Some Personal Reflections 
On The 
Development Of The Personally Directed Retreat Movement 
And The 
Work Of J. J. English, S.J.
Through The Guelph Centre of Spirituality (1)

by J. Veltri, S.J.
in collaboration with
Rev. Jean Mitchell

First of Three Sections

In The Beginning ...

            When I first began to work in the retreat movement in 1967, the week-end preached retreat, the parish mission and some youth programs were practically the only forms of renewal in our RC diocese. I started immediately to use audio-visual helps, many of which I made with my colleague, John Matheson, S.J. In one series of preached retreats with him, we used slides showing the biblical themes behind the then current cigarette ads. Through these slides we attempted to engage the imaginations of the retreatants in order that they could enter more fully into the scriptural creation stories. We used film and music to help people enter into prayer. We fostered the use of scriptural prayer with the use of the bible and the help of an article of my famous cousin Armand M. Nigro, S.J.. Since the retreat house was not willing to supply bibles for each room, we encouraged a benefactor to place a bible in every room. (Even hotels had bibles in every room at that time but not retreat houses dedicated to spiritual direction and the Spiritual Exercises!) 

            John Matheson went on to teach film and media at Campion College, Regina, while I continued what we had begun at Loyola House, Guelph. During these weekend preached retreats, I encouraged participants to pray with scripture. As well, I encouraged group sharing and discussion in the place of the question-box session in which the priest retreat-giver answered questions put to him by the retreatants. My continued use of media was to help people experience God's word by engaging their affectivity through the use of images with sight, sound, and by encouraging their use of imagination in their prayer. However what I did not realize was that the adults who came to our retreat houses were more of a programmatic bent (stage three of James Fowler's theory of faith development). With the use of film, slides and sound in the chapel setting, they were more confused than impressed. The numbers went down. In any case by that point in time, the days of the engaging and sometimes entertaining preachers for the weekend preached retreat were coming to an end. Except for our youth programs, our innovative retreat programming did not attract new participants.

            Meanwhile, most Jesuits continued to stress the spoken and written word over any other approach in education as well as in retreat work. As typical RC clerics in leadership positions, my Jesuit colleagues were skeptical about the value of media in the communication of religion and spirituality. Most of them believed that my use of the media was gimmicky. 

There Was A Man Whose Name Was John

            Then 1969 happened. John English, S.J., with whom I was to collaborate until 1995, invited me to participate in the first Spiritual Exercises Institute. It was new. It was exciting. In North America certainly, and perhaps in the world, this was the very first experience of the 30-day Spiritual Exercises given by a team in a retreat house setting using the silent, personally directed, retreat method with a large group of persons. We started that May with 39 women who were in formation work in their religious congregations. John wanted to begin with such a group because they were ready for such a renewal experience. They were eager to learn effective methods in their formation ministry. But there was also another advantage, namely, women were more likely than men to influence male religious and clerics to make directed retreats. And so it happened; by 1971 diocesan priests and male religious began to make the personally directed retreats! 

            During the next few years I came to realize that the experience I was intending to foster through the use of the media and scriptural prayer was actually and profoundly being achieved through the personally directed Spiritual Exercises, particularly in the eight-day and thirty-day formats. Although I did not have any proof that my use of the media and scripture in fostering prayer could achieve the same depth of experience as the techniques of the personally directed retreat, I did have, from my own observation, the evident religious experiences of people making the Spiritual Exercises according to the directed retreat mode. 

            Unfortunately, most of the experiments to adapt the personally directed retreat into the weekend format that we attempted never quite worked. But since it was so effective in the longer formats, we did not pay much attention to the fact that the so-called traditional or "Ignatian" weekend retreat in its various forms was dying. 

           Among the great blessings of God's care for me was my work with John English over three decades. I was affected by John English's love for the Spiritual Exercises, his conviction of their power, his authenticity and his constant grappling with their meaning and practical applications. John was convinced that the church needed to recapture the art and skill of spiritual direction and that this should not be the preserve of a clerical class. He was also convinced that the Spiritual Exercises could be used to help faith-filled people with appropriate natural gifts, even without graduate degrees or extensive training, to become spiritual directors.

