Three years ago, newlyweds Josh and Nazzarena Seaman discovered through their parish a new, individualized daily program of prayer, conscience examination and discernment based on the teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
They decided to embark on separate journeys through the 40-week program at the same time so they could grow in faith together.
With the Ignatian exercises and meditations developed by the Sacred Story Institute, the Covington, Washington, couple found tools for their relationship that have helped them improve communication and make decisions for their life together.
“It’s important for young couples to be able to make those decisions based on discernment, conducted jointly,” Josh said. “We’re raised to be independent in America — ‘Follow your heart.’ Now you’re married, and everything you say and do has an impact on the other person. Now, that decision-making is a joint effort. How do you do that, especially when you have the Trinity involved in marriage, as well?”
The book the Seamans used in prayer, Forty Weeks: An Ignatian Path to Christ With Sacred Story Prayer, is one of several by Jesuit Father Bill Watson and his Seattle-based Sacred Story Institute that encourage a wider audience of clergy and laypeople to find healing, prayer and conversion through St. Ignatius’ teachings — and in the process become engaged missionary disciples.
Recognizing that some Catholics lack a daily prayer discipline, Father Watson developed St. Ignatius’ Examen — exercises and his core spiritual teachings to encourage them to develop a sustainable 15-minute daily prayer habit.
His programs also recapture and make more accessible regular examination of conscience and the sacrament of reconciliation, which were keys to the early success of the Society of Jesus, according to Father Watson.
“My goal is to teach this discipline, which has been so powerful in the history of the Church, and to give people enough time to develop a new virtuous habit to have enough time to break off older unvirtuous habits.”
Parishes can help their members encounter Christ and deepen their faith by encouraging them to participate in Forty Weeks or the Institute’s shorter Ignatian-inspired book, The Whole-Life Confession, as part of Sacred Story Institute’s “Built to Last” parish and school programs, the priest said. The programs, introduced in 2012 in the Seattle Archdiocese and which are now being requested in other states and internationally, meet a need for parish evangelization and adult faith-formation programs, said Father Watson, who also has programs aimed at youth and young adults.
Catholics need an accessible approach to the Examen prayer and contemplative prayer, said Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, a longtime friend and collaborator of Father Watson, president of the Garden Grove, California-based Magis Center of Reason and Faith and host of EWTN’s Father Spitzer’s Universe. “With intellectual gifts, humor and great spiritual insight, Father Bill has crafted a practical guide for unlocking the mystery and love of God animating the heart of St. Ignatius, his Spiritual Exercises and his two major contributions to Catholic prayer — the Examen prayer and what has become known as ‘Ignatian contemplation.’”
Both the Forty Weeks and the four-week The Whole-Life Confession help participants prepare to make a general confession (going to reconciliation about sins over one’s whole life) with the Examen, a technique of prayerful reflection on the day’s events to detect God’s presence and discern his direction, which St. Ignatius developed during his own conversion, Father Watson said. Forty Weeks also expands on prayer and discernment. As Catholics pray through the self-guided programs, some are gathering at their parishes to share their experiences.
Father Watson was inspired by his own experience with St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and Examen. During a 30-day Ignatian retreat in 1994, he said God revealed to him aspects of his sinfulness and vocation he hadn’t been aware of. He rediscovered the value of a 15-minute examen, which he said contains Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises in miniature and which Jesuits are instructed to do twice daily.
“It brought balance to my day and helped me stay on track, and I just realized how profoundly important it was and why Ignatius really mandated that it be done twice daily.”
In Forty Weeks, Father Watson said he put all the rules of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises into a narrative to help participants understand how they work in real life.
In the first part of the book, they learn to encounter Christ’s mercy and where to focus for spiritual growth, Father Watson said. They also name their fears, Nazzarena Seaman said. “What brings you anger? It focuses on all these things that are really blocking you from having happiness in life — and they’re coming from the enemy.”
Participants also discover core sins as they learn the Examen.
Doing the Examen regularly has helped Josh Seaman free himself from vices that are often overlooked, he said.
“If you stop at the end of the day, and you look at yourself honestly, how the examination of conscience works, you kind of teach yourself: ‘I can’t believe I did that,’” he said. “When I look back … now I don’t want to do that again. I realize it’s bad down to the smallest things.”
The exercises have a psychological depth, said Mary Cross, Sacred Story Institute board member and retired director of the Seattle Archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Faith Formation.
“You’re looking at ways in which you’ve sinned, but also ways in which you’ve been wounded,” she said, “and the way in which addictions and all kinds of other things have accrued.”
Cross participated in Forty Weeks through her Seattle parish and said, at first, she was afraid to do a whole-life confession, but later realized the Examen helped her to look at herself in a healthier way.
Forty Weeks also focuses on discernment, which Father Watson said is necessary for navigating the spiritual life’s challenges. “You’re only going to grow spiritually if you can start to understand the subtleties of temptation and how you can be misled.”
Elizabeth Marshall of Everett, Washington, learned about The Whole-Life Confession while on a healing retreat, and when she later did the program, she said she received additional emotional and spiritual healing.
“Things I thought I had already come to God with and areas of healing — it went even deeper, very much with the Presence of Christ,” Marshall said. “It was transformative, in terms of my understanding of myself, but [also] of ways that I, in childhood, shaped God” in my mind.
Sacred Story Institute’s programs offer benefits not found in other adult-formation processes, Cross said. “Unless you’re in RCIA, you’re not going over 40 weeks of preparing for confession. All religious education should be [focused on] conversion, and this program helps people change their hearts.”
Sacred Story Institute’s programs focus on prayer, personal formation and an encounter with Christ, Father Watson said. “Built to Last” reflects his experience developing and running successful high school and college retreat programs.
All the programs are designed to be used and guided by laypeople and are aimed at groups targeted by the New Evangelization, Father Watson said. “People who have left the Church, if we can get them into a deep encounter with Christ, they can be the ones maybe who can reignite the life of the parish at the local level.”
Said Father Spitzer, “Any pastor who is interested in bringing this very implementable and practical approach to the laity in their parish would be well advised to investigate Father Bill’s remarkable approach to the heart of St. Ignatius, which leads to the heart of Christ.”
Forty Weeks and The Whole-Life Confession books and related materials, including DVD discussions with Father Watson, are available at SacredStory.net or on Amazon.com. The discussions are also posted on Formed.org.
Another program for young adults, entitled True Heart, will be available for the Extraordinary Synod 2018 on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, Father Watson said.
Ignatian teaching helps those who want to understand life, themselves and who they are in Christ in a deeper way — all of which comes from sitting and being honest with yourself and God, Marshall said.
“There’s nothing more important for all of us than knowing who we are in Christ so that we can go love the world,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.