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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A River Runs Through My Life

By: Nerry Gool

Retreat in Daily Life

It was in year 2000 when my friend Ayie Santos first invited me to take the Retreat in Daily Life (RDL) offered by the Center for Ignatian Spirituality (CIS). The RDL is actually the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola designed for men and women who desire to encounter the Lord in their daily routine. As an active member of Ang Lingkod ng Panginoon (ALNP) - a catholic charismatic movement of single professionals and working people - I felt that I did not need it anymore. However, when the RDL run for 2002 came, Ayie literally “craned” me from the office to Ateneo to attend a prayer workshop to prepare me for the retreat. In that workshop, I learned about St. Ignatius and the Ignatian Spirituality.

The retreat I was trying to run away from turned out to be very grace-filled! Of all the graces I received, I was most grateful for the healing of my scrupulous conscience which I carried for thirty long years. Ever since I was nine years old, I would receive the sacrament of Confession only to feel overly disturbed and guilty for forgetting to confess some other sins no matter how small and/or committing the same sins all over again. I have always been taught that God was a loving Father who was always ready to forgive but I was chained by a subconscious belief that for every mistake I made, He had a corresponding punishment. The RDL gave me a deep understanding of how utterly unconditional God’s love was and is.

After the retreat, I was invited by my spiritual director, Sch. Jordan Orbe, SJ, to pursue courses on spiritual direction and retreat giving and the rest is history. I accepted the invitation to be a CIS lay volunteer to facilitate individual spiritual direction and group-directed retreats. For the past two years, I have been blessed to witness the unfolding of unique “love stories” between God and the people I accompany in their journey. What a great privilege it is!

Joining the Pilgrimage

Last January, we were informed that there would be an Ignatian Pilgrimage in celebration of the Jubilee Year of the First Companions – St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier and Bl. Peter Faber. It was to be a once in a lifetime experience to those invited. When I learned that I was invited, I did not put my hopes up because I knew for sure that I could not make it anyway. First, it was not easy to seek permission for a month-long vacation given the demands of my job as an HR Manager most especially when a lot of ongoing projects were due for completion. Second, my role as National Women’s Moderator of ALNP required me to participate in a one-week training of its key leaders, the schedule of which coincided with that of the Pilgrimage. Still, since I badly wanted to join, I took the courage to ask the permission of my bosses at work and in service. To my great surprise, both of them readily allowed and encouraged me to take the rare opportunity. No doubt about it, I was very happy! It did not even matter that the last sentence I spoke in Spanish was uttered twenty years ago.

During the orientation, we were told that we would visit a good number of Ignatian sites and it excited me! But more exciting was the thought the schedule included a five-day silent retreat in Manresa where, as a layperson, St. Ignatius wrote his most precious legacy to the Church – the Spiritual Exercises. The idea of going through a retreat was most welcome at a time when I was discerning God’s direction for my life in the area of my career. It was a time when I would often catch myself asking, “Will I continue with my present job or consider another path? Is this where the Lord wants me to be? ” Such were not easy to answer and I was hoping to hear God speak to me clearly.

“Grace in Every Place”

We finally flew to Madrid on May 2 and from there, started visiting Ignatian sites. There was “grace in every place” but Pamplona and Loyola were significant to me. In Pamplona, I felt a deep sense of joy when I touched the exact spot where Ignatius fell when he was hit by a cannonball during a battle of Spain against France. In Loyola, it was God’s special love for Ignatius that struck me. As I moved around Sta. Casa, I kept wondering how he was like as a little boy, running and playing around the house; or how disgusted he must have felt after his knee was shot in Pamplona; or how intense his religious experience must have been when he read the The Life of Christ (by Ludolph of Saxony) and Lives of the Saints (by Jacobo Voragine) that led to his conversion during his convalescence.

In all the places we visited, we automatically touched or kissed the holy images, felt the holiness of the place, and contemplated on the encounter that happened between God and St. Ignatius. You may ask: What is the point of touching the dusty road in Pamplona where Ignatius fell 485 years ago, or feeling the rooms of Sta. Casa in Loyola? I have no logical answer, but what makes sense to me is that the experience gave me a deep understanding of the rightful place and value of sacraments, rituals and liturgical celebrations in our Catholic Church where physical objects help us feel God’s presence and where bodily gestures allow us to express our love and devotion to the Lord.

Showered with abundant graces as we traveled, I did not notice the desire of my heart silently changing. By the time we departed for Manresa, I had totally forgotten my career concerns. I just wanted to love God the way St. Ignatius did.

Arriving in Manresa

Finally, we arrived in Manresa for the retreat! We stayed at La Cova – the House of the Exercises and the residence of the Jesuits. Outside were many chapels and churches which St. Ignatius frequented during his time but one had to “walk an extra mile” to visit them as they were not situated close to each other.

