The surprise of the third week

crossDuring the third week of the Spiritual Exercises, the person making the retreat contemplates Jesus’ suffering and death. The idea is that, through meditating on the gospel texts, you follow Jesus step by step through the events of Holy Week. It’s not just about being an eyewitness, but about becoming emotionally involved in the events unfolding around you, feeling and responding to all that occurs. As always, Ignatius has you name the grace that you’re looking for in prayer. The grace is to be near to Christ and in Holy Week that means praying to feel sorrow and pain. These are among Ignatius’ instructions for the Third Week:

I will make an effort…to be sad and grieve because of the great sorrow and suffering of Christ our Lord.

I will take care not to bring up pleasing thoughts, even though they are good and holy, for example, of the Resurrection and the glory of heaven. Rather I will rouse myself to sorrow, suffering, and anguish by frequently calling to mind the labors, fatigue, and suffering which Christ our Lord endured from the time of His birth down to the mystery of the passion upon which I am engaged at present. (Exx 206)

The idea isn’t so much that you go round pulling a face like the Puritans in the Ladybird book about Oliver Cromwell, but that you make an effort to be alongside Christ in as real a way as you can.

Hence my surprise when, at this point in the Exercises, sorrow, fatigue and grief were not what I was feeling. Having found the First Week pretty emotionally intense, I’d been wondering –a little fearfully– about how I would handle the Third Week. But once I was alongside Christ in the events of the Passion –the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the betrayal, the night trials– the emotions that came uppermost were stillness and peace. More than that, there was a sort of quiet joy. When it came to Simon of Cyrene being asked to carry the cross, the joy broke cover: for me, he was a figure of joy, elation, towering strength, energy, peace and contentment. Convinced I was getting it all wrong, I tried to re-compose myself, start again, and feel what I was meant to be feeling. It didn’t work – the joy was still there, and each repetition was the same. By late afternoon, I was walking up the beach thinking, ‘Well, ok, maybe this is the gift. Maybe this is what God wants me to have.’

The last week has been incredible, though I suppose quite ordinary in terms of what homeless centres deal with on a day-to-day basis. I can’t say a great deal about the specifics, but it’s been a week of accompanying people who have been desperate and fearful, resolved and hopeful, struggling and unable to hope, or addicted and ready for change. And, though it’s sometimes felt like the wrong emotion, my feeling in accompanying these people has been joy, that surprising emotion of the Third Week. Even when the day has been difficult, or we’ve been unable to help someone, or I feel I have nothing really to offer someone in difficulty, the joy is there as I cycle home. One of the other volunteers said the other day, ‘You just radiate contentment.’ It was then that I suddenly made the connection to Simon of Cyrene, and that walk up the beach, and the joy of the Third Week. But I don’t think I’m getting it wrong anymore – I think this is the gift.