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Retreats: An exercise in devotion

20 May 2019

Interest in Ignatian spirituality is growing, and with it an interest in St Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. Huw Spanner finds out what is involved

A retreatant spends time in the Rose Garden at St Beuno’s, in Tremeirchion, Denbighshire, North Wales

A retreatant spends time in the Rose Garden at St Beuno’s, in Tremeirchion, Denbighshire, North Wales

IF GOING on a spiritual retreat can be likened to ascending a metaphorical mountain, then making the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola might rank as an ascent of Everest.

The 16th-century priest and theologian co-founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in the 1530s and also developed “The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius”, an organised programme of contemplative prayer and reflection designed to develop a deep awareness of God in everything.

As Ignatius envisaged them, the Exercises can be done in 30 days, spent almost entirely in silence but aided by daily meetings with a spiritual director; or over a much longer period, of usually up to a year, as a “retreat in daily life” (also known as a 19th Annotation retreat). A third option, developed for the sake of convenience by retreat houses such as St Beuno’s, in North Wales, the Jesuits in Britain’s residential retreat centre, is to do them in three blocks of ten days, or two blocks of 15 days.

The silent retreats are demanding, the referrals co-ordinator at the London Centre for Spiritual Direction, Antonia Lynn, says. But the retreat in daily life is also a huge commitment — and not only of time. “To do the Spiritual Exercises requires a degree of maturity and robustness,” she says. “It is a long and intense process, and one that goes very deep. Ignatius himself hesitated for a long time before he gave the Exercises even to some of the early Jesuits who became great saints.”

Interest in Ignatian spirituality is growing, Mrs Lynn says, and from a broader spectrum of the Church. Apart from the growing popularity of shorter Ignatian retreats, there is an increasing number of lay people wanting to do the Exercises, and also wanting to train to be able to give them. “There is a demand, a hunger, which I think is very exciting,” she says.

One of those whom she directed in the past is Anne Whitlam, a former head teacher and schools inspector, who made the retreat in daily life some ten years ago. At the time, she was learning how to give spiritual direction herself, and she wanted to know what it felt like to do the Exercises. She found them “really quite tough”, she admits. “They are not called ‘exercises’ lightly.”

She retired early to look after her grandson, but was still working initially when she began the retreat. “My grandson was ten or 11, and he used to sit and play on his Xbox at one end of the loft while I sat at the other end in my prayer corner for an hour. He would be clicking away like mad, and I would just zone him out. Sometimes, if he was particularly loud, I would put headphones on.”

She saw her spiritual director (she prefers the term “companion” or “guide”, as “director” has a connotation of telling you what to do) once a week. Nothing was compulsory, she says. “You do what you feel is right for you and what you negotiate with your companion. An hour a day was right for me, just to reflect quietly and see where I was going.

The interior of the main chapel at St Beuno’s, in Tremeirchion, Denbighshire, North Wales

“I had never before experienced that depth of — ‘enlightenment’ is the only way I can describe it. For example, one day I was contemplating the passage where Jesus walks on the water and calls to Peter to come and join him. I was absolutely astonished to find myself walking across the water to him with no problem at all, but I saw many other people struggling in the water. I said to Jesus: ‘Don’t just stand there, help them!’ And he smiled and said: ‘I am helping them. That’s why you’re here.’

“It was quite frightening, actually, although it was lovely. I told my guide, and she talked me through it, and asked me to contemplate it further and see what happened; so it was not just my imagination running away with me. And, eventually, that cemented itself into a call into the Anglican lay ministry.”


THE Vicar of St Stephen’s, Hightown, about ten miles north of Liverpool, the Revd Jan Ashton, is five months into the retreat in daily life. She expresses some disappointment that, so far, her imagination has not been called much into play. “It’s been much more practical, much more didactic, much more: ‘Look at this passage and see how it affects you.’”

She meets her spiritual director once a fortnight, and finds her quite strict. “It’s flexible, timewise — if I was busy in my parish, I could say to her, ‘Can I come next week?’ — but the homework she gives me is really full-on, and you have to do it. It’s like being back at school. She expects me to keep a log of what I’ve thought about in my prayer time every day, and to give an account of that when I see her. There’s a sense that we’re in this together, and we’re going to do it properly.’’

The Vicar of St Stephen’s, Hightown, near Liverpool, the Revd Jan Ashton

Currently, after completing a great deal of preparation, she is engaged in contemplating her sin. “My director has been encouraging me to look at its source; so I did a sort of genealogy and tried to trace where my sins come from. All that is really difficult and mind-stretching.”

It is not only her mind that is affected, however. “At our chrism mass recently, I had to apologise to the priest sitting next to me because I cried through a good half of it — and I don’t often cry. My husband thought I was ill or something, but it was just that I had realised the consequences of my sin for Jesus.”

Because Ignatian spirituality is person-centred, no two people’s experience of doing the Exercises will be the same. Catherine Mangham, a GP in her fifties, opted to do them in three ten-day blocks. She had been going on retreat for many years, and was starting an eight-day Ignatian retreat at St Beuno’s when her spiritual director suggested that they embark on the Exercises then and there. She had been hoping to discern whether she should give up medicine to become a nun, and this proposal represented a change of direction: “The Spiritual Exercises are not about you. They’re about getting to know Jesus better,” she explains.

