Laudato Si’ and the Spiritual Exercises revisited

Fr Iain Radvan SJ gives an insight into how the International Ignatian Ecospiritual Conference was developed with the dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises and how the participants experienced ecological conversion.


A few years ago, Dr Peter Saunders wrote an article for the The Way on Laudato si’ and the Spiritual Exercises, explaining how it was possible to integrate the Pope’s message of ecological conversion in Laudato si’ into a giving of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. 

I believe that the presence of God in nature was something that Ignatius took for granted in the Spiritual Exercises. In his time nature was something of which ordinary people were more aware in their daily lives than they are today.1 

Just as the Exercises have been given a broader scope of application in relation to social justice, beyond what St Ignatius probably foresaw, so the Exercises can be an instrument for exercitants to experience a new loving relationship with Earth. 

The question I have in giving the Spiritual Exercises now is: if an exercitant completes the Exercises without an increased awareness of the need to care for the earth and the poor, has the process been effective in today’s world? I do not think so anymore. Ignatian spirituality is about being ‘contemplatives in action’ and ‘finding God in all things’. Caring for our planet is part of a Christian’s journey. (122) 

Saunders outlined how the themes and texts of Laudato si’ could be incorporated into the material over which the exercitant prays in each Week of the Exercises. While the adaptations he suggested would be significant, Saunders envisages a more radical adaptation: by developing a retreat ‘in which [the participants] spend part or all of the retreat walking in the wilderness’ (123). He suggested, in practical terms, that part of a thirty-day live-in retreat could be spent in nature.

Dr Peter Saunders accepting his Companion’s Medal earlier in 2023. Photo: Janark Gray.

This proposal was put to the test with the design and presentation of the International Ignatian Ecospiritual Conference in May of 2022. This was not to be a new version of the Twentieth Annotation; instead, Saunders created a short retreat ‘in nature’ based on the full Exercises. Following on from the earlier success of online retreats for ecological conversion, Peter, Helen Lucas and myself, with the help of others in the organising team, created a five-day conference based on the dynamics of the Spiritual Exercises.

As Saunders recognises,

The Spiritual Exercises are not a theological course; they are a journey into the heart of the person and of God in that person. If we are going to help people to appreciate God’s presence in nature, then we have to invite them to experience it. (125)

This conference was built on the theological understanding that God is to be found in nature; that God is intrinsic to every created thing; that God reveals Godself to humans through nature as well as through the history of God’s chosen people recorded in the scriptures. Towards the end of the Spiritual Exercises, in the Contemplatio, Ignatius invites the one making the Exercises to experience the world in a new way, ‘to look how God dwells in creatures; in the elements, giving them being; in the plants, giving them life; in the animals giving them feeling; in people giving them understanding’ (Exx 235).  As Teilhard de Chardin explains, ‘Christ has a cosmic Body that extends throughout the universe.’2 Earth is the Body of the Cosmic Christ.

In this article I am going to describe how the conference was designed with the dynamic of the Ignatian Exercises and how the participants experienced ecological conversion.

While this event was billed as a conference, what we had in mind from the start was a programme much more like a (preached) retreat. Each day would begin with prayer, then the key speaker would present for about half an hour, then the participants would share their responses to what they had heard (online or live as they were able) in small groups, ‘hubs’, led by a hub facilitator. After this they would be given a spiritual exercise to take with them into a local natural area (a garden, park, beach or bushland). The day would end with spiritual conversation, sharing in their ‘hub’ how they had felt moved while in nature. As the participants met in the same ‘hub’ each time over the five days, they would build up trust and confidence in each other, allowing for deeper sharing.

So how was this retreat-like conference structured in relation to the Spiritual Exercises? Each day’s theme took up one or more aspects of the Exercises. The opening, which occurred in the late afternoon before Day One, functioned as preparation for the whole experience. Various authoritative speakers orientated the participants towards an ecological conversion: Fr Arturo Sosa, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr Quyen Vu, the Provincial of the Australian Province (which sponsored us very generously), and Fr Xavier Jeyaraj, Secretary for Social Justice and Ecology for the Society of Jesus in the world.

Australian Provincial, Fr Quyen Vu SJ gives a presentation during the conference.

