The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius

St Ignatius holding the Spiritual Exercises

Early in February 1522, a pilgrim set out from his family's castle in the rugged Basque mountains of northern Spain. He limped eastwards toward the Holy Land at the start of a journey that continues today.

Iñigo Lopez de Loyola became famous as St Ignatius Loyola and his companions as the Jesuits. The story of his pilgrimage has become a model for members of the Catholic religious order he founded as well as for countless other pilgrims.  His pilgrimage began with a year at Manresa, near the shrine of Montserrat where he lived as a hermit to grow closer to God.  Here he began taking notes about what he experienced.

The origin of the Spiritual Exercises

These careful notes were the beginnings of what became perhaps his most lasting contribution to the Church: the small handbook The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius which explains his method of leading people through an organised programme of prayer and reflection. St Ignatius gave the exercises to his first companion St Pierre Favre SJ.  Together they developed this method of prayer by reflecting on their own experiences of God and by talking about them with others. St Pierre Favre gave the exercises to many hundreds of people of all walks of life.  They in turn passed on the practice of sharing the exercise with others with the help of St Ignatius’ little book which has been re-printed and translated through many millions of copies over 460 years.

What are the Spiritual Exercises?

The Spiritual Exercises are a creative and flexible programme of prayer centred on the life of Christ.  Their purpose is to help you develop a deeper and more active relationship with God and the world.
The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius is not a book to be read for spiritual enlightenment.  It describes a series of meditations and contemplations on Christ, the world and ourselves.It is a set of guidelines to help the retreat director give the Spiritual Exercises to another.
Indeed, an essential part of the Spiritual Exercises is that you are guided through them by an expert spiritual director who has been through the experience themselves.  There are three ways to do this

·         The 30 day silent guided retreat

·         3 separate 10 day silent guided retreats

·         The retreat in daily life

The silent guided retreat

In our bustling noisy world, 30 days of silence away from your phone, tablet or PC could be a challenge. What you can be sure is you will be undertaking a great adventure of faith and life.
You can go to a retreat centre like St Beuno’s, or you can stay at home if you can organise your life to park all of your regular activities and meet daily with your guide. You pray usually four or five separate hours each day. You prepare for each hour, and then at the end of it you spend 20 minutes looking back at what you did and felt.

You meet your guide every day to talk about your prayer experience. Were you up, were you down? Was it easy to pray, was it hard? Is some glimmer of a desire beginning to take shape? Do you know Jesus better? What was going on in your spirit?
Each day your guide will tell you what to do next.  This is described in the book - all 30 days are mapped out with material for each hour of prayer. This is a structure to help the guide understand what you are experiencing.
There are four phases to the Spiritual Exercises, each taking about a week

·         facing the reality of sin in the world and in my life and acknowledging God’s merciful love

·         contemplating Jesus’ life, and praying to come to love him and to follow him more intimately. It is in the course of this second period that Ignatius introduces exercises to help you to make or confirm a major life- choice

·         contemplating Jesus in his passion and death

·         contemplating Jesus in his resurrection.


The Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life

You can also make the Spiritual Exercises alongside your normal life and work.  You commit to pray and reflect for a certain amount of time each day and meet with your retreat guide once a week for 7-12 months. You share your experience over the past week and your guide offers material for the coming week.

Who are the Spiritual Exercises for?

The Spiritual Exercises are suitable for:

·         anyone who wants to deepen their relationship with God (not only Catholics)

·         people making an important life decision and seeking God’s will

·         people preparing themselves for a life of service or ministry and who want that service to be focused on God

·         people already engaged in any active ministry – pastoral work, teaching, chaplaincy, ordained ministry

What is spiritual direction?

Christian spiritual direction or spiritual accompaniment is support you receive from another Christian to enable you to pay attention to God’s personal communication with you.  Your spiritual director will help you to respond, to grow in intimacy with God, and to live out the consequences of your relationship with God.

Spiritual accompaniment is a particular kind of listening and helping activity which focuses on a person’s implicit or explicit relationship with God and seeks to nurture it. All of us have experiences which are felt as ‘spiritual’ — whether they take place washing dishes, climbing mountains, attending church, or in silent prayer — and whether or not they are barely perceptible or earth shaking. Spiritual accompaniment pays attention to these experiences and lets them develop and deepen so that they become part of a continuing conversation with God.

What is an individually guided retreat?

With the exception of the full Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, individually guided retreats do not follow a fixed programme of meditations. Your personal retreat guide seeks to help you locate the areas it could be most fruitful to pray with and ponder over. In this way you make your own personal retreat with its own focus and dynamic, following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Retreatants normally make space for three to five periods of personal prayer a day of a length chosen to be comfortable rather than strenuous: fifteen minutes to an hour might be usual. You may be given suggestions for your prayer taken from scripture, poetry, or some other reading, or you may be invited to meditate on your own life.

You will usually see your guide once a day for between half and three quarters of an hour. A second daily meeting is occasionally arranged for people who are new to retreats. The time between prayer periods is most profitably spent alone and in silence. The silence is not intended as a penance, but to release your creative potential and help you get in touch with what is deepest within yourself. Many of us spend so much time rushing about that we take our fundamental options in life for granted. It is within the focused space promoted by solitude and silence that God can be heard speaking and making Himself known.

What you get from a retreat depends upon the particular grace God wants to give you at this time. If you are open, you will be graced by God, though not always in the way you expect. It is good to start a retreat with a completely open mind, open to self, to God and to your guide. Don’t expect instant solutions and try to avoid entering a retreat determined to ‘sort something out’ once and for all. The best approach is to come with a simple desire to be with God and to listen to God’s voice: ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’ (The call of Samuel in the first book of Samuel chapter 3: 1-11) The best stance is one of generous openness.

Many retreatants just enjoy spending a few days of quiet and relaxation. For some it is a time to try out new methods of prayer and find those which are helpful to them. Others are confirmed in the decisions they have already made. Some are given help in discerning the ways in which God is calling them. Others may manage to face a block within themselves, a block to loving, or to developing a deeper relationship with God and with others.

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