By Shannon K. Evans
September 12, 2019 — I was at a critical juncture in my faith journey — and not a particularly tidy one — when I learned of the extended Ignatian retreat offered at my parish. My conversion into the Catholic Church five years earlier had been propelled by disillusionment with the emotionalism that marked my experience in evangelical Protestant spheres. Eventually, a personal crisis had driven me to seek an expression of faith grounded in ancient tradition rather than in my unreliable ability to feel God’s presence.
It was an appropriate and necessary step of faith for me at the time, but the years that followed found me more reliant upon collective rituals and prayers and less sure of how to trust my own experience of the divine. By the time I saw the Ignatian retreat advertised in the parish bulletin, I’d realized I no longer had a personal relationship with God at all — what’s more, if I was honest, I wasn’t sure I believed such a thing really existed.
As someone perpetually disappointed by the inevitable crash that comes after the mountaintop experience of short weekend retreats, the concept of making a nine-month-long retreat intrigued me. In this sustained format, the dozen participants would commit to spending a half hour a day with St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, using Fr. Kevin O’Brien, SJ’s book “The Ignatian Adventure” as a guide. Each week from September to May the group would gather to share their experiences and reflections. Additionally, each participant would meet bi-weekly with one of the spiritual directors leading the retreat to further examine how God was moving and speaking in their lives.
I knew such extensive requirements would be a strain on my already razor-thin personal margin. Nine months is a long time for anyone to make both daily and weekly commitments, let alone a mother of four young children. But even more daunting to me was the fact that Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises depend upon the engagement of one’s imagination in prayer and Scripture reading, and at that point in my faith life imagination had become highly suspect — there were just too many reasons in my rearview mirror to doubt that God speaks to us that way. I no longer trusted my spiritual imagination, or that of others.
But then again, if making the Ignatian Exercises could somehow salvage my quickly fraying faith, wouldn’t it be worth setting my skepticism aside? If there really was a voice of God for me to relearn how to hear, this ancient prayer path could be the way to find it. If I gave it my all and nothing changed, well, perhaps I could finally put the matter to rest.
I signed up before I could talk myself out of it.
Over the course of the next nine months I experienced some of the most significant spiritual growth of my life. Unexpectedly, it turned out to be quite a tumultuous year: a painful split from the ministry I worked for, a surprise pregnancy and emergency surgery on a detached retina all combined to serve as something of a spiritual crucible. Without the structure of the retreat or the guidance of its wise and mature facilitators, I likely would have staggered through the months flailing and dumbfounded. Instead, I thrived. Vibrantly.
I’d begun the retreat only able to articulate my inability to trust that God communicates with me (or anyone) personally. But I quickly came to realize the deeper problem was that I didn’t trust myself. Ignatius’ approach, particularly well-served by the interpretation and application of Fr. O’Brien, directly addressed this. Day after day I was asked to notice my honest responses to Scripture — an exercise that was quite foreign to me. After a lifetime of knowing the “right” Bible answers and gradually growing dissatisfied with them, the freedom to be fully truthful about the feelings that arose in me was more refreshing than I could have anticipated.
As I learned to give myself permission to doubt, question and consider new perspectives without the fear of being wrong, a strange thing began to happen: Instead of feeling destabilized, I realized my faith was becoming stronger. It was becoming authentically mine. I was learning to sit in the tension, in the gray areas, and still engage with Scripture and prayer in a transformative way. Slowly, my personal experience of God became more important than the unanswered questions that had once stampeded through my brain. I was finally learning to trust myself.
The nature of such a retreat attracted a diverse group of spiritual seekers, or Companions of Jesus, as we referred to ourselves. Many of us were Catholic, but there were several Protestants as well. Men and women. Liberal and conservative. Two young moms and one retired priest. The daughter of Iowan farmers and the daughter of Central American refugees.
Week after week, we gathered to bear witness to one another’s journeys. Week after week, I learned to honor the individuality of each person’s experience of God, no matter how different from my own it may be. Ignatius wrote often of “spiritual freedom,” and I found it seated in that circle of strangers-turned-friends, widening my heart to see the beauty in another’s pursuit of the divine. As I relearned to trust myself, I found I was more able to trust those around me with their own journeys, too.
I confess that in the months since the retreat ended, I have not maintained the daily practice of Scripture reading and prayer. Yet even still, the ethos of the Spiritual Exercises continues to color the way I engage in my relationship with God. Through the practice of facing my own uncertainty, being honest with myself about the feelings that arise and trusting that God is speaking to me through those very feelings, not in spite of them, I have reason to hope that my journey with Jesus is not over, but has only just begun.
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Shannon K. Evans is the author of “Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World.” Her writing has been featured in America and Saint Anthony Messenger magazines, as well as online at Ruminate, Verily, Huffington Post, Grotto Network and others. Shannon, her husband and their five children make their home in central Iowa.