Over the past twenty-five years as I have journeyed with people, I have been stunned again and again by the life-changing impact of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. Its powerful dynamic facilitates a sustained encounter with the person of Jesus and is a journey into a deep inner freedom. It invites the person making the retreat into an encounter with God that heals, liberates, forms, and transforms.
No one experiences this retreat the same way. God engages each person in his or her uniqueness. The retreat giver is challenged to both stay faithful to the integrity of the retreat process and at the same time to help the person enter it in a way that is creatively adapted to their needs and circumstances.
Part of my call has been to grapple with how the Spiritual Exercises can be given with sensitivity to the challenges faced by many women in our society. How can the Spiritual Exercises, written by a man steeped in a patriarchal context over five hundred years ago be offered in a way that facilitates a liberating encounter with Christ for women today?
01. What are the Spiritual Exercises?
The Spiritual Exercises are an intensive retreat. They emerged out of the life-transforming experience of Ignatius of Loyola over five hundred years ago. He reflected on how God had worked with him, and he wrote a book of Spiritual Exercises to help others open themselves to discover the particular invitation of God in their lives.
The journey takes place either in the context of a residential silent retreat for thirty days or, more often, in daily life, praying an hour each day with specific materials and meeting a trained retreat guide weekly.
The Spiritual Exercises journey starts with pondering my place and purpose and coming to experience God as loving and continuing to create me in every moment of my life.
The joy of this realisation leads into a sorrow as I recognise that I live in a reality of brokenness and sinfulness and that I haven’t responded altogether generously to that love. As I pray the meditations of this part of the journey, I discover myself more deeply as a loved, forgiven sinner—and this sparks in me a sense of call to follow Christ more radically.
02. Invitation to Intimacy
The next part of the journey invites me to encounter Jesus and experience a new intimacy with him. I ask to know him more intimately, to love him more deeply, and to follow him more closely. Using the gift of imaginative prayer, I meet him in his infancy, his growing-up years, and his public ministry.
At this point, the journey also offers some additional reflective prayer exercises designed to lead me to greater freedom to respond generously to whatever God’s hopes and dreams may be for my life. Usually at this point the retreatant makes a significant life decision—often around vocation.
Then comes the invitation to compassionately accompany Jesus in the suffering of his passion and that experience draws the retreatant into an encounter with and sharing in the joy of the Risen Christ. This culminates in a contemplation of all God’s gifts and blessings and an experience of gratitude that overflows in love and service.
A retreatant who has had a deep experience of the Spiritual Exercises engages the world as a “contemplative in action” deeply attuned to God’s action and invitation. They have become freer of attachments and defensive ways of living that might pull them off-centre. As they engage life from that place of greater freedom, they are better able to partner with God in the divine dance.
03. The importance of Adaptation
One of the most important aspects of this way of the Spiritual Exercises is the recognition that God encounters each person where he or she is. Far from being paint-by-numbers or formulaic, the genius of the process God inspired in Ignatius is that it must be adapted to the one who is making the journey. No two people engage this journey in exactly the same way!
Ignatius of Loyola wrote the Spiritual Exercises out of his own experience. He was a man of noble background from the Basque country of Loyola in Spain. The images that formed his experience tended to be very masculine—for example the image of a faithful knight serving his King of the two flags or standards of two opposing armies.
He came from a place of privilege and influence and a key part of his transformation was of letting go of attachments to these things to be free to follow and serve Christ radically. For many women their entry point into this journey is very different.
04. Women and the Spiritual Exercises
For a long time, few women made the Spiritual Exercises. Even fewer accompanied other people through them. Over the past thirty years that has changed dramatically. In places such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia more women than men now make and give the Spiritual Exercises. However, in many other parts of the world where patriarchal and clerical attitudes are still strong—for example India, much of Africa, and some parts of Europe—it is rare for women to give the Spiritual Exercises.
Even in contexts where women experience equality, they often continue to carry the burden of internalised patriarchal attitudes. For people like Ignatius in positions of power, influence, and privilege, pride may be the dominant sin—and a path of downward mobility the path to freedom. Many women, however, struggle with the opposite: unhealthy patterns of self-neglect, hiding their gifts, not feeling that they are ever good enough, denying their deep God-given desires, or feeling compelled to please others. A crippling and false humility may get in the way of being able to serve God freely.
This understanding, which emerged from the writing of early feminist theologians, is now nuanced by an emerging awareness of the impact of intersectionality. Intersectional feminism is the recognition of how the overlapping identities of women which include race, class, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation impact the way that they experience oppression and discrimination. Some women may be in a position of privilege by virtue of race or sexual orientation and simultaneously lack privilege in relation to their gender. To the extent that a woman is in a position of power, influence, and privilege the path of asking to be freed from attachments to wealth and influence and a letting go of pride may be important as it is for many men.
However, for many women the burden of poverty and a lack of educational opportunities is still a struggle. Poverty affects women disproportionately. For some race and sexual orientation may add another layer of struggle. For women in such positions to pray for poverty and humiliation with Christ poor and humiliated as part of the Spiritual Exercises is unlikely to be liberating. Instead, she may need to claim her own value and come to experience Jesus as one who advocates for her and with her.
