How to Improve your Spiritual Life with These Ignatian Exercises

Vincent Terreri

How to Improve your Spiritual Life with These Ignatian Exercises

The life and teachings of Saint Ignatius of Loyola are a great help in the struggle we all face to discover what good we are called to do each day. Since the purpose and work of the life of Grace is union with God, we can benefit greatly by considering the practices of the great men of faith who realized that purpose and demonstrated that work in their own lives. Many of us have heard of the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola. And some have heard of his masterful treatise The Spiritual Exercises. But we may not know that his Exercises are not just for religious, there are principles in them that can help all Christians live more faithful lives of attention to the Gospel.

Who was Ignatius of Loyola?

Ignatius was born in Spain in 1491. He was the youngest of 13 children. Joining the military around 18 years of age, he was noted for bravery and skill in battle and was quickly promoted. During a battle against France in defense of the town of Pamplona, Ignatius was injured by a cannonball. After Ignatius was disabled, his companions surrendered their citadel, and the French captured him. The French had noted his manly virtue during the course of their fight and had a great personal regard for him, so they brought their own surgeons to treat his badly damaged leg. Whether the fault of the French surgeons or because of the long journey back to Loyola, his leg did not set properly and he chose, after the bones had set, to have his leg broken by Spanish surgeons and reset. He would endure another operation (without anesthesia) a bit later to remove a deformity to his leg that the Spanish surgeons had caused.

During his long convalescence, Ignatius looked for some romantic fiction to read. None of it was to be found nearby, so they gave him a Life of Christ, written by a Carthusian monk, as well as a devotional book of lives of the saints. His situation may be compared to an experience of our own where we want to watch something silly on television, but all we have is EWTN.

God Shows His Will through the Possible

We see here a profound manifestation of how God’s loving providence manifests itself in our lives by circumstances that we do not choose. When Ignatius lay in bed recovering from his wound, he had a distinct choice, given the fact that he couldn’t read the fiction that he wanted to, he could have just lay there feeling sorry for himself. But he chose to take up the only books that were available and this formed the foundation for what would prove to be a deep conversion.

While recovering, though, Ignatius was not completely withdrawn from the world. We find in his Autobiography that he had set his mind to woo a woman of the court. Did he think that he would no longer be able to fight in physical battles, so turned to battles of the heart? After all, his first choice of fiction was the romance. Common in those days, romance fiction was filled with tales of war and love. The human iteration of love had truly captured the heart of Ignatius, but the Divine Love had planted seeds in him that would soon come to fruition, again, to some degree, by circumstances beyond his control.

This can be seen in the following excerpts from his Autobiography:

In the meantime the divine mercy was at work substituting for these thoughts others suggested by his recent readings. While perusing the life of Our Lord and the saints, he began to reflect, saying to himself: "What if I should do what St. Francis did?" "What if I should act like St. Dominic?" He pondered over these things in his mind, and kept continually proposing to himself serious and difficult things. He seemed to feel a certain readiness for doing them, with no other reason except this thought: "St. Dominic did this; I, too, will do it." "St. Francis did this; therefore I will do it." These heroic resolutions remained for a time, and then other vain and worldly thoughts followed. This succession of thoughts occupied him for a long while, those about God alternating with those about the world. But in these thoughts there was this difference. When he thought of worldly things it gave him great pleasure, but afterward he found himself dry and sad. But when he thought of journeying to Jerusalem, and of living only on herbs, and practicing austerities, he found pleasure not only while thinking of them, but also when he had ceased.

This difference he did not notice or value, until one day the eyes of his soul were opened and he began to inquire the reason of the difference. He learned by experience that one train of thought left him sad, the other joyful. This was his first reasoning on spiritual matters. Afterward, when he began the Spiritual Exercises, he was enlightened, and understood what he afterward taught his children about the discernment of spirits. When gradually he recognized the different spirits by which he was moved, one, the spirit of God, the other, the devil, and when he had gained no little spiritual light from the reading of pious books, he began to think more seriously of his past life, and how much penance he should do to expiate his past sins.

