Source: WNY Catholic News
BUFFALO, NY. In order to have a fit body, one must work and sweat. The same must be done for achieving a fit spirit. St. Ignatius of Loyola became the Jack LaLanne of spirituality when he devised a set of Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises, known as spiritual exercises, in the 1500s.
These exercises are a journey of prayer, which can be a time of deep personal conversion, a time of renewed commitment and more enthusiastic living of the Christian life, leading to a spiritual freedom, especially in making life choices.
The exercises themselves are a series of meditations, prayers and contemplative practices developed by St. Ignatius to help people deepen their relationship with God. They are commonly used in a monthslong program of daily prayer and meetings with a prayer group. This is known as a “retreat in daily life.”
Father Richard Hoar, SJ, has been leading these retreats in the Diocese of Buffalo since 1986. New groups start up every fall and continue to meet twice a month until spring.
Meetings typically run an hour, opening with prayer, followed by retreatants sharing how they have seen God’s special love and grace in their lives over the previous weeks. The directors then make brief comments, perhaps guiding the speaker, before a closing prayer and dismissal.
“Generally we try to see if there is a commonality in what the various people have said and point that out. Generally you can find some,” said Father Hoar. “You don’t want to go into a big spiel correcting a person, but sometimes a person will say something which is maybe not on topic at all, and you have to gently say, oh you mean this, that or the other thing.”
There is very little, if any, group discussion or cross talk from other participants, so as not to distract the speaker. There’s not even coffee afterwards.
“When you’re speaking, if somebody starts to enter into that, it disrupts, we believe, the Holy Spirit,” said Gini Schultz, a director. “Everything that we can humanly offer to provide those supports and guidelines is meant to assist people in their focus to growing in this relationship with God, Jesus and Spirit.”
A great deal of sharing also involves listening. As the group talks, people learn not just what the individual is saying, but about themselves. There will be resonances in their hearts as they listen to others who have been sharing basically the same prayers.
“There will be a lot of ‘wows,’ a lot of ‘me too’ or ‘not me.’ As they listen to each other they learn about themselves,” Father Hoar said.
Retreatants are asked to dedicate one hour of each day to prayer, making it part of a lifestyle, rather than something to be squeezed in. Journaling is another major part of the exercises.
It’s common for people to have some difficulty deciding what to share when they start. Some drop out of the program because they are private persons and have difficulty opening up in front of people. It might be that those people are not being called to this particular form of retreat.
Participants follow the book “Place Me with Your Son” by James W. Skehan, over the nine-month period. The exercises are divided into four sections called weeks, although they are not seven-day weeks but rather stages on the journey.
The first week is for preparation where spiritual directors teach the participants the tools they need to continue. It’s also a time when participants look at their lives to see what God is calling them to, and remove what is not needed.
After the preparatory week, participants focus on Scripture passages revolving around Christ’s birth and baptism, and His healing ministry. This is followed by the Last Supper and Jesus’ resurrection.
“The hope is that they will be so close to Jesus in their personal relationship that they will be able to see Jesus in all the events of life,” said Father Hoar. “It becomes a life-changing experience. It’s not a quickie. It’s not like turning a light switch on and off. It’s a whole group of exercises where they put a lot of time in learning how to pray in different ways. But more than that, learning to pay attention in their hearts to the way God is gifting them and drawing them. We believe that right from the beginning God has a plan for each and every one of us, and it can be a life’s work to find out what that is. We know it by looking at the deepest desires of our lives, because that is put there by God. To see that, we must be free to get rid of the junk that clouds that vision and have the strength, with God’s help, of accepting that call to discipleship.”
Father Hoar emphasizes that this is a prayer meeting, not a Scripture study or a Bible class. He keeps an exercise bike in the meeting room at St. Michael Church in Buffalo, as a reminder of the hard work that goes into making an exercise work.
Participants run the gamut, from clergy and vowed religious, to married couples and singles. Schultz even recalls an engaged couple taking the retreat hoping to grow together spiritually. One man would study and pray in a McDonald’s parking lot, because that’s the only time he could. Father Hoar suggests praying at the same time each day without distractions, rather than trying to squeeze it in at the end of the day.
Most participants have a healthy, active Christian life, but should not be overly involved in other prayer groups. “They have to be freed from all the rote prayers that are not bad in themselves, to find a way that they personally relate to our Lord, Jesus,” Father Hoar said, admitting it sounds funny. “We’ve had people who spend two or three hours every day in prayer, then they want to do these as well. We say, ‘You’re going to have to drop some of the others to give this time. It’s got to be your primary way of praying. And if you can’t do it, God is not calling you to do this.”
For a brochure, application or further information about the next retreat beginning in the fall contact Father Richard Hoar, SJ, at 716-854-6726, ext. 19, or Gini Schultz at 716-837-6020.