Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola

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Exercitia spiritualia
1548, First Edition by Antonio Bladio (Rome) (158x108 mm)

The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (Spanish original: Exercitia spiritualia) (composed from 1522–1524) are a set of Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises, written by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th-century Spanish priest, theologian, and founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Divided into four thematic 'weeks' of variable length, designed to be carried out over a period of 28 to 30 days.[1] They were composed with the intention of helping the retreatant to discern Jesus in his life, leading him to a personal commitment to follow him. Though the underlying spiritual outlook is Catholic, the exercises can also be undertaken by non-Catholics. The 'Spiritual Exercises' booklet was formally approved in 1548 by Paul III.[2]

Typical methodology and structure[edit]

Manresa, Chapel in the Cave of Saint Ignatius where Ignatius practised asceticism and conceived his Spiritual Exercises in 1522

The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius form the cornerstone of Ignatian Spirituality[3] — a way of understanding and living the human relationship with God in the world exemplified in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Although originally designed to take place in the setting of a secluded retreat, during which those undergoing the exercises would be focused on nothing other than the Exercises, in his introductory notes, Ignatius provides a model for completing the Exercises over a longer period without the need of seclusion. The Exercises were designed to be carried out while under the direction of a spiritual director. The Spiritual Exercises were never meant only for the vowed religious. Ignatius of Loyola gave the Exercises for 15 years before he was ordained, and years before the Society of Jesus was even founded. After the Society was formed, the Exercises became the central component of the Jesuit novitiate training program, and they usually take place during the first year of a two year novitiate. Ignatius considered the examen, or spiritual self-review, to be the most important way to continue to live out the experience of the Exercises after their completion. When lay people have undergone the Exercises, this is often under the guidance of a spiritual director who is a member of the religious order of Jesuits. In contemporary experience, more and more lay people and non-Catholics are becoming both retreatants and directors of the Exercises.

Society of Jesus

History of the Jesuits
Regimini militantis

Jesuit Hierarchy
Superior General
Adolfo Nicolás

Ignatian Spirituality
Spiritual Exercises
Ad majorem Dei gloriam

Notable Jesuits
St. Ignatius of Loyola
St. Francis Xavier
St. Peter Faber
St. Aloysius Gonzaga
St. Robert Bellarmine
St. Peter Canisius
St. Edmund Campion
Pope Francis

Within the Exercises, daily instructions include various meditations and contemplations on the nature of the world, of human psychology as Ignatius understood it, and of man's relationship to God through Jesus Christ. The Exercises are divided into four "weeks" of varying lengths with four major themes: sin, the life of Jesus, the Passion of Jesus, and the Resurrection of Jesus. During each day of the Exercises, a typical retreatant prays with a particular exercise, as assigned by the director, reviews each prayer, and, following four or five periods of prayer, reports back to the spiritual director of the retreat who helps them to understand what these experiences of prayer might mean to the retreatant. The goal of the Exercises is to reflect upon their experiences and to understand how these same experiences might apply to the retreatant's life.

Spiritual viewpoint[edit]

In Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, The Trinitarian God (God the Father, God the Son Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit) and Satan are active players in the world and in the human psyche (soul). The main aim of the Exercises is the development within the human psyche (soul) of "discernment" (discretio), the ability to discern between good and evil spirits. Discernment is achieved in order to act "with the Grace of God". In other words, to act on the spiritual discernment one receives, by seeking Truth and listening in contemplative prayer with Jesus, on what is right.

This is the context within which, during the exercises, and in continuing the process thereafter, one seeks from Jesus: the virtue of humility (to recognize and accept Truth), selflessness for the sake of Love, and the reflection on, self-awareness of, and termination of personal sin. There is an acknowledgment that the human soul is continually drawn in two directions: both drawn towards Godliness / goodness, and at the same time tempted towards sinfulness / evil. Accordingly, the Exercises provide several illustrations of how one might best be able to refrain from satiating one's lower and evil desires and instead how one might find a means to redirect one's energies towards the fulfillment of one's higher and loving way of being and purpose in life.

