Tromsø is a city in northern Norway, located 350 km above the Arctic Circle, with a population of approx. 70 thousand residents, called „the Arctic Gateway”.
On September 8, 1990, at the invitation of the then Bishop Gerhard Goebel, a group of 9 Carmelite Sisters came to Tromsø as the Carmel Hafnarfjördur Foundation in Iceland.
In addition to the newly built monastery, consecrated in 1998, there is also a guest house, eagerly visited by friends of the sisters and all those who are attracted by the contemplative silence and the atmosphere of this unique place located on the island of Tromsøya, surrounded by mountains.
The Carmel in Tromsø has quickly become a point of reference for many people, not only from the Catholic Church, in their existential and spiritual quest. People come to the Carmel with all kinds of questions and problems to discuss them with the Sisters.
Most of the Sisters (now 14) of the Carmel community in Tromsø have experienced the Spiritual Exercises. It was a silent desire of the Sisters to organise the Spiritual Exercises in their place. A Norwegian woman I met in 2018, who is actively involved in the life of the local Church, ventured to come to Kalisz for a retreat, to the Center of Spiritual Formation, for which I am responsible. The experience of this retreat, and the testimony of it, was so strong that the idea arose to organize a similar retreat also in Tromsø. The first one that I conducted here took place in October 2019. It was not yet an Ignatian retreat, but a Jesus Prayer retreat. It was necessary to overcome a certain distrust towards the Spiritual Exercises associated with the Jesuits and the ideas about them. The fruit of the retreat in 2019 are weekly meetings of the group praying the Jesus Prayer in the cathedral church. One year after the first retreat I conducted in Tromsø time came for the 6-day Spiritual Exercises in October 2020. There were more persons willing to participate in them than places. A waiting list was created. One of the persons was so determined that he was ready to spend nights in his car in the parking lot, and this is the time of temperatures below zero. Ultimately, 10 persons took part in the retreat: 3 Norwegians, 2 Finns, 3 Poles living permanently in Norway, 1 Mexican and 1 Japanese woman. This group included 3 PhD holders working at university (including an oceanographer), a midwife, an intensive care nurse and a Norwegian language teacher. 3 people flew in from the south of Norway – from Bergen and Stavanger. Three of the participants were members of the Lutheran Church, including the pastor’s wife. The retreat that I conducted was a kind of synthesis of the Spiritual Exercises based on the „First Principle and Foundation” (SE 23). I focused on how we can come into contact with God and how we can experience Him. The topics included the „language” in which God speaks to us, the manner He reveals Himself to us and communicates with us, and the manner in which we can respond to Him with our lives.
I also wanted to lead the retreatants to the meeting with Jesus Christ as a living, concerned and active person with whom we can have a very personal intimate relationship.
At the same time, the retreatants learned about the tools offered by the Ignatian spirituality to cultivate a living relationship with God and „find Him in all things.”
The discovery of God and meeting with Him was facilitated by the atmosphere of silence of the Carmel and the care of the Sisters (delicious food) and the beauty of the surrounding nature, especially in October, when it can reveal all its hitherto hidden colours. One evening, when after 9:00 p.m. we leaving the chapel after the Adoration was over, the northern lights were flickering in the sky.
The retreat was in English and I celebrated the Holy Masses in Norwegian. It was wonderful to experience the unity of faith between us, but it was a pain for me that I couldn’t experience Eucharistic communion with everyone, which wasn’t easy for me to explain entirely.
What was also revealed in conversations with other persons, potential participants of the retreat, was that English was a language barrier for some of them. They asked why this retreat was not in Norwegian. It seemed to me that everyone in Scandinavia speaks English – it may hold true for the Scandinavians, but not all in the Scandinavian Church, which is multinational.
The retreat, as the participants shared at the end, exceeded their expectations. When one of the Protestants heard that God is both father and mother, she said that she didn’t expect a Catholic priest to „say something like that.” This allowed her to experience the feminine and the maternal dimension in a relationship with God.
The retreat turned out to be for everyone, if not „ascent to Mount Carmel”, then certainly the beginning of this path – „the way” also in the Ignatian sense, because, as you know, the Exercises have several stages and I hope they will be continued in that place.
Wojciech Nowak SJ