An Experience of the Spiritual Exercises

As I mentioned already, I spent this past weekend giving a retreat for students and alum of the St. Catherine’s MAT program. Many, but not all of the participants are in a training program to become spiritual directors. The purpose of the retreat was to give the participants some flavor of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

Since the Exercises are traditionally done in a 30-day retreat or (more frequently these days) in the form of 9-month Retreat in Daily Living, all one can do in a weekend is provide a taste of the arc of the Exercises. Still, if I’ve learned anything in my years of serving as a spiritual director and leader of retreats, it is that God does amazing things in whatever time we give him. This weekend was no exception to that rule and the retreatants and I experienced God in very powerful and movings ways.

Over the course of the weekend, I gave talks on each of the major segments of the Spiritual Exercises, after each of which the retreatants had time for individual prayer with material relating to that segment. We also had time for sharing of the experience of the prayer. (Apart from the sharing, the retreatants remained in silence, which was a new – but welcome – experience for some of them.)

I recorded several of the talks I gave during the retreat. Saturday morning I talked about Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises, the longest segment of the Exercises. In Week 2, we reflect on the person and life of Jesus, so that we may grow more and more in love with him and thus chose to follow him closely and faithfully. The podcast begins with a brief reminder about some dynamics of Ignatian Prayer before launching into the discussion of Week 2.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 35:57.)

Note: I also recorded my talk on Week 1 of the Exercises, which you can find here; that podcast runs for 29:54.


It’s All in the Emphasis

One of the songs I played during the weekend Ignatian retreat I gave this past weekend was Danielle Rose’s Agony in the Garden, in which Jesus prays to his father, wondering if there is another path than the one that has been set before him.

The line that struck me was Jesus’ saying: “If your love permits, let this cup pass me by. But let it be as you would have it, not as I,” a line that gets repeated a number of times in the song. The words of the song paraphrase Luke’s Gospel, in which Jesus prays, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.

In some ways, Jesus prayer is not very different from my prayers of petition. I ask God for something I want, some result I would like to see, and almost always remember to add, “But your will be done, Lord.”

But if I’m really honest, I have to admit there is an enormous difference between Jesus prayer and mine. I don’t think I relized how much until I heard those words repeated over and over again in the song.

The difference is not in the words themselves – mine are almost exactly the same as Jesus’ words. The difference lies in the emphasis.

When I hear Jesus says the words, what I hear is: IF if is your will, take this cup away from me; NEVERTHELESS NOT MY WILL, BUT YOURS, BE DONE. I see the first part of the sentence in really small type and the second part big and bold.

When I say the words, they come out very different. It is more like: THIS IS WHAT I WANT LORD, but your will, not mine, be done.

The recognition was a good one. As I contemplate it, I know that I want my version of the prayer to sound more like Jesus’ version. But I know I’m not there yet.

Relax, and Have a Nice Day

I am spending the weekend at The Retreat, a retreat house in Wayzata, where I’m giving a weekend Ignatian retreat to students and alumni of St. Katherine’s MAT (Masters in Theology) program.

On one of the posts near the entrance to the house, there is a sign that reads:

Good morning.
This is God.
I’ll be handling all of your problems today.
So relax, and have a nice day.

It is a great message for retreatants – to know that they can trust God to keep the world spinning on its axis while they are on retreat trying deepen their relationship with God.

But, in a differen way, although we don’t always realize it, God says the same thing to us every morning – indeed, in every moment of day. God is with us in everything we face. None of our problems are ours alone. And so we can relax, confident that God is handling things with us.

As I asked the retreatants during our morning prayer yesterday: What do you need to let God handle for you so you can relax and have a good day?

We Are His Handiwork

Fittingly, given that Mark Osler and I will be engaging in a mid-day dialogue on the subject of Faith and Works at the law school in a couple of weeks, when I randomly opened the Bible, I found myself at Chapter 2 of the Letter to the Ephesians.

In that passage, St. Paul reminds us that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” In fact, to make sure we make no mistake about it, twice in that passage he repeats “by grace you have been saved.” And twice he says, in slightly different ways, it is not by our hand, not by our work that we are saved.

No confusion there. It is not by our own efforts that we have been brought to life in Christ, but by the grace of God.

But – lest that create a different confusion- lest it make us think that now that we have been saved we get to sit back in our armchairs with our feet up waiting around for Judgment Day – Paul goes on in the next sentence to tell us that “we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.”

