The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
By Sister Donna Fannon, MHSH
Almost like clockwork, ads for Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Nautilus, Bowflex and other quick and easy weight-loss and physical improvement programs flood the media after the Christmas holidays. It seems that many people make New Year’s resolutions to look and feel better by spring, even though most of us know that a life-long dedication to regular exercise and attention to diet are necessary to achieve overall good health.
What about our spiritual health and well-being? Can a simple quick-fix approach deepen our relationship with God? Spiritual masters tell us that we have to develop “habits of the heart” or practice spiritual disciplines consistently throughout our lifetime if we wish to grow closer to Christ. One such method was developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th Century. Based on the reflection of his own conversion experience, he designed a plan to help spiritual seekers learn the art of discernment: seeking and responding to God’s will in the circumstances of one’s particular life. He called his method the Spiritual Exercises, and the text is considered a unique spiritual classic.
Ignatius intended the Spiritual Exercises to be completed during a month-long retreat or spread out over many months in the midst of everyday life. In the process of doing the Exercises the “retreatant” learns various ways of prayer and is invited to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ in order to make a serious decision in tune with the mind and heart of Christ. The most common method of prayer that Ignatius suggests is a form of contemplation in which the person uses the active imagination in praying with certain gospel events in the life of Christ. At the end of the Exercises the retreatant has developed a habit of prayer that can be nurtured throughout a lifetime.
Many retreat centers and some parishes offer the longer format of the Spiritual Exercises, often between September and the following May. Retreatants make a commitment to pray one hour a day and to meet in a group once a week (or every other week) to share prayer and experience support from each other. This format can be particularly helpful for those who want to develop a way to pray and reflect in the midst of professional careers and family life.
Here is one of St. Ignatius’ prayers: