Earlier this year, I had completed St. Ignatius of Loyola’s 30-week Spiritual Exercises, commonly known as the “19th Annotation.” With the guidance of my spiritual director from Daylesford Abbey, Norbertine Father Jim Garvey, I was able to join the thousands, dare I say hundreds of thousands, who have enjoyed the benefits of this ancient spiritual journey.
Written almost 500 years ago, the very same Spiritual Exercises conceived by St. Ignatius himself are used even today.
You may have heard of the Spiritual Exercises, where one can participate in 30 straight days of an intensive remolding of one’s spirituality, where one may go to discern the will of God in one’s life, leading to a personal commitment to follow Jesus, whatever the cost.
In his wisdom, St. Ignatius understood 500 years ago that sometimes it is impossible to block out 30 straight days to engage in intense Scripture immersion, imaginative prayer and self-study of one’s very soul. So he was able to spread these Spiritual Exercises out to 30-plus weeks. I say 30-plus because in this program there is no set timeline to participate and no hard ending date.
Think of it this way: You commit to pray, read Scripture, meditate, contemplate and journal for one hour every day, seven days a week, then on a weekly basis meet with your spiritual director, all for at least 30 weeks. The exercises are set up in a four-week pattern to accommodate the 30-day exercises but for the 19th annotation, one week may take months to accomplish.
And you can’t jump ahead; you work on just one Scripture reading, one exercise at a time. It takes a lot to concentrate on one setting and not jump ahead, and your spiritual director will assist with that accordingly.
The hardest parts were fourfold: 1) concentration; 2) being imaginative, what Ignatius calls imaginative prayer; 3) being vulnerable enough to open up to your own feelings; and 4) having the courage to honestly share those emotions with your spiritual director and others, if you so wish.
The first week — or rather months, since “weeks” are a session and not an actual seven-day period — I can only describe as bringing to light a mental scrapbook filled with past sins and wrongdoings, and suffering and grief. The process involves discovering God’s profound love for us despite our failings. After 61 years in my life there are a lot of things to unpack in that first week.
And joyously, at the end of that first week of exercises the Holy Spirit allowed me comfort in knowing that I am a “beloved sinner.” I realized all the good that I had done in my life far outweighed those sins that I had been sure would distance me forever from God my Father.
In week two, the graces just started pouring out for me. I felt God’s hands with me throughout every chapter of my life from the gratefulness of my own birth onward until this very day. In this week the exercises were experienced through the Christmas season and joyously, through the Spiritual Exercises, every day is now Christmas to me.
In week three sadness struck: the passion, the persecution and death of Jesus Christ tore through me like it was my very life. While you are working through these exercises, you are attempting to experience, feel and share the pain of those torturous beatings and feel those nails piercing the hands of Christ himself.
Thank God for the Resurrection and beyond, because week four takes all that pain and puts it in perspective. This week explores why the passion and resurrection of Christ happened and how it affected not only those present 2,000 years ago, but how it affects us here and now, and how it affects us in the future and where it takes us, both here on Earth and into the Eternal Kingdom.
I don’t want to get involved with “why;” I wanted to experience St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. We all have different reasons for wanting to seek out and grow in our relationship with God. But I will tell you this: I marked off 13 items that caused me heartache and sadness, and through the Spiritual Exercises I was able to place them at the foot of the cross and work through all of them with the help of God.
As a result I am a changed man, mentally, emotionally and physically. I close with a quote from St. Ignatius:
“God freely created us so that we might know, love and serve him in this life and be happy with him forever. God’s purpose in creating us is to draw forth from us a response of love and service here on earth, so that we may attain our goal of everlasting happiness with him in heaven.”
Deacon Michael Kubiak is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, assigned to St. Matthias Parish, Bala Cynwyd.
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