To the left, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits is pictured writing down notes for the Spiritual Exercises. What are the Exercises, you may be wondering? Well, I think the best analogy might be Ignatius' own. He described how any athlete who desires to reach the pinnacle of performance will adopt a disciplined regimen of training, including careful diet, stretching, a sensible but challenging routine of exercises and drills, along with excellent coaching... so to for a person who desires to grow in their life as a follower of Jesus. Based on his own experience of conversion, enlightenment, and maturation, Ignatius developed a handbook of transformative Christian spirituality that enables people to shed their false selves and discover their truest self in relationship to the Divine Source of all things.
Essentially, the purpose of the Exercises is to help free a person of "inordinate attachments", "disordered affections" (in other words, attachments, addictions, neurotic fears, etc) and from anything that turns us away from God, our true selves and our neighbors... so that a person is free for lifegiving service to others, intimacy, creativity, and co-laboration with God on behalf of the Kingdom. Does this really happen? Well, the testimony of hundreds of thousands of people over 450 years suggests that it does... that spending time in silence, reflecting on one's life, meditating on the Scriptures, and listening to the movements of one's heart really does lead to a transformation. Or perhaps better said, the Spiritual Exercises can facilitate our becoming more fully ourselves through relationship with God and the service of our brothers and sisters.
While there are a variety of formats available, the most intense version of the Exercises is the 30 day silent retreat. In this retreat, there are four themes that are engaged over the course of about a week each: the first week is an exploration of our limits and shadows in the light of God's infinite love for us; the second is the accompaniment of Jesus through his public ministry through meditation on the Gospels; the third is union with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and his crucifixtion; and the fourth is contemplation on Christ's joy in the resurrection events. While there's so much more that could be said, that's enough to give you a taste.
Jesuits usually make the Spiritual Exercises two or three times in their lives, first in the Novitiate, or first phase of formation, then again in tertianship (the phase I am in), and then sometimes at another juncture in their lives. Now, I have the good fortune that the retreat here in Australia happens at Seven Hill, one of the original Jesuit missions here downunder... and it just happens to be a winery! So, the picture of the grape vineyard isn't just for show... it's actually part of the property where I will be making retreat for the next month. Of course, wine isn't so helpful for staying awake in the course of five hours of meditation each day, but at least it will be nice to have a glass with dinner! While their specialty is altar wine, which is fortified and a bit sweet, they also produce a delicious riesling and a decent shiraz.
Seven Hill is 1400 km away, so five of us will be driving the cars across New South Wales and Victoria to Clare, where the retreat house is located.
(for more information: http://www.cis.jesuit.org.au/sevenhill.html )