On the first day of the retreat, I went to La Guia Chapel, the first place Ignatius found upon arriving in Manresa. Unfortunately, it was closed. I moved to La Seu Basilica which was the place where St. Ignatius used to pray and receive the sacrament of Confession. Thank God, it was open! But when I was about to enter, I was told that there was an entrance fee of 1 euro. Ironically, throughout the entire pilgrimage, I had always brought my wallet except on that day because I thought I would not need to spend a cent. I was so disappointed. Trying to keep my cool, I went back to the house to get money. But when I arrived back at La Seu, I could not enter anymore because visiting time had already ended. Sadly, I had just walked to La Coveta - the “cave turned chapel” where St. Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises - but when I entered, there was a choir singing so loudly nearby that I could not concentrate on my prayers.

Tired and frustrated, I decided to just pray inside my room. While silently in prayer, I looked outside from my window and gazed upon the Cardoner River – the place where St. Ignatius received great understanding. Seeing the river flow gently and generously, I was so moved that I wrote this prayer:


Walang entrance fee
Walang oras na sinusunod
Ang tubig ay umaagos
Maging araw man o gabi.

Ang pag-ibig ng Diyos
Tulad nitong ilog
Walang entrance fee
Walang oras na sinusunod
Patuloy na dumadaloy
Mga grasya Niyang dulot.

Bakit nga ba nalilimutan
Kahulugan nitong buhay ?
Ikaw lamang ang kailangan
Hanggang sa aking kamatayan.

Bakit nga ba hinahanap
Sa mga maling lugar at nilikha
Ang matimyas na pag-ibig
Na sa ‘Yo lang makakamit?

O kaluluwa ko, magpahinga ka na
Sa katatakbo at kahahabol
Sa mundong parating magkukulang
Na punuin ang hanap ng puso.

Mahal na puso ni Hesus
Bihagin itong puso ko
Upang mabuhay at mamatay
Na umiibig lamang sa’Yo.

Movements of the Spirit

The next day, my pilgrimage spiritual director, Fr. Vic Salanga, SJ, asked me what grace I wanted to receive through the retreat. I told him that I wanted to love God like St. Ignatius did. He instructed me to review my life’s history and spot those moments when I felt the love of God most intensely. He said that a deep and genuine experience of the love of God – which he termed as a “religious experience” - brings one to love Him more and do great things for Him.

As I prayed, the most joyful and painful moments of my life came alive again. However, it was the painful moments that highlighted His presence and love. I remembered that when I was a child, people would always compare me with my three sisters in every respect. We were a study in contrasts. While they were considered pretty and healthy, I was thought of as plain and sickly. My sisters were also naturally soft-spoken and well-mannered, I was just naturally talkative and naughty earning me a citation as the noisiest student in elementary class. They were homebodies who were helpful in doing the house chores, I preferred to be an “out-body” playing and making friends away from the house and escape from chores. When we were scolded by my parents, my sisters would be submissive like little lambs and not say a word. However, with me, I would speak my mind out even if it meant being punished for being “disrespectful”. Expectedly, my sisters were considered the ideal mold and I felt that I needed to fit into such to be accepted and loved.

When I brought those memories to prayer, I heard God say, “Your desire is to love me more but My desire is that you may love yourself more.” I seem to have heard St. Ignatius whisper to me, “I will teach you the love of self.”

The next prayer periods were “crying periods”. I realized that my experiences of unacceptance, rejection and being misunderstood during my childhood and adolescent years had lasting effects in me, making me feel very insecure. I feel very uncomfortable when people praise me. I overly admire other people as if they are always a lot better than me, or overly envy some people as if they do not deserve to have better things and qualities than what I have. And when I share my accomplishments to people, I am uncertain if I do it out of pride, the need for approval, or mere expression of joy.

Before the retreat ended, I experienced God’s healing grace as I forgave the people who had hurt me and in spirit, asked for forgiveness from those whose love I had failed to see.

Greater Freedom

In my RDL, my image of God was corrected. I began to see Him as someone who loves me unconditionally regardless of my sins, weaknesses and limitations. Knowing that I do not have to be a certain kind/mold of a person to merit His love gave me great peace which I carry until today. That was actually enough for me but not for Him. He wanted to make me whole.

In my Manresa Retreat, it was my self-image that He corrected. Yes, it is true that there are unlikeable things about me but the greater truth - incomparably far glaring truth - is that I am a person with much uniqueness, talent and beauty. I am intelligent, witty, creative, courageous, strong and loving. I am lovable and worthy of His love and the love of other people. I left Manresa with unexplainable joy knowing that I have a unique place and contribution in this world.

As we continued to trace the steps of St. Ignatius in Montserrat, Barcelona and Rome after the retreat, they only heightened the consolations and echoed the graces that I received in Manresa. Looking back, I am awed at how my desires shifted from one direction to another during the pilgrimage: at one point, I wanted clarity in the direction of my career; then it shifted to a deep desire to love God like; then finally, to have a genuine love for myself.

I smile when I remember that day when I sought Him in several churches only to find Him in a river outside my window in the confines of my little room. The Holy Spirit moves where it wills and I yield in utter openness as every direction it takes is an invitation to greater freedom.

How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me? (Psalm 116:12) Fr. Vic said that a deep and genuine experience of the love of God brings one to love Him more and do great things for Him. May his words come true as I allow Him to use me for any work that will give Him honor and glory. Like a flowing river, may His Spirit run through my life which will declare His goodness to people near and far.