In our busy world, everyone looks forward to getting away for a week, but not often the way Mary Jo Kenny from Chicago is. This summer she is going on her first six-day Spiritual Exercises, a silent retreat run by the Regnum Christi Movement, which will be held July 24-29, 2018 at the Cardinal Strich House in Chicago.
Mary Jo, a Regnum Christi member, wife, and mother who has been attending annual three-day retreats for a long time, shares, “I am really looking forward to more silence, more immersion in God, and hopefully learning better how he speaks in my soul in prayer. I seem to leave three-day retreats wishing they were longer.” Even Mary Jo, who is serious about her spiritual life and developing a deep relationship with God, admits that while she is really looking forward to the six days of silence and prayer, “the prospect is a little scary – you know, the fears ‘will I be able to really open my soul?’ and ‘what will God ask of me?’”
What are the Spiritual Exercises?
The traditional Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are a silent retreat meant to go through four weeks, or more correctly, four stages which may each take about a week to explore. Each stage focusses on different mysteries of Christ. The popular three-day version gives a taste of each of the mysteries, while the six-day retreat offers the chance to go deeper into dialogue with God through each one.
The stages are:
Week One: A time of reflection on one’s life in the light of God’s limitless love for us. The retreatant sees and understands how their response to that love has been wounded by sin, they acknowledge the ways sin has affected their own relationship with God and repent of it and resolve to follow him with a renewed intention.
Week Two: The meditations and prayers of the second week teach participants how to follow Christ as apostles. They reflect on the mysteries of his life, preaching and ministry. Through this reflection, they allow God to lead them in changing their lives so that they love him more intimately and see how they can join him concretely in his evangelizing mission.
Week Three: Retreatants meditate on Christ’s Last Supper, passion, and death. Accompanying the Lord intimately in his suffering and in the gift of the Eucharist, they experience this ultimate expression of God’s love more deeply in their hearts and minds.
Week Four: Meditating on Jesus’ resurrection and his apparitions to his disciples, they experience themselves how Christ walks with them, and they set out to love and serve him in concrete ways in the world around them.
Following the tradition of Ignatian prayer, retreatants do not only meditate on these mysteries, they contemplate and discern. Contemplation, as St. Ignatius encouraged it, is more a movement of the heart than of the intellect. It is using the heart, imagination and emotions that God gives human beings to allow him to touch us deeply. Contemplation allows truths, that our mind believes to become realities, that our hearts and souls live and experience first-hand.
Discernment, or discernment of spirits as St. Ignatius called it, is a prayerful process of noticing the interior movements of our hearts and understanding where they come from and where they are leading us. These include our thoughts, imagination, emotions, desires, feelings, repulsions and attractions. By understanding this better, retreatants learn to listen to the voice of God in their lives and make decisions to act based on his will.
The silent retreat format unites the Church’s spiritual traditions like daily Mass, confession, adoration, the Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary, and the Stations of the Cross, with extended times of personal silent prayer. Each retreatant also meets one-on-one daily with the retreat director, a priest, who will guide them through the Spiritual Exercises, help them in the discernment of spirits, and provide personalized material for meditation.
The spiritual exercises are not simply a relaxed time of passively listening to talks and reading, but they require the active participation of the retreatant who applies their mind, will, memory, imagination, and whole heart to seeking Christ.
The priest’s perspective
Fr. Brett Taira, LC, who will be the retreat master in Chicago this summer, explains that for many people who are very familiar with the mysteries of Christ’s life and have an established life of prayer, only having three days to touch on all of them is not enough. They may feel they need more time and more silence to go deeper and unravel the mysteries of Christ that they only had time to touch on before. He gives an analogy, “If you only had three days to visit Rome, you would still be able to go everywhere and see all of the important places, but you wouldn’t have a lot of time to stay in any one spot for long or understand it very deeply. If you had a week, you would see more and your experience would be different, spending more time in the places that resonated more with you. That is essentially the difference between the three-day and six-day spiritual exercises, too.” However, Fr. Brett cautioned that the retreat is not a vacation. Being able to spend more time going deep into the mysteries of Christ’s love also means spending more time being uncomfortable in the mysteries of sin and the crucifixion.
The experience helps people see the mysteries of Christ in their own life, and understand more clearly how Christ is working in their souls. Daily spiritual direction with a priest is a part of that discernment. The hope is that after leaving the retreat, people have learned to see the mysteries of Christ that God makes present in their lives and how to live them by applying the discernment they used during the spiritual exercises.
Fr. Louis de Vaugelas, LC, who preaches the six-day Spiritual Exercises in the Ohio Valley, explains how the longer retreat is different than the three-day spiritual exercises which Regnum Christi runs over 100 of in various cities around the country every year. “You put yourself in special circumstances that give more space to the Creator to speak to your heart. You allow him to deal with you in a very unique way, investing your time in what he wants to do. After a few days, entering more deeply in the silence, your interior heart becomes more receptive to the voice of the Lord, and his voice becomes what you want to listen to. The silence is no longer uncomfortable, but a way to hear God’s voice.”
Even as a preacher, Fr. Louis finds the experience transformative, “In the two years that I have preached six-day retreats, I felt deeply evangelized by what the Lord is doing in each one of the participants and I felt that that the Lord uses them to teach me ‘the way of the heart’ in dealing with Jesus. He asks them what they are looking for, the way he asks Mary Magdalene at the tomb. He brings them to see the desires that are being shown through their emotions. Through their emotions, he reveals himself to them in a way that, like Mary Magdalene became the apostle to the apostles, those participants become apostles to me, allowing me to see the resurrected Christ in a way that is very transforming for me.”
Check here for a list of retreats near you.