What Are Spiritual Exercises, Anyway?

What Are Spiritual Exercises, Anyway?

My friend Julie acts as my conscience in one particular way. When I feel like I’m dragging a little, not completely good in my skin, she’s quick to make a diagnosis: “You need to come to the gym with me!”

I have to tell you: those aren’t words I particularly like to hear! I’d much rather sit home like a sloth and read a book. But the truth is that after I go to the gym, I do feel better. Sometimes a lot better. Julie is right: I need regular exercise if I want to keep feeling good.

Our hearts and souls need exercise every bit as much as our bodies do. The difference is that most of us don’t have a friend telling us, when we seem lonely and forlorn, that it’s time to do some spiritual exercises.

Or do we?

I’d like to suggest that we do. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits (Society of Jesus), was quick to perceive that people who didn’t maintain their spiritual health on a regular basis soon didn’t feel well. So he did what my friend Julie does: he urged people to work out. And to help them do that, instead of a gym routine, he wrote a handbook called the Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatius was no stranger to feeling bad. He’d been a soldier and was wounded. Like many soldiers today, his recovery was slow and painful and made him grapple with issues of right and wrong, bringing him face to face with what is essential and important—and, conversely, what is not. He had an intensely personal experience with God, and came through the experience convinced that this grace wasn’t unique, but that it could be experienced by everyone, if they just knew how to do it.

Ignatius started his workout book by talking about what our life’s purpose is: to live forever united with God in profound gratitude for all that God has given us, and by understanding that God is separate from his gifts—maintaining a balance.

Balance has to be worked on, as my friend Julie would agree, and so Ignatius designed his workouts to take place over a 30-day retreat. There would be one particular thing to work on during each of those four weeks:

  • Week one: recognize God’s unconditional love and come to terms with our failure to respond generously to that love.
  • Week two: reflect on the person and life of Christ so that we may freely choose to love him and follow him more closely and faithfully.
  • Week three: enter into the Passion and death of Jesus so as to share in and identify more closely with his suffering and to deepen our commitment to him.
  • Week four: grow in desire for Jesus to reveal the joy of his resurrection and to embrace this joy as the foundation of our call to share in Christ’s mission.

Within the retreat, people do exercises, spiritual workout routines that help them understand what is helpful and what is not. The exercises in this workout book consist of:

  • meditations on Scripture passages
  • prayers
  • imaginative mental exercises
  • contemplative practices

The focus throughout all of this is simple: to see God’s grace in our everyday lives. That’s all. If we can walk through the world with an awareness of God’s presence, gifts, and love, then we have achieved what Ignatius wants for us: that constant closeness, that love, which makes every joy magnified and every challenge bearable.

But you can’t do it once. You have to keep practicing. The more you practice, the more natural it becomes, and—just like going to the gym—the better you will feel.

Of course, there aren’t many of us who can go on a 30-day retreat! But there are a lot of retreat centers that adapt these practices for a shorter period of time so that we can learn them and then practice them on our own. Think of the retreat director as your personal trainer: the training only works if you practice it when you’re not together!

So practice prayer. Every day!

Julie would understand the need to keep at it, day after day, even when you don’t feel like it, even when praying is the last thing that you want to do. Break through that resistance with Ignatius’ exercises: the reward is extraordinary.

by Jeannette de Beauvoir


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