Saint Ignatius of Loyola - John Pollen

The Spiritual Exercises

We have now followed Ignatius, in his conversion, in his spiritual formation at Manresa, and in the great experiment of going to Jerusalem. We have watched him in his prolonged course of study at four great universities. We have also seen him collect followers and animate them to adventure. all for the cause he had espoused. These are the exterior features of his development. We have now to inquire into the inner life, and to ask ourselves, "What was the interior force and life, what the method and system, by which this spiritual knight was armed, animated, guided? What was the plan of campaign which he fought out with such success?"

So far as these questions admit of an answer, it will be found in the study of The Spiritual Exercises. But while easy to make, these spiritual exercises are rather difficult to describe; for the terms of their science are often taken by different people in different senses, and all abstract subjects have a certain vagueness in our generally materialistic language and imagery.

Ignatius's idea of spiritual exercises is a very simple one. He says, "As to walk, to run, to journey, are bodily exercises, so every method of removing one's inordinate appetites  and, after one has removed them, of seeking out and finding the divine will  in our regard, is called "spiritual exercises." (Annotation i.) The Exercises then are not merely intellectual; they are also moral and religious. They are not casual prayers and meditations, not an anthology of pretty or striking sayings, but exercises which lead towards sanctification of life.

The simplest idea of Ignatius's "spiritual exercises" as a whole is that they consist of a series of meditations on Christ considered as the model of our life: and they lead to a formal "election" of that state of life which is found in meditation to be most consonant with God's will in our regard, so far as we can see after mature and prayerful reflection.

According to the standards of our easy-going age, the prescribed reflection might be reckoned mature and prayerful almost to excess. Ignatius prescribed for it a whole month of retreat. This he divided into four "Weeks"; his meditations sometimes begin at midnight, while spiritual exercises may occupy eight to ten hours a day. But a note shows that this was an ideal, only to be set before an ideal exercitant. Where health or other considerations interfered, Ignatius was willing to give a retreat even though the exercitant could spare but an hour a day, in the evening. A similar large-mindedness should be exercised by the director with regard to all regulations, if the essentials are faithfully observed. But in what follows, we shall, like the Saint, speak of an ideal retreat; health, education, good will and a desire to direct one's life according to God's will being presupposed.

One begins with introductory matter (The Foundation), with philosophy to remedy the common deficiency—insufficient attention to Divine Providence. The philosophy is very brief but very thorough. The Foundation contains no dogma. Any theist could make it without scruple; any philosopher who accepts the principle of causation, will acquiesce in it at once. It is merely a common-sense presentation of the first consequences of creation; but it is admirably adapted to steady the mind as the soul looks out over the vast ensemble of things, human and divine, and girds itself to show to its Creator a service that shall be intelligent, free and loving, as well as entire and generous. On the other hand if, through carelessness and want of fidelity, any intellectual problems are avoided, left unfaced or unsounded at this stage, it would be in vain to proceed with the superstructure.

Once full of the thought that God has a right to our service, the inevitable sequel will be, to examine closely whether our conduct in God's regard, has been service or disservice; and so we are led on, even in the preliminary stage, to self-examination and to penance for wrong done. "Do penance, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Here, then, is the place for humble and complete confession of all past sin, for seeking sacramental absolution, for insisting on penitential thoughts about death, judgment, the danger of sin and its punishment, with other considerations of kindred nature, until the director sees that the exercitant has not only thoroughly purged his soul of the stains of sin but also acquired a genuine love and practice of penance. Ignatius would think it useless to proceed until these intellectual and moral foundations are thoroughly and safely laid, but he prescribes no definite time for this process. It generally occupies about a week, but the director has to decide each case on its merits.

Thus prepared by energetic purification of the soul, the exercitant commences the Second Week of "the exercises," which is the most it strikingly Ignatian part of the whole retreat. Its topic of meditation is the Life of Christ, and its special character is given by an introductory contemplation entitled, Of the Kingdom of Christ. The election of a state of life comes during its course.

