St Beuno's and the power of the Spiritual Exercises

Published on 29 Nov 2021
Fr Ian Tomlinson SJ

by Ian Tomlinson SJ

On a serene September afternoon in 1976, I stepped off the London train at Rhyl station with my heavy suitcase.  Three other 30-year old Jesuits followed, destined for the St Beuno’s tertianship.  We were 12 or so Jesuits.  Besides the British province members, there were Jesuits from Spain, Zambia, USA, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and Austria.  Fathers Michael Ivens and Gerard W Hughes were to guide us through the 30-days Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, the fundamental experience of Jesuit formation.

The experience was to prove pivotal for me.  Jesuits make the Spiritual Exercises twice in their lifetime: in the novitiate on entering and later during the tertianship – a final year of formation, aiming after years of study and pastoral work to rekindle the spiritual and the affective emotions.  Pivotal for me because when I first made the Spiritual Exercises in 1959 in the novitiate, it was a largely dry and cerebral experience.  In 1959 we listened to four talks a day but, following the reforms of Vatican 2, we would be accompanied daily by a guide who would lead us through the 30 days.

The Exercises have  four weeks or parts. The First Week focusses on God’s compassion and our sinfulness.  I experienced this part as wonderful but challenging; so much so that at the end I went back to smoking my pipe.  The Second Week  (the public life of Christ), the Third Week (the Passion) and the Fourth Week (the Resurrection) followed; the Third Week being extremely consoling. 

Besides the spiritual journey, which was profound, the guidance of Michael Ivens was a revelation.  He gave the material of the Exercises with simplicity but firmly.  He listened a lot.  He intervened gently but to the point.  Michael’s accompaniment was an inspiration.

After tertianship I was sent in 1977 to the Jesuit school in Leeds as chaplain.  Fr Gerard Hughes began to open up St Beuno’s for retreatants, laying the foundations of the future retreat house.  Retreat givers were scarce.  My enthusiasm for the Spiritual Exercises encouraged me to return to St Beuno’s during school holidays to help Gerry cope with the increasing numbers who wished to come. In 1979 I was appointed superior of the large Jesuit community in south Tottenham, London and parish priest of the busy church of Saint Ignatius.  That meant the end of visits to Saint Beuno’s to help with retreats.

Yet, with regards to the Exercises, it was but a new beginning. The possibility of using the Spiritual Exercises outside a retreat house according to Annotations [18] and [19]  had been much discussed in the quiet of rural Wales.  Fr Gerard Hughes had inspired and challenged us during the Tertianship in many areas of pastoral work.  Locked in the inner city, there seemed no time to waste. 

During the next six years I took two or three people each year from the area through the full Spiritual Exercises according to the [19] Annotation.  Two other Jesuit colleagues in the community did likewise.  It was an exhilarating experience.  We also organised a 10 week  training and prayer course according to the [18] Annotation, meeting weekly in a convent within the parish.  The purpose of the course was to help parishioners pray the examen.

The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius remain to this day a powerful tool for good.