The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

A Brief History:

St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) experienced a life journey that had nothing to do with geographical distance. Even though his travels covered many miles as he made his way across Europe throughout his life, the discovery of God’s love was the journey that mattered, it’s the journey we all desire; making our way from our heads into our hearts.

Born into a wealthy family of 13 children, Ignatius’ young life was shaped by his passion for the knighthood of the time as he was fiercely drawn to discovering unknown worlds in search of opportunities to attain wealth of any kind. Ignatius’ egotistical risk-free way of living often had him engaging in brawls, duels, gambling, excessive partying, and romancing women.

As seen with other powerful stories of conversion, Ignatius’ transformation began following his time serving as a soldier in the northern town of Pamplona. While defending Pamplona from a French attack on the citadel, Ignatius was struck by a cannonball that broke both of his legs. The severity of this injury challenged Ignatius’ vanity as his legs left him with a deformity that tempted to end his knightly life, an identity he was seemingly quite secure with.

Long months of rehabilitation did not agree with Ignatius’ restless heart. Eventually, he took to reading and found himself immersed in books on the life of Christ and a collection of stories about the saints. In the midst of this extensive reading, Ignatius felt an unusual sense of joy as he began to imagine giving his life to serve God and others, like the saints he read about.

As Ignatius grew more deeply into his transformation, he went on to study in Spain, and was ordained a priest in 1537. The powerful sacred vision Ignatius experienced at La Storta (on the way to Rome), sealed it all for him. From that point on, Ignatius dedicated his life to serving God. Two of Ignatius’ most significant contributions were establishing the priestly order we know as the Society of Jesus, and developing the Spiritual Exercises, both of which have flourished for centuries.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius:

George Aschenbrenner, SJ describes the experience of the exercises: “The Exercises is surely not a simple cookbook, but it does include a recipe for an experience of God’s love that never leaves a human life unchanged. It facilitates an interpersonal encounter in love that centers a person in God and generous service” (Aschenbrenner, Stretched for Greater Glory).

Additionally, Kevin O’Brien claims that “Ignatius gave the church the Spiritual Exercises as a testament to God’s gentle, persistent laboring in his life. Over his lifetime, Ignatius became convinced that the Exercises could help other people draw closer to God and discern God’s call in their lives, such as they had helped him. (O’Brien, The Ignatian Adventure).

The Experience:

Engaging the Spiritual Exercises aims to serve two purposes, help a person draw closer to God by deepening the relationship and to discern God’s call in one’s life, answering the on-going questions:

Who am I?
Who ought I to be?
How do I get there?

The experience of the Spiritual Exercises centers on two methods of praying, meditation and contemplation. Meditation engages the intellect and praying with scripture, poetry, art, and music using words and images. Contemplation involves feeling, not necessarily thinking. Contemplation opens imagination in such a way that stirs deep, hidden emotions (inner movements) where one encounters God and God’s love in profound ways.

The Spiritual Exercises require sincere, dedicated commitment as they require thirty to forty-five minutes of daily intentional prayer. Several ways to make the exercises are: 
Twentieth Annotation: 30 consecutive days at a retreat center, totally separated from one’s regular life. Retreatant meets with a director daily and is guided through specific prayer experiences.

Nineteenth Annotation: 32 – 34 weekly meetings with a director allowing the individual to continue daily life. Often called a Retreat in Daily Life, the nineteenth annotation, involves a retreatant meeting with a director once a week. Specific prayer experiences are designed for each day between meetings.

Eighteenth Annotation: People who are unable to make the commitment for the twentieth and nineteenth experience can pray through parts of the exercises dependent on the retreatants’ needs and/or desires. Additionally, the eighteen annotation is often used for those who have already completed the full experience of the Exercises, and desire a return to them.

The Movement of the Exercises:

Preparation Days: As with physical exercises, preparation for spiritual exercises is the same. This period of time gives the potential retreatant time to prepare for what’s to come. Desire is extremely important. Retreatants must want to, deepen relationship with God, experience love, discover their true-selves, and completely understand that this journey involves commitment.

First Week or Phase One: Retreatant’s prayer is dedicated to recognizing human weaknesses, faults and limitations. Retreatants begin to fully accept God’s unconditional love in spite of these human realities.

Second Week or Phase Two: Retreatants respond to God’s unconditional love learning to live gratefully and generously. This phase involves praying through the gospels learning the ways Jesus lived and appreciating Jesus’ values so that one can love him more dearly and follow him more closely.

Third Week or Phase Three: Retreatant prays with the passion and death of Jesus Christ in order to experience unity with his suffering and thus, our own suffering as well as the suffering of others.

Fourth Week or Phase Four: Retreatant experiences the absolute grace by walking with the Risen Lord in the joy of the resurrected life. This concluding phase means to carry the retreatant forward so that they can seek and find God in all things.