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

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).
            Among the many aspects of these years, three basic themes and developments stand out from the work of promoting Ignatian spirituality with individuals and groups. For me, these three themes capture some of John English's ideas and developments: 
A) Spiritual direction often deals with one's psychological and less-than-conscious but operative images of God, self and the world. 
B) In a Christian worldview, all history is salvation history. Viewed with the eyes of faith, life is an experience of graced history. 
C) Communal Spirituality, involving communal decision-making and discernment, is necessary for the Christian endeavour in our world.

The Psychological And The Less-Than-Conscious

            Like many other colleagues in the work of personal spiritual direction, we soon discovered the significance of the less-than-conscious because people making the Spiritual Exercises in the personally directed retreat format frequently worked through very significant material from the less-than-conscious areas of their psyches. This often became evident when we helped directees to notice their own interior reactions taking place during the prayer exercises. The variety of prayer exercises, with the stress on allowing the scriptures to take hold of their imaginations and memories, helped to bring some of these less-than-conscious reactions and images to the surface. Thus, we realized, in practice, that personal perceptions, attitudes and behaviours are influenced by less-than-conscious reactions and images of God, self and the world. Through these prayer methods, in conjunction with personal direction, one's deepest yearnings for God surface and one's deepest desires are revealed. While these deeper realities are being revealed, inordinate attachments and the deceptions of one's life become more evident and one's relationship with the world is ordered. Consequently, a conversion of one’s operative images takes place as one continues to be transformed in Christ. Through such processes directees would often reach the kind of spiritual freedom that is the context for Christian discernment and decision-making. 

            By 1985, many spiritual directors around the world admitted the significance of the less-than-conscious in their work, but thirty years ago, my colleagues with whom I directed the Spiritual Exercises were not as convinced about this as they are now. I had no trouble believing this from the very beginning. I had gone through some therapy in the late 1950's and had become well aware of how consciously we can be operating on one level while, at the same time, how unconsciously we can be operating on another. Through my own therapeutic experience, I came to appreciate how profound and determining the effects of the less-than-conscious areas of one’s psyche are on one’s memory and imagination and, thus, on one’s choices. And so it was easy for me to appreciate how and why the Spiritual-Exercises methods used imagination and memory to help open one’s psyche to the influence of grace. That is why every single exercise that Ignatius offers as a prayer exercise contains the use of imagination and memory. Imagination and memory are intimately connected with the less-than-conscious. Use of imagination in prayer opens up the door to our depths and allows the "movement of spirits" to take place. It is through these movements that discernment is made possible. 

All History Is Salvation History -- Graced History

            These less-than-conscious reactions, for the most part, have their origin in our personal histories. Such influences come from family, school, church, and from larger cultural environments to which we belong. For this reason, John English created some remembering exercises to help people gain a deep appreciation and knowledge of how God relates uniquely to them. He communicated this particularly in his practice with individuals and groups. Some of these, he recorded in his manuals and books. By the mid 1980's, many practitioners were using these graced history methods as a preparation for the Spiritual Exercises and more importantly for discerning personal decisions. We finally appreciated the insight that John articulated in Choosing Life: To fully possess one's own identity, one must appropriate in faith the consolation of one's own history.
           For John English this principle was of a different order than simply being in touch with one's own roots or one's own personal history. Even the phrase, "being in touch with one's own charism," does not capture its meaning. The phrase, "the consolation of one's own history," denotes a felt, faith perception by which one is graced after contemplating one's own history. As John himself wrote:

The approach to one's personal history is that God is present to all of our life experiences. It is from the perspective of being the beloved of God that we can approach all of our life as graced history. This means that the dark, sinful events and suffering aspects of our lives can be understood as part of our graced history as well as the light, joyful and hopeful events. In tune with Romans 10, we can pray with our life story in the same ways that we pray with scripture. I have come to appreciate how important this topic is for a person's claiming one's true identity. (15)
This felt identity therefore becomes a personal touchstone for discerning decisions and recognizing the harmony with God's Spirit in one's interior spiritual movements. 

