On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius
A profound and multifaceted spiritual memoir, framed by the time-honored Jesuit practice of prayer, reflection, and humility
From the day Paul Mariani arrives at Eastern Point Retreat House to take part in the five-hundred-year-old Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, he realizes that his expectations and assumptions about who he is, what he knows, and what he believes are about to change radically. In this profound memoir Mariani blends a brief life of St. Ignatius and meditations on the life of Jesus with the day-to-day unfolding of thirty days of silence at the retreat house. His journey of introspection, self-revelation, and spiritual renewal leads him to a new understanding of his relationship with God and of what it truly means to put others before oneself.
By the term "Spiritual Exercises" we mean every method of examination of conscience, meditation, contemplation, vocal or mental prayer, and other spiritual activities, such as will be mentioned later. For just as taking a walk, traveling on foot, and running are physical exercise, so is the name of spiritual exercises given to any means of preparing and disposing our soul to rid itself of all its disordered affections and then, after their removal, of seeking and finding God's will in the ordering of our life for the salvation of our soul.
tuesday, january 4, 2000
4:00 p.m. An ordering, as in a set of directions for getting there. And so, finally, by map, northeast of Boston and east of Gloucester, to a room (call it a cell) facing the North Atlantic. Beginning to settle in-whatever that means-here at Gonzaga Retreat House on Eastern Point, a place run by the New England Jesuits, preparing for a Thirty-Day silent directed retreat. Oh boy!
Drizzle and fog all afternoon, inside as well as out. Damn hard leaving Eileen. I could see she was keeping herself busy cleaning shelves, doing laundry, writing notes. Anything to keep her mind off the fact that in a short while her husband would walk out the door for five weeks, with two half-day visits only, and those on the eleventh and twenty-first days of the retreat. I too dithered about as long as I could, and then-at a quarter to one-kissed her goodbye and drove east along Route 2, past Gardner, Fitchburg, and Lexington, then onto Interstate 95 heading north around Boston, then east, and so to Gloucester. One hundred and fifteen miles. A two-hour-plus trip.
In the hours before I left, everything took on added significance. It was almost as if I'd been going off to war, or to a hospital from which I might not be returning. The truth is you can no more rehearse separation than you can death. I packed-casual stuff, for there will be no formalities here, no grand dinners, no events. Just the daily round of silence and prayer and meetings with a spiritual director. And at this point I don't even know if my director is a man or a woman, though I hope it's a Jesuit.
The place is officially called Gonzaga, after Aloysius Gonzaga, a Jesuit saint-an Italian nobleman of the illustrious Gonzagas-who died at the age of twenty-three caring for plague victims. The place took his name because he was young and this was once a Jesuit retreat house for high-school boys before being turned into a general retreat house some forty years ago. Everywhere a faded glory still hangs about the place: in the fine wood paneling and molded ceiling decorations, all dating back to the early 1920s, when the main house, built in a combination English Tudor and French country-estate style, was still a private residence with a commanding view of the Atlantic. These jerrybuilt, ugly aluminum windows and doors and the added wing that once served as a dorm for students on retreat, and which now houses other retreatants, look to have been added in the '50s, perhaps the worst decade ever in American architectural history.
A mix of rubbed splendor and practicality: like the Jesuits themselves. Good real estate turned to practical ends, rather like Napoleon's troops turning the Prado into stables for their horses. A place had to be found for retreats, and the Jesuits found it, here at Eastern Point. Still, one has all the luxury of living on an estate: walks along the Atlantic, three squares a day, heat, a roof over one's head, a room of one's own. Plus a spiritual director for the care and feeding of the soul. All this for thirty dollars a day, plus my undivided attention. Not bad. The only downside is living alone, in unbroken silence, praying every day for hours on end, and no movies, no TV, no radio, and one or two newspapers on a table for all of us to share. Still, I need this time, as the Psalmist says, as much as the thirsty deer that pants for water.
Only the flowers in the jars and vases in the Main Hall, where the altar table is, suggest a woman's hand. There are two here on the staff: a sister on loan, Mary Boretti, the one who answered my queries over the phone, and a laywoman who took her training at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge whose name is Dixie Burden. Otherwise, there seems to be a military cast about the place, a Spartan quality, as there is, of course, about the Jesuits themselves, a certain something that goes back to Ignatius, the founder of the Order and the only begetter of the Spiritual Exercises. A strong-willed bantam of a Basque fighter who refused to surrender to the French at Pamplona in one of those internecine border clashes back in the early sixteenth century and who had his legs shattered by a ricocheting cannonball for his troubles. A man who spent eleven months learning how to make the first thirty-day retreat based on his Exercises.
For twenty-five years now I've told myself I'd take this time out to go into the desert and meet my God face-to-face. And of course something always intervened: raising a family, the impossibility of being away too long from my teaching or writing. If truth be told, the willingness to find almost any excuse rather than actually undertake what Christ calls the one thing necessary: time-lots of it-spent with Him.
