Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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The First Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola

It’s Tuesday evening. We are gathered, seated in a circle, perched on couches and armchairs. Expectant. The candle on the centre table is lit. We watch the flame flicker and grow. I begin, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”  

We have come together, seven students and me, to pray. We are making our way through a selection of the First Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, as adapted by Michael Hansen, SJ. Each prayer leads us into a deeper encounter with the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and into a fuller awareness of God working in us and in our lives.

The First Spiritual Exercises began as the prayer journal of St. Ignatius. In his journal he recorded his questions, the graces he received from prayer, his favourite scripture passages, and notes that helped him progress along his spiritual journey. He later used his journal as an instruction manual for giving his prayer exercises to others.

The First Spiritual Exercises are so called because they are the first exercises he gave to others and they are the first form of the full Spiritual Exercises, which are normally made during a 30-day retreat or over 30 weeks in daily life. The First Spiritual Exercises are arranged into four four-week retreats that together form a complete version of the full Spiritual Exercises. The retreats respond to a foundational desire for inner peace as well as a particular desire for love, service, forgiveness, healing, freedom or divine friendship.

In the five weeks that we have been praying the First Spiritual Exercises together, I have been amazed by the response. It has been a joy to pray and journey together through the exercises, and I have experienced abundant blessing from God through our prayer and spiritual conversation.

I have received the gift of God’s presence in a unique way while praying in silence with others. Although I do speak at times, guiding the meditation with prompts for the exercise, there are beautiful stretches of silence where we can hear only the ticking of the clock on the wall. In that silence, even as we pray individually, we are joined as one and together we encounter God. At times, the presence of God seems almost tangible. God is with us, bringing peace and calm in the quiet.

I’ve also received the gift of witnessing God at work in others. After we pray, using the meditation outlined in the exercise, we move into spiritual conversation, sharing a particular moment or experience in our prayer. I’ve been awed and humbled week after week by the sharing. I’ve felt such joy listening to group members describe how God spoke to them during their prayer, revealing something small or big about their lives and their relationship with God. Clarity about a decision that needed to be made, actions to take to heal a friendship, opening up to greater love for oneself. Each week I am reminded that God’s revelation in others and through others is profound and powerful. Together we are noticing the movement of the good spirit and the bad spirit during prayer, and we are beginning to discern the movement of the spirits over the whole of our five weeks (and counting) together.

Lastly, I have received the gift, the ever-renewing gift, of noticing how God is at work within me. I’ve noticed deep joy from this experience of prayer together and the opportunity to guide and mentor others in prayer (and to be guided and mentored in return). I’ve also noticed moments of anxiety and uncertainty. I’ve grown closer to God as I grow in understanding of my vocation to religious life and possibilities for future ministry and work. As I prepare to make first vows, I am striving to be attentive to the movement of God within me, and through the First Spiritual Exercises, God’s presence becomes clearer and clearer.

After each week’s gathering, I thank St. Ignatius for his attentiveness to the will of God and for his insights into the spiritual journey.

“The Spiritual Exercises are all the best that I have been able to think out, experience and understand in this life, both for helping somebody to make the most of themselves, as also for being able to bring advantage, help, and profit to many others.”
– Ignatius to Rev. M. Miona in 1536.


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Breaking free from obligation

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Sometimes prayer feels easy and natural and I can’t wait to have some quiet time to spend with God. Other days it feels like a chore and I have to battle with myself to slow down and do it, all the while fighting off distracting thoughts and the desire to be doing something else. These days, particularly, as I am wrapped up in the “ending of my normal life” (which sounds rather melodramatic but is true) I find it hard to pay attention.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have talked about the Examen, a daily prayer recommended by St. Ignatius and a key tool for discernment. What I haven’t really mentioned is my own struggle to pray the Examen regularly, and frankly, to sometimes even be interested in praying it. It’s not completely about a lack of discipline on my part because I do pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day without fail, so I think the problem is more about motivation.

I find that the traditional formula for the prayer doesn’t quite do it for me right now, or rather, that it is too big and too broad for me. I get lost in it. These are the steps to the Examen, as directed by St. Ignatius:

  • The first Point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits received.
  • The second, to ask grace to know our sins and cast them out.
  • The third, to ask account of our soul from the hour that we rose up to the present Examen, hour by hour, or period by period: and first as to thoughts, and then as to words, and then as to acts.
  • The fourth, to ask pardon of God our Lord for the faults.
  • The fifth, to purpose amendment with His grace.

Although the prayer is supposed to last only about 10 or 15 minutes maximum, I often become fixated on a specific point in my day or on my sins and the 15 minutes stretches into 20 minutes or longer. 20+ minutes of intense self-criticism – not at all the purpose of the Examen. I tend to put the emphasis on reliving the various events of my day rather than on seeing them in relation to God’s working in me. As a result, I often pray the Examen without a lot of enthusiasm, mostly out of a sense of obligation, and rarely feel enriched by it.

