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Richard G. Malloy, SJ Answers:
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are the methods of prayer and ways of relating to God that Ignatius of Loyola developed in the years after his conversion to Christ. Ignatius realized God loves us and wants to deal personally with each of us. One way to let God be God in our lives is to pull back from the hustle of daily life and go on retreat.
The full Exercises usually entail 30 days of silent retreat divided into four “Weeks” (roughly seven days). Each day the retreatant spends four or five hours of prayer a day and attends daily Eucharist. Daily, she or he will meet with a Director of the Exercises, one trained to guide and coach a person through the experience.
The First Week, the person making the Exercises prays to know the gifts of God, especially creation and ourselves as created out of God’s love. The oftentimes harrowing next step is taking a long, uncluttered, honest look at how we have responded to God and God’s gifts in our lives. This period culminates in praying before the image of Christ crucified and asking, “What have I done for Christ, What am I doing for Christ, What will I do for Christ?”
The Second Week is filled with the gentler and more pleasant work of contemplating Jesus in the Gospels. One is urged to creatively and imaginatively “see” oneself as part of the biblical scene, and ponder what insights and spiritual energies one notices in one’s heart and mind as a result of gazing so closely and lovingly on Jesus and the people depicted in the Gospels. Charting desolations and consolations is a skill one begins to learn in this week. Such charting helps us choose, in freedom and truth, how we are to follow Jesus.
The third week is a virtual reliving of the passion and death of Christ as one spends hours and days being imaginatively present to the final days and hours of Jesus’ earthly life.
The fourth week is a joyful entering into the astonishing reality of the risen Christ in one’s life by contemplating the experiences of the first disciples.
Interspersed throughout the month of the Exercises are key Ignatian meditations: the Kingdom meditation where one contemplates an earthly leader and compares that person to Christ and his mission; the two standards where the choice is made between the way of Christ or the way of the enemy of our human nature; The Contemplation to Attain Love which recapitulates the initial work of the Principle and Foundation Exercise, wherein we pray to know the end for which we are created and how to use the gifts of life to attain our end, i.e, blissful union with God forever.
The Exercises are both a means of attaining self-knowledge and ordering one’s life, and a deep and transformative school of prayer. Highly adaptable, there are eight day versions of the Exercises and a nine month to a year version, the retreat in daily life. Directors are trained to adapt and sculpt the Exercises to the needs and concerns of the individual exercitant.
The ultimate aim of the Exercises is to foster in a person a creative and burning love for Jesus and his mission that ushers forth in service works of justice, truth, peace and love for all humankind. Such service roots us in the transcendent realities of God the Father, the Holy Spirit and the mystical body of Christ, i.e., the church. The exercises help us discern and choose how to serve and love.
For more info, ask any Jesuit, priest, religious sister or any of the thousands of lay people who have made the exercises. One caution. Don’t just pick up a copy of the Exercises and read. The written Exercises are much more like a recipe book than a “how to” manual. The Exercises are to be “made” not simply read. Highly personal, they are rooted in the communal reality of the church and relationships in one’s life. A director can help the person making the exercises notice and relish these relational realities.