In October, 17 parishioners from St Anne’s and St Mary’s parishes, Whanganui, participated in a three-week directed retreat offered by Rex Begley and Sr Joan Manson RSM from the diocesan retreat team.
Many of the participants had taken part in a one-week retreat two years ago. This time Jesuit spiritual director, Fr Richard Shortall, joined the retreat team as these parishioners continued their journey of discovering God more deeply in their everyday lives.
The retreat was based on the Spiritual Exercises of the 16th century Spaniard, St Ignatius Loyola. As a 30-year-old layman, Ignatius retreated to a cave near the town of Manresa and spent almost a year in prayer opening himself to God’s spirit and pondering how God expected him to live his life. He used a variety of prayer methods to consider the central aspects of Christian faith (eg creation, sin and forgiveness, calling, ministry) and to enter imaginatively into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He kept a written account of these prayer experiences and called them ‘exercises’. Later he offered these exercises to others who desired to know God more deeply in their own lives. In time this written account became known as the ‘Spiritual Exercises’.
Originally, undertaking the Spiritual Exercises occupied a person for four weeks. Ignatius, however, soon realised that such a disengagement from the obligations of work and home would not be possible for some people. Accordingly, he devised a way of doing the Spiritual Exercises part time over a period six to nine months. In most parts of the English-speaking world this way is known today as the Retreat in Daily Life.
Ignatius also proposed a much shorter way of experiencing the spirit of the Spiritual Exercises for those who could give only a limited time to such prayer. It was this form of the Spiritual Exercises which was offered to the Whanganui parishioners and which Fr Shortall calls the Retreat in Everyday Life.
For three weeks, each retreatant undertook to pray with a scripture passage for about 30 minutes and then to spend a few moments reviewing this experience. Later in the day they spent a shorter time looking back prayerfully over the day and tried to notice where God had been present in the ordinary moments of that day. During the weeks of the retreat each person met five times with one of the retreat team to talk about the experience of each day’s prayer.
The retreat ended with participants commenting on how much they had appreciated the skill of members of the retreat team in drawing out each person’s experience of God during the one-to-one meetings. Retreatants noticed how much their daily prayer with a scripture passage was a time of being strengthened, learning to be silent, letting God be God in this moment and deep listening. Also, they observed a growing awareness of God in the people and activities of each day; an increasing sense of peace in their lives despite the usual difficulties of daily life; and the ability to express their thoughts and feelings so freely to another.
The retreat finished on a note of celebration as the group gathered for a special Eucharist and the chance to reflect on the experience before sitting down to dinner together. All agreed that they had been richly blessed by God during these weeks.
Given such a positive response to this Ignatian form of a directed retreat for parishioners, plans are already in place to offer the retreat to another group of parishes in the Palmerston North Diocese next year.
Fr Shortall belongs to the Campion House Jesuit community in Melbourne. His ministry is that of a ‘retreat house on wheels’ as he moves around the rural Victorian Diocese of Bendigo offering directed retreats and prayer days to parishioners. A graduate of the Christian Spirituality Program from Creighton University in Omaha, USA, he has developed a way of offering the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius to parishioners in a modified form.
Fr Shortall has strong family connections with the Palmerston North Diocese: he grew up on a sheep farm in Ashhurst and attended Francis Douglas College. While in the diocese he also offered a workshop on praying with the scriptures in everyday life to members of boards of trustees, a retreat day to hospital, prison and youth chaplains and a prayer day to parishioners in Wairoa.
Image: Fr Richard Shortall addressing a group at a Wairoa parish prayer day.