            John was one of those people who spontaneously did that form of critical reflection which we call "theological reflection." Through many encounters with him, through discussion and argument over this point or that, more formally at meetings, and very often less formally by living with him in community, John English did for me what years of academic training failed to do. I can now reflect and theorize on my present life experiences from the perspective of spirituality, theology, philosophy and psychology. Also, I have come to deeply appreciate how this critical reflection is essential in the ongoing development of the spiritual director. 

            I have the impression that there are many retreat centres which do not exercise this skill at all. Many Jesuit retreat centres simply take for granted that the people working as retreat conductors and directors believe the same things about their craft and never talk deeply to each other about what they are doing when they are doing it; or, why a program works the way it does; or, how a program relates to the human and spiritual growth that it is theorized to foster. Under the leadership of John English, it was much different. We were always talking about the meaning, nature and effectiveness of our work of the personally directed Spiritual Exercises. This critical reflection under John's influence helped us to develop the personally directed retreat modality in a multiplicity of ways. It influenced a progression of experiments and ideas around the practice, understanding, and theology of the Spiritual Exercises that coalesce into what John has called "Communal Spirituality." For John, this term came to include societal perspectives with social justice, feminine and ecological aspects. Let me list here some of the ideas and experiments that, interwoven  together, form a unique tapestry:

  • A deep conviction and belief -- that generous, educated and gifted Christians who were not ordained clergy could and should develop the skill of spiritual direction for the church of the future.
  • Forty-Day Spiritual Exercises Institute -- Each of the these Institutes began with a preparatory period called Disposition Days and then, after the personally directed Spiritual Exercises, it finished with a period of five to seven days known as Appropriation Days.
  • Development Of The Disposition Days -- Our reflection together gave us a deeper understanding of the preparatory phases the Spiritual Exercises experience, namely:
    • How directees needed to be prepared to enter into the Spiritual Exercises dynamic more fruitfully. This led to the development of what came to be known as the Disposition Days;
    • How what the directees brought to that dynamic coloured what they received from the whole experience. For example, if they began the Exercises with a consciousness of a need for a more just society, they were more likely to receive the graces of the Exercises with a deeper social justice awareness. This led to changes in the themes of the Disposition Days over three decades along the following lines:
      • In the 1970's, the themes had more to do with basic spiritual truths in our personal relationship with God, methods of approaching prayer in the Exercises, and an encouragement to express reactions during prayer (7);
      • In the 1980's, the themes addressed some of the above, but now they stressed and included themes with social justice ideas;
      • In the 1990's, the themes continued some of the above components, but now included communal, feminine, ecological themes and notions of how shame affects our relationship with God. 
  • Appreciation Of How The Exercises Can Be Received In Two Ways -- either in a predominantly call-mode way or in a predominantly healing-mode way. (2) This led to a great deal of flexibility in the use of imagination and healing-type techniques particularly with the prayer exercises involving the mysteries of Jesus' Hidden and Public Life. (3)
  • Appreciation Of How Learning Takes Place -- that appropriation of new learning for developing potential directors of the Exercises demanded methodologies which encouraged focussed reflection upon one's personal experience of the Exercises. This conviction influenced the way we conducted the Appropriation Days during the Spiritual Exercises Institute and the twelve-day Retreat Directors' Workshop. (4) It also influenced every workshop or conference which we conducted.
    • conferences and workshops on spirituality and prayer in such a manner that they would include various forms of personal prayer followed by reflection and then sharing in addition to the more cognitive input,
    • discernment of group processes,
    • retreats in parish settings such as the Week of Directed Prayer, (5)
    • the training of future spiritual directors,
    • the formation of persons seeking deeper spirituality in non-clerical settings such as that of the Christian Life Communities (6),
    • working with chapters of religious congregations.
  • Five Centres At The Same Time -- John gave birth to a very effective kick-start program in the early seventies. There were so many religious men and women who wanted to make the Spiritual Exercises for their own personal renewal and others for growth in the knowledge and skill of giving the Exercises that John devised a plan to accomplish this in several centres simultaneously. In this sizeable undertaking, over thirty potential directors of the Exercises made a preliminary ten-day workshop. Immediately after this workshop, each of these student directors directed the 30-day Exercises under supervision at one of five centres in different parts of southern Ontario - all at the same time.
  • School For The Spiritual Formation Of Lay Leaders -- Between 1982-1985 John and I ran a school for the training of potential non-Jesuit spiritual directors. The first year we had twenty student directors meeting every Tuesday evening for nine months. During these Tuesday evening meetings, they directed two persons under group supervision; then they were given some explanation about the prayer exercises over which their directees were to pray during the coming week. The directees themselves, at some point in the evening, spent a period of time sharing in small groups. Later in the evening, the whole assembly was given a presentation as to what the prayer material would be for the next week. The school was orchestrated by John English and I administered it. I made some cassette audio tapes from these presentations which we once distributed through a small bookstore once maintained by the Christian Life Communities in the United States.
  • Retreat Directors' Workshop -- For years at Guelph, this workshop was offered. It lasted twelve days during which half of the group went into retreat for three days while the other half of the group directed them under supervision. Then for the next three days, the roles were reversed. On either end, there were presentations, time to reflect on one’s own experiences of the Exercises, and small group reflection. The whole experience was carried on according to the dynamic of the Exercises. The multiplicity of techniques used during this event represented a wide variety of adult-learning styles.
  • Graced History Retreats For Groups Of Religious -- The concept of "graced" or "blessed" history began with our critical reflection together. In the light of these discussions, John LeSarge, director of Loyola House at the time (1972), developed a series of reflection days for the members of a women's religious congregation, the Congregation of the Servants of Mary Immaculate. The theme of these days was based on the idea of Graced History and involved the the living witness of the older members of the community. They shared their memories about their own past, the stories that were passed on to them by others, memories of events that manifested the charism of their founder and how all this reflected God's presence in the life and ministry of their communities. The idea was continued by John English who:
    • developed it for individuals in a very sophisticated manner in the book Choosing Life and for communities of religious orders in a manual called, Communal Graced History: A Manual Of Theology And Practice (now out of print), and for any faith community in the book, Spiritual Intimacy (8); and
    • developed it into what has become a common practice in the preparation of directees for the making of the Spiritual Exercises (9);
    • with John LeSarge, John English developed this idea into group processes for superiors and councillors of religious congregations on the theme of  Spiritual Governance. These group processes involved time for reflection, private prayer, sharing.
  • Organizational Growth Theory And Practice In Combination With The Spiritual Exercises:
    • George Schemel, S.J., (10) began the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises For The Corporate Person (ISECP) process and invited John English into its development. (11)
    • They, with others (notably Judy Roemer and Jim Borbely), developed an understanding of the Exercises from a communal point of view and which combined organizational theory, Jungian psychology, Spiritual Exercises dynamic, Management Design Institute (MDI) matrixes (12).
  • Three Social Justice Guided Retreats -- In the late 1970's these events were for Jesuits and collaborators of the Upper Canada province of the Society of Jesus. They included personal prayer, presentations, small group work, individual direction, with communal and social justice themes within the dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises (13).
  • Development of the Christian Life Communities -- At first, John facilitated its establishment in the Kitchener-Waterloo area and then in a wider sphere which took in several places across Canada. 
  • Institute For Communal Life (ICL) -- A small group of persons (Carolyn Arnold, Marita Carew, Margaret Kane, Jack Milan) helped John English in founding and developing the ICL (1990) which helped to facilitate the development of group and organizational life according to the principles referred to above. Initially the ICL did most of its work with governance chapters of religious congregations.
  • ICL Work With School Boards -- Over a period of three years, the ICL trained leaders in the RC secondary school system to become facilitators of communal life. It was in the experience of working with the school boards that ICL and John began to adapt some of the ICL training aspects into shorter segments. (14)
  • The CEF Retreat -- With the Loyola House staff, particularly with Elaine Frigo and Jim Bowler, John helped to develop a week-long experience in 1997, which they called The CEF (Communal, Ecological, Feminine) Retreat. A complete description of this, including the history and development of its elements, can be found on my webpage (blend.htm).

