In the spiritual life, the term “mountaintop experience” refers to a glorious, monumental event in which one comes face to face with God, and through which, He reveals Himself to an individual in a new and powerful way.
Think back to the story of the Transfiguration where Jesus showed His glory to Peter, James and John (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36). These disciples knew Jesus before the Transfiguration, having spent a couple of years with Him by that point, but through his Transfiguration, they were introduced to his divinity and awesomeness in a whole new way.
A few weeks ago, I had my own “mountaintop experience,” going through the Spiritual Exercises, a retreat developed in the sixteenth century by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (aka, the Jesuits).
What Are The Spiritual Exercises Of St. Ignatius
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are acclaimed as one of the great masterpieces of Christian spirituality. They consist of a compilation of meditations and prayers by which one attains a deep, interior knowledge of the Lord — “I look at Him and He looks at me” (CCC 2715).
Traditionally, this retreat was designed to take place over a period of 30 days in silence and solitude, led by an experienced spiritual director. Over time, and since most people cannot take a month off work or family responsibilities, Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises have been adapted to allow anyone, even someone with a full-time job or a home to run, to be able to sign up for this retreat (more on that below).
Since the inception of this retreat, countless people have profited greatly by doing it, growing in detachment, freedom and lucidity through the course of the retreat, to a point of discerning God’s voice and will most clearly. Whether you are looking to deepen your relationship with God or hoping to hear God’s voice clearly in order to make an important life decision, the Spiritual Exercises could be for you. This retreat format has also immensely benefited people either preparing for or already engaged in active pastoral ministry.
My Experience With The Spiritual Exercises
I am scheduled to be ordained a deacon in a few weeks (ahead of my priestly ordination next spring), and I figured that the renowned Spiritual Exercises from St. Ignatius would be the best way to prepare myself spiritually for this amazing new chapter coming up in my life.
I did not regret my decision. As an extrovert who loves socializing at any opportunity he gets, I was definitely a bit apprehensive about going into silence and solitude for 30 days. But the retreat was phenomenal! Let’s just say that I had my mountaintop experience and then some.
God showed up in beautiful and powerful ways on my retreat from day one, flooding me with the warmth of his love and grace. Each day was a renewed encounter with God. I have never felt the presence of God so tangibly in and around me. I couldn’t get enough of God! As the days passed, I continued to be blown away, literally feeling like He was holding me in the palm of His hand, gently molding me back to my original likeness, as He first made me, before my sins and my baggage chipped away at me.
A part of the genius of Ignatian spirituality is his encouragement to use our senses, imagination and feelings in our prayer. St. Ignatius believed that feelings of joy, sorrow, peace, and so on, were important considerations in our spiritual life. So too, he promoted the use of our imagination and senses, especially when meditating on Scripture passages. Try reflecting on a biblical text that vividly describes heaven (such as Revelation 7:13-17), and then meditate on a passage that speaks of hell (like 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9), using your imagination and senses to bring to life each word of these passages. Trust me, by the end of that prayer time, you will want heaven, and not want to sin, like never before.
My 30-day experience with the Spiritual Exercises is oddly enough best summed up in the words of another Catholic writer. As he put it, the greatest encounters with God need us to hike up a mountain till we are able to see above the treeline. Above the treeline, we see the world around us, while at the same time, we are removed from the world. We see where we have come from and where we are going. In the light of that perspective, we are inspired to do what we need to do, big or small, for God.
And in the beauty of what is above us and around us, we want more, even though we know that to attain more, we have to work harder and hike higher up the mountain. Yet, we are so captivated by the beauty and awesomeness we experience in that place, that we know we will not be satisfied till we make it to the top of the mountain for that glorious, lasting mountaintop experience.
What are the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius?
The Spiritual Exercises are divided into four “weeks.” Each “week” is not a seven-day period per se, but refers to a different stage on the journey a retreatant undertakes through the Spiritual Exercises.
- Week One gets us to reflect on our lives in the light of God’s infinite and abundant love for us
- Week Two leads us to continue to ponder on God’s love for us, but begins to move us to respond to this love through a more serious commitment to discipleship and to loving God more profoundly.
- Week Three is centered around meditating on the last days of Jesus’ life, especially his passion and death, which again demonstrates to us the boundless love God has for us.
- Week Four starts to gear the retreat to its climactic conclusion, through reading and reflecting on the resurrection of Jesus and his post-resurrection apparitions to his disciples. Having gone through an intimate month with God that has shown us in indescribable ways who we are and who God is, we are now ready to leave the retreat and live out its fruits in concrete ways in the world.
Obviously, undertaking the Spiritual Exercises over a 30-day period in solitude and silence, under the direction of an experienced retreat master is probably the best way to do this retreat. Nevertheless, depending on your life circumstances, there are other wonderful options available. Some retreat centers offer this program as three separate 10-day retreats. Other retreat centers offer what is called the “Retreat in Everyday Life,” which spreads the Spiritual Exercises over a period of several months, and this format is tailored to meet the needs of those who have full-time work and home responsibilities.
Find an option at a retreat center near you that suits you and enter into the brilliance of Ignatian Spirituality that brought us the Spiritual Exercises, which for almost 500 years have been blessing all those who undertook them with an unforgettable mountaintop experience with God.