GROUP PROCESSES AND THE BLENDING OF DIRECTED RETREAT METHODS by John Veltri, SJ. in collaboration with Rev. Jean MitchellThirty years ago, a major shift occurred in the understanding and practice of guiding the Spiritual Exercises. It was manifested in an appreciation of the dynamic as implied in, and somewhat separate from, the outward cognitive structure of the Exercises experienced according to Notation . As a result of this shift, among all the other creative efforts, very significant experiments have been taking place with regard to the directed Spiritual Exercises in connection with group processes. The shorter version of this article appeared in THE WAY SUPPLEMENT #95 Retreats In Transition (1999).
Towards A Greater Fostering And Appreciation Of Interiority
Before then, particularly since the time of the church's alliance with the age of rationalism, the outward cognitive structure of the Exercises was emphasized. In both the 30-day format and in various adapted versions, such as the eight-day and the weekend-type retreats, Ignatian practitioners attempted to give the Exercises through preaching or through the explanation of Points of a prayer exercise along with the encouragement of discursive meditation.(1)
This stress had several consequences: 1) Meditation With The Three Powers Of The Soul(2) became an analytical exercise rather than a pondering-of-the-heart exercise; 2) Affectivity was trusted only if it flowed from careful analysis; 3) the Third Time of making the Election was held in higher esteem than the First or Second Time(3); 4) Imagination was generally mistrusted while the Application Of Senses became a superficial respite for a mind tired from the labour of discursivity over four previous prayer exercises of the retreat day; 5) During their spiritual direction sessions, directors of the Exercises preferred "private thoughts" rather than the spontaneous thoughts and feelings for which Ignatius instructed them to listen , . This meant that the Guidelines For Discerning Spirits were hardly ever used in practice.
Since then, we have come to believe that the interior movements of the heart are really more important than one's private thoughts , , . Spiritual directors, once again, base their practice on the belief in the possibility of God's direct dealing with the directee and on the belief that paying attention to interior reactions actually helps to dispose a person for this more direct encounter. We rediscovered that narrative discourse was more important than analytical discourse in fostering movements of the spirits. Now, in practice, we actually use the Guidelines For Discerning Spirits.
Two Approaches In Guiding The Individually Directed Retreat(4)
Since the time of this shift, there emerged two major approaches in giving spiritual direction and for honouring the interior movements of the heart during the Exercises journey:
When a director of the Exercises uses the From Outside In approach, s/he proposes the structures of Exercises somewhat in advance of the expected prayer experience of the directee. Often s/he uses the text of the Exercises by itself and waits for the directee's response or reaction to the proposed text or explanation of the Exercises. Thus, the director leads the directee into the experience of the Exercises and then guides the directee in terms of the cognitive structure and expected dynamic in which the experience emerges. For example, a directee may not be quite ready for the Third Exercise of the First Week, yet the spiritual director proposes it. The content and structure of the exercise proposed from this perspective (with God, of course!) provokes or calls forth an experience which is understood in terms of that context. Through skilful use of Repetition, the dynamic is honoured and allowed to progress.
- The From Outside In approach uses the structures of the Exercises more explicitly in directing someone on the Exercises journey; and
- The From Within approach uses the structures of the Exercises more implicitly.
In the second major approach, From Within, a spiritual director keeps the text of the Exercises at the back of her/his head and uses the text only as a means of recognizing the experience that is emerging from the directee at the directee's own pace. The spiritual director does not lead the directee into the prayer experience but waits for it to emerge. S/he recognizes the emergence in terms of her/his understanding of the text and dynamic of the Exercises. Only at this point, does s/he propose material for the prayer exercise. For example, after proposing six days of prayer on God's love or on some aspect of the Principle and Foundation, s/he may wait another five days or even longer until the directee begins to experience the desolation that is the prelude of the First-Week grace. At this point, the director proposes an exercise such as the story of the Prodigal Son. In this approach, a director may or may not give portions of the actual text of the Exercises to the directee.
