The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) are a universally acknowledged masterpiece of the spiritual combat.
Since Pope Paul III approved the book in 1548, most if not all Popes have spoken out favorably about the Exercises. Pope Pius XI speaks about them in two Encyclicals: Mens nostra (Dec. 20th, 1929) and Meditantibus nobis (Dec. 3rd, 1922) that are easily accessible to all. Pope Pius XII writes in a letter on the occasion of the 4th centenary of the death of St. Ignatius: “Indeed, St. Ignatius has left nothing more precious, nor more useful, nor of more lasting worth, as a heritage to his sons, than that golden book which, has constantly received the highest praise from Sovereign Pontiffs since Paul III, and from very many saints in the Church.”
Purpose and structure
God gives to His Church whatever she needs at a particular time. St. Ignatius lived at the same time as Martin Luther! The former, a converted soldier, priest and saint, a miracle of God’s grace; the latter, a fallen priest and heresiarch, the ugly flower of the spirit of Renaissance. Mankind had long begun to drift away from God, our Lord. Through the work of St. Ignatius, Holy Church is not only endowed with an entirely new brand of religious orders, but also with an immortal method for the recollection and sanctification of souls: the Exercises!
The Saint himself indicates the purpose or goal of the Exercises (n° 21): “Spiritual Exercises for the overcoming of self and the regulation of one’s life on the basis of a decision arrived at without any unregulated motive.” This is followed by a reflection on the “fundamental principle” of our existence, the fact that we have been created by God and for God; and that all other created things on earth for man’s sake and to help him attain his goal, eternal happiness in Heaven. The only adequate attitude, therefore, is to make ourselves impartial or indifferent towards all created realities. What counts, is solely that we save our soul – everything else has no absolute value in itself.
Then the Exercises unfold the fundamental principle in the course of four “weeks”:
(1) The contemplation of sin and its consequences
(2) The Incarnation and earthly life of the Son of God and its consequences for me
(3) The sacred Passion and Death of Our Lord
(4) The glorious mysteries of Our Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension
The four weeks have been summed up very concisely in as many sentences:
(1) deformata reformare – to reform what has been deformed by sin;
(2) reformata conformare – to make what is thus reformed conform to the Divine model, Jesus;
(3) conformata confirmare – to strengthen what thus conforms;
(4) confirmata transformare – to transform by love the already strengthened resolutions.
The Exercises are spiked with hints, instruction, additions, rules… the most prominent being the rules for discerning the spirits, and the rules about the mind of the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia). St. Ignatius constantly insists that all of these can and must be adapted to the person receiving or following the Exercises. Thus what at first glance appears as an impenetrable and obscure labyrinth, becomes an excellent means of purifying and sanctifying the soul.
30 Day or 5 Day?
The big problem always was that the Ignatian Retreat extends over four weeks! That was fine for Jesuits who could make their own plans – but hardly for lay people. Thus at the beginning of the 20th century Father Francis de Paul Vallet, who had himself done the 30 days’ retreat at Manresa, Spain, and gone on to become a Jesuit, devised a plan to condense the essential meditations of the Exercises into a course of five days more easily accessible to all. He founded a religious Congregations, the Parish Cooperators of Christ the King, which took on preaching such five day retreats. Many Catholics in Spain have persevered in the good combat – literally – in the days of the cruel civil war (1936) thanks to the solid grounding they had laid through following such Exercises. Nowadays the Spiritual Exercises are often given in five, eight or ten days. It is rare to find a 30 day retreat…
Why should I make the Exercises?
“Modern” man has become incredibly stupid and weak in all that touches upon the spiritual realm, that of the Faith! There are so many things that we consider as essential or necessary, that we find it difficult to focus on the one thing necessary (cf. Lk 10,42). This is just where St. Ignatius starts, as has been pointed out above.
The Exercises force you to face your own self and to take responsibility for what you are and for what you are doing (1st week). They put your life into the right context, that of God’s work of Redemption through Our Lord Jesus Christ (2nd – 4th week). They allow you to learn how to concentrate, meditate and contemplate! They empower you to make decisions in such a way that you won’t build obstacles for your spiritual progress.
St. Ignatius sums up the advantages of making a proper spiritual retreat (n° 20):
(1) great merit by getting away from one’s usual occupations, friends etc. for several days
(2) focusing and concentrating on the true purpose of one’s life
(3) solitude is a prerequisite to approach God and to receive His favors and gifts
So the Exercises are the Catholic form of a “concentration” camp – the only one that should ever have existed!