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Sam Sawyer, S.J.September 14, 2023
Photo of the chapel from the Zinkwazi Beach Tertianship in South Africa, courtesy of the author.

As I write this column, I have been back in the United States for just under a week after the first session of my tertianship in South Africa, about which I wrote in the June issue. I finished my long 30-day retreat, praying through St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, just over two weeks ago.

As my fellow tertians and I were preparing for the retreat, Mags Blackie, who is both a chemistry professor and a trained spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition, came to spend a few days with us to help us refamiliarize ourselves with Ignatius’ directions for making the retreat. Among the many things she reminded me about in the Exercises was this: “The persons who make the Exercises will benefit greatly by entering upon them with great spirit and generosity toward their Creator and Lord, and by offering all their desires and freedom to him so that His Divine Majesty can make use of their persons and of all they possess in whatsoever way is in accord with his most holy will.”

In the Exercises, this is the “Fifth Annotation,” part of a list of 20 annotations that Ignatius places before the content of specific prayer periods and meditations that constitute the retreat. This annotation—as with much else of what Ignatius writes—is unlikely to win any prizes for prose style, but it is filled with the force of his vision, his call for “great spirit and generosity.”

I realized that while I had been eager for retreat, I was approaching it ready to relax into it, following wherever God would take me. After re-examining the Fifth Annotation, beginning retreat felt more like getting ready to hike up a mountain

Rereading it a few months ago, even though I am sure I had read it at least 30 or 40 times before, it changed the way I felt about approaching the retreat. As I explained to some Jesuit friends, in my last conversations with them before beginning the silence of retreat, I realized that while I had been eager for retreat, I was approaching it ready to relax into it, following wherever God would take me. After re-examining the Fifth Annotation, beginning retreat felt more like getting ready to hike up a mountain: exciting and invigorating, but also a substantial challenge, demanding generous effort and energy.

Ignatius’ almost overwrought language about spirit and generosity can seem, at first glance, as if it is merely a spiritualization of a more basic insight about discipline: You get out of something what you put into it. But in fact, he is saying almost the opposite: More important by far than what you get out of something is what you give to it, and most especially, what you give to God.

The more eagerly and generously we give ourselves to God, the more we will be able to be used by God and to cooperate with God.

Because the other thing that is characteristic of Ignatius in the Fifth Annotation is the phrase “in whatsoever way.” There are any number of outcomes possible for how God will work in the life of the person making the Exercises, and no specific goal is to be preferred in advance, except greater knowledge of and fidelity to God’s will. What Ignatius is saying is that even such profound detachment from specific outcomes is both compatible with and energized by “great spirit and generosity.” The more eagerly and generously we give ourselves to God, the more we will be able to be used by God and to cooperate with God.

In the short time since I finished the retreat, many people have asked me “How was it?,” which is both a perfectly natural question and one that is basically impossible to answer. The most honest short answer I can give is that God was very good. Beyond that, trying to describe the retreat in any detail feels something like trying to explain the view of a beautiful landscape—summary description beyond “beautiful” does not do it justice, and even very detailed descriptions are always less than the sum of their parts.

As I return from tertianship and retreat to my desk at the magazine, I still feel the force of the Fifth Annotation, that need for great spirit and generosity toward God, both in prayer and in the work of ministry to which we are called.

So instead of attempting to describe it, I will instead say that as I return from tertianship and retreat to my desk at the magazine, I still feel the force of the Fifth Annotation, that need for great spirit and generosity toward God, both in prayer and in the work of ministry to which we are called. As I have been catching up on everything my colleagues have been doing over the past three months, and looking forward to where the next months will take us, especially in coverage of the Synod on Synodality, I am grateful to have rejoined this hike already more than halfway up the mountain.

We acknowledge in this issue the great generosity of our donors and benefactors. Your support of America Media both empowers our ministry and calls us to greater fidelity in putting those resources to work for the good of the church and the world. We trust and pray that God responds to your generosity in like measure.

More: Jesuits / Prayer

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