This is an opportunity to explore our deep interconnectedness with all creation through mindful encounters with nature, reflection, sacred listening and prayer … this ecological conversion is an invitation to experience Christ present in all Creation. [Arturo Sosa]

As Christians committed to following the Call of the King [Exx 91–98], discerned in the Spiritual Exercises, we are drawn into [Jesus’] mission to hear and respond to the Cry of the Earth. [Quyen Vu]

When we are truly aware, we are privileged to see, listen, touch and feel the sacred presence of God in creation, and if attentive, we can hear the deeper cry of nature for healing and the cry of the poor for justice … this is a sacred moment for us to see creation with the eyes of God who created, sees, and cares for every bit of creation. [Xavier Reyaraj]3

In the presentation of the first full day, the focus on Pope Francis’s Laudato si functioned as an adaptation of the Principle and Foundation: Saunders provided the theological groundwork for the ideal relationship humans should have with Earth.

Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth. (Laudato si’, n.92)

With his personal stories and images, he also aroused wonder and awe for the marvel of creation, and a sense of gratitude for Earth’s care for humans.

Fr Iain Radvan SJ. Photo: David McMahon.

The second day’s talk functioned as a First Week reality check: Dr Leslie Hughes pulled no punches in acknowledging how critical climate change has become and naming human actions as responsible for it. Dr Hughes described it as a ‘climate emergency’. She pointed out the repercussions of climate change on the most vulnerable in our global community.

For human beings … to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in the climate, by stripping Earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands, to contaminate Earth’s waters, its land or its air and its life – these are sins …. To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and against God.

Her talk also served to draw the participants into a Third Week experience, challenging them to feel with Earth in its helpless suffering.  ‘This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.’ (Laudato si’, n.2)

The following three days’ presentations and prayer experiences invited the participants into a school of discipleship with Earth (a Second Week experience). Sherry Balcombe, an Australian First Nations elder, introduced them to indigenous spirituality, and in particular, to the practice of dadirri, deep listening to Earth.

It is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions… For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors there, a sacred space. (Laudato si’, n.146)

Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ was a major theme referenced throughout the conference.

Tony Rinaudo, who spent many years working in Africa for World Vision, told the story of his years of fruitless efforts at regenerating desertificated land until he discovered, in response to desperate prayer, how Earth itself showed him the way. With the local people in Africa he helped develop the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration project which transformed the landscape. 

Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system. Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence. We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, [and] breaking down waste. (Laudato si’, n.140) 

Fr Pedro Walpole SJ, global coordinator of Ecojesuit, a worldwide Ignatian advocacy network, introduced the participants to the Laudato si’ Action Platform, which is a model of action for communities to follow in companionship with other Ignatian and Jesuit groups.4 In his keynote talk Walpole outlined six actions we can be taking as individuals and communities: 

  • Seeking political accountability; 
  • Just transition to clean energy; 
  • Adapting to agroecology and food security systems; 
  • Transparency for climate finance and accountability for loss and damages; 
  • Supporting Indigenous peoples and biodiversity; 
  • Protecting oceans and small island states.

Fr Pedro Walpole SJ presents actions that can be taken to take care of the environment.

We organisers would not have been content with this intellectual content alone, important as it was. This informative input provided a challenging perspective which the participants then took into their contemplation in nature each afternoon. Wherever each participant was, whether alone or in a group, all were invited to spend up to two hours in contemplation in nature. They took with them a specific spiritual exercise we provided that helped them to engage with nature.

In creating an ‘Ignatian’ programme for this conference, the intention was that the participants would have a personal sensory experience of nature (which would at the same time put them in touch with God). We wanted them to experience intimacy with Earth in a concrete way. Ignatius instructs in the Exercises that for contemplation one should see, hear, smell, taste and touch (Exx 106–7, 115, 121–5); in our case this was to occur not through the ‘inner senses’, but the outer ones. In this way we hoped the participants would experience the loving presence of God in and through the beauty of their natural surroundings and discover a new respectful relationship with God’s gift of Earth. The participant would be relating to Earth and to God directly, not through a speaker or text only. ‘It is more appropriate and far better … for the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with his/her Creator.’ (Exx 15). Each day then ended with the participants meeting in their local hubs to share their experience.

