St Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises

You’re busy. I know. And you want to grow in your faith. But who has time to pray? Perhaps when you do pray, you feel distracted. Then the thought occurs to you, “What am I supposed to pray about?” Have I got a pathway for you! It’s called ‘Ignatian Spirituality,’ and is rooted in the life and writings of St Ignatius. Go to “my book” for more info. Here’s a taste. Enjoy!

Ignatius: soldier, pilgrim, priest, mystic

Ignatius: soldier, pilgrim, priest, mystic

Who is St Ignatius Loyola?

Ignatius Loyola, born in 1491, was the youngest child of a large, wealthy family in Loyola, Spain. The following year, in 1492, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and discovered the American continents. Twenty-five years later, Martin Luther posted his “Ninety-five Theses” on the doors of a German cathedral, inaugurating the Protestant Reformation. This was an era of profound change and turbulence in the Church and throughout the world.

At age twenty-nine, Ignatius was serving in the Spanish army and fought in a battle against the French in the town of Pamplona, Spain. Swords clanged and shots fired. A cannonball struck Ignatius in the knee, shattering his leg, and he collapsed to the ground in agony. He was carried on a stretcher back to his family’s castle, and everyone presumed that he would die. Incredibly, he began a slow recovery. As he lay on his bed, he underwent a powerful spiritual conversion. He read two books: one about the lives of the saints and a book of reflections on the gospels. He reflected on his own life and saw a prideful, self-centered young man who loved honor and personal glory. Slowly, he was drawn to the idea of devoting his life to the service of Christ and the Church. He regained his health, though he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. Ignatius left Spain and wandered across Europe, seeking out religious shrines and holy people—asking for their prayers and advice.

He visited the Holy Land and spent time studying at the University of Paris. In Paris, he gathered with other like-minded students for prayer and conversation. Together they preached, served the poor, and led simple retreats. Ignatius was ordained a priest, and in 1540 he founded the Society of Jesus. His roommate in Paris was inspired to join Ignatius in his work. That roommate was Francis Xavier, and he was among the first men to take vows as a Jesuit. (Xavier later traveled to Asia as a heroic Christian missionary, preaching the Gospel in India and Japan. He was canonized in 1622 for his faith and labor.)

Under Ignatius’ leadership, the Jesuit order spread rapidly throughout Europe and around the world—establishing schools, missions, churches, and retreat centers. Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a masterpiece of Christian spirituality. He used this book to direct people in retreats. His goal was always to help them know, love and follow Christ more fully.

Today over 16,000 Jesuit priests, brothers and seminarians continue to serve Christ, the Church, and the world in high schools, colleges, parishes, and other ministries in more than 100 countries. The year 2013 marked another historic moment for the Society of Jesus. The Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., was elected as head of the Catholic Church, taking the name Pope Francis. He is the first Jesuit ever to hold this office. [intro, Abide]

early symbol of the Jesuits, c. 1550

What are the Spiritual Exercises?

The Spiritual Exercises are a set of instructions to guide your retreat. A retreat is a time away with God. In the gospels, we see Jesus himself going to the desert for forty days of prayer (Mt 4:1–11). He also invited his disciples to take time for retreat when he said, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mk 6:31). Throughout the centuries, Christians have taken time for retreat in a variety of ways and locations: going to churches, monasteries, shrines, deserts, or retreat houses. Some retreats occur over a weekend, or over a week. Some people go on retreat in daily life, making special time for prayer amid their commitments to family, work, or school. That’s what we’ll be doing: making a ten-day retreat in daily life

St Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises over the course of several years. He began jotting notes, in Latin and Spanish, during his own conversion experience. At first, this notebook was just a set of insights and reflections that he based on his prayer, reading, experience, and conversation. He gradually edited, clarified, and organized these notes into a coherent spiritual program. He also began sharing his Exercises with others, guiding them through short, informal retreats to help them center their own lives in Christ. Later he trained his Jesuit brothers in this unique spiritual pathway, so that they, too, could lead other people through retreats. Writers sometimes speak of “Ignatian spirituality” when referring to all of the spiritual writings of St. Ignatius and his Jesuit followers.

