All are welcome: the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

Trinity Icon

Let us build a house where all are named,

their song and vision heard,

and loved and treasured, taught and claimed,

as words within the Word.  

Built of tears and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace,

let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:

All are welcome, All are welcome, All are welcome in this place!

Image:  Trinity, Andrei Rublev,  1411 or 1425-27
Text: Marty Haugen, Copyright icon centered 1994 GIA Publications, Inc.

Dear Jesuit women and friends,

On the day of this post, it has been exactly 90 days since I emerged from the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which are, quite simply, a miracle.  The purpose of this post is to encourage you see them as both an accessible miracle and a necessary miracle.  It is sometimes said that these Exercises are made by invitation – that God invites us into them, and meets us there.  But what we forget to say is that the desire itself is God’s invitation.  So it follows that if you have ever desired to make this 30-day silent retreat, then you are welcome.  It is God who invites you.  God is waiting for you.  Listen to God, and help God get you there!

There are two main forms, and a great many variations of the full Spiritual Exercises.  The main point is, to find the form of the Exercises that draws you, and when the time is right, to make the retreat.

Here is a pithy description of what actually happens:

One month long, this retreat is divided into four flexible weeks of meditation: the first week is on the principle and foundation of life; the second on the life of Jesus; the third on the passion and death he suffered; and the fourth on the new, resurrected life of the children of God.

And the fifth week is the rest of the Jesuit’s life.

(William J. O’Malley, SJ, The Fifth Week: Loyola Press, 1999)

It is said of the Exercises that you do not stop praying them on Day 30.  That instead, you will live and “unpack” them for the rest of your life.  The rest of your life is “The Fifth Week.” And it’s true that the Exercises call a person to live in a new way.  I am still myself – in a way, I am even more myself, because in the process of the Exercises, God gives a person back many parts of herself that have been forgotten or buried by the cares, concerns, compulsions, and hurts that we all pass through in this life.

One of the remarkable features of the Spiritual Exercises is their flexibility.  In the deep space created by silence, rest, prayer, and spiritual direction, God speaks to each person individually.  This means that God will speak to you through your own Exercises, much better than I can by telling you about mine.  God, having known and loved you first, will communicate through the language of your own thoughts, memories, hopes, fears, and meaningful images.  And in sharing a few thoughts and images from my own experience, I hope mainly to encourage you to enter that space and let God speak to you.  (And if you’re so inclined, to then contact me so that we can unpack some of the experiences together!)

I experienced these Exercises in three surprising ways: as a school of prayer, as an intensive healing space, and as a house of welcome. And good news! In the 5th Week, the prayer, the healing, and the welcome all continue to unfold.

A School of Prayer

I remember the night five years ago that the little flame of desire in me to make the Spiritual Exercises was lit.  For about 6 months I had been wanting to go to Church again, and especially felt the desire to learn how to pray.  But I was busy and preoccupied.  My dad had died recently, and between working full-time while going back to school, and going through an extended break-up with my partner of 5 years, I didn’t know where to start to bring prayer back into my life.  And although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was also ashamed to bring my problems and rough edges to God.  I loved God, but unconsciously believed that in order to preserve the relationship, I could not actually tell God the whole truth about my thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  However, in early spring of that year, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, “Jesuit!” and as a Google search for a Jesuit parish led me to a description of the Exercises, I wanted very much to go on retreat.  The distance between that vision of a 30-day retreat with God, and the busy, driven and highly caffeinated life I was leading, felt huge.  Nonetheless, that vision lit the flame that fueled my heart on a pathway to God.

This seems to be a common experience among busy human beings, whether things are going well or not.  We know we want to learn to pray, but the hard question is how?  How do we actually make space and time for God to speak into our lives, and to feel God’s embrace?

More good news: God wants us to learn how to pray, too, and is willing to go to great lengths to form and teach us. One example of the great investment that God is willing to make to meet us where we are, is the Jesuit path of formation itself.  A Jesuit completes the full 30-day Spiritual Exercises, also known as the “Long Retreat,” twice: once at the start of the formal path of formation, and once at its end, with fifteen years of prayer, ministry, community life, and study in-between.  I used to think that this seemed kind of lavish – if I were to become a Jesuit, why would I do a 30-day retreat at the start of formation?  Wasn’t it more of a culmination, something for holy people, proven people, special people who were already strong in prayer?

