A Reflection on Reflection: My Experience with the Spiritual Exercises

Hello all!  I hope everyone had a fun and restful fall break away from campus!  I know I did, though I wasn’t too far away from campus.  In fact, I attended the Spiritual Exercises at the new Joyce Contemplative Center (JCC) for the first time after years of wondering whether that would be something I would enjoy (spoiler alert: it was).

So, what exactly are the Spiritual Exercises?  Well, in the 16th century St. Ignatius of Loyola created a series of meditations, contemplations, and prayers to help others deepen their relationship with God and understanding of their faith.  The series is meant to be completed over the course of 30 days, but this retreat adapts it into five days of silent reflection, daily mass, and presentations from the college Chaplains.

I remember receiving an email from the Chaplain’s Office tailored specifically for seniors: “Seniors!  Don’t graduate without doing the Spiritual Exercises!”  I had heard about this retreat several times throughout the years, but I had always been too busy with a theatre production to take part in them myself.  I suppose I was also a little afraid of giving them a try; I knew almost nothing about what the week-long retreat was supposed to be about except for sitting in silence.  Nevertheless, I took advantage of the fact that I didn’t have to stay on campus to rehearse for a play as I usually do over fall break, finished my Fulbright application an hour before the deadline, and hopped on a bus to the Contemplative Center.

The construction of the JCC had just been completed while I was abroad, so I was glad I would be able to see it while it was still brand new.  Located in West Boylston, the center sits atop a hill overlooking the Wachusett Reservoir, which harbors a fantastic view of the horizon.  It is also just far away enough from civilization to have its own aura of peace and quiet.  When we first arrived I was astounded not only by the view, but also by how much the center reminded me of a cross between a hotel and a ski lodge with its spacious accommodations and modern architecture and furniture.  Was I on vacation or on retreat?

A breathtaking view of the Wachusett Reservoir from behind the JCC.

I was also surprised by how many other seniors were also at the retreat.  At the same time, I felt a great sense of comfort knowing that many of my friends were there too, some for the same reasons I was there.  We were able to bond over lunch before starting the period of silent reflection with one of many talks from one of the Chaplains.  I found the silence to be unnerving at first; it was like we were attending a 5-day funeral for our future conversations rather than attending a 5-day retreat.  However, it soon felt less like a funeral once we were given scripture and prayers to reflect upon throughout the day.  When we weren’t listening to a talk, attending mass, or eating a meal, we were free to roam about the center and keep ourselves busy with journaling about our reflections, reading one of the many books available for us to read, or getting creative with the coloring and painting materials left for us to use.  We were also able to talk to our spiritual advisor individually for a half hour every day to talk about what kind of progress we’ve made in our reflections.

My experience during the Spiritual Exercises was extremely personal and much more fulfilling than I expected.  In the silence I discovered more about myself and my relationship with God than I would have on my own and without the guidance of the Chaplains.  It was scary sometimes to confront these discoveries, but I wouldn’t have wanted to experience it any other way.  It was also really comforting to know that all of us at the retreat were in it together; though we reflected on our own, I felt like we all reflected and grew together.

At the end of the retreat we were finally able to speak out about our experiences and collectively reflect on what we had learned during the retreat.  Many of the comments reflected a desire to continue growing in this spirituality and in the joy and love we found in this community even though we didn’t speak a word to each other.  Needless to say, when we were asked to share the sign of peace at the final mass, we met each other with joyful hugs and well-wishes, and the lunch we shared afterward was buzzing with warm conversations and laughter.

That said, I strongly encourage you to attend the Spiritual Exercises at least once during your Holy Cross career even if you haven’t prayed in a while or aren’t Catholic.  The Chaplains do a wonderful job at helping everyone feel comfortable thinking and talking about Scripture and how we can relate it to our own lives, and the JCC is the perfect place to do so (also, the food is amazing and well worth staying for!)  The Spiritual Exercises retreat takes place four times during the year, so watch out for announcements from the Chaplain’s Office about dates and registration!  In the meantime, you can read more about this and other retreats at Holy Cross by clicking here.

I hope you consider attending one of the retreats and I hope reading about my experiences has given you more insight on what the retreat experience is like.  Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again soon!