Eight weeks with the Jesuits

Well, Tree is back in the Forest again. Some of you knew, and some guessed, that I have been taking a three month sabbatical leave. Technically this ends tomorrow and I return to parish duties on Thursday morning. My apologies go to those who were alarmed by the cryptic nature of my previous post – I just don’t like advertising my absence over the interweb.

So what have I been up to? Well, 40 days were spent at St. Beuno’s (pronounced “Byno’s”) Spirituality Centre in North Wales. This is a former Jesuit seminary whose big claim to fame is that the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins studied there while training to become a Jesuit. Today St. Beuno’s runs retreats and courses following the principles of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). I will say some more about Ignatius and Jesuits in another post. St. Beuno’s also featured in the 2010 BBC series The Big Silence, as a result of which its shorter retreats (6 and 8-day) have been over-subscribed this year.

During my forty days I spent thirty days in silence doing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. These are a series of prayers and meditations based on the life of Christ and can be quite an intense experience. The other days were spent at the beginning with an introduction to various ways of praying and at the end reflecting and processing the experience of the exercises. There were 28 of us following this Institute, mainly Catholic priests and religious (nuns) but also a handful of lay people and Anglican priests (plus a Lutheran pastor). We were also a very international group, with members from the US, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Africa, Ireland, Peru and Latvia, and we shared many very interesting conversations during the times we were not in silence.

The other two weeks were spent with a group organised by St. Beuno’s on a pilgrimage following in the steps of St. Ignatius through Spain and on to Rome (sadly, we did not include Paris or the Holy Land in our itinerary!). The group included 14 of us from the Exercises, but we were joined by others, many of whom had made the Exercises on another occasion.

The pilgrimage began with four nights in Loyola in the Basque Region where Ignatius was born and grew up, taking in the castle at Javier near Pamplona where another great Jesuit saint, Francis Xavier, grew up. We then moved on to Manresa where Ignatius wrote the Exercises in a cave. During our stay here we visited Barcelona. For me, the highlight of this day was nothing to do with Ignatius but came in the form of a visit to Gaudi’s amazing Sagrada Familia basilica. I had seen it on TV and photographs, but entering the building was a simply stunning experience which film and photos just cannot convey. It is simply a stupendous and magnificent space.

Our final four nights were spent in Rome where we had the chance to visit many of the places associated with St. Ignatius during the later phases of his life, including a visit to the rooms next to the Gesu church where he spent his final days.

I look forward to sharing more reflections on these experiences over the next few days and weeks. A lot has been happening – including some significant events in the outside world while we were isolated in silence. I rather suspect, too, that the parish will absorb a lot of time as I catch up with what has been going on there. In the meantime, it is good to be back.


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