Friday, November 19, 2021

How the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola helped me

             A reflection on something that I participated in before my priestly ordination.

As an important part of the process of spiritual formation in the seminary, our priestly training included a mandatory retreat of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.  This silent retreat took place in a House of Spiritual Direction and for those in my year, we had the taste of this spiritual nourishment in an area called the Seven Fountains, which is a place in Chian Mai, Thailand, where many go for retreats, conferences, days of prayer and spiritual direction so that they can find growth in their faith, prayer and in the ability to respond to God in their daily life.  

The Spiritual Exercises came out of the personal experiences of Ignatius of Loyola when he was keen to grow in union with God and when he was learning to discern God’s will.  He kept a spiritual journal to track the spiritual insights he obtained, through which he deepened his spiritual experiences.  He made extensive notes which later became the actual Exercises itself.  

What are the Spiritual Exercises?

It is often said that the Exercises is a series of well-rounded overrate of personal prayer, understanding the spiritual journey, as well as the ministry of companioning others on their spiritual journey.  I am grateful that my companions during the time at this retreat were my very own classmates who are now very active and dynamic priests.  

The Text of the Spiritual Exercises.

The exercises are meant to be led by a retreat director.  Each day’s meet up with the Spiritual Director leads to a colloquy which is an intimate conversation between the exercitant and God the Father, or a conversation between us and Jesus, or between us and Mary or one of the saints.  An important dimension of the exercise is that not all are called to material poverty, but are called to “poverty of spirit”, or spiritual poverty.

The different contemplations of the exercises.

The contemplation on the Incarnation begins with imagining the Trinity looking down from heaven and responding with the Incarnation.  The next or second week sees the exercitant contemplating part two of the Incarnation, which is Mary’s human response.  Tjos explores both the Annunication and Mary’s response.  The third week sees us contemplating the Language of the Cross.  It explores the idea that Jesus’ passion brings us to embrace the world as it really is.  In the fourth and final week of the retreat, we contemplate on how the resurrection brings joy.  The three significant truths rooted in the Resurrection (faith, hope and love) open a window to the grace and virtues of the fourth Week.  What is highlighted are the reasons for our joy when contemplating the Resurrection.

I am not surprised if anyone reading this blog is at this point asking me why I am reflecting on such a spiritual exercise which I took part in before I was ordained a priest.  It is a legitimate question when one takes into consideration that for almost a month now, I have been waiting and feeling anxious about the surgery that my skull needs since the unfortunate accident at the end of May.  

No, I am not returning to the time of the Spiritual Exercises, but I have thumbed through some texts that feature the Exercise itself.  It sent me a great reminder of what I went through back then, and to jettison all that just to anxious about waiting for something to happen does seem like a waste of precious energy and time.

One of the most important things that we came out of the retreat appreciating were the first two degrees of humility according to Ignatian spirituality.  One of the very important things we picked up was the actual contemplation on the Love of God.  This is not a subject that we were taught upfront in the seminary, but because we had the experiences of the different weeks, it helped us to see the fruit that came from the contemplation on the Love of God.  

Do I suggest that anyone who considers himself or herself a keen disciple of Jesus should go for this prayer experience?  I’m not sure I would do that outrightly.  It really depends on whether your Spiritual Director whom you see regularly recommends this for your spiritual advancement.  There are times of contemplation that can be challenging like getting up in the middle of the night to go to the Adoration Room.  These are good, but to a lay person, it can be daunting, especially in a remote place like Chiang Mai.  

The gold that I have gained from the experience has set me in a good place to handle the present stress of waiting and anticipating the surgery that my skull requires.  I’ve come to realise that there is a lot of feeling of displeasure in feeling anxious about waiting, and my mind can utilise the time better in contemplation of things that would benefit my soul and spiritual life.  

It is well known that the human heart is the concern of the Spiritual Exercises.  It nurtures the Spirituality of the Heart of each exercitant.  Perhaps my heart has been stiffened by what I have gone through in life, and this time of being away from all the “action” is where my spiritual training for my heart becomes activated.  

I thank you, dear reader, for reading my reflection this week.  If you think this exercise is for you, perhaps it is something you can bring up to discuss with your Spiritual Director soon.  My prayer goes with you as you may plan to deepen your spiritual life.

Monday, November 15, 2021

When simply waiting is not a futile act in life

A personal reflection on life

Ever since I had the first surgery to my skull due to the unfortunate accident on 24 May this year, I have been in a stance of waiting for the needed second surgery to replace the two parts of my skull that were removed by the surgeons as they believed that the injury would cause terrible things to happen to my head.  Then came the news that the surgeons were waiting for the system to allow at least a few family visitors to their inpatients in the hospital before they scheduled the surgery.  That was sometime in the beginning of October when everything was put on hold for the system to change, and all this while on my side, it was a prolonged period of waiting.  And this waiting was something that was incessant.

I found myself embittered with all this waiting, like as if one was waiting for something to change in life.  I tried so many ways to make myself productive with the waiting, but my daily contemplation and prayer came down to offering my time of waiting for the benefit of souls in need of help.  One of the greatest ways I believed this could be done was to pray for the souls who make up the Church Suffering in Purgatory, where they are being purified from their sinful ways before God grants them the eternal joy of heaven in the Church Triumphant, a place which consists of those who have the beatific vision and are in Heaven.  We make use of the time we have in the Church Militant well when we use our time and resources to pray for those who have left this world’s existence and are still awaiting their purification before their beatific vision granted them by God.

