The Spiritual Exercises written by Saint Ignatius are not so much a book as they are a guide for a structured 30-day retreat. The ideal way to accomplish this is for the individual to enter into silence and solitude for 30 days under the direction of a well-trained spiritual director who is able to lead the individual through the structure set forth by Saint Ignatius. This structure provides directions for what the retreatant should do each day, more or less. The instructions are primarily written for the spiritual director to use to guide the retreatant.
The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius are a tried and tested structure used to enable a soul to meet and love the Living God. The one and only goal is union with God and the fulfillment of His perfect will. Saint Ignatius also explains that to accomplish this goal, one needs to eliminate every disordered attachment to the things of this world. In other words, a person may often become inordinately influenced by things other than the will of God. Thus, The Spiritual Exercises are intended to help you to look at all that influences you, to keep those things that point you to the will of God, and to rid yourself of those things that cause disorder.
But life can be confusing at times. You may easily be misled by the erroneous wisdom of the age, by the evil one, and by your own weakness and sin. Ignatius’ rigorous exercises, therefore, are meant to provide you with a solid structure by which you cut through that confusion and discern clearly the path that will lead you to holiness of life and ultimate happiness.
Saint Ignatius’ Structure for The Spiritual Exercises
Though the goal of this book (Probing the Depths) is not to present The Spiritual Exercises in their intended 30-day format, it may still be helpful to understand the basic structure of Saint Ignatius’ exercises. This will help you to better understand the lessons and meditations offered in this book.
The Spiritual Exercises are best experienced by the person who is able to enter into a period of about 30 days of complete silence and solitude. This is ideally done at a retreat center or place of solitude where no distractions are present. Television, the Internet, daily communication, etc., are eliminated for this period of time so that the sole focus is the person of Christ. Furthermore, the retreatant will embrace practices of self-denial, such as fasting and other daily penances.
The daily routine will consist of 4–5 hours of prayer spread throughout the day. The set times will be determined ahead of time with the help of a spiritual director and will be kept diligently as a spiritual discipline. Some days this may include rising at midnight for one of the hours of prayer. These hours of prayer will primarily focus upon the designated meditations set forth by Ignatius.
The meditations are broken up into four periods or “weeks,” as Ignatius calls them, albeit not consisting of the typical 7-day week. Here is a brief outline of the structure:
Week One: The first “week” is approximately 4–5 days and consists of a thorough examination of one’s sins, sin in general, death, hell and the mercy of God. This week is concluded by making a general confession of the sins of one’s entire life (a “general confession”).
Week Two: The second week begins with a focus upon Christ as the ideal King to Whom one can confidently surrender control of one’s life. The bulk of the reflections for this week consists of meditations on the Incarnation and birth of Christ. Additionally, there are three other meditations interspersed: The Two Standards, The Three Classes of Men and The Three Ways of Humility. This week concludes with an “Election,” which is a process of making a major life decision after proper discernment of the Will of God. Week Two lasts about twelve days.
Week Three: The third week focuses on the events of Holy Week and is about five days.
Week Four: The fourth week focuses on the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ and lasts about nine days.
Additionally, reflection on various ways of praying and methods of discernment are central lessons dispersed throughout the specific weeks. Week One uses what Ignatius calls “meditation” as the basis of prayer. Weeks Two–Four use his methods of “contemplation” and the “application of the senses” for prayer.
During the retreat, the retreatant will ideally meet with a spiritual director each day. This time will be spent sharing the various movements of the Spirit within one’s soul. The director is to help discern what God is saying by considering one’s general disposition, feelings, affections, consolations, stirrings, thoughts, moods, etc. The goal is to use the principles set forth by Ignatius regarding the “Discernment of Spirits” so as to determine whether the various movements in one’s soul come from God or from the evil one. These meetings are not so much counselling or confession; rather, they are meetings to discern the action of God in one’s daily prayer and daily activities so as to make the resolutions God wants of the retreatant. In other words, in order to know and choose the will of God for one’s life, a person must first discern the will of God. The spiritual director is to assist in this process.