To say that we are God’s handiwork…that we have been created in Christ Jesus to do God’s work says everything about who we are meant to be in the world. We don’t do good works, the work of God, so that we may be saved. We do it because we have been saved. Because we are God’s handiwork.

PS Mark and my mid-day dialogue will be on February 15; stay tuned for the podcast.

The Cost of Others’ Lives

I was listening to a Danielle Rose CD on the way into work yesterday, one of the disks of Mysteries, a 2-Cd set. As I was listening to Crucify Him, a song that is spoken from the perspective of the mob of Jerusalem, the line that struck me was:

Do we stay silent while the world screams out its lies? Sell your body, buy your beauty, live at the cost of others’ lives.

Specifically, the line that stuck in my head was “live at the cost of others’ lives.” In what ways do we live at the cost of others’ lives? I’m thinking it is not too difficult to find examples.

Buying fair trade goods (e.g. fair trade coffee) costs a bit more than non-fair trade coffee. But, every time we buy non-fair trade goods, aren’t we living at the cost of another’s life? Shouldn’t we be paying more if “more” means a fair price for the goods?

When we buy chocolate that is produced by the labor of children who are the victims of trafficking, aren’t we living at the cost of others’ lives?

We can all come up with examples beyond these two, but the point is broader than any specific example. We we all need to examine all of the decisions we make to ask: are there ways I am living at the cost of others’ lives? Are there ways I am not valuing the dignity of all human persons? And if so, what do I need to do to change that.

The Process of Conversion

Yesterday I gave the reflection at our Weekly Manna gathering at the Law School. I had been planning to talk on the subject of Prophets vs. Protesters and had spent some time the day before thinking about my remarks. However, on the way to the law school yesterday, I stopped for morning mass at my new parish, Christ the King. It happened that yesterday was the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul and the first Mass reading was Paul’s account in Acts of his conversion experience. After listening to the reading and to Fr. Dale’s sermon, I decided to change my topic and speak about conversion.

The story of Paul’s conversion in Acts is a great story, a dramatic story. It is the kind of redemption story we love to hear. (As I said to the students yesterday – who didn’t love the scene in Star Wars Episode Six when Darth Vadar sees the light and saves his son…who wasn’t smiling (or in tears) when we see his redeemed spirit with Obiwan and Yoda at the end of the film.)

The risk of such dramatic stories is that we see conversion as a single dramatic event. It is true that we all have some significant conversion events in our lives, moments we can look back at and say – something significant happened to me here, events after which nothing is really the same. (And I shared a couple of mine with the students.)

But looking back at those moments, and at what transpired between them, helps us to see that we are engaged in an ongoing process of conversion that continues and is not complete until we die.

One important implication of this, and this is one of the points Fr. Dale raised in his homily yesterday morning, is that our conversion doesn’t proceed in one direction. Conversion can be called a process of moving closer and closer to union with God, but the reality is that sometimes we do better than others. Sometimes we move closer…and sometimes we take a step or two back.

Understanding conversion as process also helps us understand how important are each of the steps we take along the path of our conversion journey. We have such a strong tendency to judge harshly what we in hindsight view as missteps along the way. It is so very easy for us to forget that everything we experience and learn from contributes to our growth process, is part of who we have become and how we relate to God and others, and is a potential source of grace. For me – some one who returned to Christianity after spending 20 years of her adult life as Buddhist, this meant coming to understand that my years as a Buddhist, far from being a misstep, were an integral part of my spiritual journey.

So, by all means, enjoy story like Paul’s conversion. But don’t be fooled into thinking conversion happens in a flash and is done.

Shedding Possessions

A couple of weeks ago, my friend George brought a website to my attention,, a site that allows one to set personal goals and track the progress toward those goals. The site also has challenges that one can enter with other members of the site.

One of the challenges that caught my eye immediately was “Shed 100 possessions.” As my husband can attest, I periodically look around the house and get crazy at all that we have. “We have too many things,” I cry out. This is usually followed by my walking around the house stuffing things in a paper bag to get rid of. Loving the idea of encouragement to get rid of more, I entered the challenge and am working my way toward reaching 100.

I don’t always easily find the words to explain this impetus to my husband. But, I know it is a good one. In a wonderful coincidence of timing, shortly after I began the “Shed 100 possessions” challenge, I came across this excerpt from Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. I think it does a great job of explaining why the impetus is positive. Rohr writes:

Living in the second half of life, I no longer have to prove that I or my group is the best, that my ethnicity is superior, that my religion is the only one that God loves, or that my role and place in society deserve superior treatment. I am not preoccupied with collecting more goods and services; quite simply, my desire and effort—every day—is to pay back, to give back to the world a bit of what I have received. I now realize that I have been gratuitously given to–from the universe, from society, and from God. I try now, as Elizabeth Seton said, “to live simply so that others can simply live.”

