As the month of May came to an end, so did a session of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Retreat that began eight months earlier. Since the fall, eight men and women have met at St. Michael Church in Buffalo, with their spiritual directors, to learn how to live a more enthusiastic Christian life.
St. Ignatius of Loyola devised a set of Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises in the 1500s. These exercises are a journey of prayer, which can be a time of deep personal conversion and renewed commitment. They are commonly used in a monthslong program of daily prayer and meetings with a prayer group. This is known as the 19th Annotation retreat or the "retreat in daily life."
Retreatants are asked to dedicate one hour of each day to prayer and journaling. During the biweekly meetings, retreatants share from their journal how they saw God working in their lives.
The exercises seem to appeal to people in the latter half of their lives, who now have time to focus on prayer. Most retreatants are in their 50s and 60s and going through life choices.
"An awful lot of people feel that they are not close enough to God and they want to get closer to God," said Father Richard Hoar, SJ, one of the four spiritual leaders from St. Michael's. "People are naturally drawn to want a better relationship with God, and they all feel they are not where they would like to be at."
At 61, David Hartzell has been considering retirement and all the changes that come with it. His wife had gone through the retreat, so he was familiar with it, but didn't consider taking part until now.
Along with taking part in the exercises, Hartzell prays with a group at Our Lady of Hope Parish in Buffalo, and has spent time with the Genesee Lay Contemplatives, where he learned to lead a disciplined prayer life. He describes the exercises as opening a channel of prayer for him.
"I think that's the most important thing," he said. "What it has done for me is, it has brought me closer to God in prayer, in a form that I hadn't experienced before. I feel like I'm more in tune with what God wants me to do today. Then worry about tomorrow, tomorrow."
Participants are told not to expect an immediate change in their lives.
"I feel I'm being led in a direction, and it's a direction that I feel I want to keep on following," Hartzell said.
The biweekly meetings begin with a group opening prayer. Then, one of two directors will invite someone from the group to share, from their journal, their experiences from the past weeks of how God has spoken to them, or where they have seen God in their lives.
After sharing, the directors, also known as spiritual companions, will offer comments.
"Not directly to each person, but usually getting a sense from the group," said Sister Mary Lou Schnitzer, SSJ, another spiritual director. "And if there is something that I would want to say about what someone said or support them or say some words to help them grow further in their prayer, then I would say that, but I wouldn't say their name. It's an encouragement for where they are at. It's also a way of stretching them to deepen their prayer lives, to help them come to understand what it is that has been happening in their prayer."
There is no open group discussion and very little socializing. After saying a closing prayer, the participants simply go home.
"I was kind of amazed at how different we all are, how we can read the same thing and come up with something different," said Kathleen Milligan, a retreatant. "It's really led me to appreciate each individual person for who they are. I'm not afraid of things that I was afraid of before. It's really led me. I know I'm going in the right direction and I want to bring other people with me."
Milligan, who belongs to St. Timothy Parish in Tonawanda, recently retired and decided to join the group after reading about it. The fact that the founder of the Jesuits designed the exercises made an impression on her. She's a fan of the Jesuit pontiff, Pope Francis.
The Jesuit community in Buffalo began leading the exercises in 1986 at different venues in the diocese. St. Michael's has played host for about six years.
Other Ignatian retreats can last from three days up to 30 days and involve staying at a retreat center. The 19th Annotation is incorporated into one's regular routine.
"Most of the time the spiritual exercises are the same as you'd do them on the 30-day retreat except you're continuing day by day to live your life at the same time," said Sister Mary Lou.
Usually the retreats are conducted one-on-one. To have groups of eight to 10 people journeying together is unique.
"I have known of this program for years and years and years, but I've known it as the whole 30-day program, which was impossible to do if you're working or busy with daily life," said Paul Lubienecki.
When he saw an ad in his parish's bulletin describing the program as offering more structure in one's prayer life, he thought he could handle it.
"Ignatian prayer is so different from, I hate to say 'ordinary prayer,' but it is more an involved prayer. It's more intense," he said. "You really are an active participant in your prayer life. It's not just a matter of 'Please, God' or 'God, help me.' It's really building a relationship. And there's different methodology you use to utilize, to really experience God. When you really experience prayer, it deepens your prayer life. It makes it more alive."
Eight months after starting, he has found himself to be more prayerful.
"Going through the whole process, it has really almost inflamed by prayer life," Lubienecki said. "It has awakened. It has made my prayer life more mature. I seem to have been praying the same way most of my life; then this whole process took me to another level where I found that there was a maturity in my prayer life. It really turned me around to the fact that my prayer life wasn't 'me, me, me.' It was me really trying to plug into God, and whatever that source of power, whatever that would transform in my life, was great."
For more information, call Father Hoar at 716-854-6726 or Gini Schultz at 716-837-6020.