One of the great lessons of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola is that we must recognize just how small and sinful we are before we can appreciate how great our Lord is. Given that, it is rather awkward to be featured in a magazine that is read by thousands of men who are far smarter and far more successful than I. Even more awkward is presuming that I actually have something of value to share regarding my experience with the Exercises. However, as a Man for Others, I’m compelled to respond favorably when asked for assistance.
Prior to 2012, participating in the Exercises was a rather unrealistic dream. I was a husband, father, lawyer, and banking executive. There was no way that I could be completely out of touch for 30 days. However, in August, 2012, about six months after my wife passed away, I discovered that a nearby parish was offering a “19th Annotation” version of the Exercises commonly referred to as “Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life.” For those Jesuits and others who have participated in a 30-day retreat, this version of the Exercises might be also called “Exercises Light,” but the weekly format was the best that I could hope for given my work schedule. I simply prayed that I would derive some value from this attempt at deepening my spirituality. Little did I know that this spiritual journey would radically change my life.
In the opening stages of the Exercises, I was captivated by the notion that all sin, even sin that is theoretically “private,” has a social consequence. I had always regarded myself as a “good” husband, father, son, friend, and overall Catholic. Yet, I was challenged to examine my life far more critically and objectively than ever before. This culminated in a “General Confession” during which I was required to re-confess (or to confess for the first time) every sin that I could recall since I achieved the age of reason in 1966. Suffice it to say, examining more than 45 years of my life was a daunting, depressing, and disappointing task. I wasn’t very happy with my many faults and flaws. I was especially unhappy with having to read a list of these sins during the sacrament of Confession. Yet, giving St. Ignatius his due, the end result of the process was that, for the first time, I was completely free to become the man that God intended me to be.
So, when the topic in a later week was the “Call of the King,” I was astounded by the impact that it had on me. My mind was continually drawn to the concept that I was being called to be a priest. In other words, I sensed that my King needed me and I was being asked to respond. Of course, I thought the whole notion was completely ridiculous. After all, I was 53 years old; I was not in the least “holy enough” to presume to be a priest; I had an amazing son, a fine career, and, notwithstanding the absence of my wife (who I was certain was with God for eternity), a very blessed life. There was no possible way that the King was calling me. It had to be a spammer or a wrong number. Nonetheless, the nagging call persisted.
When I completed the Exercises in early November, I felt spiritually renewed. But, I also felt that I could really benefit from going through them again to see if I might learn even more. To be honest, I was also really struck by the priest who led the Exercises. He was a very holy, very down to earth guy from New York who was truly inspiring. So, I signed up again.
My second time through, I was able to go much deeper and to understand things at a more profound level. I didn’t need to make another General Confession, but I certainly remembered how it felt the first time. There was only one problem: The call of the King was louder and more persistent than before. Because I was having a very hard time ignoring that call, I thought that I should speak with the leader of the Exercises (my New York priest “friend”) who I was certain would tell me that I was clearly out of my mind and that I should dismiss such a crazy notion. I think that’s all it would have taken to send me on my way without giving the priesthood another thought. Imagine my surprise when I explained my situation to him and he very enthusiastically said, “You need to pursue that.” When I emphatically said, “But, Father, I’m 53 years old.” He responded, “God knows how old you are. You should pursue this.” My journey to priesthood began the very next day. Did I mention that he was inspirational?
Suffice it to say that the Exercises opened my heart and mind to a truly radical change in my life. They helped me to hear God’s call and to respond to it. They helped me through my long discernment and formation process and they continue to be a powerful influence in my life as a priest. In fact, my devotion to Ignatian Spirituality (as a result of the Exercises) often prompts people ask me if I am a Jesuit priest. For me, that is the highest compliment that anyone could ever pay me.