Discernment And Communal Decision-Making

            From the very beginning of the directed retreat movement in Canada, John English always insisted that the Exercises were written from a decision-making mode which he later came to name the "call mode." Like all practitioners of the Spiritual Exercises, he witnessed that people received the grace of the Exercises in many different ways according to many different individual and unique needs. Nevertheless, he continued to remind collaborators that it is with the impact of a significant decision that one develops an experiential knowledge of the movement of spirits. Why was this so important? Because he wanted to train potential spiritual directors who needed to have such an experiential knowledge for their work with others. It was only in the early 1980's, when I began to train people for the Loyola House Staff Associate Internship Program, that I finally got two basic insights with respect to conscious decision-making:

  • Without conscious decision-making, a directee does not experience the ebb and flow, the "agitaciones" of diverse spirits, which in turn require the explicit use of the Guidelines for Discerning Spirits (16) .
  • Without conscious decision-making, the mature Christian can not exercise the freedom and responsibility that one's human dignity presumes.
            Thus, between 1975 and 1995, the training programs at the Guelph Centre of Spirituality continued to encourage students to have the experience of making a decision in a prayer context in order to experience more fully and to understand more correctly the movement of spirits. When students were asked to enter into one of our programs with an issue that required a significant decision, they often misunderstood or resisted our request. Sometimes even our staff colleagues failed to appreciate the reasons for this request!

            I have come to appreciate how many people resist making discerned choices. Many people like to leave all their options open; others are so frightened of possible options that they make decisions too quickly and put closure on the process before discernment is possible. In our culture, many people shirk this imperative in preference to allowing circumstances, others, or their unconscious to make decisions for them. Ignatian Spirituality is a spirituality of choice, and the willingness to make spiritually-free, conscious choices is a way of exercising one's intimacy with Jesus. Ignatius writes that love consists in deeds rather than in words; that God, the lover, shares with the beloved what God can and the beloved returns love in the manner that one is able -- by the exercise of responsible choices.

            John stressed the importance of the decision-making and discernment process in working with small faith groups. (17) He was convinced that small faith groups in our culture would not tend to fall apart if they made communal decisions for tasks beyond the group itself. I have come to believe this also. A group may need to look inward for certain purposes at certain times. But sooner or later it needs the challenge of something outside itself. Intimacy of romance, of special friends is deceptive when it becomes the only underlying expectation for group life. John often insisted that in our first-world culture only those faith groups that make apostolic decisions together have the hope of staying together! Making decisions together in the context of experienced communal spiritual consolation disposes us for a different kind of intimacy.

            Later John applied this same insight in the creation of the Canadian formation manuals for Christian Life Communities (CLC). They include discernment exercises both personal and communal decision-making at each stage. Canadian CLC members in formation were encouraged to make the full Spiritual Exercises according to Annotation 19, and, after this personal formation, to continue in the practice of communal discernment.

           Other foundational ideas came when John collaborated with Jesuit colleagues in developing communal events which combined the dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises with basic social/faith and justice themes. These events, along with the growing awareness by the church at large, convinced him and many of us that the call to justice is integral to the call of faith for all mature Christians. Since sinful social structures are complex communal realities, only communally generated decisions can be the carriers of grace for change of these structures. No longer can issues be dealt with from a single point of view. 

            With such ideas it was very simple for John to incorporate an insight that came, in part, by working with George Schemel, S.J. The insight is that the group that makes decisions together with prayer and discernment is a "corporate person." The group experiences the movement of spirits analogously to the way an individual person experiences the movement of spirits. Just as an individual person needs to appropriate the consolation of one's own personal history to know one's identity, so does a group. This helps to ensure that its decisions are in harmony with its own identity. 

            And so John's 1992 book, Spiritual Intimacy and Community, represented the coming together of many different strands and themes beginning with that first Institute of 1969. John English continued to develop his understanding of Jesus' promise, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst." He quoted frequently the aphorism that Jesus may have died as an individual but he rose as a community! 

Clues For Jesuit Communities And Others

Intuitions For The Future

            At this point I would like make some further reflections from my experience with John that have something to say for the Society of Jesus in our western culture. This may also have some value for non-Jesuit communal situations. 

            My collaborative experiences with John give us valuable clues for our "western-cultured" Jesuit communities at this point in time. His convictions about collaborative, conscious decision-making in a faith context are very important because there is something unique about our present time that did not exist before. The Spiritual Exercises were originally given in a culture when individuals alone still made a difference. Now confronting extremely complex global issues we experience ourselves as individuals responsible for the situations but individually helpless to do much about them. 

            Yet, like many others of the human family, we Jesuits are called to make significant decisions. The lack of clarity in how we are being called to respond in a new age with diminishing resources is very different from the lack of clarity our forbears had to confront. When we (those of us who are over 70 years old) made decisions in the past (before 1960), we had a good idea about the context in which they would be implemented. We had some sense of what it meant to belong to an institution. We had some sense of what it meant to establish a school or a church and how that particular institution would likely function ten years down the line.

            Now we can no longer predict the future context. We have no idea what things might look like five years into the future. However, there is one thing we do know about the new context. It is no longer sufficient for us to respond as individuals; we are being called to respond communally. Before, an educated individual had sufficient information and data to go about the decision process and impact one's world. Now it often feels as if many of the institutions to which we belong are disabled. We have no idea what is needed to mend them, no idea what decisions are necessary. 

