Entrance to the Loyola House in Guelph. Wikimedia Commons

Jesuit centre's spiritual exercises retreat is workout for the soul

  • September 7, 2018

Fr. Roger Yaworski says Loyola House can’t guarantee people will like its Full Spiritual Exercises Experience. The retreat director might not be to their liking, the retreat itself might not meet their expectations, even the food might not tantalize their taste buds.

But Yaworski is certain there is “one gift that we can guarantee” the retreatants who take part in the 40-day experience of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. 

“We can guarantee they will have that solitude,” said Yaworski, the local Jesuit superior and executive director of the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ont.

Solitude and silence is something very foreign to our culture. Indeed, it can scare people. In experiencing solitude though, Yaworski said, “people get to see that the world in which they are living is not exactly the best place to be living.”

Solitude is integral to the Full Spiritual Exercises Experience, said Yaworski. Except for Mass and daily sessions with a retreat director, it is 30 days of silence as people reach deep inside to connect with God.

“Why are people afraid of silence?” asks Yaworski. “And why do we not want to be in touch with our deepest self? The desire that God has for us and our deepest desire are one. So how do we get to know those? It’s through this kind of searching.”

Loyola House at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre has for more than 50 years offered the 40-day experience of prayer and daily guidance with a spiritual director through the Spiritual Exercises of Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola. The next retreat runs Oct. 1 through Nov. 10. The experience aims to help people who are seeking a deeper relationship with God.

It starts with a five-day “disposition” period introducing Ignatian spirituality, terminology, methodology and technique before launching into the 30 days of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Five “appropriation” days at the end allow retreatants to discuss the experience and what it has meant to them.

The Spiritual Exercises grew out of Ignatius’ experience of seeking to grow in union with God and discern His will. He gathered prayers, meditations, reflections and directions and moulded them into the framework of a retreat. He wrote that the Exercises’ purpose is “the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.” 

They are organized into four stages: reflecting on how God’s love has been hindered by our sin, teaching us how to follow Christ as disciples, meditating on Christ’s passion and death, and finally on the Resurrection and walking with the risen Christ in the world.

“Ignatius has worked out quite a system of confronting sin, looking at the life of Christ, looking at Jesus’ passion and death and then looking at the Resurrection,” said Yaworski.

Fr. Greg Kennedy, a spiritual director at Loyola House, likens the Spiritual Exercises to extreme sports, in particular the gruelling Ironman and its 3.68-kilometre swim, followed by a 180-km bike ride and wrapping up with running a full marathon (42 km). 

“Within the circle of Catholic spirituality, the Spiritual Exercises could be considered the Ironman of retreats,” he said. 

While there is the thrill of completing an Ironman in one piece, it can’t compare to the Spiritual Exercises, said Kennedy.

“The endorphin-infused euphoria of completing an Ironman alive doesn’t last nearly as long as the elation caused in the retreatant by the final Spiritual Exercise of bathing in the immensity of God’s ubiquitous love,” he said.

Yaworski says everyone takes something different out of the retreat. For many, it’s a “decision-making tool” that helps in coming to the right conclusion. For others, it can be a month “of deepening their prayer life in terms of the commitment they have already made.” On a personal note, Yaworski said the Exercises have “given me a personal relationship with the Trinity.”

The Jesuits at Loyola House have not been offering the retreat as often as in the past. In its early days, there were waiting lists for each of the four sessions which were filled with men and women entering religious life. Today, with the vocational call in decline, it is offered once a year. But it remains a popular retreat because people are still serious about their spirituality, as witnessed by the 20 people from Canada and beyond who will take part in this year’s Exercises.

“People who are serious about their spiritual life will look for some kind of deepening experience like this,” said Yaworski.

Participants need to take the eight-day silent retreat (with spiritual direction) to familiarize themselves with Ignatian principles before they can move on to the Full Spiritual Exercises Experience. For information on Loyola House and its programs, visit ignatiusguelph.ca.

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