March 2020 Print

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

By Fr. Therasian Xavier

St. Ignatius of Loyola did not invent retreats. The practice of withdrawing from one’s everyday occupations to solitude and silent intercourse with God definitely existed before him. It is, in a way, as old as the Gospel, if not older, and we can point to Christ’s own example, to his 40 days in the desert. Some even speak of his nine months in the womb of Our Lady and thanks to his “highly formed intellect” even from the moment of his conception.

This desire and need of retiring from the din of the world into silence is natural for men. It is why this is found even outside of Catholicism. We are however not interested in such “natural desire” but from the point of view of spiritual retreats as the Catholic Church sees it. Throughout the Christian centuries the equivalent of our retreats has been practiced in various forms.

Fr. Viller mentions that it is traditional among the ancients during Lent to withdraw to the desert. He says it is widely spread among the monks of both East and West in imitation of Our Lord’s example. This was a time of prayer and penance actually accounting to an annual retreat. Bishops also are known to have made these Lenten retreats, especially in the West. Other forerunners of our modern retreats are: the custom among the monks of keeping to solitude for some time before their monastic profession; the prayer for special intention during these seven or nine days; the practice of bishops to retire for a time to a monastery for a spiritual retreat; the example and directives of some founders of religious orders such as St. Norbert and especially St. Francis of Assisi. In fact, the religious orders founded before the Society of Jesus had their own version of retreat and their retreat perfectly reflects their spirituality. Here follows a brief synthesis of the retreats of various congregations.

The Benedictine Retreat

The Benedictines base their retreat not on the mere external ceremonies, rites, and prayers of the liturgy, but on its internal spirit and essence. The foundation of their retreat is the dogmatic concept of the Mystical Body of Christ. To this Body we must not only belong, but be living, active members of it and share in its life. The Liturgy, accordingly, brings the retreatant to the source of grace: the Holy Sacrifice; to the channels of grace: the sacraments, and it teaches and guides man’s soul to live with Christ, to feel His nearness, to be united with Christ, to grow in Christ.

Fr. Bonaventure Rebstock, O.S.B., speaking of the results of the liturgical retreat, says: “The retreatant shall draw from the liturgy a vital realization of Catholic solidarity. He will understand the union with the Mystical Body of Christ into which we are born through baptism. The Liturgy clearly brings before us and examines the sources and basic motives for every kind of charitable and social work. In fact, it is from the liturgy that such work draws its dignity and nobility. Christian charity can never be more thoroughly understood nor more fervently practiced than in the light of this principle and ideal: Unum corpus…unus spiritus sumus.

Oratorian Retreat

“Look before all else on God, not on self and self’s activities. Stand before the majesty of God in prayerful adoration, and open the soul to the rays of God’s love; realize your entire dependence on God, and maintain that attitude of soul.” This is Oratorian piety.

Dominican Retreat

Veritas is the motto and foundation of the Order of Preachers. By Veritas is understood not only the entire complexus of rational truths, but also the relation of the soul to God, as its origin. Veritas likewise means the truths of faith. Finally, Veritas is Christ. This is not only a word dear to the soul, but a word that breathes love, as St. Thomas has it: Verbum spirans amorem (ST 1. 43.5.2).


“We may rightly conclude that a singular resource for the eternal salvation of souls is set in the Spiritual Exercises…”
Pope Pius XI, Mens Nostra


The Holy Ghost, who is Love, begins and consummates the union of the soul with God. Because of this theocentric postulate, the Dominicans emphasize in their retreats the omnipotence and the love of God. The Dominican retreat master delves deeply into the explanation of the divine guidance of the soul through the communication of grace.

Franciscan Retreat

Here it is stressed St. Francis’ seraphic love for the Child Jesus and Jesus crucified, and presented in the atmosphere of the saint’s poetic attitude toward nature. The characteristic trait of the asceticism of St. Francis of Assisi is a wonderful freedom of spirit. His aim is to make the spiritual life easier, less burdensome. He strives to eliminate all unnecessary impositions, even the impositions of needless methods. Of course, he is not one of the those who would lead a spiritual life without method, but he would not insist on perpetually following the same method.

He recommended as the most attractive and most fruitful form of prayer: the prayer of simplicity; that is, the peaceful and loving looking on God, feeling God, communing with God. So, too, the examen of conscience is broader and freer: the particular examen has not the important place that it holds in Ignatian asceticism; the general examen has as its object to keep the heart turned toward God.


“Now, if we would cure this sickness from which human society suffers so sorely, what healing remedy could we devise more appropriate for our purpose than that of calling these enervated souls, so neglectful of eternal things, to the recollection of the Spiritual Exercises?”

