“The only known way to physical fitness is through physical exercise; wishing is not good enough,” writes W.A. Orr, Chief of the Air Staff in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). In 1961, an exercise plan was published for the RCAF, one for men and a corresponding plan for women. This old school, no-frills, no-nonsense program is intense, tightly structured, and personalized; it contains directives, cautions, and progress charts. The idea is to work all the muscle groups through calisthenics and aerobic every day in a short amount of time. The booklet explains what physical fitness means, why you should be fit, how the program works, and what your fitness goals should be. Every exercise begins with a directive: “Stand erect,” “Bend to the left and to the right,” “Lie on your back.” It is said that George Burns did the RCAF exercises every morning.
For those keen on spiritual fitness, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola are here briefly considered. Written between 1522 and 1534, they were finally approved by Paul III in 1548. It is a little-known fact that wealthy lay women, who had looked after Ignatius’ needs in his pilgrimage days, were the first to do the Exercises under his direction. They sought to intensify their relationship with God and serve others as the Lord’s disciples without being confined to the cloister as nuns. After the Society of Jesus was formed in 1540, the Exercises became the heartbeat of Jesuit training and of many religious institutes, who in the next century, could conduct their ministry outside the cloister. To follow the Ignatian way was to find God by serving others; it was a way of seeing the divine at work everywhere.
Structure and Contemporary Forms of the Ignatian Exercises
Like the RCAF exercises, the Ignatian Exercises immerse individuals in prayer, that interior activity in which they are engaged in their own salvation history. The broad sweep of the meditations extends from creation to the present and very much looks to the future, to a cosmic view of salvation history. The purpose of the retreat is to form disciples of the Lord, discern one’s mission in life, or to strengthen the vocation already chosen. The Exercises hold abundant graces personally suited to those who engage them.
Finding God in All Things
Avery Cardinal Dulles identifies four themes from the Spiritual Exercises, the cosmic, the theistic, the ecclesial, and the Christological.
The cosmic is referred to as “finding God in all things.” In the Exercises, Ignatius reflects on how God dwells in all creatures and in human beings, who are created “in the likeness and image of the Divine Majesty; God works and labors not only in human persons, but also in the elements, the plants, and the animals” (Nos. 235, 236). This is seeing all creation as an epiphany of the divine.
The Jews help us to understand, for their story is ours as well. In Egypt, in the Exodus, and afterward, the Jews learned to find God in the ups and downs of their lives. They learned to believe that nothing happened by chance; God acted in each event to show them what he was like, to heal them, and to challenge them to grow. This belief made their lives, sometimes exciting, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, sometimes dull, but it was always meaningful. Their story is universal.
The key word is learn. In order to find God in all things apart from one’s retreat, Ignatius has individuals do the daily examen, that is, praying over our thoughts, our speech, opinions, aspirations, desires, decisions, . . . over our physical, spiritual, material and mental needs, and over our state of calling so that we may better find God right there in the details of our lives. One can see the divine present and at work in all things . . . “in ten thousand places,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins writes. The hand of God is behind all that is. Nothing happens by accident. Even in adversity, God desires that good might come from life’s “passivities,” a word used by Teilhard de Chardin. He means those persons and events which act upon us causing us pain. Doing the daily examen gives me God’s viewpoint; I see that there is never a moment when God is not at work saving me and the world. Everything forms a single whole, and I become the living extension of God’s hands and eyes for others. “He awaits me in every sense; he is at the tip of my pen, my spade, my brush, my needle” (The Divine Milieu, 28). Thus, the value of good intentions to sanctify human activity and to humanize Christian endeavor—building up the kingdom.
It is from immersion in the Exercises that the individual is opened up to a God-centered humanism which asserts with the playwright Terence: “I am a human being; I consider nothing human as alien to me.” Put another way: Because everything human is an epiphany of the divine, “by reason of creation, and more so by the Incarnation, nothing is profane for those who know how to see” (Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu, 30). Sister Wendy, a hermit and mystic, does art commentary on PBS. She sees God at work in the most controversial paintings, denounced by many as obscene. And genuine science does not belong to atheists or egotists, writes the Jesuit astronomer, Guy Consolmagno, S.J., winner of this year’s “Carl Sagan medal for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist.” Nothing comes from nothing; every result has its corresponding cause, including “the Big Bang.” It did not generate itself. It had a first initiator.
Ignatian Retreats for Engaged and Married Couples
In prayer, the individual grasps God’s plan for one’s self over a one-month period at a retreat house or over several months at home in the midst of daily activities. Engaged and married couples who do the Exercises either before marriage or early in their marriage enter into their vocation steeped in the graces of their vocation. Today, these retreats known as “Finding Our Way Together with the Ignatian Exercises” are attracting greater numbers and are receiving much praise for renewing the sacrament of matrimony. Those laymen and women in the Christian Life Communities, for example, who make annual Ignatian retreats contribute mightily to building up the world. Today many lay people have done the Spiritual Exercises and have themselves become directors of the Exercises for engaged or married couples. A great grace for the Church: married couples directing other engaged and married couples in building the Catholic family, the domestic church.
Robust Skeptics of the Ignatian Exercises
Critics of the Exercises abound. On examining the text, what does one find? The hackneyed, dated, and inelegant texts and directives can be overlooked, but what of the naïve imagery and unsubtle psychology? They’re certain to repel today’s sophisticated man or woman. Moreover, the structure seems too tightly wound, hemming in one’s freedom. There’s more.
On encountering the “finished product” emerging from the retreat, one sees a “new creation.” Has this person been tricked by the mechanics of a book that wields a mysteriously clever and crafty formula? Surely its purpose is to dupe the retreatant, self-absorbed and unconcerned for a suffering world. Not so.
The experience of the Exercises is the signature brand of the Society of Jesus and of those persons or religious institutes formed or influenced by the Exercises. The mere mention of figures such as Teilhard de Chardin, Henri De Lubac, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Walter Ciszek, Ladislas Orsy, and Avery Cardinal Dulles should dispel further criticism. Moreover, Mother Teresa’s Missionary Sisters, the Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the Religious Sisters of Jesus and Mary, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and others have been founded on the Ignatian charism. The Exercises have also become popular among those in faith-traditions other than the Catholic. Have these men and women succumbed to trickery or mind control?
Ignatius’s mysticism was unlike that of the Carthusian, Trappist, or Benedictine. His was a discerning mysticism in the bustling market place. The mission was contemplative—part of prayer. Prayer was apostolic—part of the mission. The one became the raw material of the other. The one was done for the sake of the other. Ignatius allowed God to touch him everywhere, and there was nowhere that he couldn’t touch God.
The experience of the Spiritual Exercises seeks to form mystics. It takes a lifetime. But mystics don’t levitate, aren’t absentminded, have good appetites. Mystics go about their lives in towns and cities, quietly and undistinguished. Yet, like yeast, they penetrate the dough.
In 1922, Pius XI proclaimed St. Ignatius patron of retreats, and in 1929, Pius XII declared the Exercises to be the standard of all retreats. They are a gift and a treasury of blessing for the entire Church and for the world. On July 31, the church celebrates the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
(To be continued.)
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.