For at least 17 centuries, Christians have seen value in practicing a “fugit mundi,” a flight from the world to retreat from the activity of daily life to plumb the depths of the interior castle of the soul and its relationship with Christ. I recently spent a week in Wernersville, Pa., (jesuitcenter.org) with students and colleagues from Jesuit universities participating in such an endeavor, on a silent contemplative condensation of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. (The real-deal Sons of Ignatius do 30 days at least twice in their lives).
After an intensive week of silence, prayer, and self-examination, you may be surprised to hear that I no longer believe in God. I know him. I encountered him in that desert place in a profound and powerful way unmatched in my life, one in which the veil that separates humanity from the transcendent was pulled back for a liberating and awe-inspiring moment.
I had already made my decision to spend the week engaging Ignatius’ 500-year-old boot camp for the soul when I read Susan Gregory Thomas’ piece on Wernersville in the Dec. 29 travel section of the New York Times (“In PA, a quick shot of peace, on a budget”). I can pretty much “speak Ignatian” after more than 14 consecutive years on Jesuit campuses, but second-level talk about God (basically what theo-logy literally means) and an utterly transformative encounter with him are two quite different things. Susan and I agree that something about that 250-acre plot of land near Reading is sacred and extremely hard to convey in words.
I could trace the history of the Exercises, their mirroring the descent into the depth of our soul’s mire and the redemptive movement out of the brambles of self-defeating sin and suffering back onto the pilgrim’s route of return to God. Or give a history of the place, the visit of future popes and saints, the priceless artwork, and innumerable lives that have been forever altered by contact with those stone ramparts somehow exuding holiness. Or try to convey the beauty, peacefulness and inner joy that one experiences within a room with nothing but a desk, bed and crucifix, “the four walls of my inner freedom” as Thomas Merton put it. Or the connection one feels with fellow retreatants who eat silently next to you and glide past you in the halls, somehow all of us intimately supporting one another as the refining fire purifies the heart as pure gold and sheer gift, incinerating the dross of anything trivial and inconsequential that holds us back from our stunningly full potential to be one with the divine.
I read Merton and Rahner and Hammarskjöld and Martini. Biographies of Tekakwitha and Alphonsus Rodriguez and Jeremiah. I prayed in hours that melted away like wax and left part of myself buried in the sacred space of the crypt with those that sleep until the Last Day. I sang the Suscipe at daily Mass. I walked alone among gleaming Jesuit tombstones, hundreds of them, in the middle of a stark January night when it was too dark to read the simple and identical epitaphs of my former professors at Scranton, and missionaries tortured by the KGB, and nameless brothers that swept floors, and so I traced the icy engravings with my fingers to reflect on mortality and life and what matters most.
I know at least a bit about psychology and sociology and cultural anthropology and interpersonal communication theory. My relationship with my spiritual director was captured by none of these terms. It was he who helped me speak to God directly and to submerge beyond the frothy seafoam of our emotional daily life, through the murky waters of competing wants, to drill into the bedrock of one’s core desires as an individual upon whom God has placed a unique signature in the marbled veins of the gem of his or her soul. And getting back up to the surface surely changes every layer along the way for the better. This is what separates the experience from spiritual solitary confinement and consecrates it as an inner journey that puts one in contact with the God who knows, made and loves us. I have never had such clarifying moments of happiness, hope, contentment or perspective. Ever. (My spiritual director laughed magnanimously when I cracked after five days and asked him who won the LSU-Alabama game).
The absolute terror in some people’s eyes when you say, “I’m going on a silent retreat for a week” told me everything I needed to know about why unexamined existence is not living. I was not the only one to have this reaction to being on retreat; the 20 people accompanying me without exception said that it was a life-altering series of experiences.
Someone is reading this thinking “I should…I couldn’t…” with a knot in their stomach.
I respond not with my words, but with his: “Jesus turned and saw them following him and said, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said ‘Rabbi,’ (which means teacher), ‘Where are you dwelling?’ He said to them ‘Come and see.’”
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.