Not so.  In fact, last year I learned that a novice does it as the very first experiment.  And over time, I had developed more trust, both in the transformative power of a Jesuit pathway to God, and in the call in my heart to follow that pathway generously, with integrity, according to my circumstances.  So with a couple of years of spiritual direction and a little short retreat practice in tow, I finally took the leap and applied to go on the “Long Retreat.”  (Yes, at most retreat houses there is an application process. It isn’t difficult, but it does give you the chance to examine your life, your motives, how God has called you here, what kind of a director you are seeking, and whether this is indeed the time to go.  It’s really helpful.)

As a committed beginner in prayer, what I discovered inside the Exercises is that the “Long Retreat” is actually a great first experiment for a person who has some foundation in Ignatian spirituality, and wants to more fully inhabit a life of prayer. Because the Exercises themselves are a school of prayer!

Let’s relate this to a pretty common (though admittedly not universal) experience for a college student in the United States, which is the country I happen to be from.  Imagine for a moment that you’re this student, about to graduate and enter a service profession, and English happens to be your only language.  So because you live in the US (where according to the census, over one in ten of your fellow Americans speak principally Spanish in the home) you choose to learn Spanish.  You took two years of classes in high school and learned how to communicate at the level of an average 10- or 12-year-old.  But in order to serve your future clients better, you desire to bring your Spanish to the next level.  So you save up (or even more commonly, take out a student loan!) of $2500 for tuition, room and board. You set aside four weeks one summer, buying the cheapest ticket you can to Cuernavaca, Mexico.  There you study Spanish full-time in a setting that forces you to use it: at home, at the grocery store, in the dance hall, in restaurants, in banks, and while buying movie tickets.

Along the way, you develop a real enthusiasm for Spanish.  Suddenly in Cuernavaca it becomes a living language for you, with slang, abbreviations, history and cultural idiosyncrasies.  You learn that here you are called estadounidense, “United Statesian,” and you start to associate certain words and phrases with funny, tender memories of getting to know your host family.  Then you start to learn words and phrases that have no real translation in English, because they spring not from the experience of being estadounidense, but from your host family’s experience of being mexicano.  You know your Spanish has reached the next level the day that somebody tells a joke at dinner, and you actually laugh along with everybody else!  You come home with a new flame of passion for Spanish in your heart, a new sense of shared experience, and an even deeper desire to know the Spanish-speaking clients that you serve.

Bringing this back to prayer: the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises could be compared to a month-long immersion course in Spanish, except that in the Spiritual Exercises, you have invested your money, time, and energy into learning God’s language.  Your whole life so far has prepared you for it – all the prayers you memorized as a kid, the hours that you spent in Mass or at Service (even if you thought it was incredibly boring!); the relationships that you had with your parents, siblings, extended family, friends, neighbors, and sweethearts; the songs that got stuck in your head; and your favorite holidays, favorite pets, favorite poems, foods, travel experiences.  Even your personal tragedies, the times that you suffered or became acutely aware of the suffering of others, have prepared you to learn God’s language.  Everything that makes you “You,” God will use.

Along the way, you develop a personal prayer language and practice with God.  You are encouraged to ask for what you want in every prayer period, and to recognize when and how God offers it. You learn that every prayer period is different, and that there is not just one “right” way to pray.  You may start to tell the difference between when you are calling God to prayer, and when God is calling you to prayer (a two-way street!). You get to know very practical things about prayer, such as how long your own natural “hour of prayer” actually is (mine is about 40 minutes), and the felt difference between prayers of consideration, meditation, and contemplation. You learn how God speaks “through” and gets “under” the words of the Scriptures, delivering surprising insights that you never would have received if you hadn’t prayed with a passage. (For example, ever wonder where the women disciples were during the Last Supper? Make the Exercises, and let me know what you find out!)

