St Ignatius wrote this director’s manual for giving the Spiritual Exercises out of his own experiences over the time he was in the cave at Manresa, and subsequent to that, even when he was studying in Paris. He first gave the full Exercises, over 30 days, to a few of his fellow students even before meeting Francis Xavier and Peter Favre. This intensive retreat them became a standard part of Jesuit formation (along with experiences in various apostolic works and a pilgrimage). Nowadays the 30 Day retreat is open to all Christians along with the 33 Week adaptation.
The aim of this spiritual experience, Ignatius writes in the introduction, is to ‘prepare and dispose the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, to seek and find the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.’ During the retreat the Exercitant (as the participant is called) discovers those things in his or her life that are getting in the way of his or her relationship with God, and learns how God communicates with him or her, revealing how this one unique individual can live life to the full with God.
The Spiritual Exercises are divided into four phases or ‘Weeks’ (not actually 7 days) each of which builds on the last.
The first week of the Exercises is a time of reflection on our lives in light of God’s boundless love for us. We see that our response to God’s love has been hindered by patterns of sin. We face these sins knowing that God wants to free us of everything that gets in the way of our loving response to him.
The meditations and prayers of the second week teach us how to follow Christ as his disciples. We reflect on Scripture passages: Christ’s birth and baptism, his sermon on the mount, his ministry of healing and teaching, his raising Lazarus from the dead. We are brought to decisions to change our lives to do Christ’s work in the world and to love him more intimately.
In the third and fourth weeks we meditate on Christ’s Last Supper, passion, and death. We see his suffering and the gift of the Eucharist as the ultimate expression of God’s love. We meditate on Jesus’ resurrection and his apparitions to his disciples. We walk with the risen Christ and set out to love and serve him in concrete ways in our lives in the world.
The two primary forms of praying taught in the Exercises are meditation and contemplation. In meditation, we use our minds. We ponder the basic principles that guide our life. We pray over words, images, and ideas. Contemplation is more about feeling than thinking. Contemplation often stirs the emotions and enkindles deep desires. In contemplation, we rely on our imaginations to place ourselves in a setting from the Gospels or in a scene proposed by Ignatius.
Flowing through the Exercises is the practice of the discernment of spirits This means that the Exercitant notices the interior movements of his or her heart, and discerns where these are leading him or her. A regular practice of discernment helps them make good decisions.
All the characteristic themes of Ignatian spirituality are grounded in the Exercises. These include a sense of collaboration with God’s action in the world, spiritual discernment in decision making, generosity of response to God’s invitation, fraternity and companionship in service, and a disposition to find God in all things. Spiritual integration is a prominent theme of the Exercises: integration of contemplation and action, prayer and service, and emotions and reason.