The Spiritual Exercises in South Australia

Our Lady of the Vines, Sevenhill, Australia

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.

St. Aloysius Church, Sevenhill

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.

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First principle for Lent… and for life

Tomb of St. Ignatius, Church of the Gesù, Rome

Ash Wednesday is once again upon us. This year my Lent will be mostly taken up with doing, for the second time in my life, the 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. So I’ll be off-line and in silence until Holy Week.

As a consideration for the beginning of Lent, then, I thought I’d offer the principle St. Ignatius places at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, what he calls the “First Principle and Foundation”. It’s his way of expressing the truth of the First Commandment: nothing else is as important as right relationship with God, and we should never allow anything else to take God’s place. The value of all the other goods we encounter in this life is entirely relative to whether they help us grow closer to God. In fact, if anything damages or gets in the way of our relationship with God, it is no longer good.

That’s all straightforward enough in theory, but Ignatius gives the consideration a specificity that bites. Giving concreteness to this principle is where the hard work of putting our lives in the right order begins. And that, I suppose, is what Lent is about–giving God his rightful place at the center of our lives.

Here is how Ignatius puts it, and the words I’ll leave you with until Easter… In the meantime, please pray for me as I make my retreat!

FIRST PRINCIPLE AND FOUNDATION

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. 

The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created.  

Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him.

Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.

Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.

More on nature and spirituality

Omarama, New Zealand

My trip to New Zealand last week put me in mind of previous travels in the American West. If I could make one recommendation for travelers to the USA, it would be to visit our National Parks. New Zealand offers similar pristine landscapes, though on a more compact scale. Of course, both landscapes boast their own unique treasures. New Zealand has its fiords and temperate rain forests; the American West, its vast expanses and the red rock sculptures of Utah that look like a landscape dreamed up by Antoni Gaudí.

The trip had me rummaging through old photos of my trips out West and looking up old notes. I had a few thoughts about travel published in Plough a few weeks ago, and that reminded me of an older article in the same magazine inspired by a long drive out West. Here’s that older article: Nature is Your Church? And, to go with it, a few pictures of places mentioned in Montana and Wyoming –Devil’s Canyon, Fort Phil Kearney, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and Glacier.