            In some sense, our corporate tasks as Jesuits always included some forms of deciding and working together. In our board rooms, team meetings and group enterprises, many of us have been strong individuals working together, each doing one's "thing" within the common institutions that defined for each one what was expected. Most of us followed Robert's “Rules of Order” and we could work together as teachers in a secondary school work together through the principal. The hierarchical structures, with the working policies and procedures, were carried out by highly individualized persons, each doing his thing working contiguously, side by side, but not necessarily interdependently. I have often experienced group meetings being held to parcel out bits of the work and to determine the external working order of things, but hardly ever to work through our common approaches. Our Jesuit experience of the corporate enterprise was that of individuals, working as individuals, side by side, but not communally.

            My own sense of what communal collaboration actually means came from my experience of the first ten years of the personally directed retreat movement with John English and others in Guelph. None of us knew exactly how to structure and develop the enterprise we had begun, but we had a vision together under the charismatic leadership of John English. The weekend retreats were not doing much of anything. We were in debt. We could not afford a proper support staff. And so, in conjunction with developing the directed retreat process for that first thirty-day retreat in 1969, we had to write and answer letters, we had to get more directors, we had to come up with a way of proceeding that allowed us to learn from each other as we went along. We cleaned, washed and painted the retreat house together. We made the beds. Our one secretary (Valerie Zaduk) answered the phones, responded to mail, welcomed retreatants at the door, cooked lunch for us and, at times, for retreatants. We prayed together. We shared our vulnerabilities and fears with each other. We fought and argued. We did theological reflection. In short, we collaborated. It was exciting. It was new. And we had a sense of our own weakness while at the same time doing what we discerned to be grace-filled. Such an experience was so different from the usual “communal” experiences I had had before or have had since that time!

            This experience was so different from usual work experiences with my colleagues who like myself operated as individuals in hierarchic systems. This individualistic way of working together is not surprising because to be private, to be a highly trained individual, to be able to function and be trusted as an individual was something that Western culture – aided by a privatized religion and fostered by our spirituality – communicated. The pioneering system that confronted North America as a thing to master and tame was made up of strong individuals. The RC church in southern Ontario was built up and developed by such stalwart Jesuits travelling by train and horseback all the way from New York. Such individualism for us Jesuits, as well as for most people in our Western culture, has become "Habits of the Heart"! We ourselves have become very highly conscious of our own individuality and specialness. Unfortunately the directed retreat movement may have contributed to this individualism by making us even more conscious of our own unique interior movements and fostering a discernment that depended to a large extent on the expression and knowledge of these movements. 

            We have been moving quickly into a totally different situation now. This is the moment to apply an image that McLuhan gave us over thirty years ago. We can no longer move forward looking through the rear-view mirror! The future of our planet depends on whether we have the courage to put our individualism aside and to act in new ways, together with a kind of interdependence that few of us have known – to place aside our private agendas and deal with more pressing communal agendas. Our human environmental and social problems, with their underlying spiritual problems, can no longer be dealt with significantly by individuals working as individuals. There is hope only when persons work together in mutual collaboration with each other – an image that is the reverse of the biblical story of Babylon! This implies making careful decisions for the sake of the whole human family and beyond the good of any one individual or group over another.

Wonderments - Afterthoughts - Questions

On Not Recognizing The Need For Structural Change

            John was the visionary. I appreciated his intuitions. He usually named what needed to be done over the long term. I usually agreed with his long term goals. However I often struggled with how all this applied to ordinary people. I often said to John, "If everyone needs to make the Spiritual Exercises and a 12-day workshop to learn discernment, then something is wrong. ... Only highly paid unmarried individuals or religious with a vow of poverty have that time and freedom!"

            One of the major signs of our times that we did not face as a staff was the fact that many among those to whom we ministered (as well as ourselves) were becoming grey-haired and they were dying off. If we were to have made an analysis of our retreat/workshop time structures we had in place, we could have realized as a staff that we were structured primarily for priests and sisters who were teachers or who were on sabbatical leave from the missions and from leadership positions. We had structured our programs to be long experiences. Lay people were allowed to come on board but within structures that were not primarily created for them. We could have recognized this as early as 1985, but we did not, and did nothing about it as a staff. 

            Nor did we fully adopt, as a staff, the School For The Spiritual Formation of Lay Leaders (SSFLL). Even though money and time were invested in the development of this school, most of the staff energy and time went into the other programs that were structured for sisters and priests. This SSFLL ministry was just an appendage on the side.