Practitioners at the Guelph Centre of Spirituality have been using the From Outside In approach when giving the Exercises in the full 30-day format, particularly with directees desiring to discern a major decision or with those who desire to use the Exercises in their future ministry. Often in the 30-day format, for other reasons, both approaches are combined. Usually, however, the From Within approach only is used in shorter directed retreats.
It was in the combination of these two approaches as applied to groups in four sets of experiments that we came to appreciate the versatility of the instrument of the Exercises for the needs of the future. The From Outside In approach set the stage for the creative developments of these ventures because it showed us over and over again how various focused external structures, like various external events in our own lives, provoke certain kinds of subjective experiences. This approach led us to realize that there are many other ways of getting at authentic subjectivity.(5) However, these developments can take place only when the creators of the new content and communal process first understand the cognitive aspects of the new content from the horizon of the Exercises and then use this new content for prayer or group reflection according to a pattern analogous to that of the Exercises. The From Within approach set the stage by making us aware of how the inner dynamic of the different parts of the Exercises can be found in any number of converting experiences outside the Exercises.
Experiment 1 A Group, As A Group, Can Experience The Movements Of Spirits
The communal charism retreat/workshops,(6) carried out in the early seventies, started these experiments. They were developed into Spiritual Governance Workshops for executive bodies of religious communities. In these events, the basic themes of the Exercises were translated into communal themes:
These retreat/workshops are still being given under various names as the Loyola House staff members continue to be invited to facilitate chapter meetings of religious congregations. The experiences from these experiments exhibited how a group, as a group, by contemplating its own group history would go through spiritual movements analogous to those of individual directees on the Exercises journey. From this set of experiments, we learned that the Exercises can be used communally and that a group, as a group, can experience consolation and desolation just as individuals can.
- Principle and Foundation became discovering God's presence in our communal history;
- First Week became Our Sin History;
- Grace of the First Week became what God has been doing in our history;
- Kingdom Exercise became how God has been calling us in our history; and
- All this leading to discerning the call and making decisions for the future.
Experiment 2 Changing Content Still Preserves Dynamic For Individuals And Groups
A second set of experiments from the late seventies to the early part of the eighties linked the group process with a directed retreat and used social justice themes. Social sin and our personal complicity in it were associated with the First Week. Social Analysis was used as a kind of Third Exercise in the First-Week phase. The image of what is happening in our world and the Trinity's hope for the world were at the beginning of the Second-Week phase just like the First Prelude  of the Incarnation Exercise. Material on the human rights movement and on how Jesus is presently suffering in the world was given in a Third-Week phase, etc. From this set of experiments, we learned that, even when we changed the content quite radically but still somewhat analogous to the themes of the Exercises (the social justice themes were not part of the original Exercises), the dynamic remained on both a communal and individual level.
Experiment 3 Blending Organizational Development With The Exercises
Around 1983, some members of the Loyola House staff cooperated with the Jesuit Center Of Spirituality in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, in a very creative project known as Ignatian Spiritual Exercises For The Corporate Person (ISECP).(7) As a result of this project, elements from organizational development theory and the Spiritual Governance Retreats were blended. This blend had many benefits:
- It contributed in a very practical way to develop further insights into the life and spiritual workings of a group or small community.
- It helped to sharpen and expand the training aspects and practical applications of the Spiritual Governance Retreat/Workshop in such a way that, in time, the staff was able to give many elements of their instrument in smaller units.
- It helped to "secularize" Ignatian jargon so that the instrument could be used with people who didn't have any tradition with the Exercises.
- It furthered the From Within approach without needing to use the jargon.
