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By Rachel Amiri

Are we living in a contemplative moment? Almost five years after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, during a period of war, global crises and political polarization, it wouldn’t seem that way. However, according to those who have seen an increasing interest in Ignatian spirituality, the restlessness and noise of today’s world are pointing many to a deeper relationship with God.

“People are saying, ‘The way I’ve been living is not working. It’s too fast-paced, wash and repeat every day,’” observed Becky Eldredge, author and founder of Ignatian Ministries, an organization based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to accompany pastoral leaders and others through retreats and spiritual direction.

Becky Eldredge gives a parish mission at St. George Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“We’ve experienced a lot of loss in the last four years, individually and collectively, and I think that’s drawing people toward the deeper well,” she said. “People are so drawn to wanting to learn, ‘How do I know God? How do I hear God’s voice? What is God’s call for me?’ They’re looking for, as we’d say, the Magis; they’re looking for more.”

One sign of this seeking is the increasing number of non-Catholic Christians participating in the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, commonly called the “Retreat in Everyday Life.”

Ignatian spiritual directors and retreat leaders have observed a steady increase of participants in the Exercises from across Christian faith communities over the past five years. This fruit of the Universal Apostolic Preference to “Show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment” points to the human desire for an ongoing renewal of the interior life, they say.

“I feel like there’s such a movement of the Holy Spirit, and then to see that connected across Christian denominations is really powerful,” Eldredge said.

Drawn to the Exercises

Retreat houses and Ignatian spirituality programs throughout the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province are firmly rooted in the Catholic and Ignatian tradition while welcoming seekers of all faiths. The growth in non-Catholic participation is coming primarily through word of mouth, says Fr. Mark McKenzie, SJ, spiritual director and pastoral minister for the Bridges Retreat Program in St. Louis.

“The main reason they are coming is personal testimony: somebody has talked to them about how good the experience was for them and shared with them that they would profit from it, enjoy it,” he says.

Bridges prayer companions, from left, Frieda Siebel- Spath, Kathy Gibler, Karen Siebenberger and Martha Broyles at a recent gathering. In the background, from left, prayer companions David Harpring and Deb Meister talk to Fr. Mark McKenzie, SJ.

Non-Catholic participants in the Bridges Program hail mostly from mainline Protestant denominations and have included Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

The Bridges Program offers the Exercises for nine-month cohorts from September through May. Each participant is accompanied by a prayer companion throughout the retreat, typically with weekly small group meetings. The full cohort meets for a faith-sharing day in the fall and a weekend retreat in the spring.

Steve Givens, executive director of Bridges, says that non-Catholic participants aren’t coming because of anything their own faith traditions lack. Instead, they are often seeking the same things that Catholics who embark on the spiritual journey of the Exercises are seeking. They want to draw closer to God through a personal relationship to Christ, desire a more structured prayer life or are approaching a life transition or decision that requires discernment.

“They’re looking for someone to walk with them in prayer, and they’re wanting to be rooted to and aligned with God,” said Eldredge.

“They’re seeking a personal relationship with God,” said Paula Sapienza, retreat director at Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House in Sedalia, Colorado. “Isn’t that what we all want?”

Spiritual directors attest that very little adaptation of the Exercises is usually needed for Protestant participants. Sometimes directors recommend alternatives for the colloquy with Mary or encourage participants to contemplate the Eucharist based on their own tradition’s understanding.

“There’s nothing anti-non-Catholic in the Exercises themselves; it’s Jesus,” said Fr. McKenzie. “Once that’s clarified, then away we go.”

Imaginative prayer may require an initial shift from how Protestants typically engage with scriptural stories as texts to be studied, but the familiarity with Scripture many non-Catholics bring can be beneficial. Givens noted that the focus is on teaching, “How do we enter into prayer using Scripture?”

Bridges has never separated Catholic and non-Catholic participants in its gatherings, and Givens has found that this enriches participants’ experience of the program. “It’s the larger Christian community that we’re interested in,” he said.

Retreat leader Danielle Harrison addresses 2023-24 Bridges retreatants and prayer companions at the group’s April 2024 Marketplace Spirituality Retreat.

