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The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, (composed from 1522-1524) are a set of religious practices involving Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises, divided into four thematic 'weeks' of variable length, designed to be carried out over a period of 28 to 30 days.[1] They were composed with the intention of helping the retreatant to discern Jesus in his life, leading him or her to a personal commitment to follow him. Though the underlying spiritual outlook is Catholic, the exercises can also be undertaken by non-Catholics. The 'Spiritual Exercises' booklet was formally approved in 1548 by Paul III.[2]

In psychology the exercises have been seen as therapeutic given their 'transformative nature' [3]. There have been a number of studies that evaluating the psychological impact of using the exercises. [4],[5],[6]

Typical methodology and structure[edit | edit source]

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius form the cornerstone of Ignatian Spirituality [7]- a way of understanding and living the human relationship with God in the world exemplified in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Although originally designed to take place in the setting of a secluded retreat, during which those undergoing the exercises would be focused on nothing other than the Exercises, in his introductory notes, Ignatius provides a model for completing the Exercises over a longer period without the need of seclusion. The Exercises were designed to be carried out while under the direction of a spiritual director. The Spiritual Exercises were never meant only for the vowed religious. Ignatius of Loyola gave the Exercises for 15 years before he was ordained, and years before the Society of Jesus was even founded. After the Society was formed, the Exercises became the central component of the Jesuit novitiate training program, and they 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 way to continue to live out the experience of the Exercises after their completion. When lay people have undergone the Exercises, this is often under the guidance of a spiritual director who is a member of the religious order of Jesuits. In contemporary experience, more and more lay people and non-Catholics are becoming both retreatants and directors of the Exercises.

Within the Exercises, 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. The Exercises is 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 retreatant prays with a particular exercise, as assigned by the director, reviews each prayer, and, following four or five periods of prayer, reports back to the spiritual director of the retreat who helps them to understand what these experiences of prayer might mean to the retreatant. The goal of the Exercises is to reflect upon their experiences and to understand how these same experiences might apply to the retreatant's life.

Spiritual viewpoint[edit | edit source]

In Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, God and Satan 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" (discretio), the ability to discern between good and evil spirits. Discernment is achieved in order to act "with the Grace of God". In other words, to act on the spiritual discernment one has had on what is right. 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: both drawn towards Godliness, and at the same time tempted towards baseness. 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. It also needs to be understood that at the heart of Ignatian thought "discernment", while on the one hand being an act of mysticism, can also be understood as a method of subjective ethical thought. The Exercises emphasize the role of one's own "discernment" in deciding what is the path to glorify God (the right path). "Discernment" attempts to make a direct connection between the individual exercitant's thought and action and the Grace of God. Discernment is thereby an action which potentially emphasizes the mystical experience of the believer. This aspect of the Spiritual Exercises is very much typical of the mystical trend in Catholic thought and practice which both preceded the reformation and lived on within elements of counter-reformation Catholicism (cf. Theresa of Avila; François de Sales; Pierre de Bérulle).

Modern applications[edit | edit source]

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 which emphasize the exercises as a school of contemplative prayer.

The Exercises are still, today, undertaken in their original form over the full 30 days. Participants in the full Exercises usually spend their days in silence, doing up to 5 hours prayer a day. In the original form each retreatant has a guide to help lead him or her through the meditations of the Exercises. The Exercises done in this full-time way offer what is probably the most intensive spiritual experience. Most commonly such a retreat is undertaken at a specialist retreat centre. Such Centres are found wherever there are large groups of Catholics, such as Europe [8] and the USA.[9]

Besides the 30 day enclosed form of the Exercises, many undertake it in its "Exercises in everyday or in daily life" form (another name for this method is "19th annotation exercises" based on a remark of St. Ignatius in the 19th footnote in his book). The 'everyday' method brings the exercitant through the process of the Ignatian Exercises throughout a longer period of time (from several months up to a year and a half), with time spent daily in reflection and prayer. This form has its advantages with respect to the enclosed form: it does not require an 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 in the Catholic Church all over the world, and lay organizations like the Christian life community place the Exercises at the center of their spirituality. The Exercises usually are undertaken with the help of a trained spiritual guide, like that of the Loyola House Retreat and Training Centre, 40-Day Spiritual Exercises and can also be done individually or in a group that meets regularly to discuss how the process is going and various issues. Because of a lack of trained guides, the self-guided form of the Exercises is also spreading, and even online versions are offered like that of the Creighton University: Online Retreat and several others. See for example Spiritual Retreats for Married Couples and especially the "Step by Step - Online Retreat in Everyday Life" and "Spiritual Exercises for Married Couples: Finding Our Way Together with St. Ignatius - Manual for the Retreat"[10] The latter work presents a special case of the Spiritual Exercises done in group form, so that the retreat is undertaken by a married couple together with or without the help of an external guide (in the latter case husband and wife act as guides for each other).

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 2000 Years of Prayer by Michael Counsell 2004 ISBN 1-85311-623-8 page 203
  2. In the brief Pastoralis officii of the 31 July 1548
  3. Shackle, E (2013). The contributions of Jung and Loyola to the Western tradition of active imagination:Reflections on an experimental study of visualizers and the Spritual Exercises. Transpersonal Psychology Review,Vol 1`5, N02,p15-25
  4. Imoda, F (1991). Ejercicios Esprirituales y cambio de la personalidad/Significo de un limite. In C alemany & J A Garcia-Monge (eds)Psychologica y Ejerios Ignacianos (p271-286) Bilbao & Santander:Colleccion 'Manresa' Mensajero Sal Terrae.
  5. Rulla, L.M., Imoda, F & Ridick (1977) Struttura psycologia e vocazione. Torino:Maruetti
  6. Sacks, H.L. (1979). The effect of spiritual exercises on the integration of the self-system. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 18,46-50.
  8. [1]
  9. [2]
  10. [3]

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • David L. Fleming, S.J. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, A Literal Translation and A Contemporary Reading. The Institute of Jesuit Sources, St. Louis, 1978. ISBN 0-912422-31-9
  • Timothy M. Gallagher, The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Life. Crossroad (2005).
  • George E. Ganss, S.J. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius: A Translation and Commentary. Chicago: Loyola Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8294-0728-6.
  • Joseph A. Tetlow, The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. Crossroad (2009).

External links[edit | edit source]

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