Anybody who spends just a little bit of time researching the offerings of local Catholic retreat centers is bound to come across retreats built around the “Spiritual Exercises.” This can sound a little intimidating, but also intriguing. What are the Spiritual Exercises?
What Are the Spiritual Exercises?
The Spiritual Exercises are a series of prayers and meditations which are usually organized to be given as a long-form retreat. They were developed by St. Ignatius Loyola to help people grow closer to God in their daily lives.
Historically the Spiritual Exercises have been given as a thirty day guided retreat of silence and solitude. Over the past few decades the Spiritual Exercises have grown in popularity as a common devotion for religious and lay people alike, though not necessarily in a setting of silence and solitude.
How to Prepare for the Spiritual Exercises
For those intending to make the thirty day Spiritual Exercises retreat it is suggested that you have experience with shorter silent and guided retreats first. It is also beneficial to have a habit of substantial daily meditation and regular spiritual direction in your life before you attempt such a demanding retreat. A thirty day retreat is a huge commitment of time and energy, both for the retreatant and for the spiritual director, and proper preparation ensures that the experience will be a beneficial one.
The Structure of the Spiritual Exercises
The Spiritual Exercises were carefully designed and meticulously refined by St. Ignatius Loyola as he guided others through retreats. They are divided up into four “weeks,” which are actually more like four phases that do not have concrete duration.
The first phase is a reflection on our life, much like a longer version of the daily Examen. We look back and notice the grace of God working in our lives, and how our sin has separated us from God’s love. As we transition through the end of week one and prepare for week two we examine how we are heeding Christ’s call to follow Him and renew our efforts to do so.
We spend the second phase of the Exercises meditating on Christ and how to follow Him more closely as a disciple. This Week includes reflections on scripture, especially focusing on Christ’s life. The purpose of this period is to help us re-dedicate our lives to the work of Christ – making Him known in the world and loving Him more deeply.
The third period of the Spiritual Exercises has us focus on the final events of Christ’s life: the Last Supper, Passion, and Crucifixion. We must come to more deeply appreciate Jesus’s suffering as a gift of love and see the Eucharist as that expression of love in the present times.
The final week focuses on the resurrection of Christ from the dead and His apparitions to the disciples. We end the Exercises by setting out to serve Christ in our daily lives.
The Spiritual Exercises are a beautifully constructed spiritual experience designed to help us see what is really important in life and to help us grow closer to God in prayer. The Exercises utilize basic Ignatian spirituality like meditation, contemplation, discernment of spirits, and the Examen to ground us and re-center our focus on Christ.
The Spiritual Exercises can be found in book form and Kindle form. You can also find adapted online versions for use in your day-to-day life. There is an eight week version from IgnatianSpirituality.com and a 34 week version available in many languages from Creighton University.