Everyone, no matter their age, recognizes that exercise is good. If we stay strictly withthe meaning of the word exercise, from Latin “exercitium”, it has to do with “the art of regular or repeated use of a faculty or bodily organ or bodily exertion for the sake of developing and maintaining physical fitness”. These verbs refer to the practice of an activity, an art form, a job or a profession. I recognize that I have been hard to convince of its more profound meaning, maybe because I am an active person, maybe due to the “activism” of Western society, or because of my own education. I was taught about prayer, but I wasn’t taught the exercise of prayer. I studied plenty theology, but no one helped me to digest it… The truth is that in my own pastoral service, during quite a long time, I have studied a lot, and garnered a lot of information in order to transmit this knowledge in an active pedagogical manner. Recently I have gained consciousness regarding my conviction that I must first “exercise” that is, to take on whatever I learn and internalize it, in order to later transmit this knowledge to others.
When I do physical exercise, and I do so every day, I am in tune with my body and my senses so as to perceive the aliveness within and in my body. In addition to improving my cardiovascular health, I feel much more awake and aware. When I do spiritual exercises, which I also do every day, I set forth my attention to my inner self, I silence my self to create harmony in body and spirit, I listen to myself and I listen to others, to nature, to God, and I feel more alive. In addition to improving my spirit, I feel that I am more of a relational person because of these exercises.
Paraphrasing St. Ignatius himself, when speaking of spiritual exercises, he used the analogy of physical exercises: as one has to train the body with certain body activities such as running, strolling, walking… the same is true with “training the spirit”, it is necessary to work out spiritually, with meditation, contemplation, prayer, dialogue, sharing…; these seem like different things, but when we look carefully, they are not so different. The same thing happens with the “Spiritual Exercises”: they are not only to “look or look out”, but to “make oneself – to recreate the self”. The spiritual exercises are not a study period. It is sometimes an easy and gratifying activity, at other times it is an activity that requires patience, determination and, above all, fidelity.
We humans begin to mature insofar as we are able to nurture our autonomy and independence with our urge to tend for others, and towards the Totally Other. In the middle of the past century, Fr. Lombardi, took on the Exercises and the challenge of making them an experience in three dimensions (autonomy, independence and tending towards others); he expresses this clearly when he says: “It seems to me that there are many people who want to reach God alone, even with total dedication and determination, and “later” discover the wish to come together, through Him, with their brothers and sisters. The reformation system to which my whole poor life has led me to, wants to avoid the “later”, and seek the way to go directly to God, together with my brothers and sisters, and that this happens during the spiritual retreat” (MF).
When we speak of “exercises in the context of the Catholic Church, everyone understands that reference to be for the “Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius” which have contributed so much to so many men and women of the Church. These are understood as practices, that is, as personal and exclusive tasks by the person who takes on the exercises.
The Spiritual Exercises, according to St. Ignatius, are carried out by an individual accompanied by a guide, whereas the Exercises according to Ricardo Lombardi, are done in the context of a group with the accompaniment of a team of persons. What they have in common is that they want to be a “live and significant experience” of encounter with the Lord, as an ultimate meaning of life and history. The difference is that in the St. Ignatius Exercises, the goal is to renew and re-orient the fundamental option of a personal life for Christ. The Lombardi Exercises strive for a group of persons to renew, re-energize and reorient the relationships with oneself, with others, with the world, through the Spirit of Jesus and his proposal to build, “now”, the Reign of God. The Exercises in this manner, are not an alternative to the St. Ignatius exercises, and are in no way opposed to them; they strive to complement the other.
We could say that the “Exercises” are an exercise in listening and sharing. Each person has to listen to himself or herself, listen to other persons and in so sharing, listen to the Spirit of Jesus. In synthesis we could translate today, after the road taken to update them, that they are “An Exercise routine… with other persons…, in the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth”.