Experiment 4 The Communal, Ecological, And Feminine As A Blend In One Retreat
In November of 1997, another significant experiment was expressed in a nine-day retreat/workshop for spiritual directors. It brought together the learnings from the above experiments as it coalesced three themes facing spiritual directors today: the Communal, the Ecological and the Feminine (CEF). It attempted to help spiritual directors grow in the "ability to listen more deeply to the communal, ecological and feminine experiences as they surface in the individual lives and prayer of their directees." Again, the themes, focusing and engaging the hoped-for dynamic, followed the rhythm of the Exercises in both the individual and group processes.
Evaluative Comments On CEF
Eight months after the CEF retreat/workshop, one of the participants(8) recorded some of her memories of that experience:From the start, I had the sense that the directors and the retreatants formed one community and that we were learning from each other and experimenting, even "pioneering" together. While the leadership team had clearly worked hard in preparing the CEF retreat, they seemed to allow room for the experience to be shaped by the participants.... The CEF retreat depended on communal learning, learning from each other as we shared the fruits of our prayer. Early in the retreat, for example, each of use wrote a personal myth that expressed our vision of how the communal, ecological and feminine could be integrated. We then read them to the group. I still have vivid memories of most of them. I began to see the world through new eyes, the eyes of my companions on retreat. My world became much larger, and so my prayer was expanded.
Through liturgies, we also experienced the power of sharing our ... hope-filled visions and our awareness of places of suffering and crucifixion. These moved within the flow of the Spiritual Exercises. In several liturgies, both retreatants and team members were invited to come forward and do something (light a candle, extinguish a candle, place a symbol around a cross, sprinkle water on a symbolic object), sometimes silently but often naming a concern or commitment or sign of hope.
My other strong memory is of the evening faith-sharing circles, where we would pray with the same small group and have time to name a key experience of the day in the context of a communal awareness examen. In a second round of sharing, people were invited to say what had moved them in the first round of sharing. I had come with a strong history of engagement with all three themes of the retreat and I know that I would have moved in different directions had I been in the usual individually directed retreat. Here I found myself actively engaged in the group evolution. The most moving experience for me was to see men of my father's generation actively struggling with the feminine aspects of the Holy and with the ways their own lives had been limited by a socialization that had taught them to deny and judge as weak or lesser the "feminine" aspects of their own human nature.
One deacon said that he had come to learn how to direct women in his parish by being more sensitive to the feminine; instead, he discovered a call to grow into a more integrated human being.
Daily spiritual direction with a personal director seemed superfluous or even distracting in this context.... I personally became distracted by needing to express some of the same material in several settings.
At times, the retreatants continued to talk after the faith-sharing circle. The issues raised were so compelling that it seemed natural to do some active planning and strategizing for how we could make a difference in the world. We talked about our dreams of shaping communities and protecting the land we considered holy. Such conversations would not usually be part of the traditional directed retreat; here they seemed as natural as connecting prayer and action in a local parish ... but the team may have had a more traditional view here.
The dynamic of the Exercises was the backbone of the retreat. We prayed on our personal graced history of the communal, ecological and feminine. We prayed over our sinful response to the call of the communal, ecological and feminine in our own history. The myth writing was the Kingdom Exercise. The fifth day of this retreat was a day devoted to the theme that paralleled the Two Standards Exercise. A powerful ritual and presentation set the ambience for noticing the deceptive voices and the true voices in the communal-feminine-ecological movements of the age. On the following days, we prayed with the suffering and then with the joy of the Cosmic Christ.
All the above experiments included most of the following components: 1) Thematic presentations and teachings according to the pattern of the Exercises; 2) Praying for a definite grace; 3) Time for private prayer; 4) Individual spiritual direction; 5) Group rituals; 6) Liturgies; 7) Times of silence; 8) Plenary-group sharing; 9) Small-group sharing, such as a serious conversation on the theme or sharing of the experience from the prayer exercise or a focused exercise for the group to do in common; 10) Attention to the movements of consolation and desolation in the group and in individuals according to the dynamic of the Exercises; and 11) Use of imagination on scripture or on some aspects of life.
