Why I spent a year of my life doing the Ignatian Exercises

In January 2017, I decided to invest an entire year of my life on the journey in discernment (doing the Ignatian Exercises).  I found myself at a critical crossroad. My work, my marriage, my heart needed attention and care. The future felt looming and did not excite me.I decided to do an ancient, year long, proven way of deepening my own heart and experience with God that helped me; renewed my heart and is rekindling love in my marriage.  I think I've morphed into a new place; a new space and a new way of living my life and expressing my faith.I did this because:

  • as I aged—my answers and boxes were not working or fitting me or others anymore. Old paradigms were crumbling. I was de-constructing.

  • as I worked and poured my life into others—I needed to be poured into;

  • as my marriage also aged, we both saw thin spots-- with sounds of the ice cracking around us. We needed deep renewal and rekindling or we would not end well. We were not coupling well. We admitted that something was wrong.

  • as I contemplated my future being relatively healthy, yet acknowledging my inner weariness—I needed to find some answers about my next stage.

  • I needed to find some answers to questions that seemed to have plagued me nearly all of my life. I felt unsettled in thinking about repositioning my life but unsure how to do what I wanted to do.

 Motivated by these questions and certain disillusioning events that had happened in a key staff relationship at my work,  I felt like I was at my end. I well recall telling our Board, “I’m done. I cannot go on. I’ve hit a wall and I will not recover from this impact.”

Thankfully our Board loved me through this wall-hitting time. They did not ask me to resign. They did not panic. They let me have space and time—a space and time I needed. My year long journey of discernment came about as a result of these things converging and my desire to get to the other side of the wall.

I imagine also that the Board was nervous; that I might quit leaving them the work of dismantling or closing what we had started together. A lot was at stake. I was at the brink--so to speak. I made a commitment to them that I would help lead and manage the transition or our work, if that was, in fact, what was going to happen. But I also choose at the same time to invest time and energy into my own soul. I needed help and thank goodness I heeded that need.In my spiritual journey and in tracking so closely with hundreds of leaders across the world in offering care to their souls, I—myself found I needed the care and compassion that I was so often giving to others. 

I often tell leaders, "A leader cannot give what a leader does not have." I came to a place in my life that I felt I had nothing. Nothing for Gwen. Nothing for me. Nothing for anyone else. I only gave the left-overs. I felt "spent" and it was that spentness that scared me, because at my age at 62 I did not think I had the time to recover. This…my new normal of feeling like I had the flu in every area of my life, would be my life. I was scared--in all honesty.

Through the years, and as an avid reader, I read shelves of books on the spiritual life. I've even written a few, one of them now called a "best seller" in Christian publishing. But I found myself at a time that felt both dangerous and compelling. That mixture of danger and feeling like I was being invited into something different than anything I had ever experienced simply converged. I was at the right place; at the right time and found the right guide to help me. 

There's an old saying which I believe is true goes like this: When the student is ready, the teacher will come! I experienced that reality. I was ready. My teacher showed up and my life has been impacted in ways I new thought possible.

I would often find in the pages of the books I was reading footnotes or references to Ignatius of Loyola, the Spanish Military soldier of the 16th century, whose own life was radically altered by developing his Exercises. Not being familiar with, “Iggie“ as I affectionately started calling him, I took the plunge and became fascinated by his life and his attempts to build an exercise where he first tested his own theories of the inner life of a Christian with seven of his friends. This little band of brothers formed their own religious order.

To be honest, I had become suspicious of current, mod authors.  I needed a more trusted and proven voice to help me. Modern words seem to leave me more empty than filled. I needed something out of my own box. I needed a voice I was not familiar with. I needed someone out of my own world to help me.  This old saint became my guide.

At the age of forty-five, Ignatius set out to form a community of a band of brothers and live out the convictions that he had come to. His friends will be familiar to many of you: Francis Xavier, Peter Favre and others, all took vows to establish a religious order based on the foundations that Ignatius had developed.

This phrase, “organic” is important. I have grown tired of what I am now calling the “cult of leadership.” We are in a phase where our obsession with leadership is proving to be a dead-end. Power, position and prestige have formed a deadly unholy trinity that we have adopted as our way of doing most things--most ways including the church. I like “organic” movements because this more closely identifies the movement of Jesus—the movement he started with his own band of followers that was earthy, raw, honesty and more simple than slick; more fluid than rigid; more life-giving than suppressing; more serving than dominating. I saw all of this in my journey of doing the exercises.  

