Jesuit 101: The Spiritual Exercises, the Heart of the Jesuits

by | Sep 3, 2021 | Jesuit 101, The Jesuits

To celebrate the Ignatian Year, The Jesuit Post presents our “Jesuit 101” series. Each month will focus on a single concept, term, or theme that is relevant to Ignatian Spirituality and/or the Jesuits. This series will include an explainer article and reflections or real-world applications for each topic. We begin the series with the heart of the Jesuit charism, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. 


The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola (Exercises) are one of the most influential writings in the history of Roman Catholicism. The Exercises are a collection of meditations, prayers, and guidelines for growth in the spiritual life. They were developed out of Ignatius Loyola’s own lived experience, and are ideally undertaken as a 30-day silent retreat. Ignatius’s great desire was to help people grow in their sense of God’s great love for them so that they could make a return of that love in whatever way God is calling. To better understand the Exercises, it helps to have a sense of how they were formed, their structure, and how they’ve helped countless people grow in relationship with Jesus.


It started with a cannonball…

500 years ago this year, a cannonball shattered the legs of then 30-year-old Ignatius de Loyola in the Battle of Pamplona. In his year-long recovery at his family home in Loyola, Ignatius filled his time reading the only books available to him: a book on the life of Christ and another on the lives of the saints. These books prompted the pride of Ignatius to consider what St. Francis Assissi did and what St. Dominic did. He asked, “if they can do it, why can’t I?” Eventually, Ignatius elected to dedicate his entire life to God. He would become a pilgrim for the Lord.

That pilgrimage brought Ignatius to a cave in Manresa, Spain, where Ignatius stayed for a year. Ignatius dedicated his days to prayer. During that time, he also began using extreme ascetical practices, like intense fasting as well as not washing himself and letting his hair and fingernails grow out, in order to counter his pre-conversion vanity. He began noticing that certain practices, like imaginative prayer and meditation on the life of Christ, led him to deeper consolation in the Lord. Others, he noticed, like his immoderate fasting and lack of hygiene, led him to desolation and despair. Thus, he began to take notes of these general movements within his spirit. These notes were the beginning of what would eventually become the Spiritual Exercises. Much of the guidance within the Exercises is based on Ignatius’ time in Manresa, including warning others against taking ascetical practices to extremes.

Eventually  Ignatius, still a layperson, began guiding people in the Exercises. A core component of the Exercises is the belief that God deals directly with the person. In the age of Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation, however, this belief garnered suspicion of Ignatius. In order to more easily serve Christ and his Church, Ignatius decided to begin studying for the priesthood. At that time, he guided friends and acquaintances through the Exercises, including his roommates Francis Xavier and Peter Faber. It was with these companions and four others that Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus.


The Four Weeks of the Exercises

What is it about the Exercises that was so transformative for Ignatius and others? The structure of the Exercises shows the movement of that transformation. The retreat is divided into four “weeks,” or periods of the retreat which have specific themes and graces for which the retreatant prays. The broad sweep of the Exercises begins with meditating on the purpose of our lives in the first week to praying to “labor with Christ” at the end of the fourth week.  

The beginning of the Exercises invites the retreatant to meditate on what Ignatius calls the First Principle and Foundation (PF). The principle is vital because it is upon this foundation that God will communicate with the retreatant. The PF says:

People are created to praise, reverence and serve God the Lord, and by this means to save our souls. Everything in our lives are meant to help us to this end. Therefore, we should use those things as long as they help us to achieve the end for which we are created. We should use them insomuch as they help us, and we should rid ourselves of them if they become obstacles to praising, reverencing, and serving God. For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things as much as we are able, so that we don’t desire health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long rather than a short life, so in everything else, so that we ultimately desire and choose only that which is most conducive to achieving the end for which we were created. 1

Note that desires are at the heart of the Exercises. It is what drives the retreatant to their deepening life in Christ. It is from this foundation of desire that God speaks directly to the person doing the Exercises.  

After the PF, the retreatant meditates on the nature of sin. The first exercise looks at the sin present in the world and one’s own sins. The grace the retreatant is invited to pray for is “deep sorrow and confusion” for their own sins. But even more importantly, the desire for that grace is paired with the direction to speak to the Lord “as one friend speaks to another” in what is commonly referred to as a “colloquy,” Latin for ‘conversation’.

The purpose of the first week is to come to an undeniable embrace of our personal sinfulness. We do that, however, only to accept and cherish the more important reality of God’s relentless love. Mercy is at the heart of the first week. It’s the experience of the first week that prompted Pope Francis, shortly after being named Bishop of Rome, to describe himself in the following manner: “I am a sinner. This the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” That’s the grace of the first week, and it is a guiding grace of Pope Francis’s papacy, which so often emphasizes mercy as the chief characteristic of our loving God.

During the second week, retreatants pray with the life and ministry of Jesus. The core grace requested in this week can be summed up, that we “may know Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly.” 

