Spiritual Exercises

Article by: Karl Benson
Purpose of the Spiritual Exercises

Your lifework—your divine calling—is to be your most authentic self. This unique path to wholeness is found by following the desires that rise from your deepest and truest self—your union with God.

The Spiritual Exercises facilitate spiritual exploration to help you connect deeply with God and discern your unique path to wholeness. The path that releases you to be you.

What are the Spiritual Exercises?

Nearly 500 years ago St Ignatius wrote a little manual entitled "The Spiritual Exercises". The manual is a set of guidelines to help a Spiritual Director lead a person through a series of prayerful reflections on the life of Christ. These reflections are the exercises.

Structure of the Spiritual Exercises

The Spiritual Exercises have five phases. The preparatory exercises, followed by four phases known as 'weeks'.

I put 'weeks' in quotes as they may not be seven days long. The Spiritual Director may adapt the exercises to meet the needs of the person making them. If a particular 'week' is proving fruitful for a person, the Spiritual Director may suggest extending it. If it is not, they may suggest reducing it. The goal is not to get to the end of the 'week', but to receive all the graces it offers.

If you wish to do the Spiritual Exercises, find a trained Spiritual Director—who has completed the exercises themselves—to guide you through them.

There are several ways to make the exercises:

The preparatory exercises

The preparatory exercises prepare your heart and mind for the Spiritual Exercises to come. They bring you to a place of knowing God created you and loves you. You will reflect on God's creation, including yourself, and His love for the world.

You will also look at the principle and foundation that the remaining Spiritual Exercises are based upon. The main elements of which are:

Week 1

The first week continues the theme of God's love and creative process by looking at the ways we hinder them. You look at:

Freedom from these hindrances gives you the freedom to say yes to God and become who you were created to be.

Week 2

In the second 'week', you will reflect on the life and ministry of Jesus so that you may freely choose to love him more dearly, know him more clearly, and follow him more closely. We reflect on:

Week 3

The focus of the third week is to deepen your intimacy and commitment to Jesus by accompanying him through the last week of his life. You will reflect on:

Week 4

The focus of the fourth 'week' is the joy of living the resurrected life. We reflect on:

Further information
A Short history of the Spiritual Exercises

St Ignatius of Loyola—the founder of the Society of Jesus commonly known as the Jesuits—was born in 1491 as Íñigo López de Loyola. Íñigo was a nobleman and a soldier from Loyola in the north of Spain whose early life can be described as one of loose living.

As a soldier in 1521, Íñigo found himself in a battle with the French in Pamplona, northern Spain. During the battle, a cannon ball smashed through the citadel wall he was defending and seriously wounded his legs. 

The French soldiers initially tended his wounds before carrying him back home to Loyola to recover.

While recovering Íñigo asked for books to read that fit his interests: shivery, nobility, courageous acts and such. However, the only books available to him were The life of Christ and stories of the Saints.

He spent his time thinking about wooing women and acts of chivalry once he had recovered. But he also thought about devoting his life to God and imitating the courageous acts of the saints of his reading. In doing so he noticed a difference in how he felt after his imaginings. Setting his mind on 'worldly' things left him feeling dry and desolate. But setting his mind on 'holy' things left him feeling joy and consolation.

When Íñigo recovered he set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the way he stopped off at Manresa (near Barcelona) and spent many months in prayer and reflection on his inner experiences. He began to recognise and discern the inner movements that lead him closer to God (consolation), and those that drew him away (desolation).

The eventual fruit of this period was the Spiritual Exercises, which he hoped would help others avoid the pitfalls he had fallen into.