A Person’s Feelings are Significant in Discernment

In light of what we find in the Spiritual Exercises, it’s important to note that very early on in his life, Ignatius had an awareness of the connection between the innermost thoughts present in his mind, combined with the feelings of the heart and his emotions. This connection between our feelings and thoughts may be applied to our own lives in terms of how we use the example of Ignatius to live faithfully according to our own vocations today. Note that Ignatius saw that when he thought of vain and worldly things, he realized that he found himself dry and sad. Could it be that, by appropriate examination of his own experience of life that Ignatius discovered a key to finding out what God wanted from us? The rest of Ignatius’s life is well-known. He became a priest and established one of the greatest and almost military religious communities within the history of the Church. The reflection demonstrated in the Autobiography is almost revolutionary, given the times that we live in today. For most of us, feelings are neither good nor bad, they come and go. Consider that many men and women today spend thousands of dollars a year paying for medicine and therapy so that they can feel good.

What are the Spiritual Exercises?

Before resolving this difficulty, let’s turn our consideration to some practical points about the Spiritual Exercises that St. Ignatius eventually wrote down. The Spiritual Exercises is meant to be a month-long retreat when implemented at its fullest. Broken into four weeks, each week has its own distinct character, but over the course of a month, one will reflect on man’s utter dependence on God, the importance of prayer and adoration of God and how we derive strength from our prayer and adoration.

Moreover, through frequent practice of a certain method of meditating upon what St. Ignatius calls “preludes” and “notes”, one learns a manner of opening the mind and heart to God’s working within the soul to bring about greater conformity to God and, ultimately, generate a response of the will so that the person going through the full retreat can embrace what he discerns to be God’s particular will for himself.

There are Rules for Discerning the Motion of Grace

The most important aspect of the Spiritual Exercises is seen in the portion of the text entitled, “For Perceiving and Knowing in Some Manner the Different Movements which are Caused in the Soul”.  For Ignatius, the feelings that are brought about in the soul, whether united to God or living in sin, happen for a reason. True, there may be some personalities that are more or less disposed to melancholia or some other temper, but the Exercises teach that through a process of discernment, one can acquire an habitual disposition to using one’s feelings as an indication of whether or not some particular thing is derived from God, from one’s self, or from the Evil One.

His “Fifth Rule” for the Discernment of Spirits clarifies:

We ought to note well the course of the thoughts, and if the beginning, middle and end is all good, inclined to all good, it is a sign of the good Angel; but if in the course of the thoughts which he brings it ends in something bad, of a distracting tendency, or less good than what the soul had previously proposed to do, or if it weakens it or disquiets or disturbs the soul, taking away its peace, tranquillity and quiet, which it had before, it is a clear sign that it proceeds from the evil spirit, enemy of our profit and eternal salvation. 

If Ignatius is right, then the discernment of God’s will for us arises by a proper understanding of what our thoughts are, whence they originate, and what their purpose is. Moreover, combining these thoughts with the affections of the heart and our feelings, we can have a sure means of discovering, even in ordinary circumstances of life, the workings of Grace and how we ought to respond to the duties of our state in life.

Practicing the Wisdom of the Exercises in Life

For example, a husband and father may have some plan in mind to take his family on a vacation. Following the advice in the Exercises, this father would consider if the entire course of his thoughts were good and inclined to the good. Let’s say this father wants to take his family for a week at the beach. If he feels good about this decision and there are no signs that the beginning, middle or end are not good, it’s likely a good decision.
But what if the father feels poorly about his plans? There may be some hidden purpose to the vacation. By using some of the techniques of the Exercises, the father may discern that he has a secret plan in mind to escape his family to play golf, but he hasn’t disclosed that to them. By a close observation of his own feelings, the father may realize that either he needs to dispose of his secret plans to golf or let his family know what he wants to do and see if those plans can be worked into the vacation.

It’s important to keep in mind that for the Exercises to be effective, the person working those exercises must have a healthy practice of self-observation. In particular, he must be willing to submit his affective life and his emotions to higher, external principles. In such a view of man, the emotions and particular feelings that accompany one’s decisions truly indicate whether or not a person is following the will of God. 
Earlier, we showed that Ignatius felt good when he considered things of God, but he felt bad when he was occupied or found his identity in the things of the world. By a rigorous practice of these aspects of the Spiritual Exercises, a Christian may discern faithfully what the will of God is for everything in his life.

Have you practiced the Spiritual Exercises? Share your comments below!