One may think that simple “waiting” in life is a waste of time.  Unless God deems it necessary to grant us a gift of revelation that our departed brothers and sisters have attained their beatific vision, the best we can do in this life is to do the “waiting” with good and charitable acts.  As very few of us human beings do receive such a great gift of revelation by God about the souls who have died before us, we will mainly live with this holy anticipation in our hearts.

I have come to appreciate that this waiting is a great gift from God.  It is not to waste time doing nothing, but it reminds us to use the waiting time productively for the benefit of souls and others.  I do not have anything to support that I have done productive things in my life while waiting for the surgery to happen.  But that report is something that God alone knows, as he reads into my heart.  I may not have any confirmation from God that my prayers and charitable acts have brought great benefits to others, but I do know that inside my heart there is peace.  

The Church exists in three states - the Church Militant, the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering.  When we are alive in this world, we make up part of the Church Militant where we are fighting against the wiles of the evil one and his ways of tempting us in life, and while we fight his ways, we are being Militant against the ways of the devil.  Then there is the Church Triumphant which is made up of souls in their glorified state of heaven.  And as I mentioned earlier, the Church Suffering is made up of souls that are being purified in Purgatory.  In all three states there exists the communion of saints, where between each aspect of life we are separated by the barrier of death, and we remain united to each other in one Church, and support each other in prayer.

The Catholic Church celebrates the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering or Penitent on two days - All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2.   In Lumen Gentium, we are taught that:

The three states of the Church. “When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him.  But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth.  Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is’.”

With such strong teachings of the three states of the Church, any time that we have in this life is never to be thought of as a “waste” of time.  It is a resource to be richly used for the benefit of others who have gone before us.  

Maybe there are some of you who are reading this blog reflection who are also finding it tough to utilise your time well in such ways that others can stand to benefit from your generosity.  May this reflection give you good cause to offer your time so that others can be richly blessed.  

May God continue to bless and surround you with his peace and love.

Friday, November 5, 2021

The challenges that abound in being a contemplative

                      Learning in new ways to appreciate God’s revelation of himself to us.

Thomas Merton was an American Trappist monk who was also known for his writing, being a theologian, a mystic and a poet, as well a a scholar of comparative religion.  I came to know a few notable Trappist priests when I was a seminarian, and they introduced me to his writings back then.  He was a treasure whom I was blessed to know through his writings and thoughts who was known for having had dialogues with prominent Asian spiritual figures like the Dalai Lama, various Thai Buddhist and Vietnamese monks and he traveled rather extensively to be able to meet up with them a he attended international conferences on religion.  

In my few weeks of having had to be on medical leave prior to my skull surgery that is coming up soon, I have been blessed to have received a few very precious spiritual books given by kind and friendly parishioners.  One of them was by Thomas Merton himself, entitled New Seeds of Contemplation.  It was a book that was written by a lady Sue Monk Kidd who first read his book when she first visited the cinder-block monastery where Merton lived for the last few years of his life.  It must have impacted her deeply for her to take on such an onerous task of getting this book reprinted with her own thoughts and reflections.  Would I recommend it easily to others?  After reading it from cover to cover, I would be hesitant because it is facile to say that just reading a book on contemplation would lead anyone to adopt the challenges that face anyone who feels compelled to become contemplative.  Yet, the effect of the book stimulates my own attempts at contemplative prayer each day, purifying my efforts at encountering God’s love and providence in life.  

Distractions abound in everyone’s path toward wanting to truly become a contemplative in life.  One of the things that confuse a newcomer to the the life of a contemplative is that it is all about technique.  Those who have read the book would agree with me that Sue Monk Kidd handles this challenge right from the start of the book.  She makes it clear that the pathway to a contemplative is to not take God as an object of one’s heart and desire.  Contemplative prayer is much less to do with feelings and emotions, thrills and delights than it is to do with encountering God in his goodness and loving providence in life.  One can use sacred scripture to lead one to encountering God through his words, and one of the noted recommendations is to use the Book of Psalms, especially the first 20 chapters which help us to encounter how rich and providential God is to his beloved people.  What Sue Monk Kidd does very well is to instruct any beginner to not attempt to ‘construct’ in his or her mind the ‘kind’ of God he or she would like to encounter.  This, to Kidd, is a needless and rather superfluous exercise especially when there is a trove of richness already there in the Psalms.  

In contemplation, the means is to use the words provided us through Scripture to thread a pathway for our hearts to get to the heart of God.  Once we do that, God can (and does) use the scriptural texts to reach our searching heart without our attempts at God-constructions with our imagination and fantasy.  

It is wise that Kidd has written in some of her later chapters of the book that it might not work to look physically for a contemplative monk to become your spiritual director or leader to bring you to a good experience of contemplation.  This may not always work, as many contemplatives themselves went the hard way to reach the depths of contemplation, as as such, may not be suitable teachers of the craft.  

But after reading the book, it is possible to come to a conclusion that it is good to go to a recommended monk or contemplative to have a heart to heart conversation with him about your needs and what you hope to attain as you learn from him or her.  Do this with an open mind, and try not to only look for the ‘gold’ in seeking someone well known and already accepted by many to be an ‘expert’ on contemplation.  

I would recommend going out to get a copy of this valuable book yourself and get a notebook to write the precious thoughts that come to you as you read its valuable chapters.  This note book will come one very handy when the day comes that you get to have that precious chat with a contemplative who could well be your guide toward knowing and loving the God of our lives.