The three methods of prayer covered in this chapter present you with a practical approach taught by Saint Ignatius that you can use each day.
The first method of prayer teaches you how to use three primary questions and apply them to the teachings on sin, the powers of your soul and your bodily senses. The three questions to consider are:
- What is God’s will in regard to…?
- How am I doing with this?
- How can I improve?
Ignatius begins by pointing to the Seven Capital Sins and the Ten Commandments. Though you have already become very familiar with these examinations of conscience, try to commit yourself to their ongoing use according to this Ignatian method. Interestingly, Saint Ignatius simply presumes that you regularly violate these Capital Sins/Commandments—hopefully not in a serious way, but at least by your imperfection. Thus, the goal is not ongoing guilt; rather, it is ongoing “maintenance,” so to speak. So if you can simply accept that you will regularly need to turn to each Capital Sin and each Commandment, then you will have plenty of material for contemplation on a daily basis. Perhaps commit yourself to a method that slowly moves through each Commandment over the period of a month. By considering one item each day in your daily examen, you will avoid falling too deeply into one or another sin.
By way of example, consider the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, you shall not have strange gods before Me.” At the end of the day, ask yourself, “What does God want of me in this Commandment? How does He want each of us to keep Him as the God of all Gods?” Then look at your own self and ask, “How am I doing with this? Am I keeping God as the only God of my life? What other Gods do I have?” Finally, conclude by considering, “How can I improve tomorrow with this? What practically can I do?” This simple method, if faithfully adopted into your daily life of prayer, will help keep you on the straight path.
These three questions should also be regularly asked regarding the three powers of your soul:
Take one each day, or even just one a week, and ask yourself how God wants each of these faculties to be used for His glory, how well you are doing that, and how you can improve.
Lastly, consider the same three questions in regard to the five senses. How is my sight, sound, smell, hearing and touching giving the greatest glory to God, how am I doing, and how can I improve tomorrow?
Prior to considering any one of these, say a prayer for insight into this area, make the meditation, and then conclude with a prayer for grace, such as an “Our Father” or “Hail Mary.”
The Second Method
The second method of prayer is exceedingly simple but, for many, will initially require much practice. First, Ignatius invites you to sit or kneel, whichever is more conducive to prayer. Secondly, he mentions that this can (and in fact “should”) be used for a whole hour. Third, he instructs that this prayer should begin like all other prayers by pausing and recollecting yourself in spirit so that you are properly disposed to begin. In other words, don’t just begin praying; rather, prepare for prayer, pray for your prayer and wait until you are in a state of prayer.
The focus of prayer could be the “Our Father,” the “Hail Mary,” the “Apostles’ Creed,” or any other well-formed prayer that is conducive for meditation. By “conducive,” the prayer should clearly be divinely inspired and well tested.
As mentioned, once you are ready, the approach is simple. Begin the prayer and go very slowly. Perhaps pray it once or twice slowly first. But then take one word at a time. For example, if you use the “Our Father” prayer, you can start with the word “Our.” Pray that word and stop. Ponder it. Consider it from all sides. Enter the depth of its meaning.
By “our,” you can see your unity with others. You see the Fatherhood of God for all. You are faced with the personal nature of God in that He is not just “the” Father, but “our” Father. He is “my” Father, etc.
Spend as much time on each word as possible, as long as the meditation is bearing fruit and feeding you. If one word suffices for the whole hour, then remain with that one word. At first this may be difficult for you. But as you enter into this method, you will find the great fruitfulness of this method, the depth of mystery in each prayer, and it will make every future praying of that prayer all the more transforming.
The Third Method
This third and final method is similar to the second method in that the object of your prayer is the “Our Father,” “Hail Mary,” the “Creed” or some other similar prayer. But this time, the goal is to unite the body and spirit by praying with the rhythm of your breathing. The key, however, to this Christian form of mental prayer is to keep your focus on the content of the prayer. You do not meditate as one would in other world religions. Instead, you meditate with a focus on the prayer. But in this method, the prayer is united to your body in that it is done in the rhythm of your breathing. So as you breathe in and out you say “Our.” In the next breath, you say “Father.” And the next “Who.” And you continue with the “Our Father” or whichever prayer you have chosen.
Though this method may not be for everyone, it is nonetheless a method taught by one of the greatest saints in the history of our Church. So try it and anticipate the fruitfulness of this method.
This concludes the overview of the methods and prayers of Saint Ignatius of Loyola as taught in his spiritual masterpiece The Spiritual Exercises. There is much packed into this book, so do not treat the meditations and lessons as a one-time read. If you have found these lessons and meditations fruitful for your spiritual life and your relationship with God, then keep pondering these teachings and prayers. Perhaps seek out another book on Saint Ignatius or return to the parts of this book that most helped you.
Some find that the methods of Saint Ignatius are difficult and complex. While that may be true, it does not mean it is not fruitful. The goal is to consider the fruitfulness of your time spent in this book and to use these lessons accordingly.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, pray for us!