For the past twenty years I have had the immense privilege of working with the Jesuit Institute in South Africa in training people to give the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. During this time, a precious gift has been given that has brought much blessing and joy. From the earliest beginnings of these training initiatives, Protestants and Catholics have found themselves together as they explored the treasures of the Spiritual Exercises. These learning communities have created the space for Christ-followers from differing church backgrounds to discover each other, to learn from each other, to worship together.1

As I reflect on my experience, the question that keeps popping up for me is: What is it about the Spiritual Exercises that builds a bridge between Protestants and Catholics?” 

A Bridge-Building Memory

I first encountered the bridge-building potential of the Spiritual Exercises when I practiced them myself. In 1990 I found myself needing to discern more clearly the shape of my own vocational calling against the background of a changing South Africa. One day when expressing this uncertainty with Sister Maureen, a Benedictine nun, she casually mentioned the possibility of me making the Spiritual Exercises.

Why don’t you approach Father Andrew down the road and ask him to give you the Spiritual Exercises.”

While I had little idea what the Spiritual Exercises were about, I did trust the wisdom of Sister Maureen. I made my way to the modest house where the members of the Community of the Resurrection lived, knocked on the door, and asked for Father Andrew.

You are speaking to him,” said the man who had opened the door wearing a black-and-white cassock. He answered in a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense manner that I would come to know well. 

After introducing myself as a Methodist minister, I gave him the reason for my visit.

Would you be able to take me through the Spiritual Exercises?”

He opened the door more widely, invited me to come in. As we walked down the passageway into the lounge, he said aloud to no one in particular, I don’t know what a high church Anglo-Catholic like me is doing with a low-church Methodist like you!”

I smile now as I remember that first encounter. Here were two Christ-followers from different church backgrounds, walking across a bridge toward each other. From the outset, I was learning how the Spiritual Exercises facilitate this ecumenical encounter.

Building the Bridge 

So how do the Spiritual Exercises build this bridge?

Here is the best response I can offer: They build a bridge between Protestants and Catholics by helping them to learn how to pray in a down-to-earth way, to share with each other their experience of prayer, and to find God in their everyday lives. Let me say a brief word about each of these three bridge-building components.

All disciples want to learn to pray

Both Protestants and Catholics want to learn how to pray. Many struggle to pray, or wonder how to pray, or have given up on prayer. The Spiritual Exercises, with their emphasis on allowing the Creator to deal directly with the creature, provide a time-tested, carefully structured, biblically based process in which the Spirit can deepen our friendship with the Trinity in prayer. We do not need to hear more sermons telling us about the importance of prayer. What we need are practical prayer tools that we can use immediately.

The Spiritual Exercises provide just this. As we make our journey through them, Ignatius offers some basic tools to help us pray. He invites us to look at God looking at us; teaches us a simple, life-changing way to reflect on God’s presence in our days; encourages us to have two-way, intimate conversations with our living Lord; helps us to imaginatively contemplate Christ in the Gospels; draws us into a head and heart engagement with God; and so much more. Learning to pray in these different ways draws together Christ-followers from their different backgrounds.

Little wonder that Gerald Hughes SJ writes that prayer lies at the heart of ecumenism.”2

Listening to each other’s prayer experience leads to common ground

As Protestants and Catholics listen to each other’s experiences in prayer, they discover common ground as Christ-followers. The focus here is not so much on what we believe about the Trinity or on what worship must look like or on what structure the church should take. 

While those subjects need careful attention, they are not the central themes for those on the Spiritual Exercise journey. Our conversations revolve mainly around recognizing God’s presence in our daily prayer and how can we respond with trust and obedience. 

Serious seekers after God from all traditions have a deeply felt need to be in conversation with other Christ-followers about their relationship with God. On the one hand, having this kind of conversation with someone who listens without judgment to your prayer experience can be a great gift. We do not have many safe spaces where we can speak about matters of the soul. When we can have such sacred conversations, our friendship with God deepens. 

On the other hand, the unusual privilege of listening to another person’s experience of prayer from a different church background has much power to break down previously held prejudices and mistaken stereotypes. Real listening facilitates genuine encounter between persons, no matter how different our religious histories may be.

We both want a faith that works in everyday life

Both Protestants and Catholics want their faith to work in their everyday lives. We want to know that God is with us, present and active, wherever we are. We will only discover this, however, when we overcome our tendencies toward a split spirituality”. 

Too often our experience of God gets divided into two separate compartments: spiritual” and not spiritual.” On the one side we have worship services, church activities, and our prayer life; on the other side, we have the rest of our life. We locate God in the spiritual sphere,” while we ignore the Divine Presence in the nitty-gritty of the so-called non-spiritual sphere” 

One of the most special gifts of the Spiritual Exercises is the encouragement to find God in all things.” The living God can be encountered in every experience, every encounter, and every event. God is always present and active within and around us. As Paul puts it, in God, we live and move and have our being.”3 This liberating conviction transforms the way we connect our faith and life. Learning to discern how God is at work in our everyday lives brings faith alive. Now we are no longer swapping ideas and concepts about God with each other and debating which are right; rather we are sharing with each other what’s going on in our lives and seeking to discern God’s presence in everything. This joint seeking of finding God in all things” builds the bridge between us.

The Unity We Seek as Christ-Followers

The unity for which we yearn as followers of Christ is a unity that binds us to people from all backgrounds, and indeed to all of creation. We know from the strong words of Paul that God desires all things in heaven and earth to be reconciled in Christ.4 This bridge that the Spiritual Exercises builds between Protestants and Catholics makes real, in a small way, the fulfillment of God’s big dream. It must bring a smile to God’s face!

    1. For those interested in the research done in this area in South Africa, I warmly recommend the article, Ecumenical Engagement with the Spiritual Exercises in South Africa by Dr. Annemarie Paulin-Campbell. ↩︎
    2. Gerard Hughes SJ, God in All Things, (Hodder and Stoughton, London 2003). ↩︎
    3. See Acts 17:28. ↩︎
    4. See Colossians1:19 – 20. ↩︎

    Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

    Text First Published September 2022 · Last Featured on September 2022