My name is Jess Fox, and in this final year of my doctoral program, I participated in an 8-month long Ignatian Spiritual Exercises program, facilitated by a spiritual director from the Hermitage, a Christian retreat center in Three Rivers, MI. This program was made possible through the Emerging Leader Grant, which is generously provided by the Christian Reformed Church each year to young adults seeking to develop their leadership capacity within faith circles. Although I was not an active participant in the activities of the Campus Edge Fellowship this year, I would like to offer a brief reflection of my experiences with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises as well as how I pursued spiritual conversations, growth, and relationships during the season of graduate school.
Background of The Exercises
The Exercises were written by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the early 1500s. These exercises were originally intended to be completed over the course of an intensive four-week retreat; over the centuries, the Exercises were modified to stretch over 8 months. Themes of the four weeks of the original Exercises are the following: (1) experiencing the boundless mercy of God, (2) accompanying Jesus Christ on mission, (3) being with Jesus in his suffering and savoring the grace of compassion, and (4) experiencing the joy and sharing the consolation of the risen Lord. I followed the Exercises with the guide of the book, The Ignatian Adventure, by Kevin O’Brien (2011), and each “week” was broken down into daily scripture readings and meditations. Throughout the book, I learned about some of the foundations of Ignatian Spirituality, which include: the Examen, a daily prayer of awareness; Ignatian repetition, repeating a scripture reading and finding new perspectives; the Principle and Foundation, a life resume summary statement; the Colloquy, imagining oneself in a biblical scene; discernment of the spirits of desolation and consolation (think C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters); and Ignatian contemplation, imaginative prayer. Ignatius intended the Exercises to be of particular usefulness during seasons of discernment and decision-making.
On a practical level, the Exercises took the form of a daily Scripture passage and a suggested format of engaging with the Biblical text. While these approaches to stepping into Scripture were not entirely new to me, I was pleasantly surprised by how refreshingly novel, yet simultaneously deeply historical, these activities were. At times, I found it quite difficult to imagine myself in a Biblical scene, have conversations with characters, and really imagine Jesus in the flesh. After all, Scripture is the inspired Word of God and how dare I apply my limited, human lens to the sacred text. Regardless, I encountered a new freedom and use of my creative capacity throughout these contemplations.
In addition to the daily Scripture readings and meditations, this program involved bi-weekly conversations with the spiritual director face-to-face or via Skype. During these conversations, I had the opportunity to share insights from the Exercises, ask questions, and gain a new perspective from a wise, scholarly listener. In many ways, I mark these conversations as the fruitful aspect of the Exercises program. During our conversations, when I felt unable to fully attend to the Exercises and dizzied by the events of life, this spiritual director met me where I was and gently opened my eyes to attend to the work of God through people and circumstances. She asked big questions, waited patiently, and drew connections between my reflections and the Exercises. If you ever have an opportunity to develop a relationship with a spiritual director, I encourage you to do so! SDs’ is seemingly otherworldly from our typical expectations of specificity, measurability, and precision of graduate school, but there is something grandly relieving to converse with someone who sees the world and issues of the soul in broader, and often differently colored, brush strokes.