Lay Student Retreat

March 15, 2016

Retreat. Ah yes. Wispy dreams of toasty feet by a glowing fire. Hot chocolate with melty marshmallows in a fat mug nestled between the palms. Rustic colored blankets that beckon. A roast in the oven that emanates a sleepy aroma akin to a down pillow for the nose. To feign interest in a good read only to set it aside after reading one page because the eyes need a rest. The retreat. The most pressing appointment is the occasional need to get up from the chair, shuffle to the kitchen, and scan the contents of the refrigerator. Rinse. Repeat. The retreat.

Somewhere in January on a frigid cold weekend that Minnesota does naturally, a bunch of us lay folk made pilgrimage to a quiet suburb somewhere in snow country for just that, a retreat of the spiritual kind. We arrived one by one and sometimes in pairs. We meet the high volume of placid silence, punctuated briefly by two syllables from the mouth of a nun, "welcome." All of the cues of a long weekend of repose leaned casually, languidly by. Until the cues disappeared.

A friendly warning, perhaps a reframing is in order. Do not let an invitation with the words, "quiet time for reflection, and group discussions" lull you into blissful anticipation of pink clouds, pixie dust and tomato soup with grilled cheese comfort. I did. Instead, begin to discern what deeper, spring-loaded, kinetic energy is hidden in such a phrase as quiet time. My idea of nursery school naptime and Nilla Wafers evaporated. But for good reason.

Our Discernment of Spirits Retreat, hosted by Paul Coelho, S.J., pushed the boundaries of comfort. The weekend drew on St. Ignatius of Loyola's rules for discernment. We worked head and heart in tandem—both singly, as what Jim Harbaugh, S.J. (p. xvii) describes as Ignatius's early "rugged spiritual individualist[s]," and in the community of believers. Introspection was our introduction and the first clue that feet up, book in hand were not to be the operatives for the retreat. Instead, we paused and inventoried our mood, desideratum, decisions, and needs for special grace from God—the makings of an examen in Ignatian parlance. Throughout, whether in solitude or amidst kinship, we examined the hues of our attitude for "authentic discernment," times and conditions for this insight, and techniques—not surprising since St. Ignatius was known for method and structure (Harbaugh, 1997). We interrogated various impediments including evil spirits, the crucible of the world, and our internal struggles, described as the "demons of our life" (Coelho, 2016). From lectures to working it out in the group to interior wrestling, we pilgrim-types immersed in the understanding and application of Ignatian Rules for Discernment. 

What does all of this matter to aspiring theologians, pastoral ministers or religious educators? As a budding clinician, I am reminded of the necessity of understanding my narrative, heritage, privilege, oppressions and shortcomings, and how that can and will affect and influence the therapeutic relationship. Despite the host of counseling modalities ready for application, they do little without a sense of self. It is what St. Ignatius perhaps means in, “He who goes about to reform the world must begin with himself, or he loses his labor.” May our attempts at authentic discernment stir up an inner drama that eventually catapults us into new, deeper dimensions of love for and service to Christ, and the same in our working with others.


Harbaugh, J. (1997). A 12-step approach to the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward.

Coelho, P. (2016). Proceedings from J-Term spiritual retreat '16: Discernment of Spirits of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Maplewood, MN.