Other exercises throughout each day will consist of a particular examination in the morning, at noon and in the evening to consider how one is doing with the exercises so as to help keep one faithful to the methods and fruitfulness of the exercises. Additionally, the retreatant will spend time in spiritual reading on matters of faith, Church teaching and the lives of the saints.
Principle and Foundation
Saint Ignatius explains the purpose and goal of The Spiritual Exercises this way:
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.
And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.
From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.
The above text is placed at the beginning of the first week of The Spiritual Exercises and sets forth the basis and most foundational principle of their use. This “Principle and Foundation” should be read and re-read and should be seen as the “lens” through which all the meditations, prayer and exercises are practiced. For Saint Ignatius, this is also the “lens” through which we see life itself. We see four clear principles laid forth:
- Glory of God: Ignatius declares that we are made for God. Period. We are made to praise Him, glorify Him and reverence Him. This is due to God simply because of Who He is. He is God.
- Salvation: If the glory and praise of God is our goal in life, the “side effect” is our eternal salvation. Oftentimes we presume we will be saved. We presume God is good and that when we die we will go to Heaven. As a result of our presumption, we can fail to see the essential need to work toward our eternal salvation. The Exercises will help us diligently work toward that goal by examining whether or not all we do in life has as their end the praise, glory and reverence of God.
- Evaluation: We must constantly evaluate everything in life and discern whether or not our day-to-day activities help us to achieve the one and only goal of life. Do my money, job, relationships, habits, hobbies, attitudes, possessions, goals, desires, feelings, etc. help me to glorify God and, thus, save my soul? Or do those things interfere with this goal? The meditations and lessons proposed by Saint Ignatius are written to help you achieve that goal.
- Indifference: We must strive for what Ignatius calls “indifference.” This word must be understood properly. It certainly doesn’t mean “I don’t care.” But it does mean that “I have no preference on how my life unfolds as long as it is in accord with the will of God.” Understanding this is essential to spiritual growth. For example, say someone becomes ill with a debilitating illness that will most likely last for several years and lead, ultimately, to death. This can be hard to accept. One tendency may be to focus constantly upon a miraculous healing. But is that what will give the most glory to God and produce the greatest spiritual fruit for your holiness of life? Possibly, but possibly not. God can be greatly glorified through the trial of long-suffering that is united to Christ’s sufferings. Therefore, it is essential that a person be “indifferent” to being healed or not and seek only to allow this illness to become a means of grace and salvation. And if a miraculous healing is what would give the greatest glory to God, then this holy indifference will lead you to that prayer.
Many other examples could be given, but the basic point is that we daily seek to give up our preferences in life, realizing that the circumstances we find ourselves in may actually provide a great means of holiness. God’s will and God’s will alone must be our single focus in all things, regardless of whether we are rich or poor, have health or illness, have a large family or small, etc. Our only goal must be to seek God and His perfect and holy will.
Annotations: Some Basic but Essential Principles
At the beginning of The Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius sets forth what are termed “annotations.” These were originally short notes he made while giving the exercises. They are clear and concise principles and advice for both retreatant and spiritual director. Though these annotations were written to help guide the 30-day retreat, there is much wisdom found in them that can and should be incorporated into your daily life. The following is a summary of some of these annotations:
God as your Guide: It is essential to begin with a clear understanding that all of your spiritual exercises, prayers, meditations, etc., will only bear fruit in your life if God is the origin and guide of your prayer. You could dedicate yourself to a lifetime of study of all the wisdom of the saints and the Church, but if God is not directly communicating to your soul, and if your soul is not clearly hearing the voice of God Himself, then no progress, whatsoever, will be made. In fact, the opposite is most likely true. Great harm will actually be done to one who seeks to grow in wisdom or holiness by any other source than a direct, spiritual relationship with God. True, God always uses the mediation of the Church and often uses the mediation of other people, or in this case hopefully the mediation of the wisdom presented by Saint Ignatius, but make no mistake, if God Himself is not the one speaking to you in the depths of your soul, your spiritual exercises will do more harm than good.
