Iñigo de Loyola was a devil-may-care, 26-year-old squire to the King of Castile when his leg was shattered in the battle of Pamplona. In his long convalescence in the family manor, Iñigo underwent a religious conversion that inspired him to give up his former ways and live a penitential hermit’s life in Manresa, Spain, on the banks of the river Cardoner. With the guidance of a Benedictine spiritual director, and under the influence of books such as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis and the Vita Christi of Ludolph of Saxony, Iñigo penned in incorrect Spanish a notebook record of the consolations, graces, and inner wrenchings he experienced while meditating on scripture, and through which God kindly educated him “as the schoolmaster does a child.”
The crucial insight Iñigo had was that his Manresa notebook could become a practical manual in escorting others through mystical contact with their soul’s deepest yearnings and thus with God. Calling the book Spiritual Exercises, and jotting additions to it as he went along, Iñigo carried it with him on his journey north to the University of Paris in 1528. He was 37 years old, with little money, and could only communicate with the international population of the Sorbonne with a sketchy Latin. But one by one the scrawny, limping, charismatic mendicant persuaded his much younger classmates to retreat from the world with his exercises for a month, and one by one they became his “friends in the Lord” until seven of them professed the vows that were the first step to forming the Society of Jesus.
Iñigo López de Loyola was by then a Master of Arts and was calling himself Ignatius. In three years he would be ordained a priest and soon after that become the Superior General of a congregation headquartered in Rome and officially approved by Pope Paul III. But Ignatius never ceased giving his Spiritual Exercises and consented to have his finer Latin translation of them published in 1548.
Ignatius wrote that his Spiritual Exercises “have as their purpose the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.” The first week of the exercises requires a scrupulous examination of our life history, seeing God’s loyal and loving presence within it, but also acknowledging the sins, addictions, and predilections that hindered our possibilities. The first week ends with a meditation on Christ’s call for us to follow him, with the promise that we will lead richer, happier lives.
The second week essentially teaches us how to follow Christ more closely by establishing us as his disciples. We watch his birth and accompany him in his baptism in the river Jordan, his sermon on the mount, his raising of Lazarus from the dead, and other healing and teaching events in his public ministry. Empowered by the love of God and our friendship with Jesus, we are required to make a choice of a way of life, a choice that may involve a great change in our habits or careers, but more often entails only those amendments and reformations that enhance a closer relationship with God.
Intimacy with Jesus having been established, we witness in the third week his last supper, the agony in the garden, his arrest and trials, and his passion and death. And the fourth week is devoted to Jesus’ resurrection and his various apparitions to his disciples, concluding with a “Contemplation to Attain the Love of God.”
The method for each hour’s meditation is generally the same. We begin with a preparatory prayer and as a prelude to the meditation consider the history of the subject, such as Jesus appearing to seven of his disciples as they fished (John 21:1–17), reading the gospel passage several times until we can develop a mental representation of the locale and the people in it. We then ask for a grace; in this case, it is to be consoled at seeing Christ on the shore and to feel the joy and comfort of his resurrection. We see the fishermen hauling in their nets on the Sea of Galilee, hear the smack of waves against the boat’s hull, feel the sunshine on our skins, smell seaweed and brine, taste the water we scoop up in our palm. With all five senses wholly engaged, we become part of the scene and can be as shocked and happy as Peter was when he recognized that it was the risen Christ who was roasting a fish on a charcoal fire on the shore and plunged into the sea to wade to him. We hear Christ’s instruction to Peter, and we also enter the conversation—or as Ignatius puts it, colloquy—inquiring, perhaps, on how we ourselves can feed his sheep or just saying, like Peter, “Lord, you know that I love you.” We finish the meditation period with a standard prayer, such as the Our Father, and usually exercitants keep a journal in which they describe what happened in their prayer and its affect on them.
Ignatius found early on that there were those who were “educated or talented, but engaged in public affairs or necessary business” who could not find a free month to perform the exercises as he’d first intended. For them he developed a program in which the Spiritual Exercises could be completed without withdrawal from jobs or other obligations by having the multiple exercises of the 30 days carried out in the course of 30 weeks—an increasingly popular choice for lay people. One of the greatest gifts of this so-called “19th annotation retreat” is that it teaches a habit of prayer that can be incorporated throughout our lives—that journey with God that Ignatius called “the fifth week.”