I was awed when I read Thomas Merton describe how one day he decided to sit down on the floor of his room and do the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola on his own.
He had also tackled getting through the Roman Catholic divine office on his own, too, around that same time. But, for this latter effort, I think I remember that he ultimately turned to a priest for help.
But where could he turn to get someone to help him get through the spiritual exercises on his own? Good grief.
I mean I feel sunk up to my nose just from perusing the general instructions. Things like the following:
Note: the first exercise will be made at midnight; the second, soon after arising in the morning; the third, before or after Mass, but always before the noon meal; the fourth, at the time of Vespers; and the fifth, an hour before the evening meal. This distribution of the hours is intended to be followed, more or less, through the four weeks.
In addition to this work on the contemplations, there are the examinations of conscious that occur in the morning, after the noon meal, and after supper. And additional directives to be completed upon going to bed at night and again upon awakening.
Plus, after the work of the meditations, one has to consider for a period of time how inadequately one has done the meditation and come up with ways to improve.
Just where does one get the ability to self-evaluate one’s own meditation and enough added insight to create a critique of one’s contemplative strength?
And I wonder how seriously Thomas Merton took the instructions to wear a hair-shirt, keep the room in complete darkness, and not only never think of anything that could cause him to laugh but never, ever think of anything pleasing.
This whole system is to take a month to complete. How then is one to get through the second week when it has twelve days of exercises (plus more)?
And the material is even more overwhelming.
In the first week, the exercitant gets to contemplate on one’s own sins and then on hell. In the first week.
Here it will be to see in imagination the length, breadth, and depth of hell.
In the first week. Arrrrrugh.
But I had always wanted to at least grasp what this all means, to benefit from what appears, at least, to be a rigorous spiritual discipline that could only strengthen one’s relationship with God.
So I bought what I thought would be a good beginner’s step: the book, The Ignatian Workout: Daily Spiritual Exercises for a Healthy Faith, by Tim Muldoon.
I don’t know what it is about Jesuits, but, boy, they really like to work out. I thought the book would be gentle. The introduction was gentle. But it was in a lot of ways much like The Spiritual Exercises: it had a whole lot to do even before you get to the exercises (which start on page 81), and then the exercises themselves seemed to cover the whole universe.
Just the first workout covers the prodigal son, sin, destroying our relationship with God, guilt and mercy, a perspective on who we are, and hell.
In the first week.
And then there are two different stages of exercises for the above workouts.
It made me wonder on how much sleep Thomas Merton caught up on when he was wrestling with the original text.
Being much more of a contemplative than an Olympic spiritualist, I used this watered-down set of spiritual exercises as prompts for journal writing. And I did it at my own speed.
But I found, even then, that I was not able a lot of the time to respond to the prompts. The material was just too great, too much beyond words, that I eventually switched material.
I found that the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living had published eight little booklets entitled, Bridges to Contemplative Living. Each booklet has eight little lessons in it, followed by questions relating to the little lessons.
These books were written for group spiritual direction, but I had no problem with using the questions as prompts for journal writing. And only once or twice did I curl my lip up at some of the writing included. (I really, really do not like the writing of Karen Armstrong.)
And the questions could be very thought provoking. Such as:
Why is it difficult for you to speak deeply with others about personal experiences and about your spiritual perspectives?
But, the fact of the matter is that a person can’t turn around without bumping into a spiritual exercise program that, if you’re inspired because it’s Lent (sort of like the God version of the resolutions taken out on New Year’s Day) you can take it on.
Joyce Rupp, that amazing nun who writes such wonderful prayers has a seven-step Celtic Lenten practice on her website: http://www.joycerupp.com. It’s heavily influenced by Esther deWaal (an Anglican benedictine who is HUGE on looking at nature), but, hey, it’s there.
The Trinity School for Ministry has a program of Lenten devotionals.
There’s even a website called Spiritual and Practice that gives daily spiritual practice prompts every day.
So, it’s Lent. It’s time to consider our humanity, and how we relate to God and how God relates to us.
Exercise isn’t such a bad idea, when you come to think of it. It’s good for the body. It’s good for the mind.
It’s great for the soul.