She was asked to pray four times a day, and, later, her director suggested that if she woke in the night she might get up and pray then, “if you feel that way inclined”. “At first, you’re probably doing about half an hour at a time, whatever you’re comfortable with, but they encourage you to build that up to an hour.

“As you get towards the end of the Exercises, the lines begin to blur between when you’re praying and when you’re not praying, and you find yourself having conversations in your head, like in daydreams when you’re mulling something over. Some people like to sit in front of a statue or a picture that inspires them; some people get out the clay and start working it. Personally, I liked walking in the Welsh hills.”


A BREAKTHROUGH for her came on the second ten-day retreat, when she was going through St Luke’s Gospel. “I was having two or three dreams every night, and I thought I was going into complete overload. The Passion was incredibly intense emotionally, and I finally hit rock bottom. And then, suddenly, you realise that it’s not all up to you: you just need to ask for help, and you get what you need. And you think: ‘If that’s what it’s about, bring it on.’”

Speaking a day after she completed the Exercises, she reflects: “I don’t think I really had a relationship with Jesus before this. I used to talk to God when I needed something, but I don’t think I ever thought he would respond, and I’ve been utterly amazed at the responses I have had.”

Not everyone who attempts the Exercises is already so experienced. George Jerjian “did the full 30-day whack” at St Beuno’s in January 2016. He had not done the preparatory eight-day retreat that is required, and had to get a special dispensation. “I was coming apart physically. My doctor said I had to sort my life out or it would kill me. I told them that I desperately needed to do the Exercises, and [that] if I did three ten-day spurts I was pretty sure I would only complete the first ten and then bail out. I knew it wouldn’t work for me to do it piecemeal; life would have got in the way.”

He found the Exercises very challenging. “It’s like doing an audit on your life, and doing an audit is difficult and can be boring. People think that silence is easy; it’s actually extremely hard. There are no telephones, no mobiles, no emails, no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no communication whatsoever with the world outside. For me, it was damn hard work, though it was incredibly rewarding.”

He had not realised how difficult praying was, he says. “The longest prayer I had ever prayed previously was probably about five minutes. At St Beuno’s, I’d get up at six, and pray and meditate for an hour.

“After breakfast, I would go to the arts centre to express my thoughts and feelings by painting or sculpting. Then I’d go for a short walk, and then go back to my room to prepare for a half-hour meeting with my spiritual director.

“I’d do another hour’s praying, and then after lunch I’d go out for up to two hours, walking the hills to sweat it out, talking to myself and the sheep. For me, that was the only way to release the pressure. After that, I would make a cup of tea and read some sections of the Bible, and then it was time for mass in the chapel.”

George Jerjian

Initially, he found that his mind was all over the place, but as he went deeper into the silence, many of the distractions “kind of evaporated”, he says.

“When I went there, I thought I was actually a pretty good bloke, but I realised very soon that I’m not. I left St Beuno’s a changed man. I don’t think you can go through a month of self-examination and come out the other end the same person. I came out less detached and less calculating, more genuine, more in touch with my feelings, and stronger in my weakness and vulnerability. The Spiritual Exercises anchored me in myself. I had grown a beard because I didn’t have time to shave, and I’ve kept it ever since to remind me to remain authentic.”


SARAH BARRY*, a barrister and an Anglican, has been going on retreat every couple of years since about 2003. She recently completed a 30-day retreat. “I’d wanted to do the 30-day retreat at St Beuno’s ever since I first heard about it, and I had thought I might do it when I turned 40, back in 2012, but the time wasn’t right. I’m self-employed; so it’s relatively straightforward, but you need to plan the whole year around it if you’re going to take such a massive chunk of time out.”

She says that the Spiritual Exercises had a different quality from other individually guided retreats. “Somehow, I didn’t sink into the silence quite so much as I have on shorter retreats, and I think that’s because you are deliberately keeping all of your senses and capacities alive.” She was asked to do four or five sessions of prayer each day, including, for a time, one in the middle of the night, and many of these required some preparation. “You could be talking about one hour to one-and-a-half hours per session, and then you had to write it up. In a way, it was a bit like work.”

The whole experience was challenging, she says, but she “really enjoyed it, and got a huge amount from it”. She went on it without an agenda, but “did have certain expectations. I was in a bit of a transition, and I kind of thought I was going to come away with an ABC of what to do next in terms of my work and my lifestyle; but, actually, what came out of it was something much more fundamental: a firmer commitment to Christ.”

She has subsequently become more involved as a prayer guide with a Christian organisation, using the Ignatian techniques of imaginative prayer and lectio divina with retreatants in daily life.


THE part played by the spiritual director, Mrs Whitlam says, is to listen for whatever is holding people back. What are they afraid of? What is their deepest attachment? And whatever it takes to show them, you use it. “It might be to get someone to go and stand in front of a picture in the National Gallery for a while. For somebody else who has never enjoyed nature, it might be to go and sit under a tree and just see what crawls over them. It really is very individual.”

She herself, she confesses, was always a bit of a control freak. “I hated being late for anything, and I got really cross with anybody else who was late. So, my guide asked me to be late for everything I went to for a week.

“I lived mostly in my head, and what I learnt from the Exercises was that I didn’t have to be like that. There was a whole other side to me that I wasn’t using, which was the emotional side, and very gradually that was shown to me, through the interpretation of my prayer, through talking with my guide. It was like opening a lot of doors that had been shut for a long time. It changed my relationships with almost everybody, because everything looked different after that.”


* not her real name

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