However, all of that is changing thanks to Reimagining the Examen by Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ.

I noticed this book on the bookstore shelf and flipped through it, after having seen it advertised online. I skimmed the introduction and thought I would give it a try. The author offers 34 varieties of the daily Examen, including the traditional version. Each follows a particular theme from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, such as:

  • Spiritual freedom
  • A particular relationship
  • Habits
  • Gratitude
  • Repulsions, inspirations, desires

I’m about halfway through the book and already my practice of the Examen has changed quite significantly. I’m sticking to the 10-15 minutes daily quota but the 15 minutes is a richly focused reflection and dialogue with God (a crucial element that was not so robust in my previous practice). I enjoy the guided instructions – they help me to keep on track and keep to 15 minutes with minimum distraction or my mind wandering off.

The fact that each day is different and, at this point, since I am still making my way through the book, new, I find that I am actually excited to pray and I anticipate it during the day. I am also finding that keeping a journal of my Examen prayer is a very helpful way to see how God is present in my life. It’s only one sentence but it summarizes that day’s experience and it helps me to keep fresh in my mind how God has been active in my life that day.

So for anyone who may want to start the practice of the Examen or for those who may currently find it a challenge, I recommend that you READ THIS BOOK.


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How did I get here? (Part 3 – Meeting Mary and Iggy)

Although I didn’t feel particularly drawn to marriage and family life, it seemed like the normal thing to do, much better than becoming a nun. Instead of truly discerning religious life, I started to worry about why I didn’t want to be married. “What’s wrong with me?” I would ask myself. “Who cares if I have a longing within me for something “more” that I can’t explain? I should really just focus on more important things like getting married and developing my career.” So for a number of years I did just that. I muddled around, not really sure of what I wanted. I also got very involved in my parish. I found that I felt most alive and happy when I was active in the parish doing things to serve other people. I figured that eventually those feelings would spread to the rest of my life.

(www.blessedsacrament.ca)

(www.blessedsacrament.ca)

For a long time I pushed away the thought of religious life, even though it was always there in the back of my mind. Then in 2012, my parish made a study of the Catholicism DVD series by Fr. Robert Barron and as I watched the different episodes, the ache in my heart grew. I saw how beautiful and diverse the Catholic church is and my longing to be part of it, to be part of something greater than myself, took over. At the end of the series I knew I had to do something about it.

At this point I recognized that I couldn’t figure it out on my own. Left to my own devices, I would freak out or try to avoid discerning again. I knew I needed to seek the advice of a sage. So I went to see the associate pastor of my parish, who is known for being gentle but also very firm when it comes to discerning God’s will. He encouraged me to explore different communities and to listen to what God was telling me in my heart.

I went back to the internet. I didn’t know where else to go.

Again, I researched different communities, mostly Franciscan at first. Eventually, I came upon the website for the Loretto Sisters (also known as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and I really liked what I found. I learned about their foundress Mary Ward, their adoption of Ignatian spirituality (although I wasn’t sure which St. Ignatius this meant – I figured probably Ignatius of Antioch because he’s always mentioned in the Litany of the Saints prayer (nope!)), and the international dimension of the community with their focus on social justice.

Mary Ward

Mary Ward

I decided to take the plunge and meet with the vocations director (even though I didn’t have a picture to go by this time!). A few months later, I went to visit the community in Toronto. Over the course of two years, I ended up visiting several times, and I noticed that I felt at home with them. I felt like I could be myself with them and that I belonged.

I decided to learn more about St. Ignatius (of Loyola, I found out! – at the time I couldn’t have even told you that he was Spanish) so I read a lot of books about him and his spirituality, and I fell in love. Soul mate alert! I felt like I had found someone who “gets” me. Last summer, I made my first 8-day Ignatian silent retreat in Guelph, and without being too dramatic about it, it changed my life. I experienced a totally new way of prayer – Ignatian contemplation. I met God, came face-to-face with Jesus as I prayed. Whereas before I prayed to a sort of Jesus void – a Jesus who was somehow all around me – I was now praying to a Jesus who was in front of me, or sitting beside me. I could reach out and touch him. It was like nothing I had experienced before.

While I didn’t come to a decision about a religious vocation on the retreat, I knew that I wanted to continue with the Ignatian prayer. I found a Jesuit in Ottawa who was able to lead me through the Spiritual Exercises towards making a decision about religious life. From last October until this past February, I went through the exercises and learned so much about myself – my fears, insecurities, attachments, my hopes and dreams, my deepest desires. And I learned about my relationship with God and experienced the deep love God has for me. When I made the decision for religious life, it was completely liberating. I felt like I was made into a whole person, not someone who feels constantly torn.

I was ready to take the next step.