By SARAH OTTO, Commentary | Published August 12, 2020
We’ve all made self-promises that begin with “Someday when X happens, I’ll do Y…” Insert any aspiration into this axis of life: “When life slows down, I’ll write that book…” or “When (child’s name here) is older, we’ll take that trip…”
Our relationship with God may look like this too: “Someday, I’ll walk the Camino…” or “When work eases up, I’ll volunteer…” or “Later, I’ll take a retreat.” Yet forces outside our control keep getting in the way. Like 2020.
St. Ignatius of Loyola knew that feeling. Roughly 500 years ago, a debilitating injury caused him to stop, discern, and act by writing something extraordinary. He penned “The Spiritual Exercises” as a roadmap for getting to know God and our truest selves—as God created us to be. Originally, the Exercises were organized as a 30-day spiritual retreat, yet Ignatius knew not everyone could step away from work and family. He outlined an alternate way—called the “19th Annotation” or a “Retreat in Everyday Life—used when daily commitments must continue. Rather than withdraw, it’s an invitation to enter in.
I began the 19th Annotation two months after moving across the country with my husband and our 6-month-old daughter. We were still adjusting to a new city, new jobs, and being first-time parents. The 19th Annotation requires discipline: committing to about 45 minutes of daily prayer plus weekly meetings with a spiritual director. Surprisingly, this structure brought steadiness to my season of transitions and was a strong reminder that my spiritual life need not wait until life slowed down (because when does that happen?). God wants to meet me now, and I’m a better wife, mother, and minister if I prioritize that.
Life with little ones often feels small. But as I moved through the Exercises, I recognized the potency of the sacred here and now. I found depth and meaning even on days I barely left our small apartment. As I prayed with the Visitation passage, it prompted me to seek community in our new city, to find other young moms with whom I could journey. When I imagined myself at the Last Supper, I heard the words in a different way reflecting on my own experience of self-offering: my body as a vessel throughout nine months of pregnancy, the pain of childbirth, the struggles of nursing. This is my body, given for you. And how through that death of my own former self I found new life. And standing next to Mary at the foot of the cross, after an unusually challenging and lonely few days, I saw how Jesus looked down at his mother in his final moments, and I felt certain he was looking at me, too. He saw me, he knew me, he cared for me.
Even on the days when my plans for prayer were thwarted (like when my daughter fought her naps), my spiritual director continuously reminded me of the generosity of the Spirit. God still showed up in prayer those days—not in the quiet solitude I was craving but embodied in my little one with her precocious spirit and curious exploration. This is what I will be forever grateful for: the Exercises provided a new lens through which to see the world—and all its interruptions—as a gift.
God is still showing up now as I raise two little ones during a pandemic. Graces from my “Retreat in Everyday Life” continue to unfold. There is no perfect time or place to pray. Don’t wait for the pandemic to end. Don’t wait for life to slow down. Begin a “Retreat in Everyday Life.” God is waiting for you now.
Sarah Otto, M.Div., spiritual director, leads retreats and programs, including the Ignatian Spirituality Project, at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center, Atlanta.