“Ms. Knobbe, you look the same, but your heart is different.”
These were the words from one of my students when I returned from my first encounter with the Spiritual Exercises. A profound transformation had taken place in me during those 30 days of silence. As I returned to campus, I felt like I had emerged from a dark place, and my heart was filled with light again – and my student noticed. I don’t know exactly what he saw in me from the outside, but he was absolutely right about the change I had experienced on the inside. I was the same person, but my heart was different.
For nearly 10 months, St. Ignatius lived in a tiny cave just outside the town of Manresa, Spain where his insights and encounters with God became the foundation for the Spiritual Exercises. After leaving his former life behind and relinquishing his sword, St. Ignatius immersed himself in a life of prayer and service. In the darkness of the cave, he learned to listen for the sound of God’s voice.
When I first decided to complete the Spiritual Exercises, I was tired and exhausted. It had been an incredibly challenging year, and I had a lot of doubts about my abilities as a minister. I reached out to a colleague in our Human Resources department for some advice. I was ready to quit, and to be honest, she was not exactly helpful. The night before I left on retreat, my best friend and I went out for dinner. We raised a toast “to Erin from HR” with the hope that my time away would provide some much-needed clarity.
Looking back now, I ask myself, “where was my heart?”
A broken heart. Sometimes grief isn’t the result of an unexpected death, but the accumulation of a series of small losses. I had been through a tremendous season of growth, which involved a lot of letting go. I missed the tight bond of community that I had with my graduate school classmates. Our monthly women’s prayer group disbanded after several members moved away to pursue new jobs and relationships. Most significantly, my boss – the mentor who had taught me so much about ministry – had been assigned to a new parish. My heart ached for the people who knew me well and had supported me through my early years of ministry.
Hardness of heart. It’s no exaggeration that I was also on the verge of physical and emotional burnout. I was surrounded by people at work who were relentlessly critical, and I had started taking everything personally. I found myself reluctant to forgive and unwilling to overlook other’s mistakes. I started skipping my exercise routine, short-changing time spent in prayer, and I was too exhausted to make time for the things that brought me joy.
When our hearts are hardened we become fearful and forgetful. We forget how much God loves us! We are suspicious and afraid of those who wish to reveal God’s goodness to us. Our inability to forgive can fester and quickly turn to bitterness and resentment. My heart was becoming closed off to God’s presence, and I knew something needed to change.
For followers of St. Ignatius, the cave is a metaphor for periods of formation, training, and the source of our call. Imagine those seasons of life where you have experienced significant growth. The cave could be a defined period of time, like the college years. It could also encompass a particular season in life, like welcoming a child or adjusting to retirement. The pandemic has been a sort of cave for many of us. Whether expected or unexpected, the cave is where God reveals God’s self to us, transforming us, and calling us to follow.
My encounter with the long-retreat of the Spiritual Exercises was one such cave. It was there on the shores of Eastern Point Retreat House where I experienced the gentle, healing touch of Jesus. As the psalmist writes, “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) I experienced so many graces on retreat, and even years later, I continue to draw upon that time as a source of consolation.
There are 3 movements of the heart that I experienced in a profound way:
- I encountered God’s love and the intimacy of being known by God. Much of this came during uninterrupted time in prayer, relishing long walks along the ocean, perusing local artist shops, meditating on scripture, and lingering over early morning coffee while watching the sunrise. Where have you encountered God’s love?
- I experienced God’s healing. Jesus truly began to soften my heart after being hardened by years of transition and in response to many changes that were beyond my control. I experienced many layers of forgiveness and a genuine desire to extend that forgiveness to others. Where is your heart in need of God’s healing?
- I discovered a newfound freedom and desire to share God’s love with others. In praying through the life of Jesus, I heard God’s call to throw my nets out into deep water, to not be afraid of rejection, and to care for those on the margins – all of which helped me understand my own call to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as a missionary disciple. How are you called to share God’s love with others?
On the last day, one of our retreat directors shared this prayer by St. Claude La Colombiere, S.J., It summarizes my gratitude for the experience in the cave and the transformative experience when we allow God to touch our hearts.
Give Us New Hearts
O God, what will you do to conquer
the fearful hardness of our hearts?
Lord, you must give us new hearts,
tender hearts, sensitive hearts,
to replace hearts that are made of marble and of bronze.
You must give us your own Heart, Jesus.
Come, lovable Heart of Jesus.
Place your Heart deep in the center of our hearts
and enkindle in each heart a flame of love
as strong, as great, as the sum of all the reasons
that I have for loving you, my God.
O holy Heart of Jesus, dwell hidden in my heart,
so that I may live only in you and only for you,
so that, in the end, I may live with you eternally in heaven.
- Read more from Pope Francis on Hardness of Heart.
- Consider praying with the following scriptures:
- Learn more about the Spiritual Exercises in everyday life
Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash