Throughout my adult years I have regularly sought the solace and nourishment of retreat, a time and place to step away from the everyday buzz of life and to delve more deeply into my love for and relationship with God. Just as I make an effort to take care of my physical, mental, and emotional health, I’ve always thought it important to take care of my spiritual health—to nurture my soul.
My introduction to silent Ignatian retreats came some years ago by way of a friend who shared her experience with me. I was so moved by her testimony—and the fact that someone could actually remain silent over a number of days—that I decided to give it a go.
Since my first Ignatian retreat, I have taken myself on a weekend silent retreat, an eight-day silent retreat, and in 2015, a 30-day silent retreat in Malta. These retreats were all under the guidance of a spiritual director who had been formed in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. To explain briefly, the Spiritual Exercises are a compilation of meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola to help deepen our relationship with God. During the time of retreat, the spiritual director will suggest Scripture passages for reflection or other meditations from the Exercises, all designed to help us to listen to and discern the movements of the Holy Spirit and to be open to God’s grace and call in our lives.
While on the silent retreat, there is usually time for Mass and time to sit in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Two particular practices that a retreatant can expect to come across during an Ignatian silent retreat are lectio divina and the Examen. Lectio divina is a method of slowing reading over and praying with the Scriptures. The Examen is a daily practice that calls us to stop and take time to reflect over the day, asking ourselves how God has been working in our life up to this moment.
The silence of the retreat provides an opportunity to still the mind, body, and heart and to listen deeply. With this in mind, whether it’s a weekend, eight-day, or the full 30-day silent retreat, I have found it beneficial to approach the time with an open heart and a willingness to rest into what God wants to reveal in the silence. God really does speak to us in the silence. Often we’re just too busy or surrounded by too much noise to hear what God is saying, so this is a wonderful opportunity to quiet the soul and go deep. The idea of observing silence can be challenging, but we’re never alone. God is with us, and in each of my retreat experiences, the wise and gentle counsel of a spiritual director has led me.
The number of exercises will depend on the length and focus of the retreat. An exercise often consists of reading from Scripture, contemplating the words deeply, and perhaps entering into the Scripture scene using the imagination—picturing the scene by feeling the ground beneath one’s feet, hearing the sounds, or engaging in conversation. At the end of the exercise, a retreatant may choose to write in a journal, addressing questions such as, What happened? How did the Spirit move me? What did I feel? What is God saying to me? A retreatant might also have a conversation with Jesus, Mary, or one of the saints to continue an experience in prayer.
The time in retreat may invite one to reflect on life in light of God’s boundless love for the individual. A retreatant may be invited to grow deeper in knowledge and understanding of the person of Jesus Christ, by reading and reflecting on selected Scripture passages. The more we learn about Jesus, the more we know and love him.
There is usually an invitation from Christ to throw out into the deep and to follow him. I often leave my time of retreat feeling refreshed and renewed, emboldened to love and serve Christ in concrete ways. We are called to review the question: How am I being a channel of Christ’s love, peace, and mercy in the world?
One of the beautiful gifts of the Ignatian silent retreat and the Exercises is that they live on beyond the time of the retreat. On many occasions I have drawn from the wisdom and practical applications of the Exercises in everyday life, when needing to make big decisions, or when trying to grow deeper in my relationship with God. My experiences in the retreats have also planted a seed deep within my soul to find many moments of silence in my day and to cherish the gift of silence.