Such experiments have made creative use of the structures and dynamic of the Exercises for issues that are current in our world. They have:
Like some conversions that emerge from the experience of the full Exercises, many of these experimental programs seem to have had converting effects on the intellectual, moral, affective, or religious levels of the consciousness and, hopefully, subsequent behaviours of individuals and/or of groups. In different parts of the world, particularly in retreat centres and in religious communities, many of the techniques devised by these experiments are becoming part of Ignatian spiritual practice.
- Helped to raise the awareness of social issues and have helped directors pay attention to the presence of these issues in the subjective experiences of their directees.
- Contributed to the spirituality of groups and communities.
- Taught people to base their group decisions on the experience of true consolation.
- Attempted to push the envelope of Christian people towards crucial issues of our time which involve mature, healthy, interdependent decision-making and activity.
- Contributed to Christian leadership by training people in skills that could help their constituents operate more effectively.
Questions still remain concerning these adaptations of the Exercises. Are the techniques which have been developed through these experiments available to a wide enough clientele? Could not bits and pieces of these techniques be used with a great deal of benefit without having to go through the longer programs or without the use of Ignatian jargon? The Guelph Centre of Spirituality is beginning to answer these questions in the affirmative by facilitating some of these processes in smaller units of two days and by giving them to people who have never made the Exercises, such as members of parish councils and members of school boards. Hopefully, five years from now, we will be able to assess how these smaller bits and pieces have worked.
The basic reason why the Guelph Centre of Spirituality has expended so much effort in developing connections between the Exercises and group processes has to do with our present moment in history. We human beings have moved into a situation which is totally different from the past in that the future of our planet depends on whether we have the courage to put our individualism aside and act in new ways together with a kind of interdependence that few of us have ever known. We all need to grow into a spirituality by which we understand and accept ourselves humbly, as a small part of the larger universe, while using discerning processes for making decisions and implementing actions together in cooperation with God's desires for us on our planet.
Most of the group processes that have emerged from the above experiments continue to be effective for the expansion of awareness on the intellectual and affective levels. But are they as effective in actualizing these awarenesses in our more public worlds? Still relevant in an evaluation of these processes is a comment made by Thomas Merton in 1980: "Beliefs and politics can no longer be isolated from one another. Christians have got to speak by their actions.... It must be made clear and manifest to everyone. It is crucially important for Christians today to adopt a clear position and to be prepared to defend that truth with sacrifice, accepting misunderstanding, injustice, calumny and even imprisonment and death."(9) Is that 1980 statement much different from Ignatius' Third Degree of Humility ? In our retreat centres, can we afford the luxury of 'talking the talk but not walking the walk'?
1. Discursivity as a skill of analytical discourse was the product of the era following Descartes through the age of rationalism. Discursive Meditation is a form of mental prayer in which the use of one's analytical powers of reasoning predominate. In the classicist worldview, this type of mental prayer was called "meditation"; unfortunately this term came to be equated with Ignatius' use of the term, "Meditation Using the Three Powers of the Soul." When Ignatius used the word meditation, he did not mean discursive prayer; rather he meant a pondering of the heart, not an analytical exercise separated from the use of imagination and the reflections of the heart. Discursivity or analysis, as our educational systems have very adequately communicated to us, was unknown to persons like Ignatius who were steeped in the medieval worldview.
2. This method of prayer can be done in the same manner that a person uses when carefully pondering a very special letter with one's heart. When pondering with the heart, the whole self is engaged -- imagination, senses, feelings, understanding -- as one seeks a deep-felt understanding of a particular focus. Ignatius of Loyola calls every prayer exercise during the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises a "meditation ... using the three powers of the soul" . The powers of the soul to which he refers are memory, understanding and will. These human powers, along with the imagination, are enmeshed with each other and lead organically (naturally and together) to a felt understanding. This method of prayer differs from Lectio Divina because it is more focused in that the person using this method seeks a heart-felt understanding of the meditation material (image, truth, personal story, etc.) to dispose her/himself for the particular gift from God that s/he presently desires.
