A Rough Entry into the Spiritual Exercises

By Hsin-hsin Huang, Ph.D.

Hsin-hsin Huang, Ph.D.

Dr. Hsin-hsin Huang is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology. She has been a practicing psychotherapist since 1999. Hsin-hsin made the Spiritual Exercises in 1997 and has served as a board member, committee member, speaker, prayer companion, and Magis program group facilitator for the Bridges Foundation. She is currently the Chair of the Magis Program Planning Subcommittee.

I came to Bridges in 1997, searching for a spiritual formational program to help me integrate spirituality and psychology. I was in a spiritual desert, thirsty for something to quench my dried-out soul. During that year, three people told me about the Spiritual Exercises. After the 3rd time, I said, “OK, God. I heard you!” and signed up to do the Spiritual Exercises retreat through Bridges. I am eternally grateful Dr. Mary Mondello, a psychologist, was my prayer companion. She companioned me through a tough year, always with warmth, patience, and acceptance.

Now, it was a rough year because there was much “exorcizing” – cleaning house and getting rid of baggage. As soon as Ms. Mondello introduced the Principle and Foundation, I had reactions. Yes, I BELIEVED in a God of Love, but could not FEEL God’s love.  Growing up as the daughter of an authoritative Presbyterian minister, I only knew God as one who would judge, demand, expect, and punish. So my reaction to Psalm 139 verse 7, “I can never get away from your presence”, was fear. Terror more like it – feeling that I was constantly “watched” and evaluated by God, with nowhere to hide. Instead of feeling “wonderfully made” (verse 14), I felt worn out from trying so hard to be a “good” Christian.

I felt persecuted during the First Week on Sin. Hadn’t I already felt enough guilt? I often thought that the letter G (short for “guilty”) was branded on my forehead because I felt guilty about everything, at fault for everything that went wrong in mine or anybody else’s life. I saw God’s big index finger pointing out all my flaws and there was nowhere to hide from my shame.

It took much sorting, sometimes through anger, to find my way to the God of Love. Mary was with me every step of the way, gently and lovingly present throughout the process. I felt the acceptance to bring everything I was, wounds and all, to the Exercises, to God, and to her, and experienced the graces of transformation gradually. I came to understand that sin is not about fear and shame. Nor about judging and blaming. Fear and shame come from a critical image of God and of self.  Perfect love casts out fear. When I can be rooted in my experience of God’s love, I can look at my sin with a longing to surrender, to become more what God had intended and created me to be. When Michelangelo was asked about his process of sculpting his masterpiece David, he replied, “I just chip away the parts that do not look like David.”  Instead of wanting to hide from God because of shame and fear of God’s condemnation, I could feel drawn towards God’s gentle invitation to let God shape and form me in God’s Loving image, to let God chip away whatever is not in God’s vision of who I shall become.

Like many Bridges retreatants, I came to love the Spiritual Exercises and the people who continue to stay with and serve through Bridges programs. It has been over 20 years since I first joined the Bridges community. I continue to marinate in the richness of the Spiritual Exercises. To me, the Spiritual Exercises is a way of living, praying, relating to God, knowing Jesus, and living in radical honesty. I found the freedom to love and serve God through the Exercises. I know many of you did as well. 

I look forward to hearing your stories!