The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola

By Mark Argent

ExercisesThe Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius are one of the cornerstones of contemporary Christian spirituality. They were put together by Ignatius of Loyola in the early sixteenth century. They draw on his own spiritual journey and the resources he found helpful in guiding others. Significant new departures include extensive use of the imagination in prayer and his own exceptional spiritual and psychological awareness.

By the time they’d reached their final form, it’s clear that Ignatius expected the Exercises to be undertaken by someone in a silent, individually-guided retreat, typically lasting around a month. Flexibility is key to the process, hence Ignatius suggests that, where it’s not possible to go away for a month, the Exercises be incorporated into daily life...

perhaps by praying for an hour each day and meeting a spiritual director once a week, for example.

Despite their flexibility in terms of application, it took only a few generations for the Exercises to be standardised into a more formal group experience comprising of five talks a day over 30 days. When the Second Vatican Council encouraged religious orders to look further to their roots, the Jesuits re-visited Ignatius’ own instructions and began to revive the Exercises as an individually-guided experience. This was pioneered in the early 1970s at St Beuno’s in the UK and Guelph in Canada. The result was dramatic. Ignatius’ insights connect well with modern psychoanalytic understandings and the Exercises step neatly across five centuries to reach a wide range of people today.

The actual text is primarily a blueprint for the person directing the retreat and gently opens up the space for deep experience. Their concise and open nature leaves plenty of space for people to carry out the Exercises from a range of theological and spiritual perspectives. As an example, I can remember someone who was wanting to do the Exercises, but was nervous to do so because he didn’t believe in the virgin birth. I showed him the text, and he was relieved to discover that there was nothing that required him to believe in that. On the other hand, I’ve also known people do the Spiritual Exercises who wouldn’t think to question the virgin birth at any stage in the process and assume the text supports them.

The Exercises help a person to know the forgiveness of God before taking them through a deep encounter with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They can be used to help someone make a major decision, but they can also be a powerful tool for someone simply wanting to deepen their spiritual life.

Today there are three common ways to carry out the Exercises. One is a 30-day, individually-guided retreat, usually with some days of preparation beforehand and reflection afterwards. Carrying out the Exercises in daily life is also a well-established practice, usually referred to as the ‘19th annotation’ because the idea is floated in the 19th annotation (note) to the Exercises! Some places offer the Exercises in chunks, usually three 10-day retreats, and there are also ways of exploring them online. It’s not usually worth getting into a discussion of which way is ‘best’ as it’s usually wisest to work out which route is practical and goes with what one actually desires.

Imaginative contemplation is one of the most widely-used prayer techniques to come out of the Exercises and the tools of the Exercises underpin much of what happens in shorter other individually-guided retreats. Even where these are not labelled as Ignatian, they often owe a great debt to Ignatius.

How far the Exercises are Roman Catholic is an open question. Some would assume that they are intrinsically so, and intrinsically Jesuit at that. However, Ignatius (1491–1556) was a close contemporary of Martin Luther (1483–1546). The crucial experience for Ignatius on the way to formulating the Exercises was in 1521, just four years after Martin Luther had posted his 95 theses for discussion in Wittenburg. Some powerful personal and political forces pulled Ignatius to be loyal to Rome, as those going the other way pulled Luther’s Germany away, but the Inquisition were right to be suspicious of Ignatius. The appeal to personal and direct experience of God in the Exercises sounds very much like appeals by the key figures of the Reformation, and where Luther ignited the Reformation by questioning the over-use of indulgences, Ignatius makes no mention of purgatory, completely ignoring the idea on which the sale of indulgences is based. It is as if they are part of the same reforming spirit.

Subsequent generations mobilised the Jesuits as defenders of Catholicism, which partly explains the big shift in the way the exercises were offered over the next century, but the return to Ignatius’ actual model since the 1970s has had a huge impact on spiritual direction generally. That creates huge scope for people in the Reformed world to ask what the Exercises have to offer them rather than assume they must head in a Roman Catholic direction to benefit from them. The Exercises are not a ‘qualification’, so the invitation is to carry out the Exercises in whatever way turns out to be available or useful. If the desire is to draw closer to God, then that will be the most likely outcome.

Penguin publish a volume of the Personal Writings of Ignatius of Loyola which brings together the text of the Exercises along with various letters of his and other documents which put the text of the Exercises in context. Starting with these and asking ‘What does this offer?’ is perhaps a better place for some to start than some of the re-workings of the Exercises which give them a contemporary Roman Catholic accent.