For that reason, Saint Ignatius explains that the primary source of insight and spiritual guidance is not the director of the retreat; rather, it is God. God communicates to your soul in various ways. At times, He communicates in a direct way, “speaking” to you in an unmistakable way. More often, He speaks through consolations which are interior spiritual movements of your soul. And at other times, He communicates to you through your intentional spiritual reasoning that is based on spiritual truths you discover. Thus, as you walk through your daily life of prayer, begin by acknowledging that God and God alone is the Guide you seek. It must be the Holy Spirit, revealing the life of Christ and the will of the Father if you are to grow even one step further in holiness.
For those making a 30-day directed retreat, a well-trained spiritual director will humbly be aware of this fact and seek to “stay out of the way” when God is at work. The goal of the spiritual director is to help guide you back to the voice of God when you are straying and to also help you remain in the Truth of God when you are hearing and following Him properly.
For those seeking to incorporate this wisdom into their daily lives throughout the year without the help of a well-trained spiritual director, much more is left up to you to seek out and discern the voice of God versus the voice of the world, the flesh, the devil or your own confused thinking. Though this can be hard at times to accomplish, it will be easier if you understand and rely upon the teachings of Saint Ignatius (especially regarding the discernment of spirits) and keep in mind that God and God alone is your Guide. Seek Him, listen to Him, discern His voice, and follow Him when He communicates to you.
Discerning the Voice of God: This above guiding principle, that God must be your “Spiritual Director,” leads to a second essential Ignatian principle: Discernment. How do you discern the voice of God and distinguish it from your own ideas, the confused ideas of the “wisdom of the world,” or from the lies and temptations of the evil one himself? The answers to these questions are at the heart of Saint Ignatius’ discernment of spirits.
Reflect back to Chapter One to look at the discernment of Saint Ignatius himself. Recall how he went through a process of reasoning regarding what we may call the “after-effects” of certain types of thinking. First, Ignatius spent time daydreaming about romance and chivalry, and then spent time reflecting on the life of Christ and the saints. Though both trains of thought gave him pleasure, only one produced a joyful and peaceful “after-effect.”
So it is in discernment. When you are hearing the voice of God and when God is the one leading you, you will see good fruit born from your prayer and meditation. When the thought you have, the clarity you receive, the direction you take, and the decision you make leaves you in a sustained peace, certitude, joy, etc., then you are more likely than not being led by the Spirit of God. When, however, your thinking, meditation, resolution and the like leaves you angry, confused, sad and the like, you must stop, step back, and realize that these are not the “after-effects” of union with God. Good discernment requires we humbly be ready to change the road we are on and change our thinking. The effects we experience from those errors should help us to go back and fix them at the source.
Chapters Five and Six present a summary of the teaching of Saint Ignatius on this practice to expand and further explain this process of discernment of spirits.
Courage and generosity: Perhaps we’ve all heard the saying “What you put into it is what you get out of it.” This general truth also applies to our spiritual life. If you put in a luke-warm effort, then you can be assured of a luke-warm soul. If you embrace your spiritual exercises with selfishness and tepidity, be assured that this is what you will receive. But if you regularly strive to make the most profound act of generosity and courage, and then continue to deepen that act, day after day, week after week, month after month, then you can be certain that our Lord will be abundantly generous to you.
Generosity and courage are essentially an action of your will. By an act of your will, it is essential that you say “Yes.” But far too often you may say “Yes” only with qualification. You may say, “Lord, what do You want of me? Let me know so that I will think about it and then try to do what You want.” This is tepidity and cowardice. Start with “Yes.” Continue with “Yes.” Say nothing other than a complete and resounding “Yes” to our Lord and His will. Here are three powerful prayers from Holy Scripture (RSV-CE) on which you can model your surrender:
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Luke 1:38
“…not my will, but thine, be done.” Luke 22:42
“Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” Luke 23:46
Additionally, the prayers of surrender written by Saint Ignatius and by Charles de Foucauld provided in “Morning Prayer” in Part Three of this book are meant to help you achieve the desired “Yes” to God. Pray those prayers, mean them, say them over and over, let them become a deep act of your will.
