Ignatius’ Exercises a spiritual workout

By  Fr. Dominic Barber, Catholic Register Special
  • September 16, 2017

“Take O take me as I am. Summon out what I shall be. Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.”

Together we retreatants joined in this sung refrain at the end of our three-day orientation which prepared us to undergo the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. These words found a place in my heart as I tentatively pushed off from the shore of what normally surrounds me in my day to day existence — parish ministry, Internet, TV, radio, movies, books, cell phones, friends, family — in order to enter into a time of silence, a slower pace of life and prayer. I use the word tentative because I had never undergone this length of retreat before, a 30-day retreat structured around the Spiritual Exercises developed by St. Ignatius Loyola almost 500 years ago.

What is it about retreats that attract me? Why go? Retreats of various lengths and forms have been significant in my faith and vocational journey, helping me to discern, to listen and be attentive in a way that can be very difficult in the hectic pace that most of us live our lives. Any time I have tried to be generous with my time with the Lord on retreat, He has been super-abundantly generous with me, blessing me with much more than the little bit that I gave Him. And I just felt I needed to look in a focused way what it means to rely less on myself and more on God.

I sensed that to undergo that shift I would have to give God more room to root around the interior rooms of my heart where lay the poverties of my life, the places that were wonky; the sin, the weaknesses, the insecurities, the rooms that I would not normally take guests into if they ever visited me. Life often seems to be more manageable if people stay in the living room where there is a modicum of order and neatness.

So off I set, praying, dutifully doing all the exercises that my director gave me. I truly did have a wonderful time with the Lord, particularly with Jesus, as I meditated upon the gospel passages tracing the Incarnation, the little known life of Jesus in Nazareth, Jesus’ public ministry, His Passion, death and resurrection.

I did have a feeling at the end of Spiritual Exercises that I had completed some kind of pilgrimage and had come back a little more spiritually aware, a little more sensitive to the currents that swirl around my heart and prompt me to act or not act. I felt very grateful to St. Ignatius for having developed these exercises based on his own spiritual experiences and which now form part of the spiritual treasury of the Church. I deeply felt the desire to, and prayerfully did, recommit my life to the Lord.

I also, despite my own knowledge that grace cannot be manufactured or earned, had an expectation that having “strengthened” my spiritual muscles I could now give some of my weaknesses a good drop kick and be rid of them. Yes, my spiritual chest puffed up a bit as I prepared to enter into the flow of life back at the parish.

Within a week of returning, though, I landed on my spiritual rear, humbled once more at how my weakness got the better of me. OK, Lord, I thought, what is going on? How did this happen, I asked myself as I did my nightly Examen?

Then, the song that we sung at the beginning of the retreat and which I found myself humming over and over again came to the surface of my consciousness.

“Take O take me as I am.”

This is all the Lord wants from us — we do not have to get everything right before we go on retreat, nor should we expect to get everything right having gone on a retreat. We just simply give ourselves over to the Lord, dispose ourselves and give Him permission to work on us. Then in faith, let Him summon out from us whatever it is that will help us to grow in His image and likeness, what will bring us a little further on the road of who and what we are made to be.

That is the important part, to recognize that after showing up it is really God’s work, not ours. Do not be afraid to let Him possess you, to allow Him to set His seal upon your heart, because being possessed by God sets us free. And, in that freedom, we can begin to experience and marvel at how God is living in us, how grace is moving in us, in spite of ourselves and whatever craziness our humanity takes us into.

As St. Paul wrote to Christians in Rome, “We have all been imprisoned in disobedience so that God can be merciful to all” (Romans 11.32). The Ignatian Exercises have helped me to find new life in God.

(Fr. Barber is the pastor at St. Patrick’s parish in Markham, Ont.)

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