It also needs to be understood that at the heart of Ignatian thought "discernment", while on the one hand being an act of mysticism, can also be understood as a method of subjective ethical thought. The Exercises emphasize the role of one's own "discernment" in deciding what is the path to glorify God (the right path). "Discernment" attempts to make a direct connection between the individual exercitant's thought and action and the Grace of God. Discernment is thereby an action which emphasizes the mystical experience of the believer. This aspect of the Spiritual Exercises is very much typical of the mystical trend in Catholic thought and practice which both preceded the reformation, beginning with the first 12 Apostles, and lived on within elements of counter-reformation Catholicism (cf. Theresa of Avila; François de Sales; Pierre de Bérulle).

Modern applications[edit]

To this day, the Spiritual Exercises remain an integral part of the Novitiate training period of the Roman Catholic religious order of Jesuits. Also, many local Jesuit outreach programs throughout the world offer retreats for the general public in which the Exercises are employed.

Beginning in the 1980s, there has been a growing interest in the Spiritual Exercises from people from other Christian traditions. There are recent (2006) adaptations that are specific to Protestants which emphasize the exercises as a school of contemplative prayer. "The Spiritual Exercises" are popular also among lay people both in the Catholic Church and other denominations all over the world, and lay organizations like the Christian life community place the Exercises at the center of their spirituality. The Exercises usually are undertaken with the help of a trained spiritual guide.

Residential 30-day Spiritual Exercises The Exercises are still undertaken in their original form over the full 30 days. Participants in the full Exercises usually spend their days in silence, doing up to 5 hours of prayer a day. In the original form each retreatant has a guide to help lead him or her through the meditations of the Exercises. The Exercises done in this full-time way offer what is probably the most intensive spiritual experience. Most commonly such a retreat is undertaken at a specialist retreat centre. Such centres are found wherever there are large groups of Catholics.

Residential Spiritual Exercises in stages As well as the full Spiritual Exercises being done residentially over 30-days, there are now centres offering the full 30-days in two or three sections over a two year period.

Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life Besides the 30 day enclosed form of the Exercises, many undertake it in its "Exercises in everyday or in daily life" form (another name for this method is "19th annotation exercises" based on a remark of St. Ignatius in the 19th footnote in his book). The 'everyday' method brings the exercitant through the process of the Ignatian Exercises throughout a longer period of time (from several months up to a year and a half), with time spent daily in reflection and prayer. This form has its advantages with respect to the enclosed form: it does not require an extended stay in a retreat house and the learned methods of discernment can be tried out on the experiences life brings with it.

Shorter Retreats inspired by the Spiritual Exercises Most centers offer shorter retreats with some of the elements of the Spiritual Exercises.

Retreats for specialist groups Retreats have been developed for specific groups of people, such as those who are married or engaged.

Self-Guided and online retreats Self-guided forms of the Exercises are also available, including online programs.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 2000 Years of Prayer by Michael Counsell, 2004, ISBN 1-85311-623-8 p. 203
  2. ^ In the brief Pastoralis officii of the 31 July 1548
  3. ^ [1][dead link]


  • Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, London, 2012. limovia.net ISBN 978-1-78336-012-3
  • David L. Fleming, S.J. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, A Literal Translation and A Contemporary Reading. The Institute of Jesuit Sources, St. Louis, 1978. ISBN 0-912422-31-9
  • Timothy M. Gallagher, The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Life. Crossroad (2005).
  • George E. Ganss, S.J. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius: A Translation and Commentary. Chicago: Loyola Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8294-0728-6.
  • Anthony Mottola, Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. Image (1964), ISBN 0-385-02436-3.
  • Joseph A. Tetlow, The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. Crossroad (2009).

External links[edit]

Online text