How to Use this Three-Part Book
Between the years of 1522–1541, Saint Ignatius of Loyola completed what has come to be known as one of the greatest spiritual masterpieces of all time: The Spiritual Exercises. This relatively short book is packed with deep insights and guidelines for one who wants to grow in holiness by encountering God on a 30-day retreat. In a sense, this retreat is the “mother of all retreats” on account of its length, method and depth.
In our day and age, within our fast-paced society, few people are able to go off and enter into silence and solitude for 30 days and to thus benefit from the fruitfulness of the full experience of Saint Ignatius’ retreat format. However, many people today are searching for ways to deepen their relationship with our divine Lord.
The goal of this current three-part book, Probing the Depths, is to present the wisdom and spiritual lessons set forth by Saint Ignatius in The Spiritual Exercises in a format you can incorporate into your daily life throughout the Liturgical Year. A summary of the three parts of this book is as follows:
Part One presents a brief introduction to the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, offers an introduction to his masterpiece The Spiritual Exercises, and gives an overview of ten lessons taught by Saint Ignatius in The Spiritual Exercises. These lessons provide a basis for his unique spiritual approach and will be exceptionally useful in a practical way, especially as it pertains to daily discernment and fulfillment of the will of God. These chapters should be read and re-read so that they become practiced in your daily life.
Part Two of this book contains sixty-nine guided meditations on the topics Saint Ignatius recommends for his 30-day retreat. These meditations were written using the methods of meditation, contemplation and application of the senses that are taught by Saint Ignatius. These meditations are arranged according to the Liturgical Year of the Church, which makes it possible to incorporate them into the daily rhythm of your life. The ideal time of year to begin the Lessons and the Foundational Meditations is October/November as a way of preparing to begin a new Liturgical Year with the subsequent meditations for Advent. A more detailed explanation of this arrangement of the meditations is found in the Introduction to Part Two.
Part Three of this book provides some additional prayer material that can be used throughout the year. Specifically, it provides three forms of examination of conscience, a daily and weekly examen format based on the five points of Saint Ignatius’ Daily General Examen, and some morning, afternoon and evening prayers.
Rationale of this Adapted Approach
In his initial instructions for the retreat, in the 18th and 19th Annotations, Saint Ignatius acknowledges that some people will need to adapt these exercises to their state in life. Thus, for those who live a busy life in the world, the Exercises may need to be extended over many weeks rather than completed within 30 days. Therefore, these meditations have been adapted to meet this need.
It’s important to note, however, that this weekly approach is certainly not a replacement for an actual 30-day retreat given under the direction of a well-trained spiritual director. But for those who feel drawn by God to enter into this extended endeavor, be assured that the spiritual fruit awaiting you is abundant.
If you do not make a weekly holy hour of adoration, the meditations and prayers in this book can also be used on a regular basis during your daily and/or weekly prayer time in any quiet place. However, the meditations are written specifically with a holy hour of adoration in mind.
Recommended Structure for Holy Hours
It is recommended that you first read Chapters One to Five in Part One of this book prior to incorporating the meditations into your weekly holy hour. When you are ready to begin, use the proposed structure below for the weekly holy hour. The following outline is also included in Part Three, along with the various examinations of conscience, for quick and easy reference during your holy hour.
5 minutes—Begin by kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in silence and calming your thoughts. Then meditate on the following preparatory prayer and continue your silence:
My precious and divine Lord, Jesus. I kneel before Your hidden majesty and adore Your sacred presence with my mind and heart. I believe You are here, present in this most Holy Sacrament.
As I begin this hour of prayer, I say “Yes” to all that You wish to do in my soul. Speak to me, console me, consume me, enlighten me. Remove all distractions from my wandering mind and help me to be attentive only to You, my God and my All.
10–15 minutes—Weekly Examen with Examination of Conscience
During the rest of the year, focus especially upon the details of the examination of conscience on faith, hope and charity, returning from time to time to the previous two examinations at your discretion.
5 minutes—Meditation on Suscipe Prayer
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
all I have and possess.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is Yours; do with it what You will.
Give me only Your love and Your grace.
That’s enough for me.
— St. Ignatius of Loyola
25–30 minutes—Reflection on one to three meditations
5 minutes—Further reflection upon that which moved you most in the holy hour; make notes if using a journal
5 minutes—Interior silence, being present to God without thinking, reading or saying prayers
Detailed Explanation of the Structure of the Holy Hour
For those who choose to follow the recommended structure presented above, it is best to carefully study this structure and understand it prior to making your first holy hour using this book. That way you will be able to make prayer your focus rather than use up time figuring out the structure during the holy hour. It’s also important to understand that the most important part of a holy hour is not the slavish following of this or any other structure; rather, it’s the encounter with our living God. Therefore, if you sense a clear and certain inspiration from God to “savor” some meditation, then do so in peace, as long as it is drawing you closer to our divine Lord.