There are lots of surprises on the Long Retreat.  As the learning progresses, you may become more transparent before God by sharing your thoughts and feelings without censorship, and in doing this, you may learn about what matters most deeply to God, and experience God as vulnerable, too.   You may experience what it means to be God’s daughter, or what it means to share in the life of the Trinity, or maybe you will hear Jesus’ heartbeat.  You and God may develop little personal jokes and family stories.  God may sing to you, or speak to you through images, or call up long-forgotten memories and say “Remember that?  I was there.”  God brings you exactly what you need, in the way that you need it.  Through this mutual giving and receiving, the boundary between “God outside” and “God within” may begin to dissolve, to the point that listening to God and listening to your heart no longer feel like separate activities.  And as the silence and stillness deepen, you may experience it all as profoundly healing.

A Healing Space

So far we have been talking about what might happen on “your” Exercises, based loosely on the sharing of experience that I heard from the small cohort with whom I made the retreat on our “Days of Repose.” (Yes, you do get to talk for a couple of days during the retreat!)  But at this point I will stop speculating about “your” Exercises, the Exercises that I hope you will share with me sometime, in order to relate some particulars of my own retreat – just a few vivid examples of the teaching and healing that God is eager to work in every single life.

If the Church, as Pope Francis has said, can be seen as a “field hospital” for the broken, the wounded and the hurting in the world, then the space created by my 30-Day Spiritual Exercises might be seen as a kind of “operating tent” in this hospital, safe and clean and organized enough that a massive tumor could be discovered and removed, the organs re-arranged, the gaping wound irrigated and lovingly tended, and the heart left open, uncovered, without fear for my life.

Just as an operating tent has its own processes to protect the safety and well-being of the patient, my Exercises moved thematically from God’s profound love (Disposition Days), to the reality of sin and suffering (Week 1), to Jesus’ humanity and his desire for friendship with each of us (Week 2), to the sacrifice he made for his friends (Week 3), and finally to the reality of the Resurrection (Week 4). In the final days of retreat, our prayer landed again on God’s profound and intricate love for the universe (Contemplatio).   I experienced these thematic “movements” as a series of healings that flowed one into another, each healing leaving me more free, more alive, and more deeply trusting of God’s goodness, providence, and deep personal care for me.  That massive spiritual tumor, the fundamental interior unfreedom that had been occultly growing for years inside of me, was discovered on Day 8 and removed on Day 15 of the retreat, somewhere in the middle of Week 2. The personal details of that healing are not as important, at this moment, as its context. It arose as part of an evolving constellation of images and insights that changed how I saw God, myself, and others. And particularly, two healing images which arose repeatedly in prayer have significantly changed how I live.

The first image was prompted by Ignatius’ “Meditation on Sin.”  It’s important to note here that in the Exercises you do not meditate on sin without first meditating on God’s love.  For several days, my cohort and I had silently experienced God’s active and abiding love for us in the form of prayer with Scripture, the natural world, and the amazing Soul and Cajun Food at the retreat center that hosted us.   (Another thing we often forget to say, when we are talking about the key lessons of the Spiritual Exercises, is that you learn three times a day how the highest place in Heaven, that throne beside King Jesus that John and Andrew coveted (Mk 10:37), is actually reserved for the one who cooks!)

So clearly, by the time I hit the “Meditation on Sin,” I was already saturated in love.  This love imbued a whole new image of what sin actually is, and how it is remedied.  Sin is only, and forever, a shutting-off to love.  God, as we have so often heard, is Love (1 John 4:16.)  God cannot help but love.  God’s love spilling over is how I exist at all.  But love is not love without freedom!  And so God, by God’s nature, had to give me freedom to choose my path, because if God were to coerce me to receive love, it would not be love, but aggression and control.  And so God created me with free will, because God is Love!  In this Meditation on Sin, a clear image arose in my mind of a door on the mind and heart of every human being, a door that can remain open to receive God’s love, or can shut God’s love out.  When the door shuts and we act on that, we call it sin.  When the door opens, we call it love, and what pours through the door is grace.  The beauty in this insight was how practical it was.  If the door could open and shut, then when I noticed it was shut, I could pray for it to open.  Simple as that.  And this is what I did, over and over again, on the Exercises.  Notice that the door to love is shut.  Pray for it to open.  Notice when the grace is received. Simple. Not always easy, but at least simple.