By the last day the participants had been thoroughly immersed in nature, they had shared their sorrows, desires and discoveries in their small groups, and they had been inspired to believe that change was possible. On the afternoon of this day, as an exercitant can experience in the Fourth Week, they were feeling hopeful and energized. They met specifically to voice their intentions for action, either in their own behaviour or in joining a body that acted for Earth. They were responding to the unspoken question of Ignatius, what will you do now for the Body of Christ, for Earth who is suffering and wounded? (compare Exx 53)

Besides the content and flow of the conference, another way in which it was Ignatian and retreat-like was how it invited the participants into a listening mode through their interaction in the hubs. These groups were not for discussion—to find solutions, for instance—but offered opportunities for each person to listen to his or her own heart and speak from the heart without concern for judgment from the others. This enabled them to become vulnerable to themselves and to others, sharing their experience in nature and their response to the input. These were listening groups, as spiritual direction can be, which allowed them to hear the wisdom of the Spirit through each other. The hub facilitator had the vital role of guiding the group sharing so that people would feel safe, and not become sidetracked into talking only from the head.

Overall, we organisers felt that the conference succeeded as we had intended it to. The morning prayers set the right disposition, the speakers had been heard in the heart, and the hub groups were indeed spaces for deep listening and processing. The participants reported back in ways that indicated an ecological conversion, a change of heart in their relationship with Earth, a newfound sense of having a place within a community of like-minded people, and an increased determination and passion to care for God’s gift of Earth. 

Of the 170 registered participants, around 40 responded to a survey we sent out after the conference, and their responses were most encouraging: 

The contemplative process was powerful—enabled space for shared reflections to be digested and touch one’s own experiences and longings. 

I wanted to be educated and moved. Each successive day deepened my understanding and clarity of how I can move forward practically. 

The Hub experience is what brought it all together for me. Sharing/hearing opinions, actions and reactions, was both encouraging and affirming. Just brilliant! 

[I now have] an informed mind and a converted heart on ecology, saturated with Ignatian spirituality to be and to do something significant. 

[I have received] renewed enthusiasm and direction for action. A deepening spiritual openness to the gift of God in creation. 

[I intend] to add more actions to my home/personal regime, e.g, using a soap saver; more thoughtfully collecting/reusing water; more rigorously avoiding plastics, etc. I also would like to use some of the conference materials, when they become available, to share with my local parish.

It was a conference that was like a retreat for me. I feel very grateful for the experience. 

I think the most valuable thing I will take away is a sense of hope—we have an environment in crisis but we have a God who has not forsaken us and passionate people here and around the world who are prepared to learn how to live differently, to work towards solutions for change and healing towards others, especially those on the margins most affected by climate change and our damaged earth!

The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius are a remarkable tool for transformation. Through them people have found healing and a renewed sense of identity and purpose in life in greater harmony with God. In this model of the Exercises Peter Saunders has adapted the original dynamic to draw participants into a process of conversion to Earth. Drawn by God’s Spirit, the participants orientated themselves towards Earth in love, Earth that is the Body of Christ. ‘The director should give serious consideration to how he or she will adapt the Exercises in a way that invites the exercitant to contemplate in the context of caring for the earth.’ (128)

The new God in Nature website that was developed to share the resources from IIEC.

A new website was set up after the conference, providing access to the full conference sessions, to the prayer sessions, the keynote speakers, reflections, the spiritual exercises in nature, plus additional resources. The organisers acknowledge the tremendous professional work of Anthony Costa, who was our digital manager. We also acknowledge the elders of the First Peoples of Australia, past, present and emerging, who for some 60,000 years have cared for the sacred land and waters where this conference was hosted.

Iain Radvan SJ was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1994 and spent twenty years as a chaplain and teacher. More recently he has moved into the ministry of spirituality, facilitating retreats and giving spiritual direction and supervision. He gives the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius; his doctorate was on their transformative nature for Jesuits. He is at present working at the Jesuit retreat centre in rural South Australia (Sevenhill) and is the ecclesial assistant to the Christian Life Community in Australia. His hobbies include gardening, bushwalking, and cycling.

This article was originally published in The Way.

1 ‘Laudato Si and the Spiritual Exercises’, The Way, 54/4 (October 2015), 118–128, here 120 (subsequent references in the text).

2 Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, Cosmic Life, in Writings in Time of War, translated by René Hague (London: Collins, 1968), 13–71, here 58.

3 Quoted in part in ‘Australian Province Hosts International Ignatian Ecospiritual Conference’, Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific (12 May 2022)Watch the video 

4 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, address in Santa Barbara, California (8 November 1997), in On Earth as in Heaven: Ecological Vision and Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew,  edited by John Chryssavgis (New York: Fordham U, 2012), 95–100, here 99, quoted in Laudato si’, n.8.

5 View the Action Platform

Feature photo by Arnaud Mesureur on Unsplash.