Dryness: If you engage in a life of prayer, especially in the structured and systematic way presented by Saint Ignatius, you can be assured that this prayer will bear fruit. You will be changed. If, after engaging in a deep and sustained life of prayer, you do not see any noticeable effect on your life, then you need to step back and ponder the reason why. Most likely it is because you have not truly engaged your life of prayer with generosity and courage. If, however, you are doing so with honesty and totality, and if you have truly sought to rid your life of all sin, then it’s also possible that the “dryness” you experience is exactly what you need. It’s possible that God is removing all spiritual consolation so as to invite you to say “Yes” not because you “feel” good but because you love Him. It’s possible that what God wants of you, more than anything, is a more pure and total act of your will, despite the apparent absence of any spiritual feeling and sensory consolation. This is good. However, it is also important to make sure that the “dryness” is not because you are being lazy in your prayer and commitment to Christ, to overcoming sin, and to the fulfillment of His divine will.
Avoid the extremes: At times, when one begins to discover the new life of grace and mercy and begins to be freed of sins that have been present for some time, there can be a tendency to jump to an extreme or to “overreact,” so to speak. This overreaction is not a spiritual movement of the soul (which is always good); rather, it is an irrational emotional approach to certain “good feelings” one encounters. For example, recall the scene of the Transfiguration when Jesus took Peter, James and John up the high mountain and was transfigured before them as He spoke to Moses and Elijah. Peter was so overwhelmed with excitement that he cried out, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli′jah” (Matthew 17:4). This excitement on the part of Peter to offer to build three booths so that they could remain on the mountain could be termed an “extreme” or an “overreaction.” Peter was allowing his emotions to guide his thinking rather than the will of God. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that the experience ended so abruptly.
At the same time, if you find that certain spiritual exercises lead you to confusion, despair, fear and the like, avoid these also. In that case, step back to reexamine your thinking, realizing that you most likely are going down the road of some error of thought, misunderstanding the voice of God. A good example of this is when Saint Peter fled in fear when Jesus was arrested. It wasn’t the arrest that was the problem, it was Peter’s despair and confused thinking at the moment.
God, when it is truly God, will lead you courageously, peacefully, joyfully and confidently down the beautiful, liberating and fulfilling path He has for you. All of these beautiful qualities and experiences will accompany an authentic and honest path of conversion. Therefore, if you notice other extremes entering, stop, step back and slowly start again. If you remain confused, seek the counsel of another.
Don’t jump ahead: One tendency in the spiritual life is to want to jump ahead to perfection. But perfection of life is not accomplished overnight. There is no quick and immediate way to convert every aspect of your life to the will of God. This often takes much time, determination, ongoing change, and thousands of small daily decisions made over and over again throughout life. If you try to “jump ahead” in the spiritual life, then you will only be deceiving yourself. The goal is to let God do what He wants here and now, today, in your soul, and to leave tomorrow for tomorrow. In truth, unless you allow God to accomplish the work He has in mind for you today, there will be no possibility of going further. All you have is His will today, here and now. Live that duty of the moment and avoid the temptation to think that you are holier than you are.
Be all in: Saint Ignatius provides us with good and sound structures in which to act and meditate, and you should do all you can to embrace these methods well. Here are some practical directives in this regard:
- When making a holy hour of adoration, spend an entire hour in prayer. In fact, 61 minutes is much better than 59 minutes. If you have designated a shorter amount of time for a particular period of prayer (such as 15 minutes in the morning), try to remain for 15–16 minutes, not less. Chapter Three offers a brief explanation of how you can use the Ignatian methods of prayer: meditation, contemplation and application of the senses.
- When examining your conscience, make the entire examination of conscience—don’t just rush through presuming that you are not in need of such detailed introspection. More is written about examining your conscience in Chapter Four.
- If some meditation or prayer you are using speaks to you interiorly, stop, ponder it, receive it, savor it and don’t miss out on the spiritual fruit God wants to provide. “Getting through” a meditation is not the goal. “Encountering the Living God” is the goal. Therefore, let the meditation bear the good fruit God wants to give you. Let the meditation lead you to Christ, to speak to Him, get to know Him, love Him. Don’t become a slave of the meditation itself; rather, become a slave of Christ, making Him the Master of your prayer and life.
