This is the eighth installment of A Deacon’s Diary. In the seventh installment, Steve wondered what it really meant to be free.
One weekend recently, I was shadowing another Jesuit. He was preaching a retreat in Louisiana and brought three of us deacons with him. We were learning and workshopping our own versions of talks for preached retreats that we would give later in the spring. 1
Convent, Louisiana was like no place I’d been before. The retreat house sits close to the Mississippi and the landscape is open, populated by bent and sprawling oak trees, covered in spanish moss. Long avenues were lined with such trees and the buildings were built in classical style, with rows of columns and pediments. Manresa itself had been a boarding school and parts of it dated from the 1830s. The Society acquired it as a retreat property a century later.
We were there to provide spiritual direction alongside the preached and silent portions of the retreat, while observing and learning the rhythms and content of the talks. The talks themselves were a way of providing the themes of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises in a more accessible format.
The Spiritual Exercises are something that Jesuits often speak about. They are one of the foundational ways to partake of Ignatian spirituality and every Jesuit does them in 30 days of silence at least twice in his lifetime—once as a novice and once in preparation for final vows.
But they’re not such an accessible text sometimes. Physically, the text of the Exercises is widely available—in bookstores, libraries, on the internet. Still, it’s not a book that’s meant to be read, but a book that’s meant to be prayed-through, journeyed with. It’s not about reading, but about doing. Perhaps the word “exercises” is right then, since if you had a fitness manual for, say, weightlifting, you wouldn’t just read it. It instructs you how to bench press. So, too, with the Exercises of Ignatius.
Ignatius’ method for prayer is all about experiencing through the use of the imagination what we read about in the Gospels.
Some key moments from my own time in thirty days of silence with the Exercises sometimes returned to me when I was at a crossroads. It was the experience of the Exercises that led me to work as a jail chaplain in St. Paul as a novice. This desire for a particular ministry came from an experience of imagining sitting with Christ’s body in the tomb, awaiting the resurrection. In a way that I couldn’t have foreseen as I prayed with that portion of the Spiritual Exercises as a novice, it was a moment that led me to seek to accompany those awaiting new life.
For years, there were moments that returned from that month of intense, experiential, imaginative prayer.
The men who were on retreat at Manresa in Convent, Louisiana were good men. Every year, they came to the retreat house that same weekend to hear someone offer them themes from the Exercises and points for prayer.
They were told: The Jesuit deacons who are here this weekend need to learn to have spiritual conversations with people, so please drop in during their appointment times.
This was humbling. I’d been a practicing spiritual director for six years and had had more than forty people see me for individual direction. I’d recently been directing the Exercises, even.
The room I was using for direction had a light switch on the table that turned a red and a green light in the hallway on or off, so that I could signal when I was available. There was a sign-up sheet on the wall, with the day broken up into fifteen-minute increments for direction.
As the men came to see me, I was humbled again, but differently than just a few hours earlier. For one, sometimes we had difficulty understanding each other—there were some thick Louisiana and Cajun accents in this crowd competing with my Upstate New York intonations. Sometimes entire sentences were mutually unintelligible.
More importantly, however, I needed to learn what these men’s lives were like. I was indeed humbled by the way that they came in, sometimes just to say “hi,” and then poured out the contents of their lives, expecting that I would have something wise to say. All in fifteen-minute appointments.
They’d often begin by introducing themselves. And calling me Deacon. Sometimes Father.
They were kind, good men, fathers and grandfathers. Men who cared about their families, parishes, communities. They talked with me about their children, about their work, about their marriages. About their thirst for Jesus and their search for a path that allowed them to follow him. They were looking for ways to know Jesus in the way that Jesuits do, through the content and experience of the Exercises. Many of these men had been coming on retreat here longer than I had been a Jesuit, a few longer than I had been alive.
I listened. And offered what words of encouragement and advice I could—about prayer, about children (what did I know about that!?), about life. The erudition so valued at the universities where I spend most of my time wasn’t useless per se, but certainly needed application and translation.
There was a lot of trust. And vulnerability.
They trusted that I somehow had an answer—maybe because I was a Jesuit. Maybe because they’d had good experiences there at Manresa. Maybe because I wore a Roman collar when we met. Maybe because I was a deacon.
It’d been a while since I was temporarily somewhere—I’d gotten used to being stationary in Boston, at Boston College and Boston University. Before that, I’d spent three years at Marquette.
There is, however, a benefit to being someone just passing through. I’d forgotten the ways in which people will sometimes tell you anything and everything if you’re not their pastor or even someone they’d ever see again.
There’s a certain grace in the temporary relationship. It can be more transparent, more vulnerable, maybe sometimes more forgiving or more real. It can speak more directly to exactly what’s needed right then.
And I learned, despite my initial bristling at being introduced as someone who needed practice in spiritual conversation. What I needed was practice in listening, not conversing. What I needed was to learn about these particular men. In some ways, they each could be an everyman, as patterns of lives played out before me. But each life had its context, its texture, its uniqueness.
Real lives were laid out before me and the men wanted advice and simply to be heard and told that God was accompanying them. They wanted a benediction pronounced over their lives, over their wounds, over their brokennesses, over their graces.
I left grateful as I returned to Boston, the distance underscored by the long flight. We had been simultaneously hard at work and well-cared for and supported. I prayed through some of the conversations as we waited for the (delayed) flight.
The benediction had come in the authenticity they had shown, although some asked if I could hear their confessions (I couldn’t). Some asked for prayers and blessings. Those I readily spoke. What I couldn’t say was that the blessing was as much extended to me by those men in Convent as it was sought by them.
Indeed, at every meal, as we Jesuits ate in a private dining room at the retreat house, the ladies from the kitchen would tell us that they were blessed, reminding us, too, of the abundance of graces present. Sometimes they were concrete, like fried chicken or gumbo. And dessert–like bread pudding–twice per day.
Blessing was a part of the fabric of the place, of the land. The men making retreat and the ladies who kept us all well fed did more than remind me: they taught me. They blessed me.
- A preached retreat (as opposed to a silent or a silent, directed one) is a format for a weekend or several-day retreat in which the primary content is provided by talks rather than in spiritual direction meetings. ↩