It is during the second week that one begins to use imaginative prayer, also called Ignatian contemplation, to enter into gospel passages, like Jesus healing the leper, or walking on water, or giving the Sermon on the Mount. Imaginative prayer allows a person to build out the scenes. For example, if one were to imagine the calling of Zaccheus, they may picture a noisy street full of people. Crowds are pressing forward to get a glimpse of Jesus. Then there’s the tax collector Zaccheus, who the Gospel of Luke describes as being “short in stature,” who decides to climb a sycamore tree to get a better glimpse of the Lord. What does Zaccheus look like? What is it like for him to climb the tree in front of the crowd? How does he feel and react when Jesus calls to him? All of this is wonderful fodder for the imagination. We can picture this scene, but imaginative prayer doesn’t stop there.

An important part of imaginative prayer is asking the Holy Spirit to help us enter into the gospel scene. We could be part of the scene as an important figure, like one of the Apostles, or someone on the receiving end of a healing miracle, or perhaps as someone in the crowd watching how Jesus moves and speaks and acts. The primary goal of this type of prayer is to get to know Jesus and to love him in a deeper way.

During the latter half of the second week, the retreatant is guided in making an “election”. When Ignatius was giving the Exercises, it was usually to help people come to a deeper understanding of their vocation. That’s why the Spiritual Exercises is one of the first things every Jesuit does when he enters the order. Encountering Christ helps us clarify our desires, which at their deepest and most authentic are the very desires God has placed in us. 

The third week follows Christ in his Passion and death. It’s where we walk with Christ in his last hours. Through imaginative prayer, we may even experience the fear and horror of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples. It’s the moment in the retreat when Mary’s grief at her son’s death might just overwhelm us. The grace requested at this moment in the Exercises is sadness and confusion at the death of our Lord, who suffers as a testament to God’s endless love for us. It’s that love that opens to us the pathway to eternal life. Even though the retreatant may be tempted to hustle themselves along to the Resurrection, they’re invited to really sit with the reality of Jesus’s death. The third week is an experience of Holy Saturday, when the Apostles, family and friends of Jesus were in shock at the death of the one they called the Christ. 

Death, as we know, isn’t the end. The fourth week is a celebration of the Resurrection. It is Easter Sunday. Imaginative prayer allows the retreatant to experience the joy and bewilderment of the Apostles when they found that their friend and Lord is risen. But before we reflect on Mary Magdalene speaking to Jesus in the garden, and before Peter and John run to the empty tomb, Ignatius invites the retreatant to imagine Jesus appearing to his mother. While much of the Spiritual Exercises involves reflection on scripture, this is one of a few moments in which Ignatius asks us to reflect on something unwritten, but so beautiful and human. Ignatius had a deep devotion to our Blessed Mother, and his intuition is that Jesus, as a good son, would of course appear first and foremost to his grieving mother. 

One of the most well-known prayers in Ignatian Spirituality is also given to us at the end of the fourth week of the Exercises. It’s known as the Suscipe, which asks the Lord to take and receive every aspect of one’s being. It reads:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, memory, understanding, and my entire will.

All I have and call my own, I give it all to you, Lord. Do with it what you will.

Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me. Amen.

The Suscipe is a fitting ending to the Exercises. At this point a person has spent countless hours praying, speaking to God, and contemplating the great love that God has for them. The Suscipe is our response to that love.


Making the Spiritual Exercises

So, how does one go through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius? 

First of all, it isn’t advisable to just pick up a copy of the Spiritual Exercises and start making your way through it on your own. The text of the Exercises is actually intended to be used as a guide for a spiritual director who will guide a person through the Exercises. A spiritual director can help introduce you to different parts of the Exercises and serves as a sounding board to help you see where the Lord is moving in your prayer. That being said, a spiritual director is not meant to dictate the experience to a person, but simply guide when necessary and otherwise step out of the way and “leave the Creator to act immediately with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord.” 2

There are Jesuit Retreat Centers located throughout the United States (and all over the world) where experienced spiritual directors can guide you through the Spiritual Exercises. The traditional format of the Exercises is a 30-day silent retreat, which is how all Jesuits go through the Exercises at the beginning of their formation. Being able to spend 30 days on retreat is a privilege that can be difficult for many to make. Because of this, there are other ways that one can go through the Spiritual Exercises. One is called a 19th Annotation Retreat, which is an adaptation of the Spiritual Exercises that can be done while a person continues with their daily routine. A person going through the 19th Annotation would take time to meet with a spiritual director on a regular basis while praying with the Exercises over a period of time. Jesuit retreat centers also offer three, five, and eight-day retreats that can give a person an introduction to the Spiritual Exercises. Some retreats even focus on a particular theme, like addiction, grieving, anxiety, etc.

This, of course, is just an introduction to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The Exercises are at the heart of Ignatian Spirituality and the soul of the Society of Jesus. Throughout the rest of the Ignatian Year, we will dive deeper into specific elements of the Spiritual Exercises and offer our own reflections on how the Exercises can impact our relationship with God and the world around us.


Check out our short video series on the Spiritual Exercises:


  1. Based on the translation of Elder Mullan, SJ.
  2. SSEE 15