It is hard to know what to say to those who ask about one’s experience of the 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. The experience is profound, intense, and deeply personal. It is also experience, not knowledge or information that can be transferred to another. To be sure, the retreat does have objective content–the life of Christ, God’s creation of the world, the moral law. It is not just a process for personal growth; it is an encounter with the Son of God who revealed himself in first century Palestine, who we know through the accounts that his followers handed on to the Church. Fundamentally, the content of the retreat is simply Christianity, nothing more and nothing less.
That said, the experience of encountering that content varies from person to person. We can either look at Jesus from a distance or approach him, talk to him, get to know him. The Spiritual Exercises are a way of getting to know him–spending time with God with other distractions removed, recognizing God’s work in our lives up to this point, discovering his hopes for us. Like meeting your future spouse or holding a newborn child for the first time, you can describe what happened, but the experience itself can never be fully captured in words. Spending thirty days getting to know Jesus more deeply in prayer is a similarly ineffable experience.
Of course, some aspects of the retreat can be more easily shared, and I thought I’d start with one that might seem secondary but isn’t–the location. Christianity is an embodied, incarnational religion that acknowledges the influence of where we are on who we are. During the Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius frequently invites us to begin by imagining the places where Jesus lived, “the synagogues, villages, and towns” where he preached or the hills and valleys between Nazareth and Bethlehem. Even on an interior journey, location matters.
And the location where I did my 30-day retreat, the Jesuit retreat center in Sevenhill, South Australia, was simply spectacular. I’ve been to a good number of retreat centers throughout the world, and I think I’ve found my new favorite.
Sevenhill, in fact, is more than just a retreat center. It’s a site of historic importance to the Catholic Church in Australia, the place were the Jesuits first settled in the new continent, building a church and a college–and planting a vineyard. The first Jesuits in Australia were Austrians, accompanying Prussian refugees displaced by Bismarck’s persecution of Catholics. They planned boldly. The name “Sevenhill” does not refer to any Australian geographic feature, but is an allusion to the seven hills of Rome. They saw themselves founding a Rome Down Under.
History doesn’t always develop quite as planned. After experiencing an early mining boom, the area around Sevenhill saw its population shift to centers on the coast, so the site never became the education and administrative center its founders foresaw. Instead, it is the perfect rural setting for a retreat. And the vineyard remains. It continues to fulfill its original purpose of supplying altar wine to churches in the Pacific and has produced some award-winning wines as well. It is the oldest vineyard in an area now known for wines and an obligatory stop for wine-tasters and tourists to the region. We were at Sevenhill as the harvest began–an event marked by a traditional blessing rich with biblical symbolism.
Part of the retreat center was once a farm–I stayed in a converted coach house–so there were plenty of other biblical images as well, the good (sheep) and the wicked (snakes!). Plus tons of uniquely Aussie flora and fauna that made one deeply grateful for the Creator’s marvelous work and nicely complemented the biblical images–the Good shepherd, the vine and the branches, the occasional kangaroo.
All of this is not to mention the flocks of galahs and cockatoos, the herd of cattle giving birth on the farm, the southern stars, the amazing hospitality of the Australian Jesuits, the evocative historic cemetery and stations of the cross, the smell of eucalyptus… Much, in short, to be thankful for…
One thought on “The Spiritual Exercises in South Australia”
Fr Tony..thank you again for all you shared with us today..it had a profound effect and I’m very keen to explore more..
With blessings and thanks