THE NATURE OF SPIRITUAL EXERCISES
ACCORDING TO BISHOP SCALABRINI
Scalabrini’s first official act of government as Bishop of Piacenza was to write to his clergy a pastoral letter in Latin, reminding them of the mandatory nature of the spiritual exercises. Scalabrini makes reference to a 1710 directive by Clement XI in which bishops throughout Italy were encouraged to remind their priests of the annual obligation of this "religious practice". He not only reminds his readers of the obligation, but wisely points to the reasons outlined in the papal document which led the Church to impose it: these fruits flow naturally from the practice of the spiritual exercises. Indeed, these reasons/results provide the framework for his 20-page letter. Scalabrini knows that the will moves if it has motives, which are the values intrinsic to the thing to be done. This means that if he had limited himself to imposing the obligation without providing the reasons for it, he would be "failing in his duty" (p. 6).
The reasons/results in the papal document and Scalabrini’s motives are as follows: "The spiritual exercises of their nature are capable of (...) easily removing the grime produced by the world’s pollution which clearly contaminates even religious souls; of restoring the ecclesiastical spirit; of raising the soul’s eyes to contemplation of the things of God; and lastly of instituting or confirming a righteous and holy way of life." Here we shall consider the second, third and fourth of these results as they seem particularly Scalabrinian in spirit.
Clement XI’s encyclical goes no further than the text cited here, and is thus a formula in need of explanation, a half-empty wine-skin which is then filled with Scalabrinian wine.
The second point states that the Spiritual Exercises aim at the "restoration [reparatio] of the ecclesiastical spirit," and the following four reasons are given: (1) because pastoral activity inevitably leads to a decline in spiritual strength; (2) because we all have a tendency to grow less fervent; (3) because we are all tempted by the devil to "exhaust ourselves" in caring for others; (4) and lastly because the dignity of the priestly vocation requires it. To us, however, the most striking feature seems to be the lucid discussion of true and false conceptions of the spiritual exercises, described as a time of grace leading to renewal, and not merely as a pause for reflection and prayer amid the bustle of apostolic life.
In the third point Scalabrini states that the Spiritual Exercises are also an intense experience of prayer, aided by solitude and reflection.
The fruits produced by this kind of prayer are the biblical "spiritual ascensions," a fullness of interior life, which kindles a pastoral approach of high evangelical profile.
The beautiful definition of what prayer should be for a priest - "his work and daily food" - should not escape our attention. In addition (and, maybe, above all!) we should note the ascetical nature of prayer, which will shed light "on the virtues and duties of one’s own state." An apt quotation from St. John Chrysostom is then developed in the following paragraph, which says that if man is to meet God, who is everywhere, he will generally need "certain times and places": even Jesus, the perfect Man, who could have created a desert environment anywhere, chose solitude and the mountain for prayer!
The last paragraph already foreshadows the topic of planning and evaluation.
In the fourth point, which deals with the planning (and evaluation!) of a whole program of life, we can almost detect Scalabrini himself: during his monthly retreats or annual exercises he points to the state of his soul, and with pen in hand he jots down a very detailed resolution (a dynamic requirement of the will enabling it to really will!) to do this or that, even binding himself "sub gravi" (under pain of serious sin) in certain circumstances, but not others. We see in him, in other words, the wise scribe of the Kingdom. See, for example, the section in Francesconi’s biography on the practice of prayer, Chapter VII, pp. 347-352.
The pastoral letter, Scalabrini says, is the fruit of a burning anxiety that seized him from the moment he was first appointed Bishop of Piacenza. It is a verbum bonum (a good word) rising from his heart (p. 4) like the Psalmist’s - and so powerful as to render any opposition useless (p. 24). Exactly like certain inspired words!
Restoration of the Spirit
Coming to the second point in the admired encyclical - restoration of the ecclesiastical spirit - we can all see how important it is for each of us to withdraw from time to time to reflect seriously on the extreme need to mend our ways, and there is no better time to do this than during the spiritual exercises, which can rightly be described with St. Paul as "the acceptable time and the day of salvation" (2 Cor 6:2).
However, we should not falsely think that these holy exercises mean simply spending time away from the bustle of worldly matters and tasks, while, in reality, doing the same everyday things, or simply praying a little more and listening to a few more sermons on the Word of God. Not at all! We should remember that by their nature they bear the fruit that will serve our soul’s needs, which, while numerous for everyone, are even more numerous for the clergy. Their life of constant contact with others, the unavoidable drain of their tasks and the inevitable distractions even in their sacred ministry often show that while they assist others in offering the means to salvation, they weary their own spirit, weakening it almost to the point of neglecting it.
We must consider the general tendency to grow lukewarm on the path of virtue, the fragility of human nature, the countless dangers inherent in the exercise of ecclesiastical ministry, and lastly the temptations and the cunning of the enemy who never slumbers - and who knows every art of causing harm, even convincing us to dedicate and exhaust all our strength in caring for others under the pretext of good, virtue and charity, so that we are so taken up with this activity that we neglect the care of our own soul. Then the need to take a few free days becomes clear. This is not just to withdraw physically from the world and its affairs, but to recover what we have lost, to restore our spiritual forces, and embrace a lifestyle that allows us to say, like St. Paul: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20).