 Pope Pius XI, Mens Nostra


Exercises in the Society of Jesus

In what then does the original contribution of St. Ignatius consists? It is mainly twofold: he gave the retreat an extension unknown before, and a practical method.

“If retreats existed before him, they were not spread on such a scale as they became in the 16th and 17th centuries. Of what was an extraordinary means used more or less haphazardly according to circumstances by an elite, St. Ignatius made a quasi-necessary instrument of spiritual renovation, a regular and indispensable practice which the Church today prescribes her clerics and religious and commends to all the faithful. But his particular merit is not only to have popularized the retreat, it is especially that he gave it a method, that he ordered and regulated it.

“It is upon these squared stones that divine wisdom through her servant Ignatius has built our Society and on these same foundation stone she wishes us to hope for its preservation and felicitous increase” (Fr. Vincent Caraffa S.J.).

Originally the Ignatian retreat was planned for 30 days more or less, and mainly envisaged as a unique experience in a lifetime, meant to lead to a definitive dedication to Christ in whatever state in life to which He might call. Its partial repetition on some particular occasion or for some spiritual need was not excluded and was practiced during St. Ignatius’ time. But the evolution towards the practice of the annual retreat, even within his own order, took half a century before the custom became general and was sanctioned by official legislation in 1608.

It is interesting that the 30-day retreat was prescribed as one of the six principal trials of the Novitiate and which must be repeated in the tertianship. Fr. Wlodimir Ledóchowski, the General of the Society of Jesus, insisted that “this retreat ought to sow so deeply in the hearts of the novices and young fathers the true spirit of the Society and ought to lay such a solid foundation for the whole religious life and even heroic sanctity.”

Outside of the Society of Jesus

Outside the order the practice of repeated retreats was apparently faster in coming, in some places at any rate. It is, of course, quite natural that one should go back for spiritual renewal to the source which one has experienced spiritual benefits. St. Ignatius himself however, and his first companions only occasionally and partly gave the Exercises anew to the same persons.

It required the action of some saintly person outside the order to decide the practice of the regular retreat. Outstanding among these is St. Charles Borromeo (+1584) who himself was an ardent practitioner of the Exercises. He made the yearly one-week retreat obligatory on all seminarians and established a retreat house, an ascetarium, where his priests also could periodically retire for spiritual re-charging. His example found imitators both among Jesuits and non-Jesuits. The 17th century witnessed the multiplication of retreat houses in France, Spain, Germany, Italy and as far as India.

In France, Bl. Julian Manuoir, St. Vincent de Paul and St. John Eudes were the great promoters of regular retreats. Gradually the retreat grew into a normal means for the Christian life. It is St. John Eudes who writes in 1636: “This is what I call an annual retreat, as it takes place every year in all religious communities. It is also practiced by many people in the world, who each year set aside three or four days in which they bid farewell entirely to all care for earthly things and withdraw into a religious house to devote themselves to exercises of piety and of divine love.”

The role of Monsieur Vincent is also phenomenal. He was even willing to spare his own room for one more retreatant so that “so great a grace was not denied to anyone for want of room.” Annual retreats in Brittany during this time “have rightly been regarded, not as a rare spiritual luxury, but as a normal part of parish life—an institution accessible to the people.” The diocesan ordo will mention the dates of annual retreats.

By this time the principle and practice of the regular retreat are accepted de facto. It is so not only with religious but also with the clergy, particularly in the seminaries. “The popes themselves insist. First Rome and the Italian dioceses receive the directive, then the entire Church. In the beginning, the retreat was only counseled, later it was imposed. Alexander VII, Innocent XI, Clement XI, and Benedict XIV especially are among its most decided promoters. Closer to us Leo XIII, Pius X, and Benedict XV strongly encouraged retreats for priests and closed retreats for laymen. Pius XI wrote an encyclical Mens nostra to recommend the retreats, and Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical on the liturgy, urges that as many of the laity as possible should attend retreats. And the Code of Canon Law legislates on retreats for clergy (Can 1367, n.4; 1001; 126; 465 § 3) and religious (541, 571 §3, 595§1).

Ignatian Character

It is of course the fidelity to St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises both in its subject matter and its method, that determines the Ignatian character of a retreat. Pius XII has this to say about the remarkable efficacy of the Ignatian retreat: “It is not true that the method has lost its efficacy or that it is no longer suited to modern man’s needs. On the contrary, it is a sad fact that the liquor loses strength when it is diluted in the colorless waters of super-adaptation, the engine loses power when some essential parts of the Ignatian mechanism are dispensed with. The Exercises of St Ignatius will always remain one of the most powerful means for the spiritual regeneration and right ordering of the world, but on condition that they continue to be authentically Ignatian.”

