Exercising with Ignatius: Part 1

Ten years ago, if anyone told me I would attend a silent retreat to start the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, I would have thought it more likely that I run naked through the Mission in San Francisco, where I lived. Back then I was in my twenties, performing in theaters and comedy clubs. The opening line of my act was, “I was in a cult for 13 years; other people called it Catholic school.” One word could describe my feeling about my Catholic upbringing: embarrassment. A life that centered on the philosophy of “finding God in all things” conflicted with my preference to find humor in all things.

I extricated myself from the church before it could extricate me.

An unexpected phone call from my father would change everything. “Mom is sick again,” he said. “She’s starting chemo tomorrow.” Two weeks later, I left California and moved back to upstate New York, a 29 year old comic-turned-caregiver. To say that I was mad at God would imply that we shared a personal relationship, perhaps the funniest notion of all.

Day one

Eight years and my Mom have passed.

Here I am sitting in a circle on the first night of an eight-day silent retreat at Linwood Spiritual Center in Rhinebeck, N.Y. I looked around at the other participants, feeling like the only kid at a table of “grown-ups.” Their introductions were along the lines of, “I’m an Ignatian scholar and this will be a cinch since I did the 30-day retreat last year! ” or “I just got a Ph.D. in International Relations and am moving to Palestine to help foster peace between the nations of Israel!” I viscerally dreaded my turn. How would I introduce myself? “I’m an unemployed 30-something writer with a Master’s Degree but no job?” “I named my dog after St. Francis?” “I missed Mass for about 10 years, but I want in again?”

Even when I stopped attending church in my 20s, I was drawn to the lives and literature of the “misfit” saints and mystics: St. Paul, Mary Magdalene, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Augustine: those who lived flawed and complicated lives, thinking they were doing just fine without God until one day they weren’t. I had heard about the power of the Spiritual Exercises to help answer this one universal question: What was I created for? For the next eight days, I hoped to grasp a mere glimpse at what St. Ignatius spent a month experiencing in the mid-16th century. I imagine it had to be somewhat easier to find inner peace back then; a time when even Igino didn’t have to worry about missing e-mails, text messages, and if he would have enough money at the end of the week to pay a dog-sitter.

For more on the benefits of retreats and some resources to help you find a retreat center, check out this What Works column: Enjoy the Silence.

Day two

The first two days feel like a detox; essentially, what you are detoxing from is the world itself. Could I give up the outside world for eight days? In the beginning, the surreal atmosphere of pervasive silence was surreal. (Try chewing barbecued chicken in silence while no one dares ask to pass the salt.) At least I wouldn’t have to worry about coming up with witty small talk, because essentially, there is no talk. The Mozart CD playing helps ease the awkwardness, but not much.

Day three

I quickly became aware of my own “disordered attachments” — the Ignatian term for the superfluous externals, which separate us from our true calling and from God. I thought of too much time spent checking e-mail, worrying too much about the past or the future, always missing the nature of the present; too many social commitments; television. I’m a fan of Mad Men, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Weeds — not exactly EWTN programming. I check my e-mail five times a day and often Google things like, “Home remedies for Lyme disease when one doesn’t have health insurance and a red ring on right leg is looking pretty ominous.” How would I make it through the week?

Mass is in the chapel every day at five. Unlike in days past, I’ve actually started to look forward to going. This is the first time I’ve ever experienced a Mass during which a woman gives the homily. Sr. Maureen’s exploration of the gospel is thought provoking, relevant and funny. In the words of little orphan Annie; “I think I’m going to like it here.”

Day four

One of many things I relate to about St. Ignatius is that he was not a holy roller. (I learn through books I’ve skimmed in Linwood’s library that he is the only canonized saint to have a police record, apparently for a barroom brawl in the 16th century.) This information delights me. I am reminded of a God of love and mercy; the only God I can comprehend. I sense that Ignatius understood the pressures of this world; it was when he withdrew from it and spent time in silence that he was able to make the distinction between consolations (that which uplifts) and desolations (distractions that bring despair.) Being born in the 20th century meant that one’s life was going to automatically come with some attachments. It was up to me to realize when those attachments were becoming disordered. I could still check e-mail; I didn’t have to 18 times a day. Likewise, I could stop living my life as if it was one massive to-do list. I realized that I’d been going about the retreat as I did my daily life – trying to get as much done as possible and becoming easily frustrated when results weren’t immediate. “Hear the voice of God and now, damn it!” was my first thought in the morning, as if this was something to check off in the day planner. This retreat wasn’t about doing; it was about willingness and surrender. Clearly, it was also about trust and patience, definitely weaknesses for me. I thought about a favorite quote by St. John of the Cross; “If a man wants to be sure of his road, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” I’m not sure where I’m headed, only that I have to keep walking.

Next Wednesday: Part two of “Exercising with Ignatius”