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The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola

Mark Argent
9 August 2018

The 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 had found helpful, and his experience of 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 and Ignatius also suggests that, where it’s not possible to go away for a month the Exercises could be made in daily life, praying for an hour each day and meeting a spiritual director once a week.

Despite that flexibility, it took only a few generations before the Exercises had been standardised to a group experience comprising five talks a day over 30 days. When the Second Vatican Council encouraged religious orders to look 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. It’s brief, and leaves space for people to make the Exercises from a range of theological and spiritual perspectives. As an example, I can remember someone who was wanting to do the Spiritual Exercises, but nervous 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 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, and then take 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’re also a powerful tool for someone simply wanting to deepen their spiritual life.

Today there are three common ways to make the Exercises. One is a 30-day individually-guided retreat (usually with some days of preparation beforehand and reflection afterwards). Making the Exercises in daily life is also well-established — it’s usually referred to as the “19th annotation” because the idea is floated in the 19th annotation (note) to the Exercises. Some places off them in chunks — usually three 10-day retreats — and there are also ways of making them online. It’s not usually worth getting into a discussion of which way is “best”: it’s usually wisest to work out which route is practical, and which one goes with what someone actually desires, and then to let that be the best way.

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.

Are the Spiritual Exercises Catholic?

How far the Exercises are specifically-Catholic is an open question. Some would assume that they are intrinsically Catholic, and intrinsically Jesuit. But Ignatius (1491–1556) was a close contemporary of Martin Luther (1483–1546). The crucial experience 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 Inqusition were right to be suspicious of Ignatius. The appeal to personal and direct experience of God in the Exercises sounds very much like similar 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 they were given 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 have to go in a Catholic direction. They are not a “qualification”, so the invitation is to make the Exercises in what ever way turns out to be available: if the desire is to draw closer to God, then that is the most likely outcome.

Reading from a Reformed perspective

Penguin publish a volume of the Personal Writings of Ignatius of Loyola, which brings together the text of the Exercises, various of his letters and other documents. That puts the text of the Exercises in context. Starting there and asking “What does this offer?” is a better place to start than some of the re-workings of the Exercises that give them a contemporary Catholic accent.