Inaugural Witness Retreat by Gillian Ahlgren | Ignatian Spirituality Project

Inaugural Witness Retreat by Gillian Ahlgren

Mar 26 13

Freedom.  Dignity.  And the capacity to “want and choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me and in the world around me.”   These core values permeate Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, which are designed to make us aware of our potential as human beings and to empower us in the relationship with the divine that energizes our growth toward our deepest selves.  Tapping into our thirst for freedom, dignity, and greater agency in our own lives, as we gain greater confidence in our relationship with God, provides the spark as well as the fuel for the recovery process.  Empowering witnesses to own and share their stories and to deepen and continue their growth in recovery and wholeness was the major goal of ISP’s first Witness Retreat.  Gathering at the Transfiguration Spirituality Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, were eighteen people–staff and witnesses representing Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Dayton, and Akron.

Witness talks have always played a major role in the ISP retreat structure.  They are embedded in the heart of the first day, around the core question “Who am I?”  When the retreat witness shares her or his story to the group, s/he speaks of the struggles of being human, and the reality of human brokenness and human hope becomes very personal.  And very real.  The power of the witness of an ISP retreat is that s/he actively models both the honesty that genuine growth requires and the possibility of a new way.  The honesty, courage, and vulnerability of the witness in sharing her or his story opens up new terrain for all of us on retreat.  The small group conversations following the witness talk give each of us an opportunity to embrace this more honest way, to begin to admit where we have gone wrong, and to open ourselves to new possibilities.

Veterans Wayne Richard and Amanda Brown-Longe modeled for all of us the power both of speaking the truth of one’s lived experience and the importance of listening deeply to the community in order to know what and how to share that truth in helpful ways.  Participants were then invited to engage a deeper look at the resources of the Ignatian tradition for understanding the tensions each of us faces as we turn either toward or away from the deeper honesty and authenticity we are called to embody in our lives.  New retreat exercises were developed to allow for reflection and small group sharing around the principle and habit of “turning away from God” and “turning toward God.”

Before and after each exercise we returned to a table in which we shared with one another what we were learning, about ourselves and God, as we did the exercises.  Around that table, we had a greater sense both of who we are and of the spirit of God moving in our very midst.  “I realized, by listening to others’ stories, that I’m not so very different.  And that, even though we are all quite different from one another, there is so much that we have in common, especially in our desire for wholeness,” one person shared.  Over and over this common purpose and calling toward a “new way” of deeper truth, sensitivity, and integrated action was reinforced for us around that table.  One retreatant summed up the experience when she wrote, “This is my food to go back and share with my community and hopefully ignite the attitude of servant and leader.”

A second Witness Retreat is scheduled for May 4-6, 2013 at the Bellarmine Retreat Center in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.

Gillian T. W. Ahlgren is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.  She is currently at work on a book developing Ignatian spiritual resources for recovery.  She can be contacted at

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