A specialist in the history of the Spiritual Exercises sums up the “tactics” of St. Ignatius as follows: “In a first phase, the so-called first week, after having shown in the Principle and Foundation the norm and criterion to which all actions must conform, he seeks to arouse in the retreatant a deep aversion from sin and from every disorder and affection that are an obstacle to the service of God. After this purification of the soul, St. Ignatius introduces Jesus Christ as the model of the divine service and the One who calls to follow Him; at the same time he prepares the retreatant in the imitation of Christ to put order in all his faculties and his whole life. In the third and fourth week, the author of the Exercises endeavors to lead the retreatant to a more intimate compenetration and conformity with the Lord by means of an interior crucifixion and a quasi-identification with the judgment and sentiments of Jesus Christ. Only in this way comes the perfect ordering of love, as he teaches the retreatant to be able to serve and love God in all things.”

Accordingly, if we wish to schematize the principal traits of the Ignatian retreats, we should say, the first important feature is their aim. “Seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.” An Ignatian retreat is not just a spiritual rest, it is a busy time of spiritual activity for a definite purpose; to put order in one’s life. For the purpose a definite plan is to be followed in the choice of the exercises. It begins with the principle and foundation of all Christian life: the truth of our faith that we are made for God and for nothing else; His service and our own salvation are the thing that matters, the rest is secondary.

Then follows the meditation on what is disordered in our lives: sin, and this leads to a general confession. For those who wish and are fit to go further (and that is generally the case for yearly retreatants, especially priests and religious), the call of Christ, who invites all to follow Him in establishing His kingdom of Christ through battle and strife, initiates the contemplation of Christ’s own example, of His resurrection. He it is that shows the way to a life dedicated to the love and service of God. These meditations and contemplations are of a nature to reveal to the retreatant what needs re-ordering in his life and to lead him on to such resolutions as will ensure the required reform.

It is essential to the Ignatian retreat that both this purpose and the logical and psychological progression of the meditation be kept. Much less important is a material fidelity to the very wording and phrasing of the Spiritual Exercises, as an authority in the matter stated already in 1626: “Nothing is more opposed to the spirit of the Spiritual Exercises and their principles than to give them to all persons and in all places without any distinction, following no other order and using no other phrases than those of the booklet.”

Variety in the manner of presentation is imperative especially for regular retreatants, else they may say they know beforehand what is going to come. And so, one of the psychological factors that make for effectiveness of the Spiritual Exercises, namely, the progressive development in the entire structure of the retreat, loses its power.

Two more features are essentially Ignatian: the role of the director and that of the retreatant. The director it is who must plan the order and adapt the development of the retreat to the concrete dispositions of the retreatants and to the results obtained. This supposes contact between director and retreatants. Though this is more feasible in individual retreats, yet even in group retreats it should be kept as far as is possible. The director should dedicate himself entirely to giving these exercises. He must not put too much trust in his experience but must carefully prepare without fail the points of each meditation (cf. Letter to future Priests, Fr. Barielle).

Another important feature is the personal active role of the retreatants: they should reflect for themselves, find by themselves, not be purely passive. They must be given time and be asked to meditate and reflect personally, they may not be merely listening, they must make the effort of self-examination and thinking in various measures according to the age and abilities of the retreatants. An Ignatian retreat is not a series of sermons but a course of “exercises.”

All through these last four centuries the Ignatian retreat has given proofs of its effectiveness for the spiritual renewal of which periodically our human nature stands in need. And we have an official recognition of its permanent vitality in the decision of Pope Pius XI who proclaimed the author of the Spiritual Exercises the heavenly patron of retreats and retreatants.

Let’s close with the words of Fr. Wlodimir Ledóchowski:

“Whether, then, we desire to provide human society, sick as it is in body and mind, with more successful remedies, and to bring back the wandering multitudes to the mansions of the Father, or to help those souls which aspire to walk more perfect paths, or whether we wish to repair the losses which our Society, in more than one place, has suffered either through the inclination of fallen nature, or from the harsh circumstances of war, dispersion, poverty, and persecution, we must go to the Spiritual Exercises and draw forth for ourselves that spirit which St. Ignatius used to call ‘the internal law of charity’ and, thereafter, spread it abroad among the rest of men” (Epistle of Fr. Wlodimir Ledóchowski).