Practical Prayer

This month 12 Georgetown Prep seniors, some still damp from post-game showers, will gather at dusk in the school chapel to begin a semester-long journey with St. Ignatius Loyola. After Mass (and fortified by the requisite pizza) these 17-year-olds will be introduced to the basic elements of what is called an Ignatian “retreat in daily life.” Each student will be paired with a Jesuit or lay faculty member, who will meet with him weekly, guiding the teenager through an experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, using a handbook for the making of a retreat that Ignatius gradually put together in the years from 1522 to 1541.

This form of the retreat in daily life was first introduced at Georgetown Prep 10 years ago. This year the Prep has an enrollment of 435 boys, of whom 117 are seniors. One of the first questions that might be asked is this: What can a 16th-century Basque saint have to say to teenage American males at the opening of the third millennium? Plenty—the exercises offer young men a glimpse into their own interior lives, an entree into the Scriptures that can be electric and a meeting with a God eager to strengthen and console them. Through prayerfully making the exercise known as the Consciousness Examen they learn to review contemplatively the events of their day and to search for patterns that might reveal not only what is happening day-to-day, but what is really going on. Garden variety teenage crises like, “Why are my Dad and I continually at each other’s throats?” or, “How will I ever sort out my options for college?” can all be brought to God in prayer. More often than not, clarity and wisdom follow.


Much anxious ink has been spilt in recent years over boys and young men. The title of a recent article in U.S. News & World Report (6/30) made the novel query, “Are Boys the Weaker Sex?” In that report William Pollack (author of Real Boys) declares, “We are experiencing a crisis of the boy next door.”

At the risk of colossal naiveté, I think the answer to this crisis is prayer—and not just the prayers of the adults who surround those boys. Teenage males need to be taught to pray. Yes, I know, this is a prime example of a praiseworthy, pious thought that has layers of challenge wrapped around it. I must confess, if I had run across this recommendation in the first 15 years of my teaching career, I would have broken into hysterical laughter or thrown up my hands in despair: “This woman is mad! Teach them to pray? When? How? I cannot even get the older students to make a short retreat!” All that angst would have flown from the insurmountable wall that my confreres in campus ministry and I had encountered: as our students got older it was just not “cool,” not “in,” not acceptable to be in any way overtly spiritual.

As we wrung our hands over this resistance, our only insight was that the teenage male’s fragile and developing masculinity is threatened by things religious. Please don’t misunderstand: it was not that we were surrounded by committed atheists, but that our students found an invitation to grow spiritually about as attractive as (and vaguely equivalent to) being urged, “Come on retreat, guys, and develop your feminine side!” “Yuck!” (Of course, learning to pray is also important for young women. Parts of what follows may well apply to female teens, but it is focused on young men because they have been my only experience of adolescent spiritual direction.)

What began to transform the situation at Georgetown Prep (and at numerous other Catholic high schools) was the Kairos retreat, a powerful retreat model for teens that we began to use during the 1990-91 school year. Suddenly, recruiting retreatants was not an issue. Since 1993, close to 100 percent of every graduating class at Georgetown Prep has “made Kairos.”

But what should be the follow-up to the Kairos experience? With the class of 1992, two of the Jesuits at the Prep and I began a pilot program, offering a semester-long experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola to seniors who applied and were interviewed by one of the three of us. The exercises would be done according to the 19th Annotation, one of 20 brief “Introductory Observations” that precede the main exercises.

This interview was essential, because we wanted to be reasonably certain that a semester of directed prayer was the appropriate “next step” in this particular senior’s spiritual journey. The interview was also necessary because we had more young men asking to make the exercises than we had adults to direct them. This level of student response continued even when seniors chosen for “Ignatian Spirituality” were no longer excused from taking the regular senior religious studies course. Over the last decade, 25 percent of our seniors have participated in this offer to pray the exercises.

So, what has changed? Are 17-year-olds at the opening of the 21st century very different from the young men who filled our halls in 1979? No, not substantially—certainly not enough to explain this sea change in a school’s culture. I think the answer, at least on the surface, is fairly simple: it has become possible at Georgetown Prep to develop one’s masculinity and one’s spiritual life at the same time.

For those of us blessed to know many profoundly spiritual and yes, manly men, this can seem like a ridiculous assertion. Surely there is no intrinsic conflict between masculinity and spirituality. But depending on how spirituality is presented to teenage males, there can appear to be a conflict—or at least a disconnect: “O.K., I can believe that spirituality will not make me less masculine, but what will it actually do for me?” Ignatian spirituality, both in the Kairos retreat and in the 19th Annotation experience, has a proven track record at Prep. Over and over again, we hear those who have made the retreat tell others: “Do this, it’s worth it, it will make all the difference to you.” I think, frankly, that for these young men Ignatius has made God accessible and prayer practical, something that has a direct impact on their day to day lives. A God that close, that helpful and that eager to be known is very compelling—even when you are 17.