Many women find it extremely difficult to connect with their God-given desires at a deep level and this negatively impacts their ability to discern well. The experience of always putting others (husband and children for example) first and not attending to her own legitimate needs can leave a woman disconnected from her own deep God-implanted desires. Very often when a woman comes on retreat, it can be difficult for her to imagine that God also has desires for her and for her life. The Exercises journey may be a time of rediscovering herself and her deepest desires.
Women also tend to struggle more than men with body image issues because of societal expectations and pressures. Many women are very uncomfortable with their bodies. When accompanying women through the Spiritual Exercises, guides need to take care not to exacerbate that unfreedom. The original text of the Spiritual Exercises uses language about the body that risks exacerbating a woman’s dislike of her body and that language needs to be adapted. For example, in the First Week of the Exercises, Ignatius refers to the corruption and foulness of the body. For many women, coming to love her body and care for it appropriately may be a critical part of the overall journey to spiritual freedom.
In many places in the world—my own country South Africa is a prime example—women suffer the impact of gender-based violence. They live in fear of being attacked or raped. A critical part of the process of the Spiritual Exercises for a woman may be the space to lament the pain she has experienced due to the sin of others, before she can confront her own patterns of sinfulness.
One of the most powerful gifts of the Spiritual Exercises is the depth at which God-image and self-image are transformed and healed. As a woman experiences God’s deep valuing of her she may come to a new place: Seeing herself, sometimes for the first time, as already more than enough—gifted, loved and cherished by the Creator of the Universe, no longer hiding or making herself smaller. She is now able to step forward with confident trust to share her unique giftedness for the greater glory of God.
Our reflections need to be ongoing as we start to understand more about the complexities of issues of gender identity and the impact of culture and context. We are part of a living tradition learning to accompany others on their spiritual journeys in ways that honour the truth that God meets us in all the concrete particulars of our lived experience and always leads us into deeper freedom.
Here are a few things to consider in facilitating the liberating possibilities of the Spiritual Exercises for women:
- The use of language is key because language shapes us in powerful and often unconscious ways. Choose an inclusive language translation of the Spiritual Exercises text, for example David Fleming’s, “Draw me into your Friendship.” Be alert to “trigger” words such as ‘humility,” “shame,” and “servant” which may carry unhelpful baggage for women, replacing these with other words with more helpful resonances. For example, an honest awareness of my gifts and limitations may be a more helpful way to speak of humility.
- Be attentive to the healing that may need to take place in relation to the image of God and the image of self. Listen as she speaks for how she sees God and how she sees herself. They are always integrally connected. Often a woman may feel they have to earn love and a place in their relationships by pushing themselves to perform, please, or sacrifice their own legitimate needs. Imaginative prayer can allow her defences to drop enough that an experience of God’s unconditional love can break through. When that happens a new freedom and way of relating to herself, God, and others becomes possible.
- Encourage your retreatant to talk with Jesus about her desires and even to ask him to reveal her desires to her. This is part of a journey of reclaiming liberating God-given desires which may have been neglected or quashed.
- In your choice of imaginative contemplations consider including some stories in which a woman’s experience is foregrounded. For example: the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 2), The Wedding at Cana (John 2), The Woman at the Well (John 4), and Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus in the Garden after the Resurrection (John 20). It can be helpful for her to identify with the experience of another woman.
- Encourage your retreatant to notice and attend to the legitimate needs of her body for healthy food, adequate rest and sleep, and exercise. Women who have experienced physical or sexual abuse may need especially sensitive accompaniment to experience her embodied self as loved.
- An examen of consciousness that includes or even emphasises noticing giftedness, graces, and breakthroughs can be especially helpful. Encourage her to see where she has responded to an initiating, enlivening God. Being courageous despite fears, setting appropriate boundaries, and naming desires and needs may all be an important part of a woman’s journey to freedom for God.
- To be sensitive to the needs of your retreatants, it may be important to reflect on your own gendered experience and how that impacts the way you engage with your spiritual journey.
These are just a glimpse of ways in which the Spiritual Exercises may be adapted to the experience of women. Of course, the journey of each woman is unique and what is helpful for one, may not be for another. Nevertheless, as I have journeyed with women, I have been amazed by how important it is to adapt the Exercises so that moments which could have presented obstacles to freedom, instead become doorways for deeper encounter with God’s liberating grace. As we do this critical work of adaptation, Ignatius, I have no doubt would be cheering us on!
The Martin Institute and the Jesuit Institute South Africa offers an ecumenical online international course to train people from around the world to lead others through this journey. The next course starts in January 2023. Applicants are still open for spiritual directors who have made the Exercises and who want to learn to give them.
Dr Annemarie Paulin-Campbell is co-author with Elizabeth Liebert of the second edition of Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed: Liberating Possibilities for Women. Available from Amazon. https://a.co/d/4qMW40O (accessed 30 November 2022)