The second image served to extend the first.  This image came with Ignatius’ “Contemplation of the Incarnation,” in which the retreatant imagines the Trinity discussing whether and how one Person will enter the world in order to save it.  (I should tell you here, that while God spoke to Ignatius of Loyola in courtly, luminous visions, and to Teresa of Avila in sensory ecstasies, God typically spoke to me using Popular English-Language Movie Classics of the ’80s and ’90s: E.T.!  The Never-Ending Story! Forrest Gump!  American Beauty!  At first I thought God was just low-balling, but now I prefer to think of God as the ultimate Pragmatist, using whatever works to communicate the message. You’ll have to tell me what God used to communicate with you, and let me live vicariously through your ecstasies.)

So while contemplating the Incarnation, I found myself looking out upon a fascinatingly weird hybrid of Trinity (the painting you see above, by the 15th century Russian monk and iconographer Andrei Rublev) and the scene in which Atreyu is missioned by the Southern Oracle in that great 1980’s movie classic, The Never-Ending Story.  In this oddly beautiful imaginative prayer, I was very content just to stand back and contemplate the Trinity, pink and gold and luminous, around their friendly table.  But the Trinity wanted more than that.  They instantly, even casually, beckoned me into their circle, and though a little hesitant, I agreed.  As they offered me a hand onto the table, I suddenly realized how incredibly huge they were, and how unimaginably tiny I was.  They were like massive burning suns in black space, absolutely still and yet roaring, seething with energy at the same time.  I listened as the Second Person volunteered to become human. They looked upon that Person with tenderness, knowing the suffering that was to come.  I felt their infinite compassion and loving-kindness toward the human race, including me, this tiny ant-person on the table.

At that moment I felt the real miracle of the Incarnation – that Jesus was completely human and yet could not shut the door on God.  Because he was God!  “Begotten, not made,” as we say in the Creed. He was the Second Person in the Trinity, who chose to experience every human limitation except being able to shut the door on God’s love.  By choosing this,  he lived a life that helps me both to understand my limitations, and to experience how, by God’s grace alone, I might transcend them in various ways.  By his young mother’s deep commitment and thoughtful “Yes,” this person opened the door to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person, into all flesh. Including mine! So every time I see my own little door shut in fear, distraction, or self-absorption, and pray that my own little door be opened to listen, receive, or reach out, I actually participate in the glorious life of the Trinity. So simple, practical, possible, and free, this continual transcendence of my tiny ant-self.

From these two images together flowed a deep joy that confounded me.  In my Week 1 journal there is a scribble that says, “Almost goofy blissful…Ask myself, why feel this way when I’m studying SIN?  Thought: it’s because sin has a recourse, an ever-available remedy.  Turn to God.” This changed how I approach life, because now I am ready, almost eager, to know my sins – all the ways that I turn away from God and turn away from myself and others – all my fear and judgment and withholding and hedgebetting and vainglory, my egoism and racism and sexism and consumerism and clericalism and workaholism. The sin in me runs deep. But God’s mercy, and my own inherited goodness? Deeper. This is Good News. And like the Prodigal Father (Lk 15:11-32) or the Great Mother (Is 49:15), God is always there to welcome me home.

A House of Welcome

Which brings us back to the song:  “All Are Welcome!

And a story about this song: there a Jesuit man in my faith community, who is well past 60 years into his formation and has a sense of humor that is equally dry and sweet, like a perfect martini. (Life goals!)  He uses this song by Marty Haugen as either the entrance or the exit hymn, nearly every time he celebrates mass.  And that’s a lot.  He argues that it doesn’t matter what the Scripture is for the day – this song always fits.  It’s the mission of the Church.

On the Long Retreat, having heard the first three verses many times in my faith community, I was floored one day by the opportunity to hear the sixth verse at a daily mass.  “Named, heard, loved, treasured, taught, and claimed” – that’s how people feel in a house of true faith.  Welcomed!

The Exercises are a house of welcome on so many levels.  At a very basic level, the retreat house where I stayed was welcoming.  The building itself was intimidating on my first night there.  It a large, venerable former college building, and had three wings, one for the active and retired Jesuit communities, one for the novices, and one for retreatants.  But within a few days, I felt really welcomed.  Before going into silence, I was able to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day with the building staff, my cohort, and all my future brothers and fathers in the Exercises, just chatting and getting to know each other.  There was a feeling of family in the house – and I don’t mean family in a rosy, denial-saturated kind of way – I mean a real family.  One that prays together, stays together, works together through neurosis and runs on a fundamental principle of welcome.

