The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are the bedrock of Ignatian spirituality. The origin of the Exercises is found in Ignatius’ own personal experience of conversion and prayer. An avid journal keeper, Ignatius recorded particular ‘spiritual exercises’ he felt could be of benefit to others. Through a process of reflection and redaction Ignatius produced a small manual of considerations, meditations, contemplations and notes to help others advance their spiritual life. Within a short period of time the Spiritual Exercises became renown for their transformative effect on those who received them. In a letter to the Rev Miona, Ignatius noted;
‘The Spiritual Exercises is the very best thing that in this life, I can think, perceive or understand for helping a person benefit himself as well as bringing fruit, benefit, and advantage to many others.’
In their full form the Spiritual Exercises constitute a retreat made up of four sequential parts called ‘weeks’. These weeks immerse the receiver in the mystery of God’s merciful and redemptive love, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The experience of being a loved sinner leads the receiver to consider their love response to God’s love for them. Through contemplating the life and mission of Jesus, the receiver is invited to hear the call of Christ particular to their life, to weigh their values against the values and vision of Christ vis a vis those of the world. Through contemplating the suffering, death and resurrection the receiver deepens the experience of being an intimate follower of Jesus, accompanying him in his pain and the joy of his resurrected glory.
In Silence over 30+ days
Ignatius felt these four weeks were best experienced in solitude over a 30+ day period. In what is called the 20th annotation, Ignatius prescribed solitude as a means of deriving the most profit from the Exercises. By distancing oneself from family, friends and worldly distractions the individual is better disposed to discerning and responding to the movement and will of God in the retreat.
Traditionally the 30 day or long retreat was seen as the preserve of religious and priests. In recent decades this trend has changed with increasing numbers of lay people experiencing this form of the Spiritual Exercises. Today Jesuit retreat houses like Sevenhill in South Australia provide a special space for undertaking the full Exercises under guidance from experienced spiritual directors. The combination of hospitality, natural beauty, quiet, and accompaniment provides the perfect space for opening oneself to the graces of the Spiritual Exercises.
In Daily Life over 30+ weeks
Ignatius was also aware of people who would benefit from the full Spiritual Exercises but who were unable to disengage fully from their worldly commitments. In such cases Ignatius recommended a person receive the full Spiritual Exercises over 30 weeks in daily life, meeting regularly with their director. This is commonly referred to as the 19th annotation or retreat in daily life and has become an increasingly popular form of experiencing the full Exercises. The 19th annotation retreat is more accessible to those who cannot afford the time and financial cost of a month long retreat. Non-residential spirituality centres such as Campion in Victoria and Faber in Queensland, provide access to trained Givers of the Spiritual Exercises who can guide suitable candidates through the 30 week retreat.