For the Bookshelf: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

For the Bookshelf: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

September 10, 2018—Ignatius of Loyola was born as Inigo de Loyola, near the end of the 15th Century. The beginning of the 16th Century was a time of intellectual discovery which was accompanied by religious turmoil. Ignatius was born into wealth and was educated as a gentleman. He was wounded in battle defending Spanish land from the French. While recuperating, he found and read two Christian works, the Life of Christ and the Golden Legend. He began to struggle about the future purpose of his life. Would he make a decision for holiness or worldliness? Through his struggle, he was converted from a Spanish courtier to a “companion of Christ.”

Ignatius began writing sections of The Spiritual Exercises and added to it over the next twenty years. During these years, he lived as a beggar, as a hermit, and ultimately began to study for the priesthood. While studying in Paris, he formed a group of fellow students as a discipleship group. Each student completed the Exercises with Ignatius and they all took vows of poverty and chastity. They were forming what would become the Society of Jesus or Jesuits. Exercises continues as a tool for those seeking to become Jesuits.

The Exercises are a detailed prescription of prayer and reading, over a four week period, in a retreat setting, and under the supervision of a spiritual director. They were originally intended to help someone make a one time commitment to Christ or to decide about entering monastic life. Each of the four weeks has a different emphasis and goal: to recognize sin, to follow the commandments, to identify more closely with Christ’s suffering, and to develop a more intimate relationship with Christ.

For the person participating, each day consists of five periods exercises. They last at least one hour. Each exercise is made up of specific meditations, prayers, or contemplations. The times of the exercises are similar to the Benedictine hours of The Daily Office. There are exercises for visualization of heaven, angels, the cross, the ascension, etc. Also included in Exercises are sections on Mysteries (scriptures), Rules for Discernment of Spirits, Rules for Thinking with the Church, and Methods of Prayer.

It is interesting how Ignatius utilizes all five senses in a study of spiritual practices. Within the exercises there is a time to consider the consequences of sin by imagining sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels of hell. Ignatius directs that the exercitant to imagine each in detail. What is seen and heard in the contemplation? What is smelled as a fragrance and tasted as the sweetness of divinity? What is felt in the touching and kissing of the places where people were? In this imagining, the exercitant benefits by sensing these biblical concepts in a greater reality. This practice can be used to increase understanding of any subject under study.

Ignatius teaches that people must think of the church in terms of praise, following church commands, and avoiding criticism of the church. As people were considering the new protestant church movement, Ignatius sought to defend the Roman Catholic Church by steering them to faithfulness and obedience. He also teaches about the use of money and almsgiving.

The purpose of Exercises is to provide a period of time for study and prayer, during which an individual can bring order and direction to their lives, can fall in love with God, and resolve to follow Christ more closely. Exercises has been a very effective tool for over 400 years and has led many people to a conversion experience. This book seems to offer timeless guidance for learning about one’s self and their relationship to Christ, through this intense time of contemplation. It is a very successful tool to help people conquer their own self will and to understand the nature of a relationship with Christ.

Although designed for a four week intense period of study, prayer, and reflection, this book could serve well in the church today. I find the sense of a formula and routine for meditation and study, to be a comfortable process for evaluating one’s life and deciding to become a disciple of Christ. Exercises is a wonderful handbook for stirring a commitment to Christ within a person seeking Him. So much of the material in this small book is directly applicable for personal devotions. Although there is a Roman Catholic emphasis when considering ritual prayers and the reference to the saints, the methods and scriptural resources are very good for personal devotion. The steps and materials presented are most helpful in considering the development of personal devotional practices.

St. Ignatius. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based On Studies in the Language of the Autograph. Translated by Louis J. Puhl. Vintage Spiritual Classics. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Rev. Paul Sherwood is pastor of the Oakmont Presbyterian Church, Hoover AL and a DMin candidate at Columbia Theological Seminary.

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