I knew you had to be hard core to be a Saint. The weekend spent in silence doing the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius made me realize how much so.
It was intense.
Trust me, when I die I don’t want to be asked by Saint Ignatius about what I did for God in my life. I can only imagine me telling him how I went on this retreat at Camp Middle-of-Nowhere, and spent my first night without heat in a concrete-clad room. I would be waiting for him to console me, while he waited for me to get to the point.
The point was endurance. Actually that was not the point at all, but more my perspective. We had four weeks of exercises crammed into two days. There were four major themes: sin (which I seemed to get stuck in), the life of Jesus, the Passion of Jesus, and the Resurrection of Jesus. Mediation, contemplation, reflection, and prayer – oh my!
There are 22 rules of Spiritual Discernment. This number pales in comparison to the number of my sins these rules uncovered. It is hard for me to explain the angst I felt, because really, I didn’t understand its origin.
The priests were impassioned, captivating speakers, the depth of their insight enlightening, and their devotion inspiring. Yet, I was not feeling renewed by their fervor, as I hoped.
I don’t know if it was the silence as much as it was not being able to verbally process all the thoughts spawned by the exercises. The points of meditation were so poignant; I didn’t feel equipped to deal with their significance. I was starting to feel like this retreat was for religious prodigies. I have never been particularly genius at anything, and figuring out how to align my life to be holier, to embrace suffering and somehow make use of this one life that I have been given, was daunting.
We had an opportunity to partake in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which I hoped would offer peace to all the rousing in my heart. I took the paper that had the examination of conscience questions on it and walked down to the lake.
It was close to mid-day, and it truly could not have been more glorious – the sun boasting its glimmering rays the way a peacock vainly fans its patterned feathers, the lake smooth as a freshly pressed shirt and white sand on the faux beach mimicking an island in the Caribbean. Walking in peaceful silence with my husband, I felt for a moment like I was on vacation– only without the margaritas.
Then, I began looking at the papers in my hand and was jolted out of that momentary solace. Four pages front and back listing the commandments and the litany of ways we can sin against them. After reading through it, I felt like surrendering. There was no way I could be this good. It’s not that I don’t want to be, but I felt like I would have to become like the boy in the bubble to avoid that much sin. Yet we are not called by God to hide ourselves from this world, but to minister His love to it.
I didn’t really feel much better after I went to confession. I think it’s hard to hurt someone you love, be truly sorry for it, and know unequivocally you will do it again. This is what we do when we sin against God. Nor can I imagine how He must feel on the other end of things when we express our sorrow for our failings, receive forgiveness, and then go out and be naughty some more.
That night, during one of the breaks from the priest’s lectures, I was walking by myself while my husband was receiving confession. Ahead of me was the couple from our church who had also opted for a silent weekend at Camp Middle-of-Nowhere.
They were holding hands, walking in silence. It was all very cute and sweet. Being the sinner I am, I ran up next to them and pounced with the fierceness of a kitten. They laughed, and to my delightful surprise began talking to me.
Alleluia – spoken words!
We walked down to the lake and talked about our impressions of the retreat. I told them I felt heavy, and I was not expecting to have so much conflict. Pondering the inevitability of sin frustrated me. The other thing that vexed me was the lengthy examination of conscience sheets which were so much more detailed than the broader commandments I usually reflect on. When I simply look at the Ten Commandments I feel like I am in pretty spiffy shape breaking maybe 2 or 3 of the less egregious ones. Little did I know of the nuances of each commandment.
I thought a weekend spent with God would be joyful. I hated how no one here smiled, and everyone avoided eye contact. I complained about how unnatural it felt eating with others in silence. I told them how I felt like if you lined everyone up here by order of their faithfulness and sanctity, I would be last.
Standing in the darkness by the lake with the only light coming from the myriad of stars, my friend told me something really simple, and something I badly needed to understand. She said, “Look, all God wants from you is your love, that’s it. He just wants you to love him. We are all going to sin. No one is ever going to stop sinning. Just give him your love, and don’t let your sins keep you from Him.”
I was grateful for her words and her wisdom. I loved the simplicity of only concerning myself with loving God, and I see how doing so will enable everything else to fall into proper order.
It was after 10 p.m. before we were finally done with the day of silent scrutiny, forgiveness, meditation and devotion. When we got back to our room, I spoke. I was done being silent, and I didn’t have any guilt about it. If my guilt was going to keep me from God, I had to get rid of it.
Saint Ignatius did not call these 22 points of meditation spiritual bliss; he called it a spiritual exercise. So it was. It caused me to stretch, to commit, to push the boundaries of what I consider my limits until I realize how much farther I am capable of going. It was exercise for the spirit. It was uncomfortable. At times it even hurt. All of this exercise for one goal –stronger faith. The kind of strength that won’t win any races, but will give me the perseverance to find my intended path that will lead me closer to God.
While the weekend of silence brought more conflict than peace calling me to examine my faith, religion and sin, I also realized that questioning these things will only help me know God better. Even if I don’t have all the answers yet, I know they are worth seeking and I will — in my own time, with my own strength and most importantly, with my own voice.
If you are interested in learning more about the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius this website is a good source – http://www.ignatianspirituality.com Or you can just go on a similar retreat someday – interested?