The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius grew out of the transforming experience of nine months of prayer, reflection and reading that St Ignatius had as an invalided Catalonian soldier in 1521. His sense of the love of God was so compelling that he gave up his belongings and local status and sought to find a way to live out of a new sense of purpose. Over a period of nine months living as a beggar Ignatius wrote down his Spiritual Exercises. He included directions for the giver and the receiver of the Exercises.
Armed with his direct experience of God, Ignatius gave the Spiritual Exercises to other lay people, men and women so that ‘one might seek and find the divine will in regard to the disposition of one’s life for the salvation of the soul’. Just as he used his imagination in his time of convalescence, Ignatius invited those people praying the Exercises to do the same, engaging their wills, minds, hearts and life experiences in the prayer. People were being helped by this experience of guided prayer and there was clearly a thirst for it. Eventually this led to him studying theology and giving the exercises to fellow ordinands, who were ordained and began the Society of Jesus. They were the first Jesuits.
In the 1970s there was a re-enlivening of the giving of Spiritual Exercises. It seems that the experience had been largely lost to lay people for a long time and was perhaps largely presented as a preached retreat. Religious other than Jesuits were invited to join them in the giving of the Exercises, and the method of giving them individually was reinvigorated. Lay people were again receiving them, then in the 90s lay people were being trained to give them around Australia.
In Brisbane we were very lucky with our first training team for the Giving of the Spiritual Exercises; John Drury SJ, John Borger, Delphine O’Shea MSS, Audrey Graham FFM and Vince Hurley SJ. We could not have had a training team more experienced or well versed in the Spiritual Exercises or dedicated to the ministry in Brisbane.
As Givers of this retreat we are invited to be witnesses to the intimate work of God in people’s lives; that is, to notice how God relates personally to people. We see their growing relationship with God through prayerful reflection with Jesus’ life and on their own story, observe healing and increasing freedom and reconciliation. We see healthy choices being made through discernment of personal vocations.
The retreat can be given intensely over thirty days or in daily life over thirty weeks. The slowness of the retreat is significant because it is gentle, deep, transforming and integrated. The retreatant has plenty of time to notice for themselves how God is calling them interiorly and in concrete ways. They notice God’s love in concrete ways in their lives. There is no rush. By including much repetition Ignatius understood profoundly the value of staying with the movements in the prayer in an increasingly focussed way.
The adaptive nature of the retreat is vital because it is respectful to both the retreatant and the direction of God, the true guide. Ideally the material presented is kept simple allowing space for God’s interaction with the individual. Some retreatants need a lot more time, and some find it helpful to receive the retreat material to be expressed in different ways. Retreatants discover that particular times for prayer or different environments suit them better. There is time to savour significant experiences or wait when there is no movement in the prayer or resistance to it.
It is Ignatius’ intention to encourage in the retreatant their own insights because these insights will stay with them and have lasting effect. It is from these experiences that the retreatant will begin to discern their own purpose, the way in which God’s voice is expressed most clearly in their lives and the ‘fruits’ of this way of responding.
The months taken for the retreat allows personal narrative to surface and be viewed in the light of God’s love; to be embraced or transformed. Because every retreatant brings their lived experience to God in prayer, they notice things about Jesus and his followers that no other retreatant has mentioned. Each person’s experience is different and reflects their unique relationship with God. John Reilly SJ would say that you can’t understand God, but you can know God. Each retreatant knows God a little differently. It must wonderful for God to be known and loved more deeply by each person. Wonderful for the retreatant to know that they are seen and known and loved by God.
The conversation between the giver and the receiver each week is critical. The articulation of the experience of the prayer and life of the retreatant allows the receiver of the Spiritual Exercises to find words to express their experience and to notice connections with what is happening in their daily lives and in their prayer. It is this conversation, where the giver is primarily providing a space for the experiences to be aired and noticed, and the patterns seen, that enables deeper insight and integration. This accepting and loving space we provide for spiritual conversation is vital and retreatants often say that talking about the prayer experience gave them more clarity and insight. Finding a language for the experiences enables them to share naturally with others.
Thirty-plus weeks allows time for the retreatant to experience being found by God in all aspects of their life, to find God and the ‘sacred in all things, in all persons, and in all circumstances’. It allows time for the weaving together of Jesus’ life and their lives, to reflect on areas of their lives that have been left unexamined, to move towards a dynamic wholeness, and to discern ways of living from this wholeness with freedom and love.
It is an amazing experience to be invited to accompany others on these remarkable pilgrimages guided by God. Both the receiver and the giver experience God’s guidance. Each time we accompany another we are being expanded in our own knowing of God, in wonder and our own capacity for love and freedom. As long as people are being are called to this retreat and are being helped by it, and we are being called to give it, we can embrace this beautiful, significant but largely hidden work, holding lightly and tenderly and trusting in God.
 The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, translated by Michael Ivens, SJ. Gracewing, 2004.
 Loyola Marymount University, Glossary of Ignatian Terms
Kerry Holland is a Giver of the Spiritual Exercises, Spiritual Director and a practising artist. See below for Kerry’s prizing wining pottery and artist statement.
Kerry Holland – artist statement for Blake Prize Exhibition 2013
When I held this piece of pottery fresh from the kiln, I looked inside it’s raw, wobbly form of fired earth and saw a galaxy. I remembered the interior discovery that God’s imminence and transcendence are one and the same. I make art to find God and be found.
‘Freedom In Finite’
hand built ceramic, 1280 deg.C, reduction