Venerable brothers, let us truly meditate on the sanctity of our priestly order! It is infinitely higher than the Old Testament priesthood, from which God demanded holiness, even though its task consisted simply in offering incense and bread. This will allow us to see clearly which virtues we must clothe and gird ourselves with to devote ourselves effectively to our neighbor’s good, to guide him in observing the law of God, and lastly to be a light before all with a life of good example and the practice of those virtues we want others to practice. In this way we will also ensure our own salvation, which is the most important task of all. What we must fear most for ourselves - what St. Paul also feared for himself - is being disqualified after preaching to others (1 Cor 9:27). Therefore, to accomplish all this and to do it in the best way possible, it is absolutely vital that through the spiritual exercises we restore the spirit of God and Church we have received in our sacred ordination. This goal becomes easier to reach, as Pope Clement’s venerable encyclical states, because, in the course of these exercises the eyes of our soul are raised toward better and easier contemplation of the things of God.
From the "Pastoral Letter on the Spiritual Exercises", Piacenza, 15 August 1876
Exercises and contemplation
Prayer, which is very useful and necessary for all, is especially so for ministers of the Church, who will never be as the Church wants them to be, unless they be men of prayer. Prayer must be their daily exercise and food. Every day must begin with it, with early morning meditation on the virtues and duties of one’s own state, on the Mysteries of our Faith, on the awesome and awe-inspiring truths of eternity, and on the other truths affecting individuals. Naturally, we presume - and would gladly believe - venerable and dear brothers in Christ, that each and everyone of you have always been faithful to this prayerful exercise. However, there remains the ever more valid and very pressing need to withdraw from all of life’s affairs for a while to obtain the peace of mind needed to make a better examination of our progress, or lack of it, on the path of virtue, perfection and salvation. Here we must learn how best to serve God, removed even from the sacred duties of our ministry, and open wholeheartedly to God and to our soul. The saints have left us excellent examples of this. Although their lives were hidden with Christ in God, still once a year, and at times more often, they made their spiritual exercises. Then, with renewed spiritual vigor, and afire with greater love, they would devote themselves with greater resolve to the apostolic task of leading sinners back to the path of salvation, eradicating errors, reestablishing morality, correcting behavior, and promoting virtues. And, as you are well aware, the same thing that happens to the saints also happens to all those who undertake this very salutary exercise as they should, so that they return spiritually renewed to their holy vocation, full of an ineffable joy and interior peace, and enriched with more abundant gifts of grace. Disposed in this way to ascensions of heart, they are filled with merit, advance on the path of salvation, persevere in prayer, and are much more fervent in pious recitation of the breviary and in devout celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass, strangers to any iniquity, sober, modest, and much more faithful guardians of the discipline of the Church; and when they have to correct in the course of administration, or teach or exhort, they do so with humility; they pasture the flock entrusted to them as God wishes, and spread the good perfume of Christ everywhere with their words and example, having voluntarily become models for their flock. In order to teach us about this, Christ the Lord used to withdraw very often from the crowd, the disciples, the very activities of the divine ministry entrusted to him by the Father, in order to reflect and meditate in solitude. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, "And for what purpose did he go up into the mountain alone to pray? Certainly in order to teach us that when we have to pray to God, we particularly need solitude. Therefore he often sought deserted places, spending nights in prayer alone, so that in imitation of him we have to seek both a time and a tranquil space" (On Matthew 19).
Revered brothers, repeating the commandment reiterated so often by Christ the Lord, and highlighting his example as seen above, we urgently exhort you and issue the same invitation that he made to his disciples: "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while" (Mk 6:31). Although the Christ’s apostles and disciples certainly never neglected the duty of prayer, the Lord specifically called them from all their other exhausting occupations, even the tasks of the apostolate, so that in interior peace they could dedicate a little time to God with prayer and contemplation. Although God fills everything with himself and is present everywhere, generous toward all those who call on his name - although, as St. Leo the Great says, "there is no time that is not full of divine gifts, and through God’s grace access is always open to his mercy" (Sermon 4 on Lent) - he likes to establish certain times and places in which he is ready to pour out much more abundant graces on us, and he particularly prefers solitude in order to speak to man’s heart in person.
And who of you, revered brothers, does not feel the need for God to speak to him, truly saying to his heart the word that is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit (cf. Heb 4:12)? If "we are not sufficient of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, for our sufficiency is from God" (2 Cor 3:5), how important it is that God in person should first speak within us, and that we should then listen with inner attentiveness, docility, and deep-rooted obedience to what God says to our heart! Having seen the will of God, we shall thus be able to organize a plan of righteous and holy life in keeping with his law; or if through God’s grace we have already done so, we shall confirm it with greater force, as is also indicated in the wise words of Clement XI’s encyclical that we are using as a guideline here.
Planning and verification
Especially during these days, each of you who truly cares (and how could he not?) about the most serious matter of all, indeed the only really necessary one, i.e. the eternal salvation of his soul, should therefore make sure that he can examine the state of his whole life. Concentrating on the words of the Prophet, "Be watchful therefore, give yourself over to bitterness, turn your heart to the path of righteousness" (Jer 31:21), he should think back bitterly over the past if he finds something there to weep over, arrange the present with wisdom, and lastly provide for the future with dispatch, as St. Bernard says in his explanation of these words (Sermon 2 on the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul). In the brief time of the exercises we must make sure that the concerns of everyday life, worldly duties and matters that are not really necessary should be set down before us and silenced. With hearts free of all superfluous thoughts and distractions, we shall then hear what the Lord God says within us - for he will certainly speak of peace to his servants, to his saints, and to those who examine their hearts. This is the grace that we wish for all of you, most revered and loved brothers, and that we humbly beseech of the Lord, through the intercession of the Immaculate Mother of God.