Last year, as explained in my first posts (click here and here), I went through some sort of early mid-life crisis. To sum things up, I felt seriously lost. Because of all the series of heartbreaks that I went through, I realized that I was, for a good portion of time, on automatic coping mode.
I figured that I needed to engage in a bunch of activities that would nurture my soul and would help me get to know myself again.
ON BEING A RELUCTANT PARTICIPANT
To be perfectly transparent, I did not sign up for this willingly. In fact, my husband literally had to fill up the form for me.
My qualms about going had nothing to do with any kind of deep spiritual reason though. I was actually relishing the thought of total silence and solitude. I was even looking forward to having some down time with God.
But… how do I put this delicately… the austerity of retreat houses isn’t exactly my cup of tea. I’ve done the whole retreat house living all throughout my student life – and the prospect of a communal bathroom with inadequate heating does not exactly inspire me to be more prayerful.
Of course, my Catholic school-instilled guilt complex got the better of me. Jesus died a painful, gory death on the cross for me – and I’m complaining about sharing a bathroom? Shame on me!
So despite my prissy reservations, I went up to Baguio.
ON THE SILENT RETREAT
The particular retreat that I went to was organized by the Christian Life Community of the Philippines. They’re a Catholic organization whose principles and way of life are founded on the spiritual teachings of St. Ignatius de Loyola.
The retreat schedule was fairly flexible and loose. We were given a set of 4-5 scriptures to reflect on each day during our periods of prayer (more on that later).
But we followed our own timeline. We set when and where we wanted to pray and we could rest, eat or sleep in between. (I have to add that this in it by itself was liberating for me. The last time I was on a retreat was in high school. So I was pretty much like, “Whaaat… I can take naps??? This is awesome!”).
They emphasized however, that the entire the four-day period should be spent contemplating. They asked that we refrain from communicating with anyone. Even unnecessary eye contact with fellow participants should be avoided so we don’t get distracted.
Everyday though, we get a one –hour, one-on-one scheduled sessions with our Spiritual Director. During this time, you are free to talk about your reflections and are given guidance and more scripture to ponder on for the following day.
ON ST. IGNATIUS
To appreciate the structure of the retreat a little better, I think a super brief background on St. Ignatius de Loyola is in order. (I’ll make it quick I swear).
If earlier accounts of his life are to be believed, St. Ignatius was your typical medieval coño douschebag. He was rich, attractive, intelligent and spent a good chunk of his time pursuing fame and glory. Admittedly though, the boy got swag- he was a skilled super solider and had the charms to send women’s hearts aflutter. So for all intents and purposes, he lived a good, pimped up, life.
Until, in one of his battles, his legs got crushed by a cannonball (Yes, a cannonball. The sh*t just got real). His grave injuries sent him on a long, arduous period of recovery.
Because he was bed ridden and had nothing better to do with his time, he started to read about the life of Jesus and became enthralled with learning about the Gospels and saints.
This pivotal moment changed the course of his life and awakened in him a strong desire to serve God.
He eventually founded the Society of Jesus, a religious order that firmly believes that spirituality is a way of life. (Pope Francis, represent!) They believe that a relationship with God is not just fostered through traditional prayer but in more “practical” aspects of human life. He communicates with us through our feelings, our work, our relationship with others etc.
Jesuits believe that engaging in “practical” endeavors- harnessing our talents and connecting with the “real” world – helps us nurture a deeper connection with God. (So it’s not uncommon to see Jesuits pursue more secular callings on top of their “religious” calling. You see a lot of Jesuit missionaries, scientists, mathematicians, psychologists, lawyers etc.)
In a book by Fr. Martin SJ, “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything”, he emphasizes that God desires a personal relationship with us so badly that he finds us wherever we are. We just need to train ourselves to listen.
And, being in a constant state of listening can be better achieved through spiritual exercises.
ON SPIRITUAL EXERCISES
The fascinating thing about Ignatian Spirituality is that their method of prayer is broken down into structured, detailed spiritual exercises. (They even set a time- 30 minutes spent on each prayer period. This gives you enough time to center on God but not enough time to let your thoughts wander).
The methods that we used during our prayer periods were tailored after a couple of these spiritual exercises.
I. PRAYING WITH SCIPTURE (Lectio Divina)
- Silencio – Choose a quiet spot and spend some time preparing for prayer. Just like in any form of meditation, spend a few minutes in silence. Be aware of your thoughts, your surroundings, your feelings. Humbly offer yourself, your intentions and questions to God. Ask for the grace of His presence to fill you.
- Lectio – Go over your selected scripture slowly. Read through the whole passage to get a feel of the message. Then read the passage again, but this time, be aware of any word or sentence in the scripture that evokes a strong emotion in you.
- Meditatio – Stay with that particular phrase or word and allow it to speak to you. Reflect on whatever thoughts, memories, feelings that it invokes. What message is being given to you?
- Oratio– Allow yourself to have an open and honest dialogue with God. Speak to Him about what you feel & think about the message. Ask Him questions, as if you were having a conversation with someone who is tangibly present. Engage with Him.
- Contemplation – Gently let go and end your conversation with a prayer. Quietly leave your place of meditation and spend some time journaling your experience.
II. IGNATIAN CONTEMPLATION
The Ignatian contemplation follows the same structure of Lectio Divina. You basically spend some time in silence, pray for God’s grace and then read your selected passage.
Instead of focusing on a phrase however, you let yourself be carried into the story or scene that you just read: Identify with a person or a character. Immerse yourself in the actual events that happened. Quietly let the scene unfold. Be mindful of what you’re feeling and what your thoughts were while the events are unfolding. Refrain from trying to relate it with anything personal. Just be present in the story.
As with Lectio Divina, you pause to reflect on everything that happened, and then you spend time conversing with God about what you had witnessed. Once you’re finished, you journal about your experience.
I sincerely loved doing these spiritual exercises because it urged us to use all our faculties- our intellect, our bodies, our hearts – when seeking a personal dialogue with God.
I’ve never been one to respond to any kind of formal prayer. I can’t bring myself to pray the rosary. I also kinda glaze over every time I have to go to mass. I just can’t connect with God when I have to be mindful of structure and tradition.
These exercises though had a different effect on me. Yes, it follows a structure. But at the same time, it’s personal. It allowed me to honor my feelings, but at the same time, it stimulated me to think.
More importantly though, it helped me foster a deeper relationship with God.
Just to share briefly, God and I have always had an erratic relationship. Sometimes I feel His presence, sometimes I don’t. But, I’ve never stopped trying to connect with Him.
I can honestly say though, that in all the years that I’ve tried to seek for Him- whether it was in personal prayer; in meditation; through other retreats; through group sharing; through lectures; through other religions- I’ve never felt his presence more tangibly than I did during the times that I did these spiritual exercises.
Will discuss some of my more poignant experiences in another post. I was hoping though, that by sharing this, some of you will actually be motivated to experience the silent retreat for yourselves or at the very least, try out these spiritual exercises. It really does work wonders.