The Greening Of The Spiritual Exercises

A Report On An Ecological Retreat
James Profit, SJ
Ignatius Jesuit Centre of Guelph
(adapted from a newsletter report
written for his community-at-large)

        This summer (2001) an 8-day guided/directed Ecology Retreat was given at Loyola House, Guelph by the Ecology Project Advisory Group.  Eleven other spiritual directors and myself met for over a year to plan this retreat event. As part of our preparation, we practiced giving the talks and presentations to ourselves; we prayed with the material; we discussed our  experiences that resulted from these spiritual exercises; and we made the  necessary changes. It was an exciting process, a time when I came to appreciate even more deeply each member  the group and the team as a whole.

        We used the Ignatian four-week dynamic. Day 1 was a Disposition Day during which we used themes from The New Story, by Thomas Berry, CP,  to ease people into retreat.  Cristina Vanin, professor of theology at St. Jerome's College, University of Waterloo,  gave the presentation. The directees prayed over the 15 billion year history of the universe, sensing the beauty and presence of God in this. They prayed for the grace: "... to have a deep confidence in God's love for the universe, a community of life, of which I am a part."

      Day 2 was based on the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises. I gave the presentation on ecological sin -- garbage, violence, climate change. I suggested to each of our directees: "... to pray for the grace of a growing and intense sorrow and tears for my sin; a deep-felt knowledge/awareness of my role and complicity in the crisis of the earth."

      Day 3, 4 and 5 harmonized with the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises with  overall hope that the directees would experience the presence of God/Jesus in creation.  On the third day, the talk was given by Richard Protz, a soils professor from the University of Guelph (and, once, a professor of mine). His talk was on the presence of God within soil, the community of life in the soil, etc.  He proposed that we pray for grace to develop a spiritual relationship with all of the life, bacteria, earthworms, mice, grasses, trees, birds, cows, fish, and people of all races and creeds.

      Day 4 a presentation was given by John Pronk, a naturopathic doctor and organic dairy farmer. His presentation was on the healing nature of earth, the ability of earth to "turn the other cheek" and connected Jesus' healing ministry with the capacity of the earth to heal itself. We encouraged the directees to pray for the grace to respond wholeheartedly to the call of Christ and to join Christ in discipleship with the universal community of life.

      Day 5 was based on the Two Standards Exercise from the Spiritual Exercises, with the presentation by Lois Zachariah, a human physiologist and retired professor at Conestoga College,  Kitchener. In her talk, she contrasted two attitudes towards the universe -- an attitude of cosmic pessimism and attitude of cosmic hope. We encouraged each directees to pray for the grace: "... of conversion to inclusiveness and cosmic hope so that I may see all matter and life as my neighbour, especially matter and life that are vulnerable, suffering and poor."

        On Day 6 we entered the passion and suffering of the earth, based on the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises. Diane Baltaz, the director of the Social Affairs Commission for the Diocese of Hamilton, gave a talk on the suffering Christ in the universe, experienced in the poor, the garbage heaps, the changing climate, etc.  She encouraged us to pray for the grace: "to feel compassion, sorrow and shame because the Lord is suffering for my responsibility in the evils of the day, while still asking for an intimate knowledge of God."

      Day 7 we entered the resurrection theme based on the Fourth Week of the Spiritual Exercises  Kuruvila Zachariah, a retired professor of biology from the University of Waterloo,  gave the presentation. He carried  us  through the "long weekend" from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, mentioning how he experienced hope in the face of such destruction -- hope for the life coming from death, hope in the understanding of the "new biology," hope in people who experience the resurrection.  He proposed that we pray for the grace "... to be happy and rejoice in all creatures as they bask in the glory and joy of the risen Jesus.

      Day 8Peter Peloso,  a retired orthodontist, gave the talk on the Contemplation To Gain Love. The text of Ignatius is itself quite ecological.  Peter brought his years of experience in directing the Spiritual Exercises to the presentation, as he encouraged us to pray for the grace as suggested in the very text of the Spiritual Exercises: "deep felt knowledge of the great gifts I have received that, filled with such gratitude, I may be able to respond with total love and service."

        Each day we held the celebration of Eucharist outdoors at various locations on the farm. Each location reflected, in some way, the theme for that day.  For example, we held the Eucharistic liturgy for our ecological, sin day beside the garbage bins of the building which was known for years as Ignatius College. Then for the healing-nature-of-the-earth theme we celebrated the Eucharist at the spot where we formerly dumped our garbage and is now growing over with greenery.

        For the theme on the suffering of the earth, we celebrated the Eucharist in front of the large bronze crucifix under the trees between the workshop and the Ignatius College building. On Day 7, we planted a cedar tree during the Eucharistic liturgy.  Priscilla Solomon, CSJ,  led us in a smudging ceremony.  Other days we held the Eucharistic liturgies under the cedar trees,  at the garden behind Loyola House, and in the apple orchard behind the vegetable garden of the Community Shared Agriculture.

        During this retreat each directee made the assigned private spiritual exercises each day, and, also, each day, received individual spiritual direction.  Every night the directees were divided into small groups for faith sharing on the theme of the day.

        Most people reported that they had a very positive experience.  For some, it broadened the experience of the Spiritual Exercises.  For others, who received the Spiritual Exercises as a formative part in their past, but had gone "beyond" them, an integration seemed to occur. A few experienced the grace of the Spiritual Exercises for the first time in their lives.  Some people appreciated experiencing a spirituality of the earth with such a strong focus on Jesus.

        I suspect that the effectiveness of the presentations was due, in part, to the witness of the presenter who exhibited a great commitment to the truth of their content -- a commitment shown in their personal lives and experiences.  Several people commented on this; they said that it was very hopeful to see a group of people collaborating in this way. From our perspective, we all agreed with one team member's observation that the giving of the retreat together helped us to become an "Ignatian" community more deeply.

        The retreat house and the farmland were wonderful helps in creating such a retreat experience. But even of more help was the witness and personal commitment and competence of each member working in collaboration with each other.

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