  • Communal Spiritual Exercises -- In 2002, with two very good friends, Kuruvala Zachariah, PhD, and Lois Zachariah, PhD, John adapted the Spiritual Exercises for a communal rather than private experience, with many of the themes of the past three decades, in the a manual called Twenty-Four Spiritual Exercises for the New Story of Universal Communion. The description of this manual can be found on my webpage (books.htm).

Continue To The Second Section


1. "Guelph Centre of Spirituality' was the name (between 1969 and 2001) that included Loyola House, Ignatius College and the Farm Community at Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Loyola House was the retreat house where John English was the director for several years and where he and I were staff members for much of the time between 1969 and 1997 (when John was assigned to the Jesuit community in Winnipeg). Ignatius College was a Jesuit residence and novitiate. At one point during this time it housed the Institute for Communal Life which was a separate entity from Loyola House and was dedicated to the promotion of Communal Spirituality. The Farm Community was made up of volunteers, Jesuits and challenged persons requiring supervision; this grouping lived according to a L'Arche style and worked on the farm as a vehicle of personal growth. At the time of writing this article many realities had changed at this location. This change has been reflected in its changed name -- Ignatius Jesuit Centre of Guelph.

2. Sometimes we refer to these various ways that persons experience the Spiritual Exercises as Healing, or Identity, or Call Modes. To further understand this terminology read Chapter 30 from Orientations Vol 2B by clicking here:


3. For a discussion of how to adapt the Exercises for a person in the healing mode click:


4. This workshop was for persons who had completed the full Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius under personal direction. It was intended for those who are interested in acquiring a greater practical understanding of the Spiritual Exercises and their application in today's world. It presumed that the applicants would come having had some experience of discernment and decision-making according to the principles and practice of the Exercises. In fact in preparation they were asked to bring with them a serious decision which required discernment. The workshop included a practicum during which the participants were to receive spiritual direction and were to give spiritual direction under supervision. To support these efforts to achieving its goals, this workshop was conducted in an atmosphere of prayer and reflection. And the three day directed retreat within the practicum was conducted in the same silence as required during the full Spiritual Exercises.

5. The full manual for the Week Of Directed Prayer can be found by clicking:


6. Information about the world-wide CLC can be found by clicking:;
the Canadian CLC can be found by clicking:

7. The first set of disposition days can be found by clicking:

which is entitled Preparing for the Spiritual Exercises
A variation and application of this for Annotation 19 can be found by clicking:

8. Information on these books can be found by clicking here:


9. For two different methods for helping individuals to pray over their "Graced" history click here: bob/page7.htm#109 ; here

and for some comments
on the value of using this approach for beginning directors click here: or2ch1&2.html#N_1_

10. For information on the late George Schemel click here

11. This is the title of a manual which resulted from an ongoing communal project from the late seventies through most of the eighties. It brings together the dynamics of the Spiritual Exercises with the dynamics of organizational development theory and various psychological dynamics of group life. The late George Schemel, S.J., one time director of the Jesuit Spirituality Center, Wernersville, Pennsylvania and, later, director of the Spirituality Center at the University of Scranton, Penn. USA led the project which gathered together many practitioners of the Spiritual Exercise to further its goals. Besides Judith A. Roemer and Jim Borbely, John English continued to collaborate with the project until its completion. Information on this project can be found by clicking from which site you can get contacts to follow up your investigations.

12. The Management Design Institute website is:
The personal website of George Wilson, S.J whose work with MDI was first communicated to John English through the Wernersville Executive Leadership Retreat can be found by clicking here:

13. I personally found the experience heart changing and certainly it helped me to shift some personal paradigms.

14. For an example of what one of these workshops looked like click here:


15. A quotation from John English's tentative preface for the reprinting of Spiritual Freedom -- 2nd Edition, Revised and Updated, in a completely new format and with several new chapters published by Loyola University Press, Chicago, 1995. 

16. The literal text of the Guidelines For Discerning Spirits can be found here:


17. For an example of an application of this process used for small faith groups click here:


18. Gregory Baum, Theology and Society (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), Chapter 15, "The Retrieval of Subjectivity," p.261ff. 

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