When you are ready to begin incorporating the meditations of this book into your holy hours, use the following more detailed suggested structure for your holy hour:
Preparatory Silence (5 minutes): Kneel before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in silence. Gaze at Him for a while until your mind is calm. Then close your eyes and acknowledge His hidden presence in the Sacred Host by faith. Make an act of faith interiorly, acknowledging His true Presence and professing your wholehearted belief in His Presence. Then remain silent, intentionally acknowledging His divine Presence for one to two minutes. Dispel distractions and wandering thoughts immediately when they come to you as you kneel in silence. After some silence, pray a preparatory prayer acknowledging the divine Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and then return to silence for a short while. A recommended “Preparatory Prayer for the Holy Hour” can be found in the Introduction to Part Two.
Weekly Examen (10–15 minutes): At your discretion, the first 10–15 minutes designated for the “Weekly Examen” will follow the same method as the Daily Examen that is explained in Chapter Seven of Part One. The only difference is that rather than examining only your day, you will examine your past week along with any notes you have made in your daily journal (if you use one). A practical guide for the Weekly Examen is found in Part Three of this book.
One important goal of these spiritual exercises is to grow, change, resolve, and amend—and grow and change and amend some more. One week should build upon another, and progress in the spiritual life should be made. For that reason, it’s important to regularly refer back to the insights and experiences of the previous weeks. The simple and clear goal of this fifteen minutes each week is to ensure that you do not just “go through the motions” without changing. If you do notice that you have failed to change or to incorporate the various words God has spoken, ponder why and make your resolution anew. If you have been able to see changes, then prayerfully express your gratitude to God. To thank and praise God for the good He has done in your life is essential and will help to solidify that change as the weeks move on.
Additionally, during the initial “Foundational Meditations,” you will want to slowly work your way through the examination of conscience on the Seven Capital Sins and the Ten Commandments as a way of doing a thorough inventory of your life and to prepare for a general confession. Throughout the rest of the meditation sections for the Liturgical Year, you should primarily focus on the “Examination of Conscience: Faith, Hope and Charity.” This will help you to continually and methodically go deeper into the imperfections with which you struggle. However, if at any time you find yourself struggling with more serious sin, just return to the first two examinations for help and insight.
Meditation on Suscipe Prayer (5 minutes): Prepare for the meditations you will use in each holy hour by praying what is referred to as the “Suscipe Prayer.” The word “suscipe” is Latin for “receive.” It is the prayer written by Saint Ignatius for use in his meditation on the Contemplation of Divine Love but is ideally prayed regularly as a guide for all of your prayers. Upon the completion of this prayer, seek to allow your mind and your will to engage its meaning and make it your own prayer as fully as you can.
One–three Meditations (25–30 minutes): After spending sufficient time with your designated prayer of surrender, begin the meditations. Remember that the one and only goal of these meditations is to draw you into an encounter with Christ so that He can speak to you, lead you and guide you into His perfect will. Therefore, be very attentive to any stirrings of the Holy Spirit within you as you read the meditations, stopping and savoring anything that strikes you for as long as it seems to bear good fruit for your prayerful encounter with our divine Lord. Try not to use more than three meditations in one holy hour. At times, you may only need to use one if the meditation is producing good spiritual fruit in your prayer.
Further Reflection (5 minutes): Upon the completion of the meditation(s), spend about five minutes reviewing anything that affected you the most in this holy hour. This could be either from the Weekly Examen, the meditations or something else God communicated to you. Savor that insight a bit more and briefly write down any insights you have so that you can return to them during the week.
Interior Silence (5 minutes): It’s always useful to conclude your holy hour with a brief period of interior silence. Silence can be difficult, but it is often in silence that God speaks most clearly. If you find silence difficult, try to use a repetitive prayer, such as the Rosary or Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
Daily Prayers and Exercises During the Week
To help keep the fruit of each holy hour alive throughout the week, it is very beneficial to continue to ponder the inspirations you received during the previous week’s holy hour. Therefore, the second essential method of engaging The Spiritual Exercises over an extended period of time is to establish a daily habit of prayer that is connected to and flows from the weekly holy hour. Below are four recommendations for the week that follows each holy hour:
- By the end of each holy hour, especially during the “Further Reflections” period, hopefully you have written down some of the spiritual inspirations, insights, realizations, etc., that came to you. Reflect upon these insights for a few minutes every day each week so as to recall the ways God spoke to you in that holy hour. Any notes you take will also be used for your “Weekly Examen” period of your holy hours throughout the year.
- Each day, pray the morning, afternoon and evening prayers. It is also ideal to pray the Rosary and/or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy if you are able. Establishing a habit of daily prayer will be a tremendous blessing if you can form and continue the habit for the rest of your life.
- In some way, examine your conscience during the week. The three examinations of conscience will help with this.
Central to Ignatius’ own conversion and to the wisdom of The Spiritual Exercises are regular acts of penance and mortification. In Lent each year, you are asked to “give something up.” Additionally, you should abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent. The spiritual fruit of fasting, abstaining and other forms of mortification are very beneficial to the spiritual life. Therefore, some form of weekly and daily mortification should be chosen. A weekly mortification could be, for example, choosing to fast and abstain from meat every Friday, not just during Lent. A daily mortification could be any form of self-denial, such as giving up television or a favorite food, taking a cold vs. a hot shower, drinking cold coffee, etc. Anything that is done as a small and personal sacrifice each day of the week will have a direct benefit on the spiritual life far more than you may realize.