            Although John himself was committed to the laity and although he worked tirelessly with them in the development of CLC groups, he supported this extensive involvement with the longer structures. This continued even when, through John's encouragement, the staff, as a staff, more fully adopted the ICL by merging this ICL with itself in May of 1996. This move failed for a number of reasons. First of all there was a conflict of cycles. The staff that worked with deep involvement in the longer programs (cycles of 40 days and 8 days and workshops of 8-12 days) did not have the energy to work on the shorter and more frequent cycles of the weekends, the days of prayer, the 2-day workshops, the ongoing commitment to a once-a-week weekly program for a whole year. One cycle interfered with another cycle, unless we were super-persons like John himself. But I think that the chief reason had to do with underlying structures of the whole Guelph Centre Of Spirituality which was geared primarily for priests and sisters. The staff never faced the fact that these structures had to be surrendered if their energies and creativity were to be devoted to a primarily lay ministry. Just as with economic structures, the trickle-down theory of wealth never quite works, so, too, with clerical structures.

            Another element affecting the refusal to change structural paradigms was because of one of the ideologies of the Society of Jesus; namely, the belief that Jesuit ministry will be more effective if it deals with those in leadership positions. This was clearly a belief of Ignatius and the early Society and its practice. But in our day, it begs the question: Are those people who are in positions of authority necessarily the leaders? 

            It was only in the last few years of the ICL that John and the ICL staff began giving the ICL processes in shorter segments to the local boards of education. But by then it was too late since John was assigned to a position in Winnipeg (1997) and Sister Margaret Kane, CSJ (1999) to a leadership position in her religious congregation.

From One Type Of Perfectionism To Another

            Thirty to forty years ago, the person who wanted to develop a spirituality was faced with the trap of unhealthy introspection in the hope that one could modify one's behaviour and live up to some theoretical ideal that did not exist. This led to an external perfectionism. The RC church, having passed through an age of rationalism and ingesting the Cartesian exaggeration of the objectivity of clear and distinct ideas, had almost reduced our understanding of the spiritual journey to proper external behaviour and inner conformity to rules and regulations. Now, however, we are living through a recent age of subjective psychologism and, like most North Americans, we have absorbed the psychologism of our time. At the present time, a person seeking the inward journey runs the risk of going to the opposite extreme -- interior perfectionism.

           One can imagine C.S. Lewis writing a set of Screwtape letters establishing a recipe for this post-modern trap for our time in the history of spirituality. No doubt he would use what is a most evident result of our Western Culture -- our highly developed and intense awareness of our own individuality. Put this together with a surfeit of psychological techniques to understand our own unique individual and subjective self. Add the ever- present sense of separation or loneliness because of the loss of the extended family. Mix this thoroughly with some form of trauma and abuse in most of our past lives. Spend much time to allow one's woundedness to surface by removing the need to work for survival. Spice up the mix with the forty-year old belief that holiness is wholeness and instil the hope that total healing is possible. And then, voila, you have contributed to the development of a self-absorption by inviting persons to complete authenticity. Commitment will now be extremely difficult for humans to make because no one can be sure of one's complete (conscious and unconscious) motivation! Obedience will be almost impossible to practise because no one can be sure that all the parties involved have really done a correct discernment. And best of all, human life will appear so complex, with so many unconscious and deceptive factors involved, that humans will naturally gravitate to a more simple approach, to black and white principles which will ultimately lead to all sorts of justifiable wars, etc. 

            Without the counterbalance of interactive, collaborative, consensual, conscious, communal decision-making, does the directed retreat movement unwittingly contribute to the development of this trap? Does the directed retreat contribute to a situation where a good instrument, without the corrective balance, undermines the very thing it is attempting to enhance? On the spiritual journey, it is so difficult to keep a balance and to stay in the middle. What we forget is that we will never completely know our own mystery just as we shall never completely know God's mystery. 

            Our knowledge of ourselves is always partial. With this partial knowledge, we must live the journey outward. We live our lives between two unknowns, the unknown of self and the unknown of God. We do not have all the variables between these two poles. Yet we are invited to go the journey. We are invited to take responsibility by making responsible choices without the complete data. We live both the journey inward and the journey outward at the same time. In our time, it has been through the instrumentality of psychology that we have developed an explosion of self-knowledge. Spiritual directors sometimes trivialized the use of psychology. I used to judge that this was because they were afraid of using and acknowledging the psychological in their own regard. I have always maintained that in our western culture that the spiritual guide needs at least as much psychological literacy as any other adult professional working in the realm of human behaviour -- the nurse, the lawyer, the social worker, the pastoral counsellor. Without this psychological literacy, one cannot hear the human experiences being expressed, and therefore cannot help discern spirits and give spiritual guidance. Further, without such literacy one runs the risk of projecting one's unconscious on others. A spiritual guide really needs to be in touch with one's own less-than-conscious reactions. 

