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Defining an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise (i)

In the opening paragraph of his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius provides a statement of purpose:

Spiritual exercises having as their purpose the overcoming of self and the ordering of one’s life on the basis of a decision made in freedom from any ill-ordered attachment [paragraph 21].[1]

In the first of his Annotations—directions given to those giving and receiving the Exercises—he writes:

The term ‘spiritual exercises’ denotes every way of examining one’s conscience, of meditating, contemplating, praying vocally and mentally, and other spiritual activities, as will be said later. For just as strolling, walking and running are exercises for the body, so ‘spiritual exercises’ is the name given to every way of preparing and disposing one’s soul to rid herself of all disordered attachments, so that once rid of them one might seek and find the divine will in regard to the disposition of one’s life for the good of the soul [paragraph 1].[2]

These two definitional statements provide an entrée into Ignatius’ intent with respect to the Spiritual Exercises. In today’s post we use these statements to understand what a spiritual exercise is. Tomorrow I will unpack the statements a little more to understand their purpose.

First, Ignatius tells us what a spiritual exercise is: any form of prayer undertaken for the specific purpose of the development, health, and strength of the ‘soul,’ analogous to physical exercises undertaken for the health and strength of the body. Although this is not a novel thought, it is useful. Paul the Apostle uses similar language in 1 Timothy 4:8 to affirm the superior value of spiritual endeavour: “For bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it hold promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

The familiar image of physical exercise applied to the spiritual life carries notions of regularity and consistency, focus on particular developmental activities, the nurture of health through practice, the pursuit of greater excellence, consistent performance, and other similar ideals. This exercise is undertaken for the good of the ‘soul,’ which is probably best understood here as a reference to the whole of one’s life and existence viewed from the perspective of one’s relationship to God. It is better to avoid the idea as a reference to some constituent aspect of the human person, some faculty or part of the person, distinct from their other ‘parts.’

These spiritual exercises primarily are forms of prayer, though other activities are also in view. One might think of such things later identified commonly as spiritual disciplines, including activities of service, or solitude or fasting or confession and so on. In this definition Ignatius identifies the examination of conscience, prayer, meditation, and contemplation. During his Exercises Ignatius will develop some of these at length.

[1] Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean, ed. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics ed. (London: Penguin, 1996; reprint, 2004), 289.

[2] Ibid., 283.

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Defining an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise (i)