I like the idea that the founder “experimented” with others to see if his ideas actually would work with others who might be different, yet like-minded.  Did Ignatius make mistakes? Yes. Was he perfect? No. But I have come to the conclusion that much of what he offers us is brilliant and in our world today, we find ourselves being starved for. My journey refreshed me and convinced me, yet again that all things good are not new. Some are old and some are ancient. It reminds me of Jeremiah’s good words: "This is what the Lord says:“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths,ask where the good way is, and walk in it,    and you will find rest for your souls.” –Jeremiah 6:16 

As a result of Ignatius’s audacious experiment with his band of brothers, the Society of Jesus was formed. Now the Jesuits, they are a scholarly order promoting education, research, leading retreats and missions around the world.  Some of the great scholars of all times and the greatest universities today were founded by the Jesuits--all going back to this little band of brothers.The exercises of discernment that Ignatius developed were lived out in community and not done in isolation. I liked that. I needed a sense of someone walking with me into my questions. I needed a spiritual companion that could handle my questions; listen to my doubts and fears and who would not judge me.

We live in too many silos—living our lives and our faith in isolation. This way offered me a companion, who ever single week for an entire year would show up with me; would show up for me and would show up to help me find our way.I experienced the power of a personalized, individualized and catered made journey that would fit me; my schedule; my needs and my heart. Imagine that? The power of being cared for in such a way that I so wish, the modern church could offer today. Our massive and mega-ways of doing everything seem to leave out so many of us who are sheep—who need to hear our own names called out—who need the care and compassion of a shepherd, not a CEO.

I spent one hour every single week of a year with a man named Tim-- a person trained in guiding people through the Ignatian Exercises. I had to make a commitment to spend an entire other hour, every single day in complete silence and in prayer. I had to limit what I was doing to attend to my being. Too much doing had caught up with me.Let me work through some of the major questions that were rattling around in me that my desire to discover my own answers—sort of compelled-- me to take the courage to invest a year of my life in search of the answers. An entire year, spent in digging through my heart, my past, my desires and my God helped. 

  1. Am I really loved? It’s not only me who asks this huge and core question but most likely, every human that has ever lived is with me in this question. But, in my case, as I look back on my life, this question seems to be the root of many of my other questions.[1] The love I was hungry to know was not just a head knowledge but a deep, rooted experience of being loved. This question is actually the basis of the first phase of the Exercises.

    I spent four weeks grounding myself in Scriptures about being loved by God. I spent times of quietly sitting and pondering the love of God in my silence. I did not listen to sermons or podcasts on the love of God. I sought to simply allow myself to BE—loved. I knew so much about convincing others that THEY are loved by God but I wanted the same convincing.

    This vacant wound has dogged me many years of my life. I believe everyone needs a sense of being convinced that this question is settled. Once settled, then we have a great plank in our new platform upon which to live our lives. Here, we live our lives out of the core belief that: I am loved no matter how wonderful this truth becomes! Until this question is solved for each of us, we will search; be driven; become addicted; live drunken lives on power and position until we accept God’s love for ourselves.

     In my family of origin the wound from never being told I was loved or lovable got transferred to God. I thought: God could not love me. Look at me. I’m a mess. I’m broken. I’m full of guilt and shame. But in the Exercises, I marinated in the love of God. It became a pool of fresh water that I baptized myself in everyday. I sat. I soaked. I basked in the love of God and received the healing and life-altering power of being loved. I learned how to bask in God’s love rather than move on; move quickly into something more urgent. I learned how to experience God’s love. I learned how to listen—deeper than I ever had before to hear I was loved and from God. 

  2. Why do I exist? The Ignatian Exercises helped me answer my big why? The Big Why is another core question we ask as men and women. Why was I born? What was I made to do?

    To answer the BIG WHY, is so core to our journey because if we lose our ‘why’ we will lose our way. If we do not know deep down inside of us the answer to “Why do I exist?” then we could take any path at all and it may not really matter which path we choose to walk in life. But when we discover our “WHY” we establish some boundaries, like rails for a train to move upon that help us move. Our “WHY” helps us not to get stuck and stay stuck. Our “Why” is deeply rooted in our desires about what we really want to do with our lives. 

  3. Where I am I headed? This is clearly the fundamental question about discernment. The answer to this question morphs as we morph through our 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and now as I morph into claiming my age and walking into the journey of aging. But at every decade in life and often in mid-decades, this question looks over us impacting our deepest relationships; our sense of belonging or not belonging to certain tribes, our own families, communities, churches or teams? We outgrow certain plateaus in life that we have strived to reach. We want something “more”—something “different” and much of what we are wanting has to do with our inner thirst—our heart desires.

  4. Why do I keep getting tripped up on the same logs on the road? When we look back at our past, we can find that the same issues, problems or challenges seem to always be raising up and tripping us up. We think we’ve made progress, but wait—maybe just around the corner is the same issue lying asleep—almost waiting on us.

    After nearly four decades of marriage, I can see roots, branches and logs that have been there from the beginning of our marriage that still seem to always come up and cause a rift in us. I can see the same logs in my private life and my spiritual life. Do you?