As one would expect, when seniors finish the semester, their judgments about the experience differ. At the risk of soundly overly clinical, their experiences could be roughly divided into four categories:

1. He made a mistake. Amazingly, these cases have been few, but occasionally the directing staff has chosen a senior who looked promising but turned out to be just not mature enough for directed prayer.

2. He learned to pray with Scripture. These seniors get a real feel for lectio divina, a form of prayer that rises from the reading of a biblical text, and enjoyed Ignatius’ “composition of place.”

3. He understood the Consciousness Examen and could pray it easily. These young men not only can pray comfortably with Scripture but they also have really grasped the idea that God’s revelation is ongoing. God is speaking to them in the events of their daily lives.

4. He made the First Week of the four “weeks” into which the Exercises are divided and even began the Second Week. (The First Week deals mainly with the “four last things”; the Second Week focuses on the life of Christ up to the Passion.) It’s hard to quantify, but roughly 25 percent to 30 percent of our retreatants fit into this category—and it is a glorious thing to see. Meeting after meeting, the retreat director keeps seeing the graces sparkling in front of her—just as Ignatius says they should appear. They are graces shimmering in a 17-year-old heart, but they are as real and true as anything to be seen in a 40-year-old.

As I became more and more taken with the transforming power of Kairos and our senior 19th Annotation retreat, I started to interview young alumni who had participated in both experiences. There are countless layers in these hour-long conversations, but what struck me was that Ignatian spirituality had given these young men a way of processing the turmoil in their interior lives. As they prayed and talked weekly with an adult director, they began to understand who they were—what they felt, what they desired, what motivated their actions and what changes they wanted to make in their behavior. Underlying all this insight was an encounter with a God so palpable that these young men began to see the Spirit pulsating within the ordinary gifts of every day. As one young man described it:

Through all the exercises, I not only found God daily, I kind of built on my Kairos feeling of him being present in my life and built on the fact that I knew he was in my friends. But I began to see him in each and every aspect of my day, and that was just amazing because it just opened my eyes. It really did—to everything! You know, not just to friendships, but to feelings of anger and to feelings of ambiguity of having to deal with problems because, “Maybe I’m leaning this way?” and you know, “Oh, wow...maybe that’s why!” I was just shocked. I was literally amazed.

Later in the conversation, I asked the same alumnus if his experience of prayer had shaped his sense of himself—and if so, how? He told me:

Well, in most of the exercises you had to look...inside yourself. And when you’re by yourself, alone with God praying, there’s a big sense of [if there’s] any point in time you want to be down to your...inner core, the essence of your being, that’s the time... It’s almost like you just want to, in front of important people, you want to impress them. And it’s like in front of God you just want to be yourself because he knows if you’re not.... It came to me very clearly that there is no point in being someone that I am not because God’s always with me. I mean it’s not just when I sat down and put on my chant and lit the candle. You know, it’s all the time. It’s here, it’s there, it’s at my job, it’s when I am out at night. It’s all the time.

I then asked this alumnus: “So spiritual direction put you more in touch with the true you, because that’s really all God was interested in?” His response was telling: “Yes. I mean he doesn’t want anything else. He just...he wants his love returned, basically.”

This increased self-knowledge came through the Consciousness Examen and in praying over Scripture. Another teen retreatant summed up his experience this way:

It kind of overwhelmed me a bit. Four prayers a week was a lot for me. It definitely makes you think about God and prayer because you have to do it for 20 minutes, four times a week. And the things they use [meditations and keeping a journal] because we had to write in our journals.... I could always relate things that were going on in my life. It reaffirms your view of God being in everyday parts of your life. You don’t realize it at that moment but when you look back on it, and you’re like “Oh, my God, these...[biblical] passages...this guy doing something to someone in the Bible, is just like me doing it yesterday.... Then you write about [it], pray to God and you ask him things and talk about it. Talk to him, so it just makes him more real.


The greatest endorsement I ever heard about the practical application of Ignatian prayer came in a thank-you note from a Prep graduate just about to leave for college:

You taught me how to talk to God. If I forget all the useless facts I will be fine because I will never forget what you showed me. For this, I am forever grateful. I will quickly share with you the tale of my latest prayer experience. First, I will say that I did not pray much during the second half of the school year. But anyway, I recently had a tough time with my parents. We weren’t even talking. Actually, the only person I could talk to was God. I really think he helped me get through the situation and everything is fine with my parents. I have been talking with God increasingly over the course of the summer and I plan on taking this to college with me. College, something I am beginning to fear, is a whole other story.

Practical prayer—an encounter with the God that Ignatius describes as laboring for us, the God who is always with us, always listening, always ready to help. Youth is naturally optimistic, but prayer raises that exuberance to the level of hope. If young men begin this divine conversation, they are changed by it, consoled and protected from much evil. There is no panacea for the perils of adolescence, but prayer can make it bearable and even joyful.

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