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About the Spiritual Exercises

500 years ago, St. Ignatius of Loyola developed a prayer method called the Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises have helped countless people to draw near to God, learn how to better sense God’s actions in their lives, and make healthier and holier choices. The Exercises can take different forms and formats, but it is a good idea to have a guide or director who can work with you as you go through them. I am available to assist you with this.

The Spiritual Exercises and Discernment

When St. Ignatius first created the Spiritual Exercises, he intended them to be used by people who were discerning a call to the vowed religious life. Discernment is a big focus of the Spiritual Exercises. When you’re faced with a big choice, you might find you’re able to make better decisions when you can get the full perspective, weigh the options, and remain free and open to all the possible outcomes of the choice. If you’re a religious person, you will also be searching for signs of God’s will or plan for you.

St. Ignatius developed the Exercises specifically to assist with big life decisions for the new Catholic religious order that he started, the Jesuits. Originally, the Exercises were mapped out for a 30 day retreat, or roughly 4 weeks of prayer, silence, meditation, reflection, and conversation with a director. Ignatius wrote out directions for these 4 weeks of prayer with suggestions for prayer, areas of focus, and useful techniques. It’s quite detailed!

Quite quickly, other people learned about the Spiritual Exercises and asked for them. Few people can take a whole month off and dedicate it to a retreat, and so variations on the Spiritual Exercises were developed to work with the demands of daily life. In Ignatian lingo these are referred to as “19th Annotation” forms of the Exercises, after the note that St. Ignatius wrote on the subject. 19th Annotation versions of the Spiritual Exercises will often proceed for 9-12 months. It is this 19th Annotation format that I offer. See below for more specifics about that.

The Format and Structure of the Exercises

As I said above, St. Ignatius created the Exercises for a 30 day retreat format, or roughly four weeks. In the Exercises, each Week has a major focus:

  • The first week- Creation, sin, and God’s love for you
  • The second week- The life of Jesus from his birth up until just before the crucifixion
  • The third week- The last week of Jesus’s life before the crucifixion, and his death
  • The fourth week- The resurrection of Jesus and what comes after.

But each “Week” of the exercises isn’t a literal 7 days period. Typically, the 19th Annotation form of the Spiritual Exercises, which stretch over a 9-12 month period, will make each “Week” into a 2-3 month emphasis. Thus, the Exercises help the person taking them to really get to know Jesus by praying with the story of his life intently. Along the way, there are several prayer techniques and methods that are introduced, and a sequence of specific topics for meditation and reflection. One method that is used throughout the Exercises is known as Imaginative Prayer, or Ignatian Contemplation.

The spines of a dozen books all about the Spiritual Exercises

Ignatian Contemplation

The Exercises will introduce you to several ways to pray and concepts to help your spiritual life, but Ignatian Contemplation is one technique that is used throughout the Exercises. Ignatian Contemplation is a method for praying with Scripture. St. Ignatius believed that the human capacity for imagination is a God-given gift. Daydreaming is a powerful thing! Our ability to mentally picture an episode and imagine the sights and sounds of that episode is the key to Ignatian Contemplation.

We sit down to read carefully through an episode in the Gospels or some other passage of scripture. Then we take some time to really imagine the episode as vividly as possible – what sounds do we hear, how bright is the sunlight, what smells fill the air? To the best of our mental abilities, we put ourselves into the event and imagine ourselves there with Jesus. We let the episode speak to us, and we take the time to soak in the Scripture. It’s a powerful method, especially as you gain familiarity with it. In the course of the Exercises, you will expect to spent 30-45 minutes a day praying with a Scriptural passages.

The Examen

Another technique that is introduced early on in the Exercises is the Examen, or examination of conscience. If that sounds intimidating, just think of it as an intentional reflection on your day. The Examen is a brief (10-15 minute) prayerful review of the day that has past, and most frequently it’s done in the evening just before bed. The method of the Examen will vary from person to person, but here’s the essence of it:

  1. Sitting quietly, review the day that has past, taking note of all the ups and downs, the highs and lows.
  2. Give thanks for the many things that you’re grateful for. If it’s a struggle at first, really take the time and attention to make room for gratitude. Most of us have an easier time finding the bad stuff than the good, but the good stuff is there. Give thanks for the good stuff.
  3. Find one thing that you wish had gone differently. If you were at fault for it, bring that confession to God. If it’s something troubling you or someone else, bring it to God in prayer.
  4. Look forward to the next day, and ask God to help you with it.

The Examen is a part of the Spiritual Exercises, but it can also be used as a stand-alone prayer practice. Read more about it:

Practical Matters

The Spiritual Exercises involve a degree of commitment and intensity. Over 10 months, you can expect to spend 45-60 minutes a day, 6 or 7 days a week, engaged in prayer. We will have weekly spiritual directions meetings, for 30-60 minutes each time. During those talks, we’ll discuss any insights you’ve had, difficulties that have come up, questions that you’re wrestling with, and the next week’s topics and prayers. My asking rate for the Spiritual Exercises is $120 per month, which includes the weekly direction sessions.

It is demanding! But perhaps you’re at the right time in your life for it. If you’d like to talk it over, with no obligation, get in touch with me!