    The Ignatian Exercises invited me to look at my core issue—my main snare that comes up in me and now that I am able to name this issue, I can watch out for it in relationships; in stressful times and in different situations. To know is to be forewarned and to be forewarned is to be forearmed—to know what is really happening and to adjust and move through the log like stuff that is in my path and in me as well.

  5. What is prayer? You might think that I’d know a lot about this due to my training and work. Don’t get me wrong. I can honestly say, I prayed. But now, I am praying in a different way; for a different purpose and with a different posture in my heart. This shift in my understanding of prayer has perhaps been one of the most significant gifts I have received through my year long journey.

    Prayer for me now is not just about saying words. It is more about listening. It is about moving into my soul and encountering God—the God that is everywhere but resting and enjoying the Presence of God in my own heart. For me, learning to pray required unlearning how I had been taught to pray or modeled how to pray by others—often authors, speakers, preachers or well known pilgrims who somehow seem to be convincing that they knew what I did not know. Like many, when we are really honest, we struggle with prayer because we’ve never really been taught. We, like the early disciples, might ask, “Lord, teach me to pray (Luke 11:1) but the other topics and agenda replace our need to know how to pray. 

    The Ignatian Exercises taught me a whole, new and different way to pray that I was eager to know. I was eager to know because so much of what I had amassed in my knowledge just didn’t really work—at least for me. Week after week, with Tim, we’d explore my struggle; my doubt in the power of prayer and learned ancient ways of prayer that have been ignored by the modern church. 

  6. How do I discern my next steps?

    Here is where I found the most fascination and sheer enjoyment in working through this question. This is at the heart of the Ignatian exercises; learning how to make wise decisions—decisions I could trust and have deep assurance in shook my world. I learned how to examine my heart to explore inner movements that Ignatian called, “Desolation and Consolation.” I learned to never make a decision when I was in a time of desolation but to trust the decision made in a season of consolation and to look for --affirmation -- upon affirmation, that I had made the right and good and perhaps best decision possible. 

  7. How can I experience inner freedom?

    So many of us don’t feel free. We feel obligated. We feel locked in. We feel indebted. We feel shame. We feel guilty. But, deep down, we want freedom! Developing inner-freedom and to have the courage to choose wisely helps us experience life. True life is true freedom. One of the major issues I had to work through was this: The decision that Gwen and I would make about our own life and re-positioning would impact our staff, our friends, our donors and our reputation. That all weighed on me and felt like being tethered rather than me feeling the freedom to choose what is in my or our best interest. 

    I’ll never forget the day that I wrestled through this with Tim in one of our sessions. I lamented over the future because I felt tied, restricted, and limited. I felt like everyone was counting on me. The Staff needed me to keep going in the same way because I generated much of their work and referred many people to them that we could not see because of our own limitations. If I stopped, it would impact them and their income.

    But in that session with Tim, as I was getting out all that I felt tied up with—Tim leaned back in his chair after a while of listening and simply said, “Steve, what will be right for you will become right for your Team.” In that once instance of his words being spoken to me, a key was offered me that unlocked me inside and gave me permission to move forward. My fear held me back. But the key, Tim offered me, unlocked the chains and gave me a sense of relief and invitation to choose to intentionally re position my life, our lives, and our entire ministry that we had founded.

    Thankfully, our Board, as I will explain later, stood with us. They not only stood but they helped me stand in my courage and to keep choosing the right path because of all of the inner work I was doing with Tim. Freedom is much of the intended outcome of the Ignatian Exercises. For me, I have experienced a freedom that I wish I would have had in my 20’s and 30’s. 

    I remember well struggling through “Why am I just now learning this?”—and Tim would gently say, “Steve, you were not ready until now.” And I have had to rest in this rather than beat myself up. Don’t we all want more freedom and permission? And to think that our God of love WANTS our freedom is life changing in and of itself. 

  8. How can I experience God in all things?

    This question was at the heart of every one who journey’s through the Ignatian Exercises. It’s the utter core of Ignatian’s teaching to truly experience and not just to know God. To know God and to not settle for knowing about God makes the difference for sure! 

    In evangelicalism and in Western Christianity, we have developed so much of a left-brain approach to our faith. We want and offer a logical, linear and rational—step by step approach to God. Yet, in his brilliance, Ignatius experienced what the Exercises offer us—and that we can experience not even doing his exercises. We can use our whole brain—not just one sphere of it to experience God.

    In fact, his right-brain approach has help me and countless others to know God’s love in a way I thought never really possible. It assuages my fear of death and it convinces me of the truth and reality of God’s love and God’s clandestine scheme to love us deeply now.  

    [1] I’ve written about my search to discover the answer to this question in my book, “The Lazarus Life” (David Cook, 2008).