What are the Spiritual Exercises?

26 May, 2016

The Spiritual Exercises are a series of practical instructions and meditations arranged to help the exercitant (the person going through the Exercises) come to a deeper knowledge of both himself and God. St. Ignatius’s intention is to lead the exercitant to a renewed conversion and reformation of his life. This is why the title reads: “Spiritual Exercises which have as their goal the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life…” [21]

Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises are not just dictations of pious sermons or meditations; rather, his program is to bring about the purification of inordinate (that is, improper) attachments from the soul and then lead the mind and the will into union with God. In other words, it is:

  1. 1st: To reform what is deformed (in the soul).
  2. 2nd: To conform (to Christ) what is reformed.
  3. 3rd: To confirm what is conformed.
  4. 4th: To transform what is confirmed.

St. Ignatius first gave the Spiritual Exercises to young men he met at the University of Paris. The Exercises so affected them that they pledged themselves to each other as “friends in the Lord.” However, the Spiritual Exercises soon became popular with many types of people. In 1548, St. Ignatius translated the Exercises into Latin and submitted them to Rome for official approval. Today, priests, religious men and women of many different orders, and lay men and women of all walks of life make the Spiritual Exercises a regular part of their spiritual lives.

St. Ignatius originally planned his Spiritual Exercises as a 30-day retreat that was similar to the experience he himself had during his conversion experience. However, being both intelligent and practical, he realized that the Exercises would need to be adaptable for both clergy and laity alike. The Spiritual Exercises can be conducted in formal retreats lasting three days or a week, or any other duration that’s convenient for those attending.

The Exercises can also be done by those who cannot attend a formal retreat. St. Ignatius provides advice on how the Exercises can be done in the spare moments of one’s day. The entire set of Exercises can be done in this way, or people can focus on specific parts of the Exercises that seem to be most needed for them at that time. Since the process of conversion and reformation is never finished on this side of Heaven, St. Ignatius expected the Exercises to be repeated regularly during one’s lifetime.

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