The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola are aptly named.
They are a method or a process which leads us through a series of prayer experiences to help us grow closer to God in Christ; they assist us in orienting our lives to God. Ignatius designed the Spiritual Exercises for two groups of people: (1) anyone who is making significant life decisions and wishes to discern how God is calling them; and (2) anyone who already made significant life decisions but wishes to deepen their spiritual life.
You may have been wondering where this rather odd title, “The 19th Annotation Retreat” originates. As an introduction to the text of the Exercises, Ignatius provides 22 explanations or directives (or in Spanish, anotaciones [annotations]), which give added context. Originally, Ignatius designed the Exercises to be a 30-day retreat that one does while separated from his or her ordinary life. Retreatants would withdraw to a place of silence and isolation for this prolonged prayer experience. However, Ignatius realized that many busy people could not leave their everyday lives for a full month, and so the Annotation #19 describes an alternative form of the Exercises which can be spread over 8-9 months. One continues his or her daily routine but commits to a period of daily prayer and regular meetings with a spiritual director. Sometimes a 19th Annotation Retreat is called “The Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life” or a “retreat in everyday life.”
There are several advantages to making the Spiritual Exercises during a traditional academic year (August/September through May/June). You’re likely to find that a sustained rhythm of prayer, the interface of this spiritual journey with your ordinary life commitments, and the engagement of the Exercises within the sweep of the Church’s liturgical calendar will help to integrate prayer and discernment in your ordinary life. The hope is that generates a practice of personal prayer that will continue to grace your life for years to come.
As you consider making the Spiritual Exercises, it is important to identify and consider some dispositions or attitudes vital for the integrity of this process. These “dispositions” suggest a way of approaching prayer which will be important for all that follows in the Exercises. Specifically, four interrelated dispositions are important.
As the goal of the Spiritual Exercises, and in the language of 16th century Spanish piety, Ignatius says: “The name of ‘spiritual exercises’ is given to any means of preparing and disposing your soul to rid itself of all its disordered affections, and then, after their removal, of seeking and finding God’s will in the ordering of your life for the salvation of your soul.” While this language may sound foreign to contemporary ears, its intent might be rephrased in this way: the Spiritual Exercises are designed to help you identify and address negative life patterns or attachments in order to grow in freedom and openness to hear God’s call and to respond to it with generosity.
While Ignatius was recuperating at his family castle from serious wounds received in a battle (in 1521) with French forces in Pamplona, and shortly thereafter in a prolonged period of prayer and mortification in Manresa, he came to understand his spiritual transformation as a process of conversion or reorientation. He was called to turn from disordered passions, self-centeredness, and illusions of grandeur, to a new place of openness to and availability for God. In the 16th century, this disposition of availability and openness was often referred to as indifference. In contemporary terms, indifference sometimes sounds too much like apathy to be useful. What Ignatius had in mind, though, is very pertinent. He hoped that retreatants, having an experience of God’s intimate and unconditional love for them, would abandon their attachments, fears, and false assumptions to be open and available to receive God’s unique call to them.
Today, we might identify some of our misleading patterns or assumptions as the limitations we place on ourselves or on God, either as the result of fear, negative religious experiences, or our need to be in control. We may well identify other reasons for our reluctance or hesitations because of the restrictions of our upbringing or negative images of God as suggested by our religious or secular culture. Further, we may have consciously or subconsciously placed limits on what we expect from God or on ourselves and how we can respond to God. A major hope/outcome of the experience of the Exercises is that we grow in freedom and openness to discover how we are loved and how we might respond to God’s love by loving others
As you enter a sustained commitment to prayer, you will become more adept at noticing how God is moving in you and in the surrounding world in which you exist. Through prayer, you may begin to understand your personal history in a new way, you may see with new eyes how you have been loved by God throughout your life, and grow in freedom to enter into those areas where you may have experienced pain, darkness, or distance from God in the past, and find healing and peace.
Often in the retreat, a spiritual director will suggest different ways of praying and thinking which may push boundaries and offer new experiences. Sometimes a director will encourage you to stay with a specific Scripture passage or theme, even when you think you have reached a dead-end. At other times, familiar themes or topics can reveal reorienting insights when approached in a new way. Retreat directors often will suggest a variety of ways of praying using your imagination, or different bodily postures, or engaging the Scriptures in ways that are new. Sometimes the most effective prayer moves beyond words or images and leads one to sit in the presence of God in quiet contemplation or simple companionship. Directors, or “spiritual companions,” by listening and encouraging often will help you stay faithful to prayer in spite of distractions, dryness, or desolation.
As you grow in freedom, you will become increasingly aware of God at work in the blessings, challenges, and even failures of your life. You will begin to see God in the most ordinary and most human dimensions of your experience, and will marvel at God’s creativity and transforming love.
