The Spiritual Exercises

By Ignatius of Loyola


The Spiritual Exercises are an organized series of spiritual exercises put together by Ignatius of Loyola out of his own personal spiritual experience and that of others to whom he listened. The invite the "retreatant" or "exercitant" to "meditate" on central aspects of Christian faith (e.g., creation, sin and forgiveness, calling and ministry) and especially to "contemplate" (i.e., imaginatively enter into) the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Ignatius set all of this down in the book of the Spiritual Exercises as a handbook to help the guide who coaches a person engaged in "making the Exercises." After listening to that person and getting a sense for where he/she is, the guide selects from material and methods in the book of the Exercises and offers them in a way adapted to that unique individual. The goal of all this is the attainment of a kind of spiritual freedom, the power to act - not out of social pressure or personal compulsion and fear - but out of the promptings of God's spirit in the deepest, truest core of one's being - to act ultimately out of love.

As originally designed, the "full" Spiritual Exercises would occupy a person for four weeks full-time, but Ignatius realized that some people could not [today most people cannot] disengage from work and home obligations for that long a time, and so it is possible to make the "full" Exercises part-time over a period of six to nine or ten months - the "Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life (SEDL)." In that case, the "exercitant," without withdrawing from home or work, devotes about an hour a day to prayer (but this, like nearly everything in the Exercises, is adaptable) and sees a guide every week or two to process what has been happening in prayer and in the rest of his/her life.

Most of the time people make not the "full" Spiritual Exercises but a retreat in the Ignatian spirit that might last anywhere from a weekend to a week. Such a retreat usually /includes either a daily individual conversation with a guide or several daily presentations to a group, as preparation for prayer/spiritual exercises.

Ignatius had composed and revised his little book over a period of twenty-five or more years before it was finally published in 1548. Subsequent editions and translations - according to a plausible estimate - numbered some 4,500 in 1948 or about one a month over four centuries, the total number of copies printed being around 4,500,000. It is largely on his Exercises - with their implications for teaching and learning in a holistic way - that Ignatius' reputation as a major figure in the history of western education rests.