You may have heard people talk about the “Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius” and you wonder what they mean. The following basic points about the Spiritual Exercises may be helpful for you.
Why is it called Spiritual Exercises? We may understand exercises to simply mean activities, methods or ways. They are spiritual because these are activities or ways we can do to make “contact with God.” Examples of these are ways of praying such as meditation, contemplation, vocal prayer, devotions, examination of conscience, etc. We may also understand exercise in the sense of being a work-out or training to keep fit. Just like physical exercises which are good for tuning up muscles, improving circulation and flexibility, spiritual exercises are good for strengthening “spiritual muscles,” increasing one’s openness to the Holy Spirit, becoming more aware of God’s presence, and growing more familiar with God’s ways. What’s important to remember is that these spiritual exercises are meant to be done, not just read or thought about.
Is the Spiritual Exercises a retreat? Retreat may be understood in many ways. We hear of corporations who bring their employees to a luxury resort for a company retreat (as a time to rest and recreate). In the spiritual sense, we understand retreat as a time to withdraw from one’s normal activities and devote one’s self to prayer and solitude. It is also a time to rest, but to do so in God’s presence. It may also be a time to reflect on one’s life, on one’s relationship with God and on the meaning of one’s significant experiences. It may be structured, meaning there is a definite set of prayer and spiritual activities within the time of retreat. Or it may simply be silence and reflection. The Spiritual Exercises is more specifically a program for a retreat. It is made up of prayer activities and methods with a particular structure and flow. The sequence of prayer activities has a purpose, which is to bring a person in contact with God. It is not the only type of spiritual retreat. There are also other forms aside from the Spiritual Exercises with different formats. However, an “Ignatian” retreat makes use of the principles and prayer methods of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.
Did Saint Ignatius write the Spiritual Exercises? After Ignatius experienced his spiritual conversion, he began to help others who were struggling with their faith. His main resources were his own religious experiences and the ways by which God was “instructing” him. The Spiritual Exercises began as a set of brief notes which Ignatius kept to remember methods and reflections that he found helpful in guiding others. Ignatius also supplemented these with ideas from books he read during his convalescence at Loyola and his pilgrimages to Montserrat and Manresa (such as Vita Jesu Christi, Flos Sanctorum on the lives of the saints, and the Imitation of Christ) The basic structure of the Exercises is said to have been formed already when Ignatius spent time in Manresa (1523). Later, he agreed to write down the Exercises in full in order for others to use it to guide people in prayer. The Spiritual Exercises were officially approved by Pope Paul III in 1548.
Can I do the Spiritual Exercises on my own or do I have to go to a Jesuit?
Most definitely, you cannot just grab a copy of the Spiritual Exercises and read it from cover to cover. You won’t be able to make heads or tails of it! It is meant to be a manual or a guide for one who is giving or guiding someone else who is doing the retreat. Without a doubt, Ignatius meant it to be a guide for an individually directed retreat, with a person seeing a retreat giver who guides him/her through the Exercises. However, there was a time when Jesuits started to give Ignatian retreats to large groups, usually called “preached” retreats. Nowadays, the practice of doing the retreat individually is becoming more common. In principle, all Jesuits are capable of guiding someone through the Spiritual Exercises. There are also many other priests, nuns and lay people who are in the ministry of giving the Exercises. Institutions such as the Center for Ignatian Spirituality have programs for people who are interested to experience the Spiritual Exercises.
Why would a person want to go through the Spiritual Exercises? Are there any prerequisites? The main purpose of the Spiritual Exercises is two-fold: “to dispose the soul to remove all disordered tendencies, and to seek and find the Divine Will regarding the management of one’s life and the salvation of one’s soul.” This sounds intense and more than a little intimidating? This is why even Saint Ignatius carefully chose the persons whom he allowed to do the full Exercises (which means thirty days of silence and prayer). Nowadays, adaptations of the Exercises are possible, and one can go through certain parts of it with a retreat guide. One can even do the Spiritual Exercises in daily life, and not have to go to a retreat house. The important thing is that you have these basic qualities: a) a genuine desire to seek and encounter God; b) a certain level of generosity of heart and a willingness to be led by the Spirit; c) a capacity to stay in silence; d) some ability to pray and to articulate what happens in prayer and e) a good degree of self-awareness and openness. Two common reasons to do the Exercises are to discern or confirm one’s vocation and to get to know God in a more intimate way.
If I do the Spiritual Exercises, will I become a better person? Becoming a better person after doing the Exercises is not guaranteed. However, if you do the Exercises well, which means that you are generous with your time and attention to God, you are open to your retreat guide, and you give yourself fully in prayer, there’s a big chance that you will encounter a man called Jesus Christ. And this encounter will change you – you will find yourself growing more attracted to this man, to his ways, to his dreams, and to his mission in the world. And if you allow him more and more space in your life, you will never be the same again.
These are just some quick points about the Spiritual Exercises. If you want to learn more, you may read A Way to the Desert by Father Ramon L. Bautista SJ.1 Or you may approach a Jesuit and ask him yourself. Who knows? He may even agree to guide you through the Spiritual Exercises.
1 Bautista, Ramon Ma. L. (2001). A Way to the Desert: 101 Questions and Answers on Retreat, Prayer and Discernment the Ignatian Way. Makati: Saint Paul.