The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola

The text of the Spiritual Exercises began while St. Ignatius was still a layman and pilgrim. As Ignatius (then called "Inigo") experienced God's call and graces, he made notes in a little book, outlining the manner in which he prayed, reflected and contemplated. The complete text of the Exercises, begun in roughly 1523, was first published in 1548.

The text is a manual of meditations ordered to helping a person attain a full and free offering of oneself to Christ. The core of the Exercises is thus centered on the person of Christ and one's relationship to Him.

In its fullness, the Exercises takes roughly 30 days to complete. This requires that one have the time to step away from one's regular duties for about one month, living typically in a retreat house or center for the duration. Most people do not have such an opportunity, due to the nature of their vocation and obligations (e.g., married and family life and professional commitments).

So, the Exercises can be adapted to a shorter amount of time, such as a 3 day preached weekend retreat, or a 5 or 8 day individually directed retreat. These opportunities are readily available in Jesuit Retreat Houses across the country. There is also a retreat adapted for working people in the midst of their regular responsibilities, and which takes place over the course of 9 months or so, i.e., the 19th Annotation retreat.

Whatever the format, the director of the retreat suggests times and content for the retreatant's prayer in a given day. The content, obviously, is drawn from the Exercises themselves, or some variation thereof.

Briefly, the Exercises unfolds in a succession of four "weeks" or phases. The First Week is a meditation on one's sin and God's response of mercy and forgiveness. The Second Week focuses on discipleship and Christ's public ministry as related in the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Third Week invites the retreatant to enter into the passion of Jesus, again as depicted in the gospels. Finally, the Fourth Week highlights Christ's resurrection as witnessed in the gospels. Other scriptural texts, from both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, supplement the gospel writings.

Along the course of the Exercises, the retreatant comes to a greater knowledge of Christ and of self. He or she learns which activities, desires, habits, practices, etc. enable one to live a good and holy life, as well as those which prevent such living. Ignatius calls the latter activities, etc., "disordered affections."

So, the Exercises is as much a discovery or re-discovery of one's self as it is of Christ. The grace of the Exercises is intended to lead one to an interior freedom, i.e., from such disordered affections and for a free and generous service of Christ.

The Exercises concludes with a meditation on the Love of God and the Suscipe Prayer ("Take Lord, receive...").

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