When my youngest child was 4, I re-entered the workforce after spending time at home raising three children.
Even though I started as a part-time employee, I felt pressured. I was uneasy with myself, often stressed, and during that first year back at work, a family medical crisis added to my lack of peace.
What saved me that year, and what makes that year so memorable, was taking part in what’s called the 19th annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. A moms’ group in my parish arranged participation in this prayer retreat through a local Jesuit retreat house. We met at the parish, so convenient for me, and the moms arranged the meeting time so that it fit into my work schedule.
Looking back, I realize how God worked in my life to make that happen. Margot Patterson, writing in National Catholic Reporter in 2001, says the exercises, as they’re called, have “been called a school for freedom, a work of teacherly genius and a powerful tool for conversion.”
But what exactly are the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola? First, St. Ignatius was the founder of the Jesuits, and he formulated a program of meditation, prayer and contemplation, which for many centuries was performed during a silent retreat that lasted for 30 days. This is what people refer to when they talk about the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola or the exercises.
The length of time alone would rule out most of us out of taking advantage of them. Fortunately, over several years, the exercises have been adapted in ways that make it possible for busy people to experience the retreat over a period of months. These exercises can take place in the midst of our active lives and are called the 19th annotation.
Do you remember when Pope Francis was interviewed very early in his papacy and was asked, “Who are you?” His answer: “I am a sinner.” But he didn’t stop there, indeed he added something very joyful and Ignatian. He said, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” A sinner, yet loved deeply by God, and God’s love is much stronger than our failings. That’s a lesson right out of the exercises.
I think it has taken me 20 years since I first made the exercises to really accept that God loves me — and I’m still working on it.
In theory, I always believed God loved me. The catechism tells me that and Scripture certainly does. But somewhere in my religious education, I came to see a judgmental God, a God who kept “grocery lists” of my sins and loved me with a conditional love. When I was good, God loved me, but I was never good enough.
But through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, I felt liberated. I felt as if I’d met the real God, the one who is like the prodigal son’s father — always looking down the road and hoping to see us coming, over and over again.
Our group met weekly, with a facilitator, to discuss what we were individually hearing in prayer. Each day, we prayed alone, led by meditations we were given. It was the first time in my life when I really established a set time and schedule for prayer. That in itself was liberating.
In a sense, the exercises taught me not just to pray but to better understand the God to whom I prayed and who prayed through me.