Ignatius did little that was brand new; rather, he drew upon other saints and spiritual writers, taking the best of the Christian tradition and organizing it in a compelling way. His Exercises help us to grow in our spiritual lives by guiding us through reflections on Bible passages, Christian virtues, and related religious topics. In some sections of the Exercises, Ignatius plunges us into the mystery of sin and evil. In other parts, he helps us to contemplate the love and power of Christ by engaging our emotions and imaginations. A retreat with the Spiritual Exercises is an intensely personal experience, whereby we deepen our relationship with Christ [intro, Abide].

IHS: Latin abbreviation for ‘Jesus, Savior of Mankind’ [Iesu, Hominum Salvator]

IHS: Latin abbreviation for ‘Jesus, Savior of Mankind’ [Iesu, Hominum Salvator]

The College Church at SLU, a Jesuit parish.

The College Church at SLU, a Jesuit parish.

What is the Examen prayer?

What if you could grow closer to God by using a special prayer that takes just ten minutes each day? St. Ignatius shows us a way to do exactly that. It’s something that he did himself. In fact, he told the early Jesuits that no matter what—no matter how busy they get with preaching and teaching—they should never omit this prayer. It’s called the “Examination of Conscience,” or simply, the Examen. One Jesuit author even renamed it the “Consciousness Examen.” Whatever you want to call it, this prayer is a way of looking back on your day and thanking God for the blessings that he has given you. When you hear the phrase “Examination of Conscience” you may associate this with preparation for Confession. Yes, it can be used for that purpose. St. Ignatius outlines a practice called the Particular Examen in the Spiritual Exercises specifically for those getting ready for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However, in this exercise, we’ll be praying the General Examen; St. Ignatius recommends this as a daily practice to help us become more fully aware of God’s action and our own response.

Recall the gospel passage where Jesus sends the disciples out for ministry; then, “The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while’” (Mk 6:30–31).

The disciples, including all of us, need to talk with Jesus about the events in our daily lives. Jesus can help us to understand our experiences, and how the Holy Spirit was at work in us in each one. With Christ, we can also humbly acknowledge our own weaknesses and shortcomings. Each day, the Examen helps us to talk informally with Christ about our day. At the most basic level, the Examen is this: Jesus looks at each of us with love and asks, “How was your day?” Christ calls us into communion, and sharing our lives with him each day helps us to experience this communion. My life is better when I do this regularly. Instead of rushing from one event to the next, I stop a few times during the day to consider what has happened so far. I take a deep breath, reflect, and thank God for a few blessings in my day.

The Examen is based on a few basic truths: God is good and he loves you (recall how we explored this in the first exercise). God listens to you and helps you. With his grace and a bit of effort, you can notice God’s action and then thank him (awareness! Recall the second exercise). God is active in your life every day at every moment (recall your Top 10 from the third exercise). This daily practice will help you to deepen your relationship with him.

The Examen is a simple form of prayer directed toward developing a spiritual sensitivity to the special ways God approaches you, invites you, and calls you each day. This prayer helps you to keep your heart centered on Christ throughout the day, and it can be done in the evening or midday. It takes five to fifteen minutes, and the more frequently you do it the more natural it becomes, offering a daily way of consciousness, a way of growing in your relationship with God [from Exercise 5 in Abide].

Montserrat, Spain. St Ignatius had a series of powerful visions and insights from Christ as he prayed here at an ancient shrine to Mary, the mother of Jesus.  In Spanish, Montserrat literally means, “Saw Mountain,” due to the jagged, ‘saw tooth’ peaks. It remains a popular sight for pilgrims, seekers and hikers.

Montserrat, Spain. St Ignatius had a series of powerful visions and insights from Christ as he prayed here at an ancient shrine to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In Spanish, Montserrat literally means, “Saw Mountain,” due to the jagged, ‘saw tooth’ peaks. It remains a popular sight for pilgrims, seekers and hikers.