The Ignatian Spirituality Project combines Jesuit formational exercises with real-world 12-step strategies

By Patrick Mott
Editor, Orange County Catholic     6/7/2015

When people become homeless, their immediate needs focus down to the stark essentials.

They need food. They need shelter. They need clothing. They need basic sanitation.

Providing those absolute necessities can help people to begin the difficult climb out of poverty and homelessness, but it’s far from a complete solution. Because homelessness carries with it not just physical suffering, but spiritual suffering as well.

How to heal the wounds that go all the way to the soul?

That’s the aim of the Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP), a program that offers spiritual retreats for people in the Orange County area who are homeless or who are recovering from homelessness. It is, says Orange County ISP coordinator Michele Volz, an opportunity to begin an inner healing process and to let people who are routinely isolated by society know that they are not alone.

“There are so many shelters here in Orange County that take care of the physical needs of our brothers and sisters who are homeless,” says Volz, “but they’re overwhelmed, and people don’t have time to deal with the spiritual aspect that we get to do. At the retreats they know that they are loved by God and they’re happy to be in a surrounding where they are loved and cared for as they are.”

The Ignatian Spirituality Project was developed in Chicago in 1998 by Ed Shurna, the director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and Father Bill Creed, S.J., a Jesuit spiritual director. According to the project’s website, “those original companions developed a retreat that drew upon the 500-year-old tradition of Ignatian Spirituality in the contemporary language of recovery. The retreat was designed for persons who were both homeless and in recovery to find meaning and purpose as they reclaimed their lives.”

The retreats were designed for both women and men. In Orange County, two women’s retreats so far have been offered.
For many participants who have never been on a retreat before, a few cases of nerves can appear, but, says Volz, “we start off pretty slowly and actually share pretty deeply about things that are important—our fears and our hopes. Everybody’s on the same level on these retreats.”

The weekend retreats are made up of a variety of experiences and exercises that are based on the real-world spirituality of the Exercises of Saint Ignatius—a cornerstone of Jesuit formation that is adapted, in this case, to the 12-step approach made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous.

t’s not an instant transformation. but it’s a good reminder that God has always been with you and it’s something that gets developed over time.
Michele Volz, Orange county ISP coordinator

“Fear and trust exercises,” some lectio divina, discussions in groups of various sizes, memory healing exercises and solitary time for contemplation and writing in a journal all are part of the weekend, says Volz.

Deseree Seja, who attended ISP’s first retreat last November and acted as a facilitator at the most recent retreat in February, was homeless for two years—at one period living in a cemetery—and was an active alcoholic. She calls her retreat experience “a great honor because during my walk of sobriety I learned to get closer to our Father in Heaven and learn more about the Holy Spirit. It helped me to know what the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were, but in a sense of seeing how I could get more in touch and in a closer relationship with God.”

She says the hard work of the retreat involves “opening wounds and letting them heal again so I could become a stronger woman and allow God to, I guess you could say, prune me, like when a rose bush needs to be pruned down to its core.”
The spirituality framed by the Exercises of Saint Ignatius, she says, was “very much appealing to me.”

Volz emphasizes that the retreats are not meant to be a quick fix, but a substantial and positive step on the road to self-esteem and recovery.

“It’s not an instant transformation,” she says, “but it’s a good reminder that God has always been with you and it’s something that gets developed over time.”

For more information, go to the project’s website at IgnatianSpiritualityProject.org.