If you wish to find God, leave the external world behind and enter within yourself. However do not remain in yourself but transcend yourself, for you are not God.
Imagine total silence fills your life suddenly. Your cell phone is off, you are completely offline. You have no access to radio, tv, internet, books, except one, which I am going to cover in a moment. You are left alone with yourself, your own thoughts and occasional sounds coming from your gut.
I had such an experience for a couple of days a few weeks ago. The desire to participate in so called Spiritual Exercises according to St. Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of Jesuits) had been in me for some quite time. My second yearlong break from professional work, sabbatical, was an additional motivation to try this beautiful way of Christian meditation. I have also heard great references about this method of meditation from a few people including my wife.
View of Zakopane from my meditation place
The terms meditation and Christianity usually do not usually fit into the same sentence. Just like many of you I have met several people fascinated by or practising Eastern methods of meditation such as zen, yoga or transcendental meditation. For many people raised in Western culture based on the Christian values the Christian methods of meditation are barely known. I am not sure if this is driven by “the grass is greener on the other side …” type of thinking or pure ignorance. Perhaps this is a deeper issue. Unfortunately our religious practice tends to be based on following mostly certain moral code and rituals. For years we are stuck in religious routines without deeper reflections on their meanings. Hardly ever we seek something new in our rich Christian heritage.
One of the methods of Christian meditation are so-called Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, SE for short. Before I elaborate more on this method let me mention here that there is at least one other method of Christian meditation in the form of internal prayer (in silence). It consists in retaining a motionless state and repeating biblical phrases (like mantras). This method was started by the Desert Fathers over two thousand years ago. Today this method is cultivated and promoted by the Benedictine Order.
The common feature of both those methods is the purpose of meeting oneself and God in silent meditation. The main objective of this encounter is achieving better self-knowledge by confronting our own life with the Word of God and better alignment of our lives with God’s will. In more practical terms good Christian meditation changes us for the better. I do not mean better feeling, “charging batteries” or just achieving better self-awareness. The desire to meet God is fundamental here. Positive response to His love and acceptance of his Grace give us motivation and strength to grow.
I do not know any better formula for personal growth than the above. Thousands of ways described in self-help or business books manage hardly to scratch the surface. Without Me, you can do nothing (J 15:5). Period. The rest is some kind of ersatz or illusion.
The experience of so-called Foundation, i.e. the first part of Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, was for me very intense and moving. The method of St. Ignatius is very close to me. It is somewhat similar to endurance sports I pursue. Just like we need to be active regularly to keep our physical fitness, St. Ignatius recognized that we need to exercise to keep our spiritual health as well. The method entails achievement of calm attitude (focus and proper place of training), maintenance of meditational discipline of your body and mind (training plan), proper preparation for meditation (warm-up), meditation itself performed at the level of your heart (proper cardio training 😊) and adequate relaxation (recovery). All of that is done within certain strict timeframe.
An important aspect of each meditation is a good visualization of a particular biblical fragment to be meditated, which helps to maintain the right focus. One of my favorite metaphors is the following: Just as the sunflower is in its full bloom when turned towards the sun, so we are at our best when we turn our hearts toward God.
Vertitur ad solem
While meditating it is also important not to lose sight of the main purpose, which is well summarized by St. Ignatius in the First Principle and Foundation:
“God freely created us so that we might know, love, and serve him in this life and be happy with him forever. God’s purpose in creating us is to draw forth from us a response of love and service here on earth, so that we may attain our goal of everlasting happiness with him in heaven.
All the things in this world are gifts of God, created for us, to be the means by which we can come to know him better, love him more surely, and serve him more faithfully.
As a result, we ought to appreciate and use these gifts of God insofar as they help us toward our goal of loving service and union with God. But insofar as any created things hinder our progress toward our goal, we ought to let them go.”
In the Spiritual Exercises you have two companions, your own copy of the Bible and a spiritual guide. Selected fragments from the Bible are the basis for daily meditations. Daily conferences are meant to help better understand a deeper meaning of those texts and their context. As for the guide, also known as a spiritual companion, their role is to objectify our own thoughts and feelings, that occur during personal meditations.
Ignatian meditation helps us raise some fundamental questions: Who am I? Why am I who I am? What am I put here on earth to do? How can I grow the best side of me and rein in the worst? What does it mean to be a good person and lead a good life? What brings fulfilment and happiness?
At the end of this spiritual retreat it also good to ask ourselves: Does it resonate well in my life? Am I less of a pain for others? Do I become more useful for others? Do I do things for my own glory or His?
Since Ania noticed some positive changes I assume I did not waste my time during SE retreat. It also motivates me more to practice Christian meditation on a daily basis. After all: By their fruit you will recognize them (Mt 7, 20)
I highly recommend SE to all of you who desire to develop your spiritual life and for whom the daily pleasures and prose of life are not sufficient. There is quite a handful of places in Poland (assume in many other countries as well), usually affiliated with the Jesuit order, which organize SE retreats. Facing yourself in silence may usher in a change for the better in your lives. I am already looking forward to my next stage of the Spiritual Exercises in a couple of months.