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I checked out from the library annex a copy of Joseph Tetlow’s book (it is actually a loose-leafed, three-ring binder) titled Choosing Christ in the World.1 (When the librarian informed me the book would be due in one year, I responded that I would do my best to get it back in time. Little did she suspect that I was only half-joking.) Tetlow has been leading Ignatian retreats for many years and his book is designed to support people serving as spiritual directors for individuals or small groups going through the Exercises. Technically, I’m an exercitant, not a director, but I figured that the director’s notes would be useful, since I don’t have a spiritual director. (Any volunteers?) Tetlow’s explanations of “what this phase or that instruction is all about” are very insightful, and he frames and organizes Ignatius’ exercises into something I could sink my teeth into. Most attractive is the fact that Tetlow’s arrangement is specifically designed for people who plan to take nine (or more) months to complete the exercises. (Perfect!)

The book is targeted at spiritual directors, not at (mostly clueless) exercitants, like me. Instructions to the exercitants are scanty, evidently to be supplemented by the director. For example, the first week begins with this short statement provided to the exercitant:

When you go to pray: Remember first that you are in God’s holy presence. Then take the passage for the day and quietly read through it. Think about it for a while and if you find yourself moved to do so, address God our Lord with reverence. You can take each passage up in your prayer time, one for each day of this preparation week. Spend with each of them the period of time you have set for yourself.

Then, the exercitant is expected to pray over this passage on the first day… for an hour!

1. John 4:1-14 Whoever comes to Jesus Christ never thirsts.

This was my first “assignment.” Not a lot of detail, yes? That I have a non-trivial knowledge of the Bible and a clear sense of what I wanted out of the Exercises proved to be essential,2 since otherwise I would have been entirely lost. At least, I can say that I have meditated on and studied Scripture in the past, so I bring some valuable skills to the project. I suppose that many others cannot say the same. Material designated for the spiritual director made sense to me and, because Tetlow provides an abundance of support for the director, his book helped greatly in figuring out what I was supposed to do.

And, so, I began in earnest. An hour a day. I had never prayed that long in my entire life, nor as regularly. That was the first life change.

It is important to note that the Spiritual Exercises, even as rewritten by Tetlow, are not scripted. They are not “fill in the blank” exercises. Neither Ignatius nor others who interpret him tell the exercitant what to think or what to pray. The Spiritual Exercises are thereby personalized. There is every expectation that the exercitant will learn to talk to and live with God and that God will talk to and live with the exercitant. Day after day, week after week, month after month, this is practiced. It is not theoretical. It is practical. It is life changing, although… Tetlow warns directors that some people will get stuck and cease to make progress. He advises that the spiritual director conduct periodic reassessments with the exercitant, especially early on, about continuing with the Exercises since, as we say nowadays, “your mileage may vary.” So far, I’m good to go.

Eventually, I discerned that I needed more support since I was “director-less,” and I set out to pick up additional materials.3 Those are just details, though. My intention for this blog is to write, for the most part, about what I have been doing since the beginning and what these Exercises have meant to me. For my part, I believe that reviewing the road I have traveled over the last several months will serve a useful purpose in my spiritual progress.

1 This book is available from The Institute of Jesuit Sources for about $30.

2 Joseph Tetlow advises directors to raise this question explicitly at the beginning of the First Week: “There are several things you need to know at this point. Is the person serious enough to go on with the Exercises? What purpose has this exercitant [in continuing with the Exercises]?”

3 I would have to guess that hundreds of books have been written about the Spiritual Exercises. Some authors analyze and expound on Ignatian theology and psychology. Others provide support for exercitants or spiritual directors or both. I have found four books, related to the latter, useful, but readily admit that others might be better. My best advice is NOT to read any of these books unless you are going to take up the Spiritual Exercises, otherwise you will simply bloat your brain rather than satisfy your soul.

John and Krisztina Stangle, Finding our Way Together – Spiritual Exercises for Companions, Lulu.com, 2006. This book is designed for couples, particularly but not necessarily, married couples, but I am going through it singly. It is excellent in terms of providing a lot of background material and explaining in detail some methodologies Joseph Tetlow tends to skip over or assumes the director understands. The book suffers a bit in places from not having been copy-edited better, but it is still very readable and understandable. What is most useful about this book is that the Stangles follow the Spiritual Exercises very faithfully in terms of order and spirit. I can easily figure out where I am in the original Exercises, which is useful because I want to be sure to follow Ignatius as faithfully as I can.

Margaret Silf, Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality, Loyola Press, Chicago, 1999. Ms. Silf is amazingly insightful when it comes to the workings of the inner life. She is not a religious; she is a computer programmer and, even more interesting, she is Protestant, not Catholic! She lives and works in the real world and, so, her insights and practical exercises are all the more credible (to me). Inner Compass fleshes out the deep spiritual implications of the Spiritual Exercises in a way that I have found helpful. (“Helpful,” as in: Oh, that’s what is happening to me when I pray!) The book has been an ancillary resource since, unlike Stangle’s book, Inner Compass does not pretend to follow the Spiritual Exercises, but expounds on important themes within them.

Timothy Gallagher, The Examen Prayer, Crossroad Publ. Co., New York, 2006. Like Joseph Tetlow, Mr. Gallagher has been leading Ignatian retreats for many years and his experience shows in his books, both this one and the next in this footnote. I found implementation of the Examen prayer to be difficult initially, but sensed that it was well worth whatever effort was required to figure it out. Ignatius advised people that if they continued with nothing from his Exercises, they should make sure to keep doing the Examen. I figured that this prayer was so important that I took 3 weeks off from the Exercises in November 2011, to work on understanding and practicing the Examen. Gallagher’s text was indispensable and I now practice the Examen with confidence, although I have to admit that I have much to learn.

Timothy Gallagher, The Discernment of Spirits, Crossroad Publ. Co., New York, 2005. Mr. Gallagher is a Jesuit, not a Pentecostal fundamentalist, as the title might suggest. Ignatius was intent on helping people understand what goes on inside of them, and to learn how to notice and reject the bad influences (spirits) and encourage the good ones. This is a major theme in the Spiritual Exercises and, like the Examen, I found that just reading Ignatius was not all that helpful. Mr. Gallagher solved that problem.