Spiritual exercises

Don’t ask the world to change … you change first

Anthony De Melo

I have just switched off airplane mode after not using my phone for 8 straight days receiving a very rare message: your weekly screen time decreased dramatically in the previous week. Amazing! It feels that in my ordinary life my screen time tends to increase slightly every so often. I highly recommend such a digital detox particularly coupled with an activity I describe below.

As a side note, a thought came how much time that has been given to me I waste everyday on things not generating any goodness. I like the expression “is given to me”. Apparently in Hebrew the verb “to have” does not exist. Instead the Jewish people say that something is given to them. What a change in perspective! Just beautiful!

Speaking about screen time I have been happy for quite some time not to watch television, nor listen to the radio, unless music only. I tend to avoid written media and all kinds of information portals as well, which are not designed predominantly to provide facts and unbiased information but mostly to generate our clicks. After all the key objective of this broadly defined entertainment business (Where is all the good journalism gone?) is to grab and keep our attention for as long as possible. Unfortunately we, often unknowingly, let to be distracted by all kinds of tricks and people claiming to speak on our behalf. In this way we lose the most precious resource we have – our time and attention.

A very effective way to defy this overwhelming and overstimulated reality is the practice of different kinds of meditation, contemplation or prayer. This can be practiced on a daily basis as well as through prolonged periods of seclusion aimed to stimulate our self-awareness, self-reflection and deepening our relationship with God.

For a few years now I have had an annual habit of dedicating 8 straight days for my spiritual life. It takes a form of attending so-called Spiritual Exercises, aka Ignatian Meditations. Looking at it from our typical life perspective which is full of running errands, making and spending money or some other life organizing activities, contemplating selected scenes from the Holy Bible may seem as a waste of time.

It may also be viewed as a painful luxury to spend 8 days without talking, watching, listening, reading, surfing. How unpractical! Contemplating stories from 2000 years ago.

On the contrary! For me there is nothing more practical in life than our spiritual development. That’s where everything starts and ends. It is here that we can reflect upon ourselves, our relationship with others, the world at large and God. In the world in which we are constantly bombarded with stimulai we find it more and more difficult to look at our reality and ourselves from a distance. Polarizing views, overload in emotionally charged messages, growing obesity, growing range of addictions and sense of loneliness … this list of symptoms of our spiritual lethargy is endless. In this context “wasting” about 2% of time in a year to experience some form of spiritual awakening seems actually quite trivial.

Many people associate spiritual sphere with some form of pious practices often bordering on zealotry. It is not, however, how it was meant to be from the very beginning. Jesus, on many an occasion, scolded the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy as they emphasized the form of their religiousness over the essence of spirituality – seeking and doing good. In contrast he enjoyed the company and often healed those who were brave to shed different illusions about themselves and longed to straighten their lives.

I have just completed yet another stage of Spiritual Exercises at the Jesuit convent in Zakopane, the winter capital of Poland. I have already dedicated a few posts on this blog about the Ignatian Meditations. This time around I would like to share a few discoveries from the Third Week (Stage 4 of Spiritual Exercises) that I just attended. It is one of the toughest phases of contemplation because of the main theme of the contemplations, i.e. the events leading to and Jesus’s Crucifixion.

I was a bit apprehensive driving this time to Zakopane for my spiritual retreat. After all the caliber of topics to ponder seemed overwhelming evoking difficult emotions of pain, guilt or shame so well portrayed in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. On the other hand I felt I had heard and reread those stories so many times that they might not resonate properly leaving me indifferent.

Indeed, the method of Ignatian contemplation encourages and enables the people engaged in it to become first-hand observers or even participants of the contemplated events. This is achieved, among others, through meditative visualizations and employment of five senses to better see, hear, feel or even smell and taste a particular scene. Yes. It can be a very stimulating and thought-provoking experience.

As I was contemplating different scenes of the Passion in the silence of the monastery surrounded by the snow-clad Tatra mountains I discovered the beauty and amazing practicality hidden at every single station of the Cross. I think that regardless of our religious or atheist views it carries a universal message to all.

Undoubtedly our life is full of suffering. This is a fate shared by all, the poor, rich and those in the middle. We sometimes try to to deny our reality by wearing all sorts of masks, which only intensifies our pain. Experiencing the current pandemic is a huge catalyst of suffering globally. Businesses going broke, people losing jobs, wealth, health or even life. Older people experiencing growing sense of loneliness. By reacting to those difficult moments in the ordinary way many of us only aggravate our situation.

Jesus suffering may seem an abstract and remote event to us. Contemplating its following stages, however, I discovered certain illumination. By not responding in a typical human manner at every step of his way to the Cross he teaches us how we can stop the vicious cycle of evil and turn suffering into something positive.

The contemplation of the Passion starts with the anointment of Jesus by Mary Magdalene who spent a whole jar of very expensive perfume (worth the equivalent of annual salary of a laborer at the time) to the outrage of His disciples considering it such a “waste”. Yet Jesus, seeing their false care about the poor, which, as they argued, could be helped had the perfume been sold, scolds them and praises the women’s generosity. Then comes the scene when they start fighting for best places by Jesus’s side in the Heavenly Kingdom. How relevant this is in the modern world where many strive to advance their positions in all sorts of hierarchies in business, politics, church, social or family life or even amateur sport. Jesus humbles the apostles and us by giving a lesson on what true servant leadership by the act of washing their feet.

In the popular Netflix (NBC) series “New Amsterdam”, a new hospital director keeps asking his personnel such a rare question in leadership “How can I help?”. No wonder the atmosphere and results start improving at that place both for patients and personnel. Yes. The best model of leadership was invented by Jesus 20 centuries ago! Its practicality and effectiveness pales to all the other ways of trying to lead. Despite the passage of time it remains so revolutionary and rebellious until today. Yes it is all upside down as we, leaders, are tempted to think others should rather serve us. And good leadership does matter.

I could go on with a list of the discoveries from my recent contemplation and their life, including business, applicability yet do not want to spoil the pleasure to those of you who will embark on a similar journey.

I believe that all of us, regardless of how religious or spiritual we are, have a profound need to do good in the world and become better. In other words we long to deepen our spirituality. St. Ignatius Loyola used to say that the same logic applies to spirituality as any other sphere of our life: to achieve better results we simply need to exercise regularly.

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