Exercising with Ignatius: Online retreat helps busy users find intimacy with God
September 8, 2006

Take on an ambitious goal this fall by beginning a 34-week-long retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. It’s actually a “cyber retreat” conducted over the Internet through Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., at: www.creighton.ed/CollaborativeMinistry/online.html.

Though people can start at any time, the retreat follows the liturgical year, and Father Andy Alexander, Creighton’s vice president for university ministry, suggests beginning on Sunday, Sept. 17.

“The message is—just give it a try,” he said. “It’s so simple, so directed; it does not require you to get away.

“Ignatius talked of generosity of heart. And the retreat leads to hearing the cry of the poor. Many of us are not too busy to pray, we’re too busy to serve.”

As the introductory guide for week one advises, “All we need to do is give God just a little space to transform our everyday live, a moment at a time.”

The first week focuses on sin, the second on Christ’s life and ministry, followed by his passion and resurrection.

The retreat is self-directed, and each week the site offers a guide page and resources that can be downloaded for further study. It also features elegant, meditative photos by noted Jesuit photographer Father Don Doll, accompanied by Scriptural passages and reflections by Father Larry Gillick.

The university’s collaborative ministry office, headed by Father Alexander and Maureen McCann Waldron, associate director, launched the site eight years ago as an inexpensive way to proved Lenten prayers for staff at Creighton.

“It’s been an extraordinary experience for us,” Father Alexander said. It started with daily online reflections, and the response was quick and heartening. They next began offering the retreat online. And, almost immediately, via the Internet, found they were reaching people around the world.

“They jumped in, “Waldron recalled in amazement, “This is something graced and bigger than us. We’re getting two million hits a month from one hundred forty countries.”
It soon became evident that so many people were alone in their journey, Waldron said, adding that many retreatants are homebound.

“They tap into the exercises as a prayer experience,” Waldron said.
And it has reached people who are isolated in other ways. Many live in Third World countries, but retreatants also include a farmer in Nebraska and a woman whose rosary and prayer book were confiscated on entering Saudi Arabia.

That’s why they added an online sharing group to the site, giving retreatants a chance to discuss their experiences.

A parish in Australia has used the online retreat as part of it RCIA program, a Long Island parish sponsored it for groups.

“We’ve been amazed at the creative ways that people have used it,” Waldron said.
St. Ignatius created his Spiritual Exercises in the sixteenth century as a rigorous thirty day silent retreat requiring five hours a day in prayer. He began by taking notes on his own spiritual experiences.

It wasn’t until some one hundred years ago that the exercises were even really understood. That’s when Ignatius’s diaries and his autobiography – never before published – were discovered in Jesuit archives. His writings were vast, including more than seven thousand letters.

In today’s version, the Website extends the retreat over eight months and encourages people to spend an hour a day following Ignatius’s model of Scripture reading, prayer and contemplation.

“Ignatius did something very radical,” Father Alexander said. “He was a spiritual humanist. He put together a search for God that was not about fleeing the world but entering more deeply into it. He was a spiritual mystic.”

Ignatius taught that people should seek intimacy with God throughout the day. Waldron said the planners based the structure on their own daily lives.

“I knew if I was going to make a retreat I had to pray in those little periods of the day – doing the dishes, the laundry, turning the radio off in the car, walking ten minutes to work – those little moments tucked away throughout the day, and at the end of the day remember to say thank you.

“People are thrilled,” she said. “They never had God brought to them in this way. Ignatius and his followers inspired us. They went out in the town square instead of making people go into churches. We felt Ignatius would approve of this.”