An exercise routine…
To listen to myself, is the first step of awareness of my inner dialogue. To listen to myself, means that I become acquainted with myself, to experience the mystery of what/who I really am; to be in touch of everything that fosters and helps my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. It also means that it will help to develop my creative potential, my talents and my gifts. It requires a certain control over my moods, my thoughts, my yearnings, my feelings, motivations…; it obliges me to see my weaknesses, my limitations, my mistakes. That is my everyday life, which often times we ignore and pay little attention to, we let ourselves be occupied by our roles, our functions, but not by ourselves… we need to be aware that we are more than what we do. Every-day-life is what happens in the various areas of life: economy, sociology, psychology and even religion…, aspects that are open to the singularity of everyone and to diversity as well.
To tell one’s story of everyday life, is a way to allow personal life to flow. Experience has to do with the events experienced and embodied. In other words, experience is truly experience only when it happens through the word, through “telling”. A tranquil and serene listening to oneself, is a good exercise that requires time and silence. In the manner in which I am able to listen to myself, I will understand others much better; I am able to put myself in the shoes of the other people I encounter, and from there understand how they feel.
… with other persons…
However, it is more than articulating the word… it is more than “telling”. It is also necessary that someone hears that word; someone whom with total respect and honesty, is there to receive the uttered words. Totality is not possible without words, and also, totality needs someone to receive those words, and that someone must have a name and a surname.
To listen to someone is much more than just to hear words; it is a space for listening to the feelings of the other person. That means that one must silence one’s own world in order to be there for the other person, and available to enter into the other person’s world. To listen to the other person requires total attention from my whole self, to be available to the self of the other person, to his or her strife, mystery, sufferings and joys. We don’t just listen “something”, we listen to “someone”.
The rapport between two or more persons, is made possible in a more real and efficient manner in the sharing; that is when speaking is the fruit of mutual listening, that encourages a still deeper listening… The exercise of listening collectively, for the common good of all, is the clue for Christian fraternity-sorority; as such, it offers the exercise of living a Christian life, together, in unity and open to the universal realm.
… in the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.
The challenge of spirituality is to “allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit of God that enlivens and encourages from within to all beings and all things”. It is necessary to be aware that the action from the Spirit is a gratuitous gift that is offered to us. Therefore, it is something that we receive.
But, how does the Spirit act within us? We need to be aware that the Spirit is the power of God that acts “in” me, and “in” each person, and not “over” each person as if it substitutes or alters the person from outside, as if it were magic. The Spirit of Jesus is manifested within me, in my thoughts, my feelings, my wishes, my yearnings, my behaviors and reactions; not indicating what I must feel, do or wish, but rather to encourage and move me from within. The Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, moves my heart, and it moves me towards Jesus, inviting me to follow him and witness with signs and actions, that the Reign of God has begun with Him, and that a Better World is possible.
One thing is to “live in the Spirit”, and in which case everything depends on the Spirit, whether we are aware or not and another is to “live consciously open to the presence of the Spirit, as proposed by the Christian tradition”. To go from one to the other way of living is what is fostered by “exercise”. The interchange that happens between people is then named as “spiritual”, because it explicitly allows the “third”, the Spirit of the Lord.
It is precisely there, in this interchange, open to the Spirit, where the Gospel becomes alive, and is updated because the gospel is a “story” that allows us to create our own life story. The gospel word is a word between “you” and “I”, it is not a doctrine, or an explanation to shed light on reality. It is a gospel word in as much as “I” tell you what “I” live, apropos the Gospel, which then becomes the “good news” for you because it awakens, suggests, invites, calls… to something alive and new.
To follow an exercise routine… with other persons… in the Spirit… is not merely an “exercise” that I carry out in a specific time and space, but rather something that generates a dynamism that invites me to translate it and show it in a life style which has the unequivocal presence of Jesus of Nazareth at its core.
For reflection and sharing
- What calls my attention…?
- To what degree do the “Exercises”, help me and my relational self?
- How do I perceive the presence of the Spirit in a spiritual interchange?