In my journey through Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, I've been encouraged lately to reflect on sin: its effect on my life, how the surrounding world influences me in negative ways, how self-aware I really am, and how repulsive and wretched my sins really are. This is the "First Week" of the Exercises, although the version that I am observing has this Week spanning several calendar weeks.
A friend and colleague of mine is making her own way through the Exercises, and is actually set to go through the program at the Ignatian Spirituality Institute the same time that I will (pity the professors now). When recently discussing our experiences of the Exercises, we talked for a while about how grounded they are in a particular tradition. In contrast, we Protestants aren't always good at exploring the true depth of an idea of tradition. Many of us make nebulous claims that the Bible or Christ are all we need, but we don't often use any strand of Christian tradition as a lens or guide, however imperfect, to interpreting those things.*
Some will undoubtedly be turned off by how Catholic the Exercises are. There have been occasions when the meditation for the day has encouraged me to say the Hail Mary or petition a saint, which admittedly has thrown up some roadblocks for me. This past week was no different, when I was invited to pray through something called The Triple Colloquy.
You begin by preparing yourself for prayer and centering yourself in your world. You seek to become aware of your own yearnings and how the world around you influences you. This part probably wouldn't raise many red flags for people. After this point, however, you are invited to ask Mary for help in becoming aware of your sins. This took me a long time to warm up to, let alone understand. As my spiritual director explained, however, I could choose someone besides Mary for this part of the exercise. For one reason or another, I decided against Mary and opted to talk to my friend Darren instead.
That first night did not go well. I came to this part of the exercise and paused for a very long time. For one thing, I just didn't understand what I was doing. My Protestantness was on full display that evening, as I've never looked into the practice of petitioning Mary or the saints too closely. For another, there were aspects of this that caused it to feel more like a seance than a time of meditation. Finally, I know of others who regularly talk to deceased relatives and friends, but I can't recall a single instance when I've felt inspired to do so. In effect, I've never tried to talk directly to Darren since I last saw him alive. This all comes back to my incredible ignorance going into this, and I probably just shouldn't have done it without doing more research.
Nevertheless, after a time of centering myself, I did the best I could. I began, "Darren." There was a very long pause here. "You seemed to understand Catholic practices, so I'm gonna need your help with this because I'm so out of my comfort zone." The rest of what I said wasn't very long, as I asked for a new awareness of my sins and other similar requests the meditation encouraged me to make. After this I did the same with Jesus, and then with God, hence the "triple" in Triple Colloquy.
I made sure to do some reading before the next night. As it turns out, the understanding of petitioning Mary or a saint is not a prayer per se, but asking for aid in prayer much the same way you ask for prayers from the living. We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses who are continually willing to help us and to pray for us. This is the type of thing that can bust one's theology of resurrection wide open, particularly if yours isn't well-developed. As I read, I thought back to my conversation with my friend about being grounded in tradition and attaining a depth of theological understanding that many Christians don't necessarily have access to or care for.
That next night, I felt much more comfortable talking to Darren, drawing much more of a sense of peace and support from the meditation than the previous evening. I found it far more comforting to be surrounded by loved ones missed, beloved, and whose memories and presence I still treasure.
*In reality, we all have such lenses or guides, however horribly honed and defined. In most cases we just aren't aware of them or don't want to acknowledge them as part of our claim to a supposedly more pure approach.