hands I commend my spirit’, to let God help us navigate the storms.” The constant stream of perceptive questions and interaction from attendees, he added, “was testament to how useful they found this approach to spirituality and how it ultimately contributed to the value of what they took away.”

Apart from the work he did and the encouraging engagement that he experienced with the retreatants and students, Brendan was also very grateful for the great hospitality, welcome and support from Cleveland’s St Ignatius SPA team, especially Janet Lehane, the High School Jesuit Community, River’s Edge Retreat House, and Jesuit Retreat House.