And why Gloucester? After all, I've never been taught by the Jesuits, at least in a classroom setting. Nuns did that in catechism classes for years. And then the Marianists at Chaminade High in Mineola, the town thirty miles out on Long Island where I lived-except for my one year in the Marianist seminary in Beacon-from the time I was thirteen until the day I got married. After the Marianists, it was the Christian Brothers at Manhattan College up in the Bronx. Over the years I've tried meditation-Zazen-and Franciscan pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Benedictine retreats, listening to the sound of the monks breaking the early spring darkness with plainchant in the church, then walking back down the hill to my bed in the predawn dark. And yet, looking back now, I see I've been following the Ignatian way for years, first in retreats on Staten Island with my father-in-law, then in the dark, lonely halls of the old Jesuit theology buildings in Weston, Massachusetts, where the elderly and infirm Jesuits find excellent care in their last years.
Then, too, there's my long literary association-positive and negative-with the Jesuits via Donne, Flannery O'Connor, Brian Moore, and that guilt-ridden Irishman Joyce. Especially there's my lifelong love of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit whose poems I've taught and written about now for thirty-five years, and whom I have come to love like my own life. Throw in the brilliance and force of the early Jesuits, from Ignatius's companion, Francis Xavier, in India and Japan, to Matteo Ricci in China, the Jesuit who became a white-robed Confucian to gain the Emperor's confidence. Or the raw courage of the French Black Robes in Canada among the Iroquois and Hurons-Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brébeuf and the others in the flint-backed snows, fording the rapids into the interior of a brave new world. Or the Spanish Jesuits in Paraguay and Brazil, murdered by Portuguese soldiers for protecting the Indians there. Then, too, there's my oldest son, my namesake, who will be ordained a Jesuit priest in two and a half years.
So it made sense, I guess, to bite the bullet finally and do the Long Retreat Ignatius handed down as a way of coming in closer contact with God. In any case, I'm here for the long haul. This isn't the annual Eight-Day Jesuit retreat I've made half a dozen times over the past thirty years, or one of the Cursillo three-day retreats I've made in Holyoke for the past twenty-five. No, this is the big one: two days of prep, followed by thirty of almost total silence, with two half days off for socializing built into the structure, and finally two days of debriefing. It used to be that you had lunch on the thirtieth day and then walked out of here to rejoin the larger world. Like soldiers being moved to a new assignment. But they've added on these last two days by way of a debriefing, I guess. At least with the prep days I'll get to talk to some of the men and women who are about to go on the same journey I'll be making over the next month.
The question right now of course is, can I really do this? "Thirty days of silence," a friend said to me. "Hell, I couldn't keep silence for thirty minutes." It all made such eminent good sense back in November, when I applied for a spot here, filling out the long forms and getting letters of support to prove I wasn't crazy, and that I could actually see this retreat through. You might have thought I was going to the moon. Now I'm not so sure I really can make it through these next five weeks. How could I leave Eileen like this, four days into the New Year, the new century, the new millennium? It's hard enough being away from her overnight, especially in these last ten years or so. No matter. I have to believe He has led me here. "Eighty and six years have I been his servant," the Church Father St. Polycarp told his tormentors as he faced his own martyrdom, "and He has done me no harm. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" That was before they burned him alive in the amphitheater in Smyrna. Make it fifty-nine years for me, His servant at least part of that time.
The guidelines I was sent last month-once I'd been approved for the Thirty-Day Retreat-stipulated that I bring only two books with me and leave the others home. One is The Jerusalem Bible. The other is a copy of St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, translated and with a commentary by Fr. George Ganss, S.J. It's a small book, the Exercises. A hundred and twenty pages with supplements. But how much is packed in there. Ganss says there have been 450 translations of the Exercises in the past 480 years. How many millions of retreatants since then have wound their way through them? In addition, I've brought Ron Hansen's essay on the life of Loyola, as well as my Magnificat paperback, which slips easily into my pocket, and which I carry with me everywhere these days. I think of it as my layman's breviary, with the order and readings for Mass each day, as well as morning and evening prayers, and a daily meditation by a surprising range of saints, Church Fathers, and modern theologians and poets, women and men. I've also brought a collection of pens and pencils, as well as several blank blue-backed journals to keep notes in. Eileen and I both opted against my bringing my spiffy, state-of-the-art new laptop she gave me for Christmas. Too high tech for what I'm going to be doing here. Besides, I want the feel of my pen and wrist against the surface of the page. I want something more elemental, more physical, something more in keeping with the Exercises and the way generations of retreatants have made them.
The first (and last) time I was here was back in November 1984. It was the week Ronald Reagan was reelected to a second term. Ironically, I too had an election to make: leave my wife and family (and commit spiritual suicide) or learn how to behave. No wonder Eileen and I had such powerful if unspoken feelings when I left home today. I remember Fr. Rich Meehan, my spiritual director back then, a parish priest who'd been trained in the Exercises, telling me that the week I'd spent here had probably saved my marriage (to say nothing of my life), but that I should consider returning some day, when my life wasn't under siege. He was right. The sad part is that it has taken fifteen years to get back here.
The First Week: The Loss of God's First Kingdom
The Second Week: Thy Kingdom Come
The Third WEek: Suffering and Death
The Fourth Week: He Is Risen, Alleluia!
Acknowledgments An engagingly and earnestly told story. (The Washington Post Book World)
Mariani's journey is a courageous act, and even an inspiring one. (San Francisco Chronicle)
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