‘What One’s Heart Desires’
For the past month, six young Jesuits have been involved in their core ministry in North Wales, as Dr Nicholas Austin SJ explains.
‘Block out your calendars from mid-July to the end of August 2014. I’ll tell you what it’s about later.’
That was the mysterious message six young Jesuit priests recently received from Fr Dermot Preston SJ, the Provincial of the Jesuits in Britain. All of us were wondering what our superior had up his sleeve. We form a diverse group: two university chaplains, a parish priest, the British Jesuits’ director of spirituality, a lecturer in theology, and someone who runs a retreat house. Whatever he had in mind, Fr Provincial left us in no doubt that we were to take this mission seriously: ‘This is a high priority, so do not plan anything else for that period.’
The answer came in due course: we were to go to St Beuno’s, the famous Jesuit retreat house set in the beautiful Welsh countryside, the place where Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote much of his poetry. Our mission was to form a team giving the full Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola.
There is probably no mission we would have preferred to receive. The work of accompanying people through the Spiritual Exercises is a core ministry of the Society of Jesus, since it distils everything the Jesuits are about: helping others to come to God. Ignatius’s great gift is to enable someone to experience in a uniquely personal way the transforming love of God.
And so, on a sunny day in July, we welcomed 20 pilgrims to the doors of St Beuno’s. They had come from both home and abroad. The group included young adults as well as those discerning a change in direction, lay people as well as priests and religious.
Freedom to serve
Why, though, spend 30 days in silence, without computer, mobile or conversation? In his introductory instructions to the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius explains that, by this seclusion, one can be more focused on ‘the wholehearted search for what one’s heart desires.’ The prophet Elijah journeyed through the desert to an encounter on the holy mountain, and so was made ready for his mission to return to God’s people. The journey and search of the retreatants was no less real.
The prayer and the silence were fruitful. Each of the pilgrims reported a deepened encounter with the Lord and a sharper discernment of where God is leading, in choices both mundane and momentous. Each left St Beuno’s with a new freedom to serve.
For us, those accompanying the pilgrims, the experience has also been rich. The daily academic seminars have enhanced our understanding of the Spiritual Exercises, and sparked ideas about how we can carry its spirit into our own, very different ministries. We have also learned a deepened appreciation for the Ignatian spirituality at the core of our own lives, as well as gratitude for the support and friendship we experience with our Jesuit brothers.
What, though, has been at the core of this graced time? Nothing less than the immense privilege of seeing how the Lord works so creatively, so powerfully, and yet so gently, leaving us with a renewed sense of wonder at the goodness of our God.
Photo: (l to r) Fr Dushan Croos SJ, Fr Roger Dawson SJ and Fr Stephen Patterson SJ share support and friendship as they work on the team giving the Spiritual Exercises at St Beuno's.