Reconnect: Catholics undertaking 500-year-old Ignatian exercises, spiritual retreats on the rise in Macau

Marco Carvalho

The number of people willing to embark on retreats of a spiritual nature is increasing in Macau and that surge led the Catholic Church of the Special Administrative Region to institute, albeit informally, a program of accompaniment for those who wish to deepen their relationship with God in an atmosphere of silence, prayer and reflection.

Located in Coloane, near Cheoc Van Beach, the Diocesan Retreat House receives from three to five retreatants every month, willing to submit themselves to long-term retreats with the assistance of a spiritual guide.

Among them, the ones who choose to follow the Ignatian method are also on the rise. Father Eduardo Aguero told O Clarim: “At the Retreat House in Cheoc Van, these retreats are gaining pace, and they are happening more frequently. This month, four people were or are still there. I have accompanied the Little Sisters of Mary. One of them is now on a one-month retreat.”

Father Aguero, an Argentinian missionary and a member of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, also told O Clarim: “I do individually guided retreats that follow the Ignatian method. The Retreat House asked me to provide spiritual care to two people. In addition to these, I accompanied two others retreatants. One is doing a month-long retreat, based on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The other has recently completed an eight-day retreat. I do this because it is a service I learned to do.”

Seen by many as a spiritual treasure of the Church, the Spiritual Exercises conceived by Saint Ignatius of Loyola 500 years ago, are a way of paving our way to God through prayer and discernment. Whether they are completed individually or as a part of a collective effort, the Exercises are always a personal experience, in which the retreatant shows his willingness to be with God in an atmosphere of silence. The experience, Father Fernando Azpiroz, Superior of the Society of Jesus in Macau, asserted, requires courage and generosity from those willing to endure it. “There are many ways of partaking in the Spiritual Exercises so they can fit different kinds of persons. Saint Ignatius requires that the retreatant should enter the retreat with great courage and generosity. The experience requires persons that have a desire to encounter God, to have the capacity to be silent and to pray in silence, a willingness to trust and be guided by the spiritual director, and a certain level of psychological balance and maturity,” the Jesuit missionary stressed.

Maturity, Father Eduardo Aguero emphasized, is the keyword in the entire process. The Spiritual Exercises, when carried out in all their plenitude, just as Saint Ignatius of Loyola conceived them, require a journey of faith and a great capacity for commitment and sacrifice, both physically and emotionally. “The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises last for an entire month, and they cannot be administered just to anyone. People who submit to these exercises must have a sound faith, a life of prayer. It is something that doesn’t’ fit everybody,” the Argentinian priest stated. “Retreatants have to be alone all day and pray all day. There are three, four, five moments of prayer and each of these moments lasts for an hour. You have to be prepared. And then you have to make an evaluation, a review of the prayer. People have to be mature for that,” said Father Aguero.

The magnitude of silence

Spiritual retreats – and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in particular – are usually an experience from which the participants emerge with a greater capacity to serve and to commit to reality. Based on introspection, recollection and prayer, retreats can still be the first and decisive step towards a profound change in the way one looks at life. Father Azpiroz explained: “The Spiritual Exercises are an experience of deeper personal prayer that will lead to important decisions or changes in our life. There are different ways to do the Spiritual Exercises. The more traditional way can last as long as 30 days, once or twice in our lives or 8 days, once a year.” “There are also a variety of adaptations, including doing them for a longer period of time during daily life, or shorter experiences that can last just three or five days. Regardless of the modality, a spiritual director will present the materials for daily prayer to the retreatant. And then the retreatant will have to find the time to share the fruits of his or her daily prayer with the director.  Saint Ignatius recommended to have four prayers or meditations a day, each one lasting one hour. But this can be adapted according to the situation of the retreatant,” the Superior of the Society of Jesus in Macau added.

Prayer is one of the fundamental aspects of the spiritual journey to which the retreatants submit themselves, but dialogue with God is not just about supplication. Silence, Father Azpiroz maintained, is an aspect that is even more important than prayer. “Silence is one of the most important experiences of the Spiritual Exercises. During the Spiritual Exercises, most of the time the retreatant is alone and in silence. It is in this silence when the retreatant experiences God’s presence, listens to His voice, and also become aware of the different spiritual movements that are pushing his heart towards one or another direction before taking a decision,” the current head of the Jesuit mission in Macau concluded.