At the end of every summer, Jesuits in the Midwest have to write a reflection letter to the delegate or director who oversees their formation. One way to look at this is as just another task to complete—another thing to write in the eleven year process of becoming a Jesuit priest. Another way is to link it with the history of prolific letter writing in the Society of Jesus over the course of our history. Ignatius himself wrote some 6,800 letters before his death, and most of those date from a period of just four years, 1540 to 1544, the founding years of the Society of Jesus.
I recently took advantage of the opportunity to re-read some of the letters to my formation director. It was a walk through the past 9 years of my training, with snapshots along the way of the high and lows, joys and challenges. I had completely forgotten about at least one challenging event from several years ago. The letter alone brought back those memories, that person. Without that written record, how long would I have waited to be reminded of it? Would I ever have been reminded of it? This all made me think, why don’t I do the same thing with my annual retreats? While journaling is a regular retreat practice for many, the time that goes into writing a letter implies editing, rephrasing, and rethinking. That sort of intentionality cannot help but make our language clearer and to the point. What we are left with are graces ripe for further sharing, or praying.
Would that not be just as useful, or even more so? What would it be like to read “spiritual fruit letters” at a later date? That is, what if after every retreat, I wrote a letter to myself detailing the fruit that particular retreat bore? Is that not what Ignatius wants, when he advises, in the Spiritual Exercises that the retreat ought to record moments of consolation so as to have them in mind to fight moments of desolation? 1
Trusting that grace grows as it’s shared with others, here is the letter detailing the fruits of my summer retreat in 2021.
Summer 2021 Retreat Letter
Love does not exclude anybody, not even the feet of Judas.
We are called to love as God loves: perfectly. Easier said than done, and sometimes even the saying part does not come so easy. How easy, and temporarily satisfying, the silent treatment can be. Sometimes a little time and space can go a long way, but when “cooling down” time becomes not hours or days, but months or years, we know that we have gone awry. Time to make a phone call, or write a letter, and not to oneself.
To serve is not to give something, but to give oneself.
No doubt finances are an important part of generosity. Good work can be done this way, yet it is not the only way, and as Ignatius encouraged that love ought to express itself in deeds more than in words, so we might also recognize that no amount of money alone fulfills the Christian obligation to “go and do likewise.” We simply cannot write checks to check off this box of Christian love. Indeed, the point here is that there does not exist any box of Christian love. See above about the feet of Judas. It is a privilege we simply do not have to box others out from the love that the Father, perhaps by way of us, wants to shower on his creation.
Sacraments are a celebration, even reconciliation.
One of the gifts of Jesuit training so far has been to be forced to move every two or three years. This means I cannot help but see how the liturgy is celebrated differently at various parishes, each with its own energy and rhythm, community and communion. I find that I now value the music more than I ever thought I would. It can be the difference between a sprint to the finish Mass, and a heavenly timeout within the liturgy itself. What is more: even reconciliation is meant to be a celebration, as the story of the prodigal son, or, more accurately put, the loving father, helps illustrate.
The footprints of a person who accompanies are never erased.
For those who do not have the financial resources to build buildings, or have their names ever appear on plaques or walls of institutions, it can be easy to think that your contribution is somehow less. If history provides any example, especially Church history, one hardly needs to be rich to be remembered. Even the very process of becoming a saint illustrates this. Sainthood requires not so much worldly fame, as much as a worldly service, and just as importantly, a community that is thankful for, and remembers that service. In fact, so many saintly examples include the forsaking of one’s personal comfort and wealth and accompanying others in a radical way.
Ask, talk, do not just examine. Use your heart more than your head.
This last note is a growing edge for me, and not just me. Since so much of Jesuit formation includes formal study, it can be tempting to bring those methods or schools of thought to prayer. While not an impossible way to pray, it is not always helpful, either. If virtue can often be found in the middle, we ought to bring as much as, if not more, of our heart to prayer as our head. Otherwise, prayer becomes little more than an extended study hour or seminar. Less a time away as a time to continue to analyze, criticize, and scrutinize.
The truth is, part of me is thankful I have not written letters of the spiritual fruit from my retreats until now. Shamefully, I am afraid how often the same points, or versions of the same points, might have been written year after year. Perhaps this is the point: a retreat is not so much to yield more or bigger results, as it is a statement about a relationship, a commitment to carve time and energy into one’s schedule for what and who really matters.
- Spiritual Exercises, no. 323 ↩