After our cohort had settled into this basic level of welcome and had moved into silence, my retreat director intensified the feeling.  Each day she created a space in which all my thoughts, feelings, and spiritual movements were welcome.  “Bring it all!” she said in the beginning. “Don’t judge it!  Just write it all down, bring it, and we’ll discern the spirits together.”  This was news to me, that I didn’t have to try to pray in a certain way, or achieve anything in prayer.  Prayer was simply a place where God could speak to me, and where I could tell God about my feelings and desires, too.

With the help of my director, I began to feel an even deeper sense of welcome – God’s welcome.  This was a very intimate place, where I could be happy, playful, tired, grateful, edgy, lustful, raging or railing, profoundly regretful, dull and distracted, or weeping with some realization.  God welcomed it all with open arms, and so my trust grew.

It grew to the point that one night I had a dream that really disturbed me.  In the dream, I had ridden my bicycle a long way into the city to make amends with a person that I had once cut out of my life suddenly, due to circumstances that were not of her making, but my own.  I was getting back onto my bicycle, feeling reassured that she was all right, and we could both move forward with our lives.  But as I rode away from corner where we met, I saw just across the street a very long, double-wide line of people waiting to enter a shabby 3-story motel for the night.  These people were in a state of utter chaos – disheveled, filthy, clothes falling off, wounded, and emotionally out of control.  They yelled and spit at each other, wrestled on the ground, fought over trash, conned and cajoled, gestured obscenely and made unwanted sexual advances on each other.  There was an overwhelming atmosphere of hunger, loneliness, and depravity.  And yet in some improbable way, the line was orderly.  They knew why they were there.  They were waiting to get into the motel for the night.

In the dream I felt ashamed, because I was unwilling to meet them.  I averted my eyes and rode my bicycle on like the rich man, stepping over Lazarus on his doorstep (Lk 15:11-32).  When I woke up, I thought this dream was about my fear of deeply engaging the suffering of others in my work as a nurse.  But in spiritual direction that day, I realized that actually, the dream was pointing out something even more fundamental, which if remedied, could still help me encounter suffering in others with greater authenticity.

I realized that every disheveled, hungry person in that line was a neglected or disdained part of myself.  And the task, both during retreat and in life after retreat, was to welcome every one of them into my house with love.  Named, heard, loved, treasured, taught, and claimed.  Imagine it: “Ah, Woman-who-is-mean-to-her-mother! Welcome!  Have you had anything to eat?  Please come in, and sit down.  Tell me your story.”  Or, “Hello, Woman-who-interrupts-people-in-conversation.  You look like you could use some warm, fresh clothing, a hot drink, and a clean bed.  I’d love to hear what makes you happy.”

The line went on, but you get the idea.  This is one of the many forms of magic in the Exercises: we are invited, in God’s presence and care, to become the “house where all are named.”  This is what it means to become integral, whole – when no part of me is disowned, I become a safer and safer space for others, and Christ shines through me more and more as I become increasingly transparent before God and the world.  The Exercises were the House, and now I am the House.  My family is the House.  All my relationships become the House.  The Society of Jesus and the Jesuit family become the House.  The Church becomes the House.  And at last I am able to see that the World is my House.  But it all starts with the conversion of one person.

This seems to be the essential message of a Jesuit life.  It grows from a foundation in the Spiritual Exercises, which deeply ground a person in “two facets of the gospel message, [that] Jesus Christ has come to set us free and to make us more alive” (O’Malley, xiii).  From this freedom and life will flow many commitments, and a deeper and ever-more-subtle letting-go of selfish concerns, in the great enterprise which is putting on the mind and priorities of Jesus Christ amidst all the complexity of life in the world.  I talk like I know what that looks like, but in fact I am a total beginner.  What I learned on the Exercises is, that’s okay.

So there you go!  All are welcome in the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which are a school of prayer, a healing space, a house of welcome, and so much more.  I simply cannot wait to hear your stories.




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