For St. Vincent de Paul, one of the five characterisic virues is simplicity. I can’t say I’ve achieved it (far from it), but I’m working on it.

Strenuous Yet Relaxed

One of the books I’m currently reading is Where God Happens, by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. I have no basis on which to evaluate Williams as a prelate, but I always benefit from his writing. In this book, he brings forth the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, focusing on the relevance of their teaching to our lives today.

One of the things Williams talks about in the book is the need for us to be “strenuous yet relaxed.” He observes that we know how to talk about being strenuous, that is, to “portray Christian life as a struggle, a drama, in which we’re called to heroic achievement and endurance.” We also, he says, know how to talk about being relaxed, that is our need to rely on God’s mercy. However, he observes, it is less easy for us to understand how to hold those two together.

The desert fathers help us understand how to do that. They had an enormous awareness of, and deep sorrow for, their own sinfulness. But they also knew that God heals and accepts us no matter what. Williams writes that the desert fathers

are not, in their tears and penances, trying to make up their debt to God. They know as well as any Christian that this is paid once and for all by the mercy that arrives in advance of all our repentance. They simply want to be sure that this assurance of mercy does not make them deceive themselves about why mercy is needed, by themselves and others. If they continue with this awareness of the sinful and needy self, it is so that they will understand the tears and self-hatred of others and know how to bring them to Christ by their unqualified acceptance and gentleness.

Thus, explains Williams, we need to be both strenuous in our “effort to keep before our eyes the truth of our condition,” yet relaxed “in the knowledge of a mercy that cannot ever be exhausted.”

Williams goes on to say that we can only fully understand what it means to be strenuous, yet relaxed in the context of community, for it is in community that we learn the nature of God’s mercy.

Learning from Ruth and Naomi

Saturday morning, I gave a mini-retreat for women at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina. I was delighted that so many women were able to come out on a cold morning to spend three hours with me, each other, and God.

I drew from Joan Chittister’s book, The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Women’s Life, as the basis for our time together.  Chittister sees the biblical women Ruth and Naomi as metaphors, as models of all of the women of the world, and she uses their story as a way to identify the defining moments “that mark every women’s passage through time in a way separate from the men around her and that shape her as she goes.”

In the first part of the morning, I retold the story of Ruth and Naomi, with a focus on its revelation of the defining moments in our lives as women. I then focused on the first of the defining moments Chittister identifies in her book: loss, talking both about our experiences of loss and the invitation to change that flows from loss. Each of those talks was followed by a period of quiet reflection as well as small group sharing and large group discussion. I ended by talking a little about the final moment revealed by the story of Ruth and Naomi: fulfillment and our invitation to explore how we bring ourselves to fulfillments, and in so doing, make the world a fuller place as well.

I am enormously grateful to the women who participated in our mini-retreat. The sharing was rich and God’s graces flowed.

I recorded the two main talks I gave, which you can access here and here. (Each podcast runs for about 22.5 minutes.) Alternatively, you can stream them both from here.

The Story of Ruth and Naomi:

Loss and the Change it Invites Us To:

We Are Strong When We Are Weak

The Gospel for Mass today is St Mark’s account of the call of Simon and Andrew and James and John. In his sermon at Mass Saturday evening at Christ the King, Fr. Dale said we are mistaken if we put our focus on Simon and his fellow fisherman. The passage is not really about them and their strength in dropping everything and following Jesus. Rather, it is about God’s power – and God’s ability to create faith where none existed before, God’s ability to create disciples where none existed before.

It is essential for us to realize that we don’t operate on our own power. This is something that came up, not only in Fr. Dale’s sermon, but in the Women’s Retreat I gave at St. Stephen’ Episcopal yesterday. (More about that, tomorrow.) We are most strong precisely when we realize how weak we are – how dependent we are on God – the God who will always be with us, who will always be a source of strength and direction for us.

Our task is to be open enough to allow God in, and to realize that, with God’s help, we can further God’s plan whatever our situation. It brought a smile to my face when Fr. Dale quoted in his sermon a prayer of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s that I have used often. Here is an excerpt:

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel…. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.

Do we have that trust? The trust that allowed Simon and Andrew, and James and John to drop everything when Jesus called. To trust that whatever they were and were not, they could be part of Jesus’ plan?