Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

A journey toward Jesus, the friend

By FATHER BILL NOE, SJ | Published September 14, 2021

As many do, I abandoned the practice of Christian faith in my adolescence. I was a precocious, bookish, science-minded child, and because my catechesis was interrupted, faith (as I understood it) quickly became unbelievable, then intolerable. I quietly slipped away.

Father Bill Noe, SJ

When I returned to the practice of faith in 1997—after a 12-year sabbatical—I tried to master it in the best way I knew. I studied. I wanted to know what I needed to know and to do what I needed to do. I wanted to meet God’s requirements—preferably God’s minimum requirements.

About two years later, I met three groups of people who made me think differently about faith.

The first group, Bethlehem House, placed people with an intellectual disability at its center. They couldn’t have cared less about all my great thoughts. They cared about me! They wanted a relationship with me.

The second group, St. Anselm’s Abbey, was a community of Benedictine monks. Benedictines establish strong, welcoming communities where the members dedicate themselves to a balanced life of prayer and work in service of God. For them, too, relationship is fundamental.

The third group were Jesuits! This group was unlike any other I had met. Although they were frighteningly smart and very well-educated, I realized that when they spoke of Jesus, they were speaking about a real person. Someone they knew. Their friend. I was unsettled but attracted. I wanted what these men had: a unique, interpersonal relationship with God.

In time, I decided to seek a real friendship with Jesus by doing what those Jesuits had done. I entered the Society of Jesus—the best decision I’ve ever made. Now, after nearly 18 years of Jesuit life, I recognize the key to finding what I sought: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

The Spiritual Exercises are not a class. They are a dynamic series of prayer experiences which a person receives or, as we sometimes say, “makes.” The one who gives the Exercises listens for that person’s encounter with God and helps them to stay where God is present and active with them, and so the Exercises unfold uniquely for each person.

Father Robert Marsh, a contemporary Jesuit spiritual director, reflects on what the Exercises are all about. Some say that they are about making decisions. Others call them a school of prayer. Father Marsh himself has sometimes described them as a training in discernment.

While none of these perspectives is entirely off the mark, not one is adequate. In the Exercises, he explains, one moves from a more formal relationship with God to a passionate commitment to Jesus, who reveals the Father’s face. It’s a movement from idealism to intimacy through profound, personal contact with Jesus in his true humanity. As Father Marsh concludes, “The Exercises are for falling in love!” For me, this made all the difference. I could no longer be content with the minimum. Who wants to love as little as possible?

People make the Exercises in many ways, and you don’t have to be a Jesuit to make them. Some receive parts of the Exercises in briefer retreats—like a weekend or an eight-night retreat. Others make the full Exercises—either by going away to a retreat house or monastery for about 30 days, or over a period of several months in their daily life. However one makes the Exercises, they offer the same thing: a deep, personal friendship with Jesus, a real person.

If you want a more intimate relationship with God, I encourage you to make the Spiritual Exercises. Please visit to learn more.

Father Bill Noe, SJ, is a retreat director at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center in Atlanta.