The Spiritual Exercises are a creative and flexible programme of prayer centred on the life of Jesus Christ. St Ignatius is very clear about the purpose of the exercises in their original title.
‘Spiritual Exercises having as their purpose the overcoming of self and the ordering of one’s life on the basis of a decision made in freedom from any ill-ordered attachment’
The keyword there is freedom. The exercises are ultimately about letting go of attachments that hold you back so that you can live a truly free and joyful life with Christ and serve His mission.
The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola are a world-renowned spiritual classic. St Ignatius wrote the exercises between 1522 and 1548 and they are his most lasting contribution to the Church and the world. The written Spiritual Exercises is essentially a handbook which explains a way of leading people through an organised programme of prayer and reflection. As such, the exercises are not meant to be read but experienced. The purpose of the exercises is to help those who do them to discover interior freedom.
St Ignatius developed the Spiritual Exercises to be completed over four weeks and, because of this, they have a four-part structure.The exercises draw on many of the Ignatian ways of praying: the Examen, Imaginative Contemplation and ways of making decisions.
The first week looks at the reality of sin in the world. It should help you become aware of your sinfulness, and appreciate the fact that you are a forgiven and loved child of God.
The second week follows Jesus’ early life and ministry. In this week, you immerse yourself in the heart of the Gospel, growing in your understanding of Jesus through seeing Him up close, often through the Imaginative Contemplation method of prayer. It’s about growing in friendship with Jesus and wanting to follow Him.
The third week focuses on the events leading up to Jesus’ torture and death on the Cross. In this stage, you come to understand the depth of God’s self-sacrificial love for you.
The final week is all about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s love for the world and His presence with us today, and our loving response to others.
To really understand the exercises, you have to do them! There are a few ways to go about this. While St Ignatius designed a thirty-day silent retreat, which covers the full four-week structure of the exercises, he also made sure that they are flexible. Here are a few different ways of engaging with this beautiful spiritual work.
For an introduction to the Spiritual Exercises, try this audio experience of ‘The Call of the King’. This is a lead meditation on a session from the exercises, focusing on Jesus and how He is calling you to live.
To get a sense of what the Spiritual Exercises are like, have a listen to these four audio reflections. These reflections are based on the four-part structure of the exercises and the four themes that run through them. They will take you on the journey of the exercises, from Christ’s death on the Cross to His resurrection.
You can incorporate the Spiritual Exercises into your normal life in this ‘Daily Life’ retreat. In this retreat, you commit to a certain amount of time of prayer and reflection each day, usually less than one hour, and meet with your retreat guide once a week for 8-18 months. During this meeting, you share your experience over the past week and your guide offers material for the coming week.
This is the most comprehensive way to do the Spiritual Exercises. It follows St Ignatius’ 30-day structure as mapped out in his Spiritual Exercises and is a profound experience for those who enter into this retreat. You can either do this at a spirituality centre (usually St Beuno’s in North Wales) or with an online retreat guide in a place of your choice. If you decide to stay at home, you must be able to put all of your regular activities to one side, pray four or five times a day, and meet daily with your guide. If you choose to do this retreat, you will be undertaking a great adventure of faith.