Facing East, Praying West
Facing East, Praying West: Poetic Reflections on the Spiritual Exercises
by Kent Ira Groff
Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2010
Reviewed by Jacqueline Leksen
During this year of my own immersion in an Ignatian program of Spiritual Exercises, it was a particular delight to open Facing East, Praying West: Poetic Reflections on the Spiritual Exercises by pastor and poet Kent Ira Groff. With contemplative poetry, he gives us his honest and questioning responses to themes and scriptures in each of the four weeks of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Groff has created a work of deep wisdom for all who attend to their own spiritual journeying or companion others on that journey. In this shining resource Groff expresses his hope that these poetic reflections will provide a fertile milieu for “the seeds of [the reader’s] own faith, hope, and love to break open” (xv).
Groff tells of being a burned-out pastor when at midlife he meets a Jesuit priest who becomes his spiritual director and introduces him to the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius in a life-changing series of events resulting in a journey to India. There he makes a thirty-day retreat in the midst of heart-rending poverty and loud city noise, with poetry cascading through his mind and waking him from sleep.
We, the readers, are fortunate recipients of this cavalcade of poetry articulating Groff’s experience of the Exercises, which he likens to poetry in that both employ “intuitive, imaginative, and intellectual dimensions of our response to God’s grace” (xv). He enters fully into the culture surrounding him in Calcutta throughout the four weeks of the Exercises, while seeking “to find God in all things.”
Mirroring the passion for social justice of the ancient Hebrew prophets and Jesus, Groff addresses individual care for the soul as well as for the earth and all its people: “Egypt does not / close its borders / when the holy family / declares refugee status. / Once back in Nazareth / home folks still insist / on permanent alien cards” (29). In “Week One: Creation,” the love that birthed the planets shines through in Groff’s poetry: “God creates us out of love for love / and desires our eternal wellbeing” (3). In “Week Two: Incarnation,” Groff depicts the essentials of the Ignatian discernment process and of the examen succinctly and with clarity, penning these words that convey the very heart of spiritual direction: “How can I listen for that still, / small voice to find / my own voice? / Ah, Be still and know … / God is still … / speaking. / God is still / speaking” (50–51). “Week Three: Crucifixion” reflects both lament and hope: “Weary soul, know this well: merely / your desire to pray is already prayer” (61). In “Week Four: Resurrection,” Groff expresses his hopes for the coming together of all humankind in love, ending with “Postmodern Retreat”: “noticing, / remembering, / integrating / rhythms of foiled grace / in the risings / and the fallings” (84).
“Lord, / keep me doing the One thing / while I do the many things” (xvii), Groff writes in words that will resonate with all spiritual directors and everyone they companion.
Jacqueline Leksen completed a master's degree in transforming spirituality with an emphasis in spiritual direction at Seattle University, Washington, USA. She offers spiritual direction in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.