There tends to be a toss-up between my indecisiveness and impatience for what tends to be my greatest flaw. But a few years ago, I embarked on a journey that allowed me to tap into and start working on the former as a way to understand the power and importance of discernment. This journey was a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts that took place during a significant crossroads of my life. To be honest, I can’t believe I never posted anything about it. But after a semi-planned, semi-spontaneous visit with my spiritual director, Fr. Tom a few days ago, I found a need to write.
The summer between graduating college and going into graduate school was a particularly significant time in my life. I was at a crossroads having ended one chapter of my life and starting the next, mix in some confusion and doubt on where I should point the direction of my life and follow that up with losing my grandfather, a particularly influential character in my life’s narrative.
After having very meaningful college experience especially when it came to nourishing my own spirituality, I wanted to explore more. My grandfather’s death was a catalyst to this urge as he was a pillar of the faith life I had already built. After experiencing the Kairos retreat, I knew I wanted more, and so I found myself looking into the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
The Spiritual Exercises, also referred to as Spiritual Direction, to me is like a mix of yoga, kickboxing and weightlifting all while running a marathon – for the spirit. It is a long journey that needs undivided commitment, that is filled with its points of euphoric enlightenment and with its frustrating points of doubt and fear. There are moments when you are doing spiritual kickboxing – knocking out the distractions that are pulling you away from a meaningful experience. Then there are those when you are doing spiritual yoga – basking in the full alignment of your thoughts and feelings, with the clarity of discernment. But throughout the experience, your own vulnerabilities are brought to the surface, as you better understand the purpose of your own existence, your friendship with God and the unconditional love he has for each of us.
The particular version of the exercises that I partook in was Annotation 19, one that has been adapted to fit the life of the everyday person. The spiritual exercises are traditionally practiced on a full 30-day retreat with each week having a particular theme and practice. But Annotation 19 allows those who can’t just carve out a month’s worth of time, to still seek benefits from this unique and personal journey. Whatever version of the exercises, the common thread is journeying with Jesus through his life and death through prayer and Bible reflections. I incorporated journaling, which helped me take more away from the experience as I was able to record and make sense of a lot of the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing. This helped me lean into my own discernment and recognize when doubt and fear were trying to sabotage me.
A lot of this enlightenment comes as a result of a spiritual director, who journeys with you through this experience. They guide you enough to provide understanding, but allow the journey to fully be your own. My spiritual director, Fr. Tom Colgan, S.J., has a physical presence and sense of humor that is matched by his refreshing spirituality, and authenticity that never includes judgment. A spiritual director is crucial in this journey as they give you the freedom to be honest and authentic with your own experiences, thoughts and feelings, while helping you understand the trickiness of doubt and fear, and the beauty of that little voice inside you.
This experience was completely new to me, but the context of the faith narrative was completely familiar as I grew up a Catholic and knew the life and death and Jesus like the back of my hand. Throughout the journey as you tap into different themes and times in the life of Jesus you begin to understand your own sense of purpose but how there are elements in life like doubt, fear, and guilt that try to pull you away from being your own best self. That is the beauty of the spiritual exercises you begin to recognize the things that are good for you, and also the things that are bad for you and keeping you from reaching your ultimate potential.
Through this experience, I learned many impactful lessons that have changed me and stayed with me to this day. The most important for me was the power of discernment and tapping into my own feelings to understand and differentiate the things, people, and experiences that were good for me and embracing those while trying to avoid the ones that were bad. Along with that is understanding the power of fear and doubt and knowing how to put those feelings in check in order to guide yourself through a journey of bettering yourself and hoping to reach the best version of yourself.
Beyond that, I began to understand that my relationship with God was more so a friendship based on unconditional love. No matter the screw-ups whether they are minor or major, God loves us, accepts us and made us in His image. Who we are is who He wants us to be. Learning to love ourselves despite our shortcomings is where He wants us to begin and to understand he is always with us, every single moment. We can always ask God’s forgiveness and grace to meet each new day as a better person willing to grow and develop in His light. God is our friend, and I feel that so many people rarely think of Him that way. But we should. We can celebrate the good with Him and ask for His help, guidance, and strength when times are uncertain or scary.
The beauty of the spiritual exercises is that while it is rooted in the work of St. Ignatius, there is an appeal and a bridge for any faith life. Whether you believe in a different God than I do, or not a God at all, there is still something for everyone in this journey – to grow to understand yourself, your calling and to work at being your best and truest self. It mirrors our own life’s journey and I hope everyone embraces a way they can dive into their own spiritual direction, discovery, and discernment.
This post is dedicated to Fr. Tom Colgan, my spiritual director, and friend. In our last meeting, we ended our conversation in prayer. His prayer for me consisted of hope and patience to ease my worry about the uncertain, especially with so much change that had occurred the past year. My prayer for him consisted of gratitude, peace, and happiness. I was so thankful for his presence in my life and the gifts he gave me. I also wanted to express peace and happiness for him in his new chapter, especially because it is clear God needs Fr. Tom to help more people in a new area of the world. As he placed his hand on my left shoulder I thought back to my Confirmation where I chose God and the Catholic faith. At that moment, it was my grandpa’s hand on my right shoulder. I chose this faith because of my grandpa’s example, but now I was living it because of Fr. Tom’s guidance. This has been a full-circle journey that has allowed my faith to be my own and not a passive-existence.
Having met up with Fr. Tom a few days ago, we were able to catch up in a way reminiscent of our old Wednesday morning chats. It was a refresher I needed to get me back on track, as we all tend to drive off the road, get a flat tire, or run out of gas with our spiritual journey. In more recent times my spirituality has not been as vibrant as I would like it to be. But our conversation reminded me that we can always get back on track and that God is waiting with open arms willing to help us find and be our best selves. Thank you, Fr. Tom for this incredible reminder.