Truthfully, each person has been blessed in some unique ways with incontrovertible experiences of the divine. These experiences may be difficult to describe, and in fact you may have rarely shared them with others and only done so when your trust level was extremely high. While you may be hesitant to talk about them for fear of being considered strange or a religious “eccentric,” interiorly, we are often quite convinced of the truth of these transformative experiences because we know that they have given us a significant spiritual gift, or set a direction for our lives, or confirmed a choice we have made. Sometimes, these experiences are connected with the “edges” of our lives, or possibly with the death of a loved one, or occasioned by a sacramental moment, or revealed in the beauty of creation. While these experiences of God coming to us “in the extraordinary” are remarkable and sometimes life-transforming, our heightened spiritual awareness can help us see the divine in the ordinary, the human, and in that which we more than likely “take-for-granted.” We often hear God speaking through the voice of a child, or grandchild, or a parent, a sibling, friend, or colleague; how one sees the presence of God evident in a simple act of compassion or the kindness of a stranger. This ability to see the divine in the ordinary or the simply human is evidence that our consciousness or our awareness of God’s grace is growing.
Given the busy and demanding lives we lead, to sustain the habit of daily prayer requires the gift of perseverance. As your spiritual director will emphasize, it is critical to identify a time, to select a place, and to design an environment for prayer. Transitioning from the demands of our personal and professional lives into the silence necessary for contemplation requires careful thought and preparation. Staying with prayer when it seems quiet, dry, or even pointless takes commitment. While pouring out one’s heart to God takes one type of energy, waiting for God to respond, trying to listen when nothing seems to be spoken, and remaining in place when you have many legitimate needs to respond to, takes discipline. Sometimes, it can be the case that the time of “formal” prayer may seem contentless or pointless. Later, one comes to see how the prayer created a sensitivity which disposes one to hear God’s voice in an apparently chance encounter later in the day. Sometimes, too, the habit of prayer reveals its message or point only after weeks or months of perseverance.
It is more than likely the case that in our personal and professional lives we have discovered by now that any skill or desired habit takes time, commitment, discipline, and the support of others to develop. This is true when developing the habit of prayer. One needs God’s grace, the cooperation and support of one’s family, and the encouragement of one’s spiritual director (and frankly the reality of accountability that weekly meetings with a director provide) to identify and protect the time and to secure the appropriate space for this retreat. Undoubtedly, many will have to negotiate the practical needs for time and space with someone close to you. At times, you will not find the time, or you may even find yourself avoiding prayer because of what it asks or demands. Working through your struggles with your spiritual director and asking God for the help you need will assist you over time in developing the habit of prayer.
In Annotation #5, Ignatius writes: “The persons who receive the Exercises will benefit greatly by entering upon them with great spirit and generosity toward their Creator and Lord, and by offering all their desires and freedom to him so that his Diving Majesty can make use of their persons and all they possess in whatsoever way is according to his most holy will.” Ignatian spirituality is essentially a spirituality geared to action. Throughout his life, Ignatius experienced God’s great love for him, and he wanted to respond with great sincerity of passion. He was captivated by the commitment that Jesus made by giving his life to and for us, and Ignatius wanted to live by giving his life in service to God’s people. Ignatius saw this large-heartedness or a generous spirit as a sign that God’s grace was at work. Consequently, you are encouraged to surrender to the movements and graces of the retreat with a large heart. Your consideration, application, and interview to prepare for this retreat suggests that you have already experienced a “rightness” about making it this year may well be the result of the nudging of the Holy Spirit within you. Increasingly throughout this retreat, you will find that God is at work in you, and it is no accident that you are considering making yourself available for this experience.
So, ask God for what you need. If you want to grow in freedom, ask God for that gift. If you hope to see God more actively working in your life and in our world, ask God for that gift. If you need perseverance or generosity, don’t be afraid to ask God for what you need.
While there are some definite movements or characteristics of the Spiritual Exercises, each person will engage the Exercises differently – in keeping with how God is working within. It is tempting to compare yourself with others, or to judge your “success” by how you measures up to some ideal of the Exercises. In fact, Ignatius never gave the text of the Exercises to his retreatants. The text itself is rather dry and lifeless since it is a handbook for the director who needs a lot of experience to know how to adapt appropriately. Ignatius always intended that it be adapted for each individual’s unique faith history and spirituality.
Therefore, working with your spiritual director, trust in the integrity of your experience as it unfolds. Be wary of the temptation to want to be in the same place as others or your need to “look good” for your director. Be equally wary of an inner voice which might suggest at some point in the retreat that you have nothing to share with your director, or that because your prayer has been dry or seemingly unproductive, you should feel inadequate before your director. Keep in mind that your director will have no expectation for you other than the hope that you are engaging “what is” between you and God in prayer. Each spiritual journey has its ups and downs, its great consolations, some clear desolations, and periods of dryness and doubt. Your director will expect that. It will be a privilege for your director to walk with you in this experience.
Freedom, Awareness, Perseverance, and Generosity: prayerfully ask God for these gifts for yourself and for your director.