With the following text by Fr. Wojciech Nowak SJ, we begin a series of articles in which we will present current testimonies of Ignatian retreat participants. In this regard, we encourage you to send short personal reflections to the following e-mail address: [email protected]

Searching for God beyond the Arctic Circle

Recently I received the following email: “My name is James (name changed), I have just moved here to Tromsø and could say that I have been a little bit lost in life. Which led me to find out about the retreat. I have been raised a Catholic, but have not been keeping up with my religion much since moving out of my parents’ house. But nowadays I am really searching for a deeper meaning in life, or if anything, for myself. Which is why I would really like to experience this Silence retreat. I was wondering if there is any Silence retreat planned for the next couple of months and if you could give me any additional information on it?”

The author of the e-mail refers to what took place in October 2022 in Northern Norway beyond the Arctic Circle. It was my fourth retreat season in Tromsø. This time I led 4 retreats: The “Foundation” of Spir. Ex. (5 days, 12 participants) and The First Week Spir. Ex. (6 days, 2 participants), the Jesus Prayer Retreat (5 days, 6 participants) and the individually guided retreat (6 days, 1 participant).

The retreat took place as before in Carmel in Tromsø – the northernmost Catholic contemplative monastery in the world.

As regards the place: Northern Norway is specific – a harsh climate and raw, beautiful, majestic nature (mountains and sea). Some are in love with „such climates”, and others, including Norwegians, are surprised how you can like them (well, maybe, except for Lofoten) and how you can live there (yes, you can go there once to see the polar lights). Northern Norway is also „specific” because there also come here people who, after various life’s turmoil, want to start their second part of life just here. Therefore, some people still approach the Ignatian retreats organized in Tromsø with distrust and rather sceptically – because „what can be good from the North?”

And yet … people came not only from different parts of Norway, but also from abroad: from Sweden, Great Britain and Hungary. It should be added: they flew especially for the retreat – from the airport to Carmel and from Carmel to the airport. The Catholic Church in Norway and in Scandinavia in general is a multinational community and so were the participants of these retreats: Norwegians, an Eritrean, two Hungarians, an Italian, three Portuguese, a Rwandan, a Nigerian, a Slovak, a Lithuanian and two Polish. The Norwegians participating in the retreat are Catholic converts. One of them became a member of the Catholic Church two years ago. Socially and professionally, the participants included two psychiatrists, from Oslo and Stockholm („in case of emergency”, I would be in good hands), a manager, a pharmacist, nurses, a bus driver, a carpenter, a reindeer herder (an indigenous Sami), social workers, teachers and employees of church institutions (including Caritas). At the end of the retreat, one of the participants, a Norwegian woman, said: „My trust and my love for the Catholic Church has grown.” Another one confessed: „I have found that I am in the right Church” (not that I have anything against ecumenism – W.N.).

The phenomenon of these retreats is a combination of 3 factors: (1) the place itself – Carmel is located in a panoramic place on the island of Tromsøya with a view of the mountains and the sea (fjord), a place described as mystical (by some: „magic”), (2) hospitality and ambiance created by the Carmelite Sisters (including delicious meals) supporting retreatants with their prayers and (3) the phenomenon of St. Ignatius and his path to knowledge and union with God – in this case, combined with the „road to Mount Carmel”.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is a path that opens perspectives in the development of a relationship with God and leads further.

More and more people are finding this road in Northern Norway. The question inevitably arises as to who will accompany these people on this path, because one man – even a Jesuit – will not suffice.

Wojciech Nowak SJ