            But I do have a concern which does not contradict my stress on psychological literacy. My concern is that, now, many spiritual directors in exercising their role as spiritual directors, are only doing psychology in a devotional, prayer context and do not use a theological horizon. 

            Once again I got this insight through my association with John. I never met a spiritual director who consistently used the theological horizon as explicitly and consistently as he did in his ministry of spiritual direction. It seemed to me that as I observed, listened to, and worked with him, he never used the psychological model for his thinking but always used the theological and Spiritual-Exercises models. It was one or other of these two perspectives that usually governed his thinking. Yet he always seemed to be psychologically sound in his judgements of spiritual direction. John was not eclectic in the way I was. He was consistent within his frameworks. I got an insight into this from a short half-hour film that was produced in 1990 and featured his work at the Guelph Centre of Spirituality. It was called  A Heart To Understand. He was filmed during spiritual-direction sessions with a woman making the Spiritual Exercises. In one of the episodes he was listening to her expressing the kind of fear and anxiety that surfaced through her prayer that, for me and most other directors, would probably invite us to use a psychological model. However, when he was being interviewed for one of the voice-over explanations, he said something to the interviewer which indicated that he was using only the theological and Spiritual Exercises frameworks. For lack of a better term in my book Orientations Volume 2B, I came to call this skill, "Theological Thinking."

            In conversations with John, particularly when we evaluated the effectiveness of our Retreat Directors' Workshops, I would point out something that seemed quite evident to me. When giving and facilitating his presentations, John always gave them with the language of faith that was theological rather than devotional or psychological. I often observed, however, that most of the participants receiving his presentations were understanding them only on devotional and psychological levels. But John always took for granted that his presentations were being understood on the theological level he was using. My observation was clarified by some reflections of Gregory Baum in his article on the retrieval of subjectivity.(18) In it, Baum pointed out how we, in western society, fell into the trap of using devotionalism, existentialism and psychologism in an attempt to pay attention to subjectivity. In the mid-sixties these seemed to be the only tools we had to reclaim the kind of subjective articulation of our religious experiences that the shifting exigencies of our world and the Vatican Council were urging. 

             In the popular culture of spirituality of the last thirty years there has been a lack of the desire to reflect critically. This means that many spiritual directors do not pay attention to the theological meaning present in a person's human experience. Thus, we should not take for granted that spiritual directors using the language of faith are actually thinking theologically.  I maintain that among the necessary skills in exercising the art of spiritual guidance, the ability to perceive the theological principle within human experiences has a high priority. This ability to reflect theologically upon experiences of prayer, along with the practice of conscious, communal decision-making, will go a long way in helping a spiritual guide from unwittingly contributing to their directees’ or their own addictions to interior perfectionism.

All Aboard A Ship Named, Theological Horizon

            I have always been interested in the early stages of spiritual direction and its connections with, and its differences from, the psychological realities that emerge in our hearts. I never felt secure in dealing with more programmatic individuals in personal spiritual direction. I recognize that the transition from Fowler's third stage to the higher stages of consciousness involves both affective and intellectual conversions. But the question for me still remains: How does the retreat movement foster and lay the groundwork for this transition? 

            This is a very important question because many of the people who still come to Jesuit weekend retreats in North America are people who are in Fowler's third stage of faith development (as I suspect are the majority of people who fill our churches on Sunday mornings). John never gave me an answer for that question. However, the witness of him just being himself with his authentic honest and genuine attempt at bringing people aboard his ship named "Theological Horizon," may be the most important part of the answer to that question.

            A wonderful tribute to John English took place  in the form of a symposium in his honour. It was sponsored by the Loyola House staff and particularly shepherded by James Bowler, SJ and Elaine Frigo, CSSF. As Carolyn Arnold, one of John's key secretarial assistants wrote, "I have been looking through all my 'stuff' on the July 18-21, 1999 Symposium. Boy, that was a great three days, we sure put on a terrific event! I love doing detective work. And I'm glad you have asked me to do this before I retire at the end of the year. ... Anyway, here is what I thought would interest you. The event was by invitation only. So invitations went to the myriad of people who knew John and invitations were sent to guest presenters, e.g. Michael Higgins, Gerry Hughes (England), etc., etc." 

            A booklet of interviews with John English was produced and given to the presenters as a point of departure for their own presentations during the symposium. It was also distributed to the participants. To read this booklet click here.


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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