Ignatius is almost entirely wanting in rhetoric, and yet his words have a strange power. Rugged and unkempt as his sentences are, this is found to be due to his persistent endeavours to use only the most precise terms, and those least liable to misapprehension. He has a special note before the "exercises" begin, on the need of keeping quite clear of misunderstandings. On the other hand, he is intent on dramatic positions. If he tells you to meditate on hell as if you were actually there, he is careful not to conclude the exercise without transporting you to the foot of the Cross on Calvary. This contrast, and others like it, are found to be intensely moving.

As an introduction to the Second Week of the "exercises" he brings out the dramatic situation by a parable which, in these days of almost universal conscription, as in Ignatius's days of almost universal military service, will be better appreciated than in days when the military uniform became a stumbling block to some. Ignatius's parable sets before us an ideal king, with divine appointment (such as David's), and acknowledged authority over ally Christendom, such as the Holy Roman Empire once claimed. This ideal sovereign, the acme of all that is affable, friendly and fellow-soldier-like, makes proclamation to all Christendom, that he is about to make war on the infidel and to free all the lands they have over-run. What a furor that would have raised in a fighting age! The king, moreover, promises to go in the front line, to bear every trial with his men, and to reward richly every example of bravery. There is no power on earth able to evoke so much enthusiasm as a great leader calling on his men in a just quarrel. Ignatius notes the scorn that would be poured on any knight who slunk away from the call, and he also notes how there would surely be many a generous soul who would burn to show his zeal and diligently train himself to play a heroic part under such a sovereign leader.

Then comes the dramatic change of scene. If an earthly king's summons would enkindle such a fire of zeal, how much more worthy the call of the Eternal King, in whom every attractive feature, every advantage every incentive is verified in an infinitely higher degree? He comes to all  to men and to women, to weak as to strong, and proposes to each His golden terms, gently, companionably, doing first ten thousand times more than He asks us to imitate. "Who would not die for Thee, Jesu, my Leader! Cannot I train myself to show service of special value?"

The last query might in passing seem like a rhetorical question, but it really foreshadows the election, which will appear after three or four days during which the great mysteries of the Incarnation, of the Birth, and the Flight into Egypt, and all the beautiful lessons of our Savior's childhood have been lovingly pondered. After thinking of the Holy Child leaving His mother in order "to be about my Father's business," we turn to consider: "Am I perhaps also called to leave house, and home, and to serve Christ in poverty?" And here naturally presents itself the subject of election of a state of life.

Ignatius, as might be expected, gives a good deal of space to this subject. Not only does he describe two methods of making the election of a state of life (which will serve for any other momentous choice) and a scheme For, the Emendation of Life; but he also gives this topic the honour of a special introductory meditation: Of Two Standards (De dos Banderas). He strengthens the will for its choice by the highly Ignatian parable Of Three Couples of Men (De tres binarios de hombres), and he lays down Three Canons on Humility (Tres maneras de Humildad), which give us a scale, on the base of humility, by which we can measure securely even the greatest heights in the loyal following of Christ. Nothing seems to Ignatius more important during the election than the inculcation of humility, with the kindred virtues of poverty—spiritual if not also actual—and love of contempt. These three might be called the election programme of Jesus, just as their opposites, love of money, love of honour and pride, form the election programme of our diabolic enemy. This is the spiritual doctrine of The Two Standards, and if our election is made under its influence, there can be no doubt that it will have been made in conformity with that Divine Will, which, as we saw from the first, is the criterion by which alone we ought to make our choice.

After the election the exercitant returns to the sequence of meditations on the Life of Christ and while he follows the stages in Christ's ministry and in His Passion, it will be impossible for him not to go over his resolutions often, and to amend or mature them in the light of our Lord's example.

The Passion of Christ is the proper subject of the Third Week, and the Risen Life of the Fourth Week. Ignatius warns us not to shorten this week, as we may be tempted to do, out of fatigue. There is very great efficacy in the motives of hope and confidence, which these meditations are so well calculated to strengthen.

The result of making the spiritual exercises under the guidance of Ignatius, or of one trained in his system, is to brace the soul in no ordinary way for living on a higher spiritual plane. In this respect the book has been praised alike by believer and unbeliever. "A masterpiece of pedagogy," says the modern German, Karl Holl. The great soul of Cardinal Newman, writing about his first acquaintance with the book in his Anglican days, was struck by the lofty and direct intercourse with God, which it taught, so different from the cult of splendid images which he had been brought up to consider characteristic of Catholic devotion.

