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

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