The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, (written during 1522-1524), are a four-part series of meditations and prayers designed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Exercises are designed for Christians to prayerfully reflect upon their lives as followers of Jesus Christ. The ultimate purpose of the Spiritual Exercises is for the individual to free oneself from earthly, temporal, and material attachments so that one might more clearly know how the Will of God is calling them to live. The idea is that praying in this way will lead to a deeper relationship between an individual and God, which will manifest itself through that individual living a more Christian life. St. Ignatius notes in his writings that just as walking and running are exercises for the body, so this series of prayers and meditations are exercises for the soul. The Exercises can be practiced by lay people and members of religious communities, and they serve as the foundation of prayer for St. Ignatius' order of Catholic priests and brothers, the Society of Jesus.
Methodology and Structure of the Exercises
Ideally these Exercises were designed to take place in the setting of a 30 day secluded retreat, during which those undergoing the exercises would be focused on nothing other than the Exercises, a cornerstone of Ignatian Spirituality. At the same time, in his introductory notes, Ignatius provides a model for completing the Exercises over a longer period without the need of seclusion. The practice of the Spiritual Exercises were never meant only for professional religious; lay individuals are also invited to partake in the Exercises. The Exercises were designed to be carried out with the guidance of a spiritual director, and there are notes at the beginning of the Exercises explaining how a spiritual director can best guide the exercitant. The director of the Exercises is always meant to be someone who has previously completed the Exercises and who is able to be attentive to exercitants in the way that St. Ignatius outlines in the annotations accompanying the Exercises. The spiritual director may be a Jesuit (a member of the Society of Jesus), another ordained or consecrated person, or a lay person with extensive training and study of being a spiritual director. Ignatius of Loyola conducted the Exercises for 15 years before he was ordained, and years before the Society of Jesus was even invented. After the Society was formed, they became a required component of the Jesuit novitiate training program, and usually take place during the first year of a two year novitiate. Ignatius considered the examen, or spiritual self-review, to be the most important part of the Exercises. In contemporary experience, more and more lay people and non-Catholics are becoming both exercitants (those who partake in the Exercises) and directors of the Exercises.
The Spiritual Exercises are divided into a series of four stages, which can be structured to be completed in four weeks, completing roughly one stage during each week. Daily instructions include various meditations and contemplations on the nature of the world, of human psychology as Ignatius understood it, and of man's relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Each week has accompanying prayers, visualizations, and reflections. The Exercises are divided into "four weeks" of varying lengths with four major themes: sin, the life of Jesus, the Passion of Jesus and the Resurrection of Jesus. During each day of the Exercises, a typical exercitant prays with a particular exercise, as assigned by the director, reviews each prayer, and, following four or five periods of prayer, converses with the spiritual director of the retreat who helps the exercitant to understand what these experiences of prayer might mean. The goal of the Exercises is a deeper intimacy in one's relationship with God, so that one may live their life more closely aligned with God's Will for them.
The primary goal of the first week of the Exercises is to identify, and rid oneself from what Ignatius calls “disordered affections”, or, anything that hinders an individual from doing God’s will. The intent is to purify the soul so that God may more directly speak to each human heart. St. Ignatius calls an individual to contemplate the greatness of the love of God for each human being. In understanding the greatness of that love, the hope is that one will realize how they have not been fully open to that love and will feel sorrowful for that. In that sorrow, one is consoled by the mercy and love of God, it is at this point that the Exercises challenge the exercitant to ask God for the grace to be free from disordered attachments so that one might whole heartedly respond to God’s Will.
The focus of the second week is a contemplation on the life of Christ. In reading the scripture passages relating to the mysteries of the life of Christ, Ignatius invites the exercitant to place themselves within the scripture passage and move beyond observing the action to actually participating in the scripture. This will allow the exercitant to respond uniquely and to come alive within the scripture. Ignatius' hope is that in this form of prayer, an entire event of Jesus' life will come alive to the exercitant, and in this way the exercitant will be more able to choose to follow Christ.
The third week of the Spiritual Exercises calls the exercitant to suffer alongside of Jesus. It is the intent that before the beginning of this week, the exercitant will desire to be by the side of the suffering Jesus, just as one would want to be by the side of a suffering friend. Ignatius asks the exercitant to pray for sorrow and shame because Jesus is suffering as a result of the sins of humans. The focus in this week is to ponder the intensity of Jesus' love for humanity, a love so intense that he suffered and died for the sins of humanity.
The fourth week is the briefest of the series, and it is an invitation to share in the immense joy that Christ has through His resurrection. The hope is that the exercitant is willing to die in "individual and communal sinfulness" in hopes of rising to a new life with Christ. The "contemplation to attain love" is the culmination of the Exercises, and at this point, the exercitant should have a realization of the joyful love that God has for humanity and the exercitant should be inspired by that love to glorify God and to love others.
Spiritual viewpoint of the Exercises
In Ignatius` Spiritual Exercises, God and the Devil are presented as active players in the world and in the human psyche. The main aim of the Exercises is the development within the human psyche of "discernment," the ability to distinguish good and evil spirits. Discernment is achieved in order to act "with the Grace of God". In other words, with discernment, one can determine right and wrong, and one can also determine the better of two goods. This is the context within which, during the exercises one thinks about humility, selflessness for the sake of the religious life, reflection upon natural sin. There is an acknowledgment that the human soul is continually drawn in two directions, represented by the meditation on the Two Standards--of Satan and of Jesus-- in the Second Week. Accordingly, the Exercises provide several illustrations of how one might best be able to refrain from satiating one's lower desires and instead how one might find a means to redirect one's energies towards the fulfillment of one's higher purpose in life.
Modern applications of the Exercises
To this day, the Spiritual Exercises remain an integral part of the Novitiate training period of the Roman Catholic religious order of Jesuits. Also, many local Jesuit outreach programs throughout the world offer retreats for the general public in which the Exercises are employed.
Beginning in the 1980s, Protestants have had a growing interest in the Spiritual Exercises. There are recent (2006) adaptations that are specific to Protestants that emphasize the exercises as a school of contemplative prayer.
Besides the 30 day form of the Exercises, many undertake them as "Exercises in everyday life" or "in daily life" (the other name is "19th annotation exercises"). In this model, the exercitant undertakes the process of the Ignatian Exercises throughout a longer (several month up to a year and a half) period of time, time spent daily with reflection and prayer. This form has its advantages with respect to the enclosed form: it does not require extended stay in a retreat house and the learned methods of discernment can be tried out on the experiences life brings with it.
The Spiritual Exercises in both of its main forms are popular also among lay people all over the world, and lay organizations like Christian Life Communities place the Exercises at the center of their spirituality. The Exercises usually are undertaken with the help of a trained spiritual guide and can be done individually or in a group that meets regularly to discuss the exercitants' experiences. Because of lack of trained guides also the self-guided form of the Exercises is spreading, and even online versions are offered like that one of the Creighton University: Online Retreat or several other ones. See for example "Step by Step Online Retreat". A special form of the Spiritual Exercises done in group form is if the retreat is undertaken by a married couple with or without the help of an external guide "Finding Our way Together. Spiritual Exercises for Companions" (This work integrates into the process of the Exercises principles and techniques of Logotherapy and other psychotherapeutic methods, utilizes also a form of Christian enneagram alongside with the classic methods of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, as discernment of the spirits, general and particular examen, examination of the consciousness, meditations and contemplations of scenes from the Bible.)
- George E. Ganss, S.J. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius: A Translation and Commentary. Chicago: Loyola Press, 1992. ISBN 0-829-40728-6.
- Anthony Mottola, Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. Image (1964), ISBN 0-385-02436-3.
- Joseoh A. Munitz, ed., and Philip Endean, ed., Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings. London: Penguin Books, 1996.
- The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius http://www.nwjesuits.org/JesuitSpirituality/SpiritualExercises.html
- Michael Harter, S.J., Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits. Loyola Press, 2005. ISBN-10 0829421203, ISBN-13 978-0829421200.
- The Spiritual Exercises Online
- The Spiritual Exercises at CCEL
- Catholic Encyclopedia article
- Suggestions for Prayer in the Ignatian Tradition
- The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius
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