"Here, in a matter consisting in the purest and most direct acts of religion—in the intercourse between God and the soul, during a season of recollection, of repentance, of good resolution, of inquiry into vocation—the soul was, Sola cum solo;  there was no cloud interposed between the creature and the Object of his faith and love. The command practically enforced was, 'My son, give Me thy heart.' The devotion then to Angels and Saints as little interfered with the incommunicable glory of the Eternal, as the love we bear our friends and relations, our tender human sympathies, are inconsistent with that supreme homage of the heart to the Unseen, which really does but sanctify and exalt, not jealously destroy, what is of earth." (Apologia, 1864 P. 31.)

Janssen, the German historian, speaking of the great revival of the Counter-reformation, says, "This little book, considered even by Protestants as a psychological masterpiece of the first class, has been for the German nation, and towards the history of its faith and civilization, one of the most important writings of modern times. . . . It has worked such extraordinary influence over souls that no other ascetic work may be compared to it."

Of course there have been objections. They arose at first from the short-sightedness of certain ecclesiastics who took offence at Ignatius's teaching religious matters when only a layman. Then there came the criticisms of rival theologians and rival orders, and finally the attacks of sectarianism. But the most common criticisms are those that sprang from mere error and prejudice. Of this general character are the censures passed by modern fault-finders. They are mostly derived directly or indirectly from the attacks of Michelet and Quinet, and from novels like Sue's Wandering Jew. Among the utterances of reputable authors we may reckon phrases like William James's idea of the result of The Exercises:  "a half-hallucinated monoideism"; while Huysmans speaks of the same thing as "a counterfeit Japanese culture of dwarf trees." Any acquaintance with the lofty spiritual ideals put forward in The Exercises, or with the wonderful revival which has followed their propaganda, will be sufficient to discount these wordy fulminations.

The propositions most often challenged are found in Ignatius's "Rules for Thinking with the Church." It is no wonder that those who love to attack the Church, should quarrel with them; but the alleged quotations often entirely misrepresent the author's words. They accuse him, for instance, of having said that, "We must be ready to believe black is white, if the Church should so define." What he really says is, "I should be ready, if the Church so defines, to believe what I see white to be black." Ignatius wishes us to be ready to submit all our personal, human judgments to the Church; for they are all fallible, even quite simple ones, like seeing; though the danger of error in them is remote. But the misquoted sentence is unreasonable: it affirms two contraries, black and white, about the same thing. Ignatius would have scorned that. Faith rises above human reason, but never goes against it.

The words in praise of The Exercises, from Christians of every class and especially from the Saints of modern times, far outweigh the cavils of objectors. They were well summed up in recent times by Pope Leo XIII:

"The importance of St. Ignatius's book with regard to the eternal welfare of souls, has been proved by an experience of three centuries, and by the evidence of those remarkable men, who during all that time have distinguished themselves in the paths of asceticism, or in the practice of sanctity."

Studying Ignatius, as we are doing, with an eye for Christ-like features, we may well conclude our survey of The Spiritual Exercises  with a parallel in some respects between them and the discourses of the Incarnate Word. Of course there can be nothing like parity here. Christ in His sermons gives a new law, sub lime but most simple; addressed to all, though rising to divine grandeur. Ignatius has a very different aim. His is merely a new drill-book. It contains no new revelations, no new doctrine. It is addressed not to all, but only to the director of the retreat, and though most sagacious, cannot be called either simple or eloquent, or even beautiful. The likeness lies (if one may so say) in their fundamental character. Christ's first great discourse upon the Mount, has been aptly described as "The Charter of Christianity." As in a summary, a preface or an epilogue, all Christianity is here in germ, in blossom, in first fruit. It contains topics for preachers, legislators, religious reformers; it proclaims a new law, which supersedes and transfigures the old.

Ignatius's Exercises  imitate this in so far as they introduce a new energy, a new era, a new legislation, into the life of the exercitant and so in time, into the lives of families, congregations, towns, countries, and eventually into the Church at large. In this sense it is no exaggeration to trace back the great counter-reform movement to the book of The Exercises, as one of its primary sources.