3. The First Time and the Second Time were trusted more by Ignatius than the Third Time.
4. This distinction can clarify many of the misunderstandings surrounding the differences in approach among various centres of spirituality. Over the years, many people used to accuse the staff at the Guelph Centre as being too literal or fundamentalist in its approach to the individually directed Spiritual Exercises.
5. The bottom of the ocean bed can be explored with a number of different instruments or structures, but it is still the bottom of the ocean bed that is being explored.
6. These processes are recorded in:
COMMUNAL GRACED HISTORY: A Manual Of Theology And Practice by John English, SJ, published by Canadian Religious Conference, 324 Laurier Avenue, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1N 6P6.
These processes are developed in:
These books are available through B. Broughton Co. Ltd., 2105 Danforth Ave., Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M4C 1K1; Phone 416-690-4777; Fax 416-690-5357.
- Spiritual Intimacy And Community: An Ignatian View Of The Small Faith Community by John E. English, SJ, originally published in 1992 by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., London; and
- Choosing Life: Significance Of Personal History In Decision-Making by John E. English, SJ, originally published by Paulist Press in 1978.
7. Throughout the eighties, John English, SJ, director of Loyola House in Guelph at that time, with some members of the Loyola House staff, cooperated in the very creative project known as Ignatian Spiritual Exercises For The Corporate Person (ISECP) initiated by the late George Schemel, SJ, director at that time of the Jesuit Center Of Spirituality, Wernersville, Pennsylvania. As a result of their conversations and study, the elements from organizational development theory (coming out of the Management Design Institute), from the Executive Leadership Retreat (a retreat/workshop developed at the Wernersville center for executive groups of charitable organizations), and from the Spiritual Governance Retreats (developed at Guelph) were blended with aspects of the Spiritual Exercises. What was created was a eighteen-day training program called ISECP. Present in this program were such things as:
This eighteen-day program was later developed into a twelve-day training program in Guelph through the leadership of John English, SJ, and Margaret Kane, CSJ. There were several effects of the ISECP project for both the staff at Guelph and the staff at Wernersville. The benefits experienced by the staff at Guelph are recorded in the body of this article. Here are some of the benefits experienced by the staff at Wernersville:
- History Line (HL) to focus a group's understanding on its light history and its shadow history;
- HL to focus a group's understanding of grace in its history and calls into the future;
- HL to develop a mission statement;
- Use of Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to develop an appreciation of how individuals working together in a group differ from one another in their perceptions and decision-making;
- The meeting as a 'contemplative experience,' including instruments, such as correct agenda development, correct use of power, etc.;
- Instrument of Decision-Making with the Four Columns in a communal discernment context;
- Instrument for developing and moving along a time sequence for implementation of the issues implied in the decision.
In general, group processes are led by facilitators trained in skills either from psychological models or from organizational development models. It strikes me that organizational models are more useful for communicating skills of facilitation to others who can then use them with their own clientele. The ISECP program is recorded in manuals called Focusing Group Energies, Vol 1: Structured resources for group development, a manual combining spirituality with group processes; and Focusing Group Energies, Vol 2: Facilitator's manual. They are available from the Institute for Contemporary Spirituality, University of Scranton, Scranton, PA 18510, USA.
- It helped them appreciate the From Outside In approach in combination with the value of private prayer and reflection for deepening the quality of the experience and the discernment processes.
- Through this, they came to appreciate how the From Outside In approach equipped ordinary people to use facilitative approaches with their clientele without having had a great deal of training in group facilitation.
8. Christina Del Piero, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, has made the full Spiritual Exercises and has attended many directed retreats and workshops at Loyola House, Guelph.
9. Thomas Merton, "Christian Action In World Crisis," an essay in Non-Violent Alternative (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1980),pp.219-226.