An Evangelical Protestant Encounters Catholic Spirituality: Part 1. Entering a place of rest
This is the first of a four part series chronicling my experience in an Ignatian retreat.
This past week I participated in a silent 6 day directed Retreat based on the spiritual practices of St. Ignatius Loyola. Having heard and read how these practices had a profound influence on countless people, I decided to join in the retreat. When I arrived at the retreat, I found out 2 very significant things. The first significant thing was that there were 5 of us. (Including me) who signed up for the retreat. Out of that there were 2 people I knew well. One was the senior pastor of a Baptist church in Christchurch and the other was an Anglican minister from the Wellington Diocese. This must be God’s sense of humour putting me, an ENFP, in a silent retreat with friends whom I did not realize had signed up for the retreat. Meal times were hard having to sit at the table with them and not say anything. The other significant thing was that there was no set programme to follow on the retreat. For me, a highly driven workaholic, this was hard to comprehend. How would I know what to pray about if there is no programme?
I learned that the retreat was more about “being” not “doing”. There was a bit of a structure for each day. Each day I was to spend 4-5 periods of prayer of between 45-60 minutes. I was told not to spend more than an hour for each prayer period. In between the prayer periods, I was to enjoy doing activities that were relaxing, like listening to music, doing puzzles or artwork, go for walks or just sleep. However I was not allowed to do work related stuff or communicate in any way like emails or Social media. Each day, in the morning, I would meet my spiritual director, who was there to listen, guide, encourage and feed me some bible passages to stir my imagination and help me in my retreat. Using the power of imagination to fuel one’s prayer life is one of Ignatius’ spiritual practices to help deepen your experience of God and his love. Part of that time is to ask God for a specific grace we need from him, a grace that will help enrich our experience of God. Ignatius believed that the imagination could respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit so that we can truly experience God in Bible passages and have our emotions stirred by these encounters. Also, there was a communion liturgy just before lunch and an evening liturgy before the evening meal and we were required to participate in them.
Looking back, I could see myself going through different stages culminating in a very deep experience that I have never encountered before. I found this “being” rather than “doing” very hard. It took me a day and a half to realize that my spiritual director was not joking when he said there was no prayer programme to follow. I had to just be still and let the Holy Spirit help me enter into what Jesus wants to do in me. However, whenever I tried to be still and focus all sorts of thoughts would go through my mind, all related to “doing”.
It was the afternoon of the second day that I started to enter into the spirit of the retreat. I had asked the Holy Spirit to give me the grace to experience Jesus. As I quietened myself, my imagination started to flow. I imagined myself seeing Jesus coming to me. I saw a shepherd’s crook in his hand. Jesus was coming to me as the Good Shepherd. I started to think about my current situation. As I started thinking over the past year and the past 5 years since the earthquakes I just felt weary, battered and wounded. I imagined myself as a sheep stuck in the brambles, cut, bleeding, not being able to get out of the predicament. Spiritual I just knew the grace I needed was renewal and healing. I imagined Jesus breaking off branches to get me free. He then carried me to an open pasture. He knelt down and gently cleaned the wounds and he poured soothing oil over me. I could feel the love of Jesus as he gently cared for me.
As I was cherishing the moment, Psalm 8 came to mind. I started imagining the vast universe. Looking at the stars, planets, meteors, and galaxies and the hugeness of the universe, I felt insignificant and alone. It was then that I heard a voice saying, “What is man that I am mindful of him? I am El Shaddai the creator of the universe but I have chosen to reveal myself as the Good Shepherd who is there to love, nourish and sustain you.” I felt an awesome sense of God’s love for me, and his wanting to nourish and renew me. I felt protected and cared for by the Good Shepherd. I felt significant because this great Elohim is also El Shaddai, the one who cares and sustains me. God answered my prayer and gave me his gift of healing and renewal. I felt renewed spiritually, emotionally and physically. I found a place of rest, not just physically at the retreat centre, but emotionally and spiritually as I entered a rest offered by the Good Shepherd.