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“To find ways in which Ignatian Spirituality (ref The Exercises) can be actively adapted to the school setting so that students learn the habit of stillness and the practice of discernment”. This 3rdJESEDU-Rio Action is a challenge as such. On top of that, in the European context of today it immediately raises the question of ‘how to be Ignatian in a secularised context’? How, as Ignatian educators, can we find new ways to meet the needs of the times? 

The priority of this 3rd Action is quite obvious. Contemplation helps you to know and better understand your inner movements; to discern what really matters in life; to trace the ‘inner teacher’ and the God of Love; to become freer from judgment and fear. As a result, it also helps you to better understand others, and to be more compassionate.

European Jesuit Formators Meeting, Drongen, Belgium (Photos by Agnieszka Baran)

As such it may be the most essential Rio Action of today’s world. Sincere ethics, in the end, stem from the awakening of the heart. The desire to live in peace with your fellow human beings, with creation and your Creator, can flow naturally from within, once the inner realm is addressed. It’s very much the Spirit itself at work.

A strong signal of how important it is to address the heart these days, was given by David van Reybrouck and Thomas d’Ansembourg in their book called ‘Peace can be learned’ which passionately pledges for ‘training peace’ in education. In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, they longed to give a constructive answer to the violence of our times. As they put it, violence is an ongoing danger whenever people don’t feel understood. But if we learn to practice stillness regularly, if we are encouraged to discover who we are and to appreciate our given talents and to find our heart-felt way in life, and if we learn to share our stories in peaceful dialogue, we don’t need violence to ‘prove our existence’.

Ignatian spirituality offers a beautiful gateway into the inner world, enabling us to connect the Biblical stories – in the light of Jesus’ loving teachings – to our own ‘real life’ experiences. Always taking our specific context into account however, is also an important Ignatian ‘way of proceeding’, and in Europe’s present, largely secularised and multi-convictional context, we are challenged in many of our schools to find new ways and words to open up our spirituality in a meaningful way to our specific school population.

Renilde Vos presenting at the JECSE conference

Someone who’s passionate about the Spiritual Exercises and yet started looking for an alternative approach to the Exercises in addition, is Renilde Vos, who during the last JECSE formators meeting introduced us to her innovative work. Previously Renilde worked both as a teacher in secondary education and as a pastoral coordinator connected to the Catholic University in Louvain, Flanders.

Working as a religious educator in an increasingly secularised and pluralistic context, Renilde wondered how she could pass on the Catholic faith in a more meaningful and relevant way, connected to the existential experience of her students. As she mentions during an interview with me: “Listening to young people wrestling with their existential questions, you can see their hidden needs and strengths. They all long to be really seen and heard. In our education system that is often difficult.”

The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises are, according to Renilde, a fruitful answer to the essential needs of our times. Needs like for example, a place where you can belong within this individualistic world; stories and milestones giving direction and meaning; and sustainability, things that last.

“The Exercises, in a context of companionship, offer such a place to come home, to be listened to, and to feel accepted without having to be perfect. The texts you read can give you orientation. The method can help you learn to to discern.

And essentially it can help you to relate to the eternity which is your own inner ground. There is room to change perspective: maybe I, human being, am not the center of it all, maybe it has more to do with my relationship with others and with God. This is where the mysticism gets in: the Divine is present everywhere and it’s up to you to find it.”JECSE Formators Meeting

Likewise, it’s important to help (young) people to give words to their experiences. “In this age people are always looking for experiences, but they lack the language to say something meaningful about them, especially about existential or religious experiences. Learning to give meaning to your experiences requires a spiritual guide who is capable to speak a personally ‘struggled through’ language.”

Also guiding people with non-Christian religious backgrounds, and people struggling with the language of the Bible and the Catholic tradition, Renilde started looking for an alternative way to work with the Exercises; following their dynamics but opening up their language, to make them widely accesible. “For those who like to go really deep into their Christian tradition, the Exercises are a blessing. But for others the biblical language can make it more difficult to come to meaningful experiences.”

That’s why she composed her own workbook, addressing 10 life-themes, containing a diversity of texts and images (in a creative approach of working with art and poetry) as well as different practices to enter into reading, contemplation and prayer.

Practices, as she expresses it, that follow the same dynamic as the Exercises of ‘growing in love’.“I’m deeply convinced growing in love is what makes human beings happy, and that this is the power of the pedagogical model of Jesus. He must have lived from a very intense and intimate relationship with God, that lifted him to a radical love, which he realised in his own life and in the life of others. The longing for a healthy self-love, as well as the longing to love others- even the stranger and the enemy – are fundamental in life.”

In this respect she feels her method is deeply Christian, also when other sources for inspiration next to the Bible are offered and even if Christ is not often named. “It can help people to explore the dynamics of the Exercises without naming them so. My goal is to help people enter into their own inner experience and to clear the way; and it works!”

In line with this, Renilde called her method ‘Looking for the fundamental melody’, referring to the question of: What is your specific song in life, your place? And, related to your ‘higher ground’, what is your ‘calling”?

Wouldn’t it be good if we could help our students, in openess, in creative ways, to discover some more of their own life-song? If we could find accessible ways to do this, even in the secularised context of Europe and in other parts of the world that seem to be a new frontier? Next to (but may be also on the way re-discovering!) the stories of the Bible, so as to find more pathways to reconciliation in our schools?

The participants of our JECSE formators conference in March certainly appreciated hearing Renilde’s explanation of her methodology, experiencing her programme on the themes of ‘passion and compassion’, and being introduced to her playful methodology for interreligious dialogue.

JECSE Jesuit Formators ConferenceParticipants began to appreciate how this methodology could be a very direct and powerful way to work with both students and staff so as to help them move ‘into depth’.

Some reported how the input offered a refreshing and deeper understanding of the process underlying the Spiritual Excercises.

Renilde’s model for meta-communication, finally, helped to name specific spiritual, heuristic-cognitive and social-communicative competences. A model that could, in my opinion, be very rich, not only to evaluate the pedagogical and professional relevance of the work done, but also to help students better understand (the importance of) their ‘human growth’.

With the kind permission of Renilde Vos we’re happy to share her resources.