Personal Commitment

The commitment required to complete the “Retreat in Everyday Life” – a minimum of an hour each day for personal prayer, plus additional weekly meetings with a small group, prayer companion or spiritual director over nine months – poses an attractive challenge for many, especially those who are seeking.

“The Spiritual Exercises are going to challenge you,” said Givens. “They’re going to challenge you to think beyond your comfort zone and beyond what you think you already know, or even what you’re already doing.”

The person attracted to that challenge, regardless of their faith tradition, must be open-minded and courageous, said Givens, citing St. Ignatius. “They don’t know this word when they begin, but they’re looking for that Magis, they’re looking for the more, the greater for their life and their relationship with God. And they’re willing to do this to get there,” he said.

Many who have completed the Exercises hold ministry roles in mainline Protestant denominations and share Ignatian ways of prayer and tools for discernment with their communities. Others have pursued training to become Ignatian spiritual directors.

Bridges prayer companion Carl Greiner, right, makes a point at a weekly Bridges small group gathering while retreatant Michael Gordon looks on.

Rhonda Dawson, a spiritual direction intern and member of a Presbyterian (EPC) church where her husband pastors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, sought direction through the full Spiritual Exercises with Becky Eldredge in 2017. She had begun her Ignatian journey by reading Developing Intimacy with God by Alex Aronis, a book inspired by the Ignatian tradition from a non-Catholic Christian perspective. Then, she felt called to intentional discernment as she transitioned from life as a mother of four at home to an empty nest.

“It was like an awakening,” she said of her experience. Through imaginative prayer with scripture during the third week of the Exercises, focused on Jesus’ sacrificial death, she felt compassion for him and realized the strength of his love. “I had never experienced the emotions of that kind of engagement with a scriptural story,” Dawson said.

For Dawson, the Exercises facilitated a connection between her head and heart and to God.

“God used the Exercises to draw me into his heart, closer to the Father, the Son and the Spirit,” she said. “I feel so enriched and so deeply in love with my Savior through this.” Now, she is training to be a companion to women in her church community, to help them know God in a personal way.

Sapienza believes that, for both Catholic and Protestant participants, the experience of companioning through the Exercises is an antidote to an American culture of individualism. People learn, “This is a communal conversion and transformation that we’re about here, it’s not just me,” she said. “My conversion is your conversion, and your conversion is my joy, and your joy is my joy.”

It is joyful conversion, rooted in deep attentiveness to God, that can answer the challenges of our day. “If I can deeply listen to God, I can better listen to my neighbor or the person I don’t agree with,” said Eldredge.

“There is a renewal of the interior life in both Catholic and mainstream Protestant circles,” she said. “It gives me such hope, it really does.”

The Bridges Foundation is currently holding information sessions for cohorts beginning in September, both in-person in St. Louis and online. Visit their website at www.bridgesfoundation.org for more information.

Retreat offerings from Becky Eldredge and Ignatian Ministries can be found on the web at www.ignatianministries.org.

Find a retreat center or spiritual director near you.

The 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola are an experience of prayer and meditation on the life of Christ, orienting the participant toward a deepening discernment of God’s presence in and will for their lives. “The Exercises are an encounter with self and an encounter with Christ,” said Fr. Mark McKenzie, SJ. “It’s scriptural and it’s prayerful.”

Structured as a series of four “weeks,” each focusing on a different aspect of our relationship with God, the Exercises are designed to be completed as one 30-day retreat, or in an abbreviated form over eight days. Every Jesuit completes the full 30-day Exercises, often called the “long retreat,” at least twice during his formation, during novitiate and tertianship.

However, even in Ignatius’ own day, there were lay companions who desired to complete the Exercises but were unable to do so through the long retreat. Ignatius developed a method for them to complete the full Exercises during their daily lives.

More than 400 years later, this “19th Annotation” of the Exercises provides the opportunity to complete the same retreat over the course of a period of months of structured daily prayer. Today it often involves meeting with a spiritual companion or director as well as a group of others who are going through the same experience.

This story appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of Jesuits magazine. 

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