Jesuits are obliged ( outside voices might more easily say have the luxury for) to make an eight day silent retreat every year. I just returned from making mine in Seattle at the Jesuit University there. I never know, from year to year, whether making my annual retreat will lead to dryness, difficulty in praying, a kind of 'going through the motions' ( it sometimes has felt like that) or whether, as this year, it is a time of consolation, easy prayer and a sense of closeness to Jesus and his Father. When that happens, it is a grace. But, fundamentally, prayer is more in our intention and desire ( even when it seems flat and cold) than in any fervent consolations as such.
I went on retreat asking how I should spend my next four or five years or so ( if I have them. I am 75 and a half years old!)? I had drawn up a new mission statement for our parish and wondered what it would be like to draw up a personal mission statement for what I stand for and want to do and be. But I discovered right away, in a helpful little booklet I was following ( Michael Harter S.J., editor, Hearts on Fire: Praying With the Jesuits Saint Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1993), the following exercise suggested by the late Indian Jesuit and spiritual writer, Anthony de Mello S.J.. I spent much of my eight days ( between praying also passages of scripture about the call to be a disciple, the passion of Jesus and the resurrection) meditating on and taking notes ( eight double sided pages worth) on de Mello's exercise. Here it is:
" I imagine the day I am going to die. I ask for the time to be alone and write down for myself and my friends a sort of testament for which the points that follow could serve as chapter titles.
(1) These thing I have loved in life: things tasted, looked at, smelled, heard, touched ( John Coleman's aside here: Ignatian prayer does involve a resort to an imaginative use of our senses.)
(2) These experiences I have cherished: (3) These ideas have brought me liberation: (4) These beliefs I have outgrown; (5) These convictions I have lived for; (6) These are the things I have lived for: (7) These insights I have gained in the school of life: insights into God, the world, human nature, Jesus Christ, love, religion, prayer. (8) These risks I took. These dangers I have courted. (9) These sufferings have seasoned me: (10) These lessons life has taught me; (11) These influences have shaped my life ( persons, occupations, books, events): (12)These scripture texts have lit up my path: (13) These things I regret about my life: (14) These are my life's achievements: (15) These people are enshrined within my heart: (16) These are my unfulfilled desires: (17) I choose an ending for this document ( my own or someone else's prayer; a poem; a sketch or picture from a magazine; a scripture text or anything I judge would be an apt conclusion to my testament)."
Now, having eight full days of silence and prayer helped me to make a dent on each of these categories. To be sure, in some sense, de Mello's exercise is a very imaginative variant of what Ignatius called an examination of conscience ( better terms, an examination of consciousness!). As such, it belongs, at first glance, to the first week of Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. During that first week of exercises, Ignatius proposes considerations to help us realize how much we are loved by God and to evoke great gratitude for the graces of our life. We also reflect on and seek sorrow for our sins, the ways we have failed to respond to God's many gifts and graces. We try to open ourselves to the mercy, goodness and love of God and pray that we might be given the grace to be free enough to respond to God's will for us and live life with an intensity that we have not yet achieved.
But, in point of fact, to answer some of the questions in de Mello's inventory takes us to the call of Christ to become his disciples ( the second week); to a lingering contemplation of Jesus' cruel passion and death and what it means for us; to the sense of resurrection joy. So, in some sense, it extends way beyond the first week to the second, third and fourth phases ( or weeks) of The Exercises.
A silent retreat of eight days ( or the full Ignatian 30 day retreat) has virtue and flaws. Its virtue is time, leisure, the ability to probe and linger with Christ. Its possible flaw is that it is such a special ( and unusual) time of quiet, multiple prayer times in every day, prolonged silence, that at the end of it we might ask ( if not on the day it ends, a week or so later): " Just what cocoon was I in?" For that reason, some people prefer the adaptation of The Exercises ( called the Nineteenth Annotation or the Retreat in Everyday Life) where, over a longer period of time ( it can be six months or more) everday in shorter prayer times we try to go through The Exercises while also doing our regular work, living our ordinary family life, do not go away to a quiet place apart ( except for our time of prayer each day) but take time each day to consider the matter Ignatius proposes. The flaw in this form is that it lacks the extra time each day ( and the way that feeds into a deeper lingering over a gospel passage or a feeling of consolation, desolation, challenge or joy). Its virtue, however, is that it brings the fruit of the Ignatian Exercises into our everyday life. We know we are in no cocoon nor meant to live in one but are called, instead, each day to grow and come to know ourselves, Jesus and his spirit better. Discernment can often be better in such a retreat of everyday life, since each day we experiencce the pulls toward and away from God.
So, while ordinary people who do not have the luxury of an eight day quiet retreat and can not afford either the money or time it entails could not do all of de Mello's exercises in a short time of a week, they could take them seriatim over time and see where it leads them spiritually--to new plateaus of gratitude, sorrow, joy, hope, desire to live more closely with Jesus and God. I do propose that readers might take the de Mello exercise--little by little, day by day, week by week--and see where it brings them. I know I found it a very fruitful and blessed exercise on my recent retreat.