Men of the Spiritual Exercises
An adventure of faith and life
Men thinking about a Jesuit vocation are normally more than a little curious to find out about St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. In our bustling noisy world, 30 days of silence can be viewed with puzzlement. What does one do with all that time? But people are also intrigued, want to know what effect doing the Exercises will have on their lives, and how they’ll view things differently having done them.
That adventure finds its origin in the life of Ignatius himself. It is often said of the Exercises that Ignatius arranged them in such a way so as to help make possible in the lives of others the same journey into spiritual freedom that God had brought about in him.
If you were to have in your hands a copy of the Exercises, it would be a slim volume of may be about 100 pages. If you were to open it, you would see a whole lot of numbered paragraphs, a series of instructions and guidelines for someone giving the Exercises to another. The book of the Exercises is not there, then, to be read – and you would be advised against doing so! – the Exercises are something to be ‘given’, by an experienced director, and something to be ‘made’ by those of us who are seeking to open our lives more and more to the love of God.
The 'shape' of the Exercises
Each day of the Exercises is similar in shape. The one making the Exercises would normally have each day 4 or 5 one hour periods of prayer, with some time to prepare the prayer before hand, and most importantly, some time to review it afterwards. (Traditionally, the one making the exercises gets up in the middle of the night for their first period of prayer!)
At some point in the day, the one making the Exercises will meet with the one giving them. The meeting last for up to about 45 minutes, and the one making the Exercises speaks of their experience of their prayer.
There are four main sections or periods to the Spiritual Exercises. Though they will vary in length, each is referred to as a ‘week’. The theme of the first week is the honest facing of the reality of sin in the world and in my life and the deep acknowledgement of God’s merciful love. In the second week, the one making the exercises, contemplates Jesus’ life, and prays to come to love him and to follow him more faithfully. It is in the course of this second week, the longest of the Exercises, that Ignatius introduces particular exercises to help the exercitant to make or confirm a major life- choice (an ‘election’ as it is called). The Third Week sees the one making the Exercises contemplating Jesus in his passion and death, and the fourth contemplating Jesus in his resurrection.
Freedom and desire
One thing that you can confidently say of someone who has fruitfully made the Exercises is that they will have become more free. Ignatius places great store by our power to desire and choose. But he knew from his own experience that the desires that are most for God’s greater service and praise need to be uncovered. The experience of the Exercises helps free people from what stifles these desires. The Exercises too strength these desires as the one who makes the Exercises grows in his love for the person of Jesus Christ.
St. Ignatius said of the Exercises: ‘The Spiritual Exercises are all the best that I have been able to think out, experience and understand in this life, both for helping somebody to make the most of themselves, as also for being able to bring advantage, help and profit to many others’. Writing about the Exercises in the context of the Jesuit Novitiate, Fr. Peter Hans Kolvenbach (Superior General 1982-2008) said of them; ‘It is in them that the novices come to know experientially that the Jesuit is a sinner who has been pardoned and called to be a companion of Jesus. This profound experience of the love of Christ is, at the same time, an experience of self-knowledge, one in which God “reveals” to them what they are and helps them to recognise their deepest yearnings and desires as well as the obstacles that prevent them from being interiorly free to opt for Him.’