- Rely upon the “structure” more than your feelings if you are feeling desolate and dry. Desolation is never a good guide. In times of desolation, when you do not feel like remaining in your prayer period, or when it appears to be producing little or no fruit, you must persevere. In fact, perseverance in those times is essential and far more fruitful than you will ever realize. If you find that you are not receiving consolation from your prayer, rejoice at this insight, then get on your knees, give praise to God, and ponder the truths of the meditation even more deeply. And if you go through a whole hour being faithful to your meditations and prayers and fail to “feel” consoled, then be assured that it was a fruitful holy hour because you remained with our Lord in fidelity to Him. This experience will greatly strengthen your will. A good Scripture to recall in these moments is the line spoken by our Lord to the Apostles at the conclusion of the Agony in the Garden: “So, could you not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40b, RSV-CE)
Inordinate attachments: One of the primary “sub-goals” of The Spiritual Exercises is to free you from any attachments that are “inordinate” or “disordered.” This means attachment to things that are sinful, worldly or excessive. For example, attachment to anything found in the Seven Capital Sins or the Ten Commandments are sinful. But disordered attachments are not always to things that are explicitly sinful. If the attachment is excessive and disordered, then it is still an obstacle. For example, you may have a deep desire for a certain job, promotion, honor, money, success, etc. Or perhaps you deeply desire to be freed of some burden in life, such as a physical illness. But God’s will may not necessarily be to give you this “want” or free you from this “burden”; rather, it may be to give you the grace to give up the “want” and patiently endure the “burden.” Thus, be aware of any strong desires to seek this or that and to presume that God wants this or that for you. Be open to changing your point of view.
Sometimes, you may even become inordinately attached to “good” things. For example, perhaps you love the vocation you have been given and experience great joy in what you do. A priest may love his priestly ministry, a parent may love doing things with a child, etc. This is good! But even in this case, you may find you have become more attached to the good feelings you receive than to a pure love of God or others. Thus, be attentive to any and every “thing” you are attached to and love. Make sure your motive for your love is pure and humble, not selfish. The bottom line is that taking great joy in the vocation and duties you have is good, unless your affection becomes excessive and, thus, inordinate, and, thus, an obstacle to grace and God’s will.
Respect your vocation in life: In other words, if you are a mom or dad, spouse or child, do not try to live the life of a priest, monk or nun. And vice versa. The holiness of a priest will look different than the holiness of a parent, etc. Allow your prayers and meditation to lead you to the faithful fulfillment of your vocation, not another’s.
Seek solitude and silence: Few people can go off for hours, days, weeks or months at a time so as to enter into solitude and silence with our Lord. But silence and solitude are essential if you are to meet our Lord, hear His voice and freely follow His commands. Thus, even those who live very active lives must seek to find solitude and silence within the busyness of life. Without this, it will be hard to hear God speak. Therefore, be creative and committed to seek out the times and ways that you can encounter God in moments of silence and solitude. At very least, try to make sure that your weekly holy hour or daily period of prayer is one that is free from all distractions. Turn off the cell phone, silence your daily schedule, stop thinking about what you “should” be doing and just be with our Lord at the times He gives you for silence and solitude.
The Truth will set you free: You should not be afraid of the truth, right? The problem is that many people are afraid to face the truth. But why? Perhaps there are several reasons. One of the most common reasons for this fear is that most people are afraid to change. But the Truth should not cause fear, it should cause relief. Therefore, if a discovery of some truth challenges you to change, you should welcome this with open arms.
The phrase “The Truth will set you free” is such an important guide and is worth meditating on over and over. This basic principle could be the source of much healing in your life and the source of great interior freedom and joy. God and His perfect will are the Truth. Coming to know God, all that He reveals and all that He wills for your life, is the most central guiding focus of these exercises as well as life itself.
The Lessons that Follow
This chapter shared a brief overview of The Spiritual Exercises as written by Saint Ignatius. The chapters that follow will offer a summary of some of the various lessons taught by Saint Ignatius. By studying them and incorporating them into your spiritual life, you will undoubtedly grow in God’s grace in many ways.