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Setting out on a prayerful Lent adventure with St Ignatius

Susan Mansfield looks at how a prayer programme created by a 16th-century Spanish priest is still helping people today to deepen their Christian Faith.

Time, it is said, speeds up as one gets older. That might explain why the beginning of Lent is almost upon us, even though it doesn’t seem long since we took down the Christmas decorations.

We mark the season of preparation for Easter in different ways. Many of us decide to give up something we enjoy, perhaps putting the money we would have spent into a charity scheme such as SCIAF’s Wee Box. Abstaining from social media, or all but essential smart-phone use, has become a popular choice in recent years. But our Lent devotion isn’t always expressed by what we’re not doing. Sometimes, we also decide to mark this season as a particular time of prayer and reflection.

Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Glasgow has long offered a Lent Retreat. Traditionally, this was for a limited number of people able to attend the centre for weekly meetings with a prayer guide. Since 2018, however, the retreat has been offered online, with increasing numbers of people taking part around the country, and even around the world.

Lent online

Participants in the retreat register on the ISC website to receive a daily email which includes a passage from Scripture, an image or painting, a thought for the day and prompts for reflection. A booklet is also available for those who prefer to receive the material in printed form. Those taking part are encouraged to join a weekly group in their local area to meet with others on the same journey.

In 2018, it is estimated that at least 1,000 people took part. Last year, daily emails were sent to 1,848 people and 2,500 copies of the booklet were distributed. This year, organisers hope numbers will increase again: 5,000 booklets have been printed and at least 70 small groups will meet all over Scotland, with more south of the border.

Fr David Birchall, director of Ignatian Spirituality Centre, said the small groups were an integral part of the retreat concept. “It’s not just about producing stuff, throwing it out there on the web and hoping that people might catch it. If a group leader knows the different kinds of prayer and reflection being used, they can teach people the ways of prayer so they can get the most out of the experience.”

Christian denominations

He said that up to 500 people in Geneva are also expected to take part in the retreat, after two people working at international NGOs in the Swiss city did a previous online retreat run by ISC. Fr Birchall said: “There is a lot of enthusiasm there. They are mostly younger people working at organisations like the UN and Red Cross.

“It just shows how things can take off: a little bit of investment in helping people and you can find a real deepening of people’s Faith. I think bringing people into prayer always deepens their Faith, if they understand what it’s about.”

This year, Fr David decided to model the retreat on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, the programme of prayer St Ignatius wrote for his followers in the 16th century which is enjoying a surge in popularity not just among lay Catholics but among Christians from a variety of denominations. While the ‘full’ Spiritual Exercises are typically made on a 30-day silent retreat, Fr David said the Lent retreatants will make a very similar journey.

Reflections

“We have modernised the language a bit to make them more accessible, but the retreat covers more or less the whole of the Spiritual Exercises. There’s an introduction, on the goodness of God’s creation, it then moves into—what are we created for? Ignatius’ answer is to praise, reverence and serve God. Then we look at how well we’ve served God, or how badly, at certain times. We look at both the positive and the negative in our own lives, and recognise the forgiveness of God for any sinfulness.

“And then it goes through the life of Christ, starting with the Annunciation and going on to the Ressurection—unlike many Lent devotions, it doesn’t stop at the Crucifixion. We reflect on the whole ministry of Christ, and those reflections are interspersed with reflections on our own lives. It’s a profound journey. It looks at what really brings us fulfilment in life, what are our deepest human emotions, deepest desires?”

St Ignatius—Inigo to his friends—was born in the Basque country in 1491. The third son of a noble family, he sought a military career, modelling his life on the chivalrous knights of medieval romances. But he was gravely injured in the battle of Pamplona in 1521 when a canonball shattered his right leg. Forced to endure a long period of recuperation, he began to read religious texts, underwent a conversion and turned to a life of Faith.

St Ignatius

Founding the Society of Jesus and becoming its first Superior General were not part of Ignatius’ plan at that time, and its unlikely he would have imagined that his Spiritual Exercises would be undertaken by people of Faith all over the world more than 500 years after his death. But 20th century Ignatian writers such as Anthony de Mello, Karl Rahner, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and others have helped open up his work to a wider audience, not to mention Edinburgh’s Gerard Hughes, whose book God of Surprises has introduced many people to the wisdom of Ignatian thinking.

Fr Birchall said: “We’ve noticed people from the Church of Scotland, Episcopalians, Baptists even, coming into it. One reason is that it’s Scripture-based, and people are comfortable with the Scriptural basis. Also, the centrality of the life of Christ is important, particularly in our day and age when a fair amount of controversy hangs around the institutions of the Church.

“But it’s also very much a spirituality that has its feet on the ground. It’s about finding God in the things of our daily life, looking at where we’re influenced for the good and the bad and being reflective in our own lives, noticing the things that give us a sense of contentment, of joy, and the things that pull us away, make us cooler, less full of life. It’s encouraging people to notice what those things are in their own lives.”

Spiritual exercises    

I hope to undertake the ISC Lent Retreat and write about the journey week-by-week in the SCO.

I hope it will be a way, for me, of revisiting the Spiritual Exercises which I made some years ago, and drawing out some themes and insights from the Ignatian approach which others might find helpful.

But it is also a live journey, happening in real time. As with anyone beginning a retreat, I don’t know what will happen, and others on the same journey may well find things unfolding differently for them.

Adventure

So it’s an adventure, too, one which—as the late Gerry Hughes liked to remind us—happens in the company of the God of Surprises. However, I think we can be reasonably confident that we will be watched over by the patron saint of Spiritual Retreats—St Ignatius of Loyola, of course. Who else?

To take part in the Lent retreat and receive a daily email, register on www.iscglasgow.co.uk under ‘retreats’.

The printed booklet can be downloaded from the website, or to obtain a printed copy or any more information, contact ISC at 35 Scott Street, Glasgow, G3 6PE, tel 0131 354 0077. 

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