Following in the Footsteps 
of Ignatius
By Margot Patterson
NCR Staff
St. Louis

April 13, 2001

They’ve been called a school for freedom, a work of teacherly genius and a powerful tool for conversion. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are being turned to by growing numbers of people who say the 450-year-old primer on prayer and contemplation offers a personal encounter with the divine that frees them to be more themselves.

“There’s no sense of predicting how you’ll change,” said Belden Lane, a theology professor at St. Louis University who did the exercises in 1994-95 and calls them “risky in the very best sense.”

A Presbyterian minister who grew up in a fundamentalist Protestant family, Lane, said the exercises led him to come to terms with his father’s suicide years ago, his mother’s dying during the months he was doing the exercises and his own mortality. “You’re taken into loss and death and all the denials and illusions you play with. It can be profoundly disconcerting,” Lane said.

“There’s a kind of desert journey,” he said. “You travel into terrain that you want to forget about. You go there and you don’t run away and you work through your fears and then you have the experience of Isaiah 35: the desert blooming like a rose.”

For Lane, one of the unexpected gifts of the exercises was rediscovering the aliveness of the Bible, which as a child he had grown up reading on a daily basis.

For Victoria Carlson-Casaregola, an instructor of English at St. Louis University, the greatest challenge the exercises presented was integrating the head and the heart.

Whatever their individual experience, those who practice the exercises agree that the process is creative and the effects of the exercises unexpected.

“You’re in it in order to be in the act of becoming,” said Vincent Casaregola, an associate professor of English who did the exercises several years ago. “You can’t name it ahead of time, and if you could name it ahead of time you’d stop the process.”

A spiritual classic

St. Ignatius of Loyola was still a layman when he began taking notes on his own spiritual experiences. These formed the genesis of the spiritual exercises, which Ignatius was eager to share with others in his lifetime and which have since become a classic work in Christian spirituality.

Not surprisingly, the Society of Jesus, the religious order Ignatius founded in 1539, is rooted in Ignatian spirituality. At least twice in the years leading up to their final vows, all Jesuits make a silent 30-day retreat in which they do the exercises.

The 19th annotation of the exercises -- so labeled by Ignatius when he wrote the exercises -- is an at-home retreat that consists of an eight-month program of prayer in which those doing the exercises, often referred to as the exercitants, commit to an hour a day of prayer following the pattern of scripture reading, prayer and contemplation Ignatius laid down. As exercitants read the gospels and place themselves inside the stories, they are encouraged to pay attention to how God is inspiring them.

Today the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius are no longer just the preserve of Jesuit retreat houses. All of the 28 Jesuit colleges in the United States and most of the 40-plus Jesuit high schools offer the spiritual exercises to their faculty and staff, part of an effort these schools have undertaken in an era of dwindling vocations to the priesthood to transmit a key element of Jesuit identity and education to their non-Jesuit faculty members and staff.

Increasingly, it’s the 19th annotation of the exercises rather than the classic 30-day retreat that people are turning to, if for no other reason than that few people have the time to make a month-long retreat. Even the at-home retreat requires a substantial time commitment.

The surprise is that so many people make that commitment.

“It would be safe to say that more people are engaged in these exercises today than at any time in history,” Jesuit Fr. Joseph Tetlow, secretary for Ignatian spirituality in Rome, wrote in National Jesuit News in 1995.

The 30-day retreat calls for retreatants to spend five hours a day in prayer and is divided into four blocks of time that are approximately one week each. The 19th annotation stretches each of these weeks into several. But retreatants still spend their time meditating on sin and their own experience of sin in the period designated as Week 1, on Christ’s life and early ministry in Week 2, Christ’s passion in Week 3 and the resurrected Christ in Week 4. The exercises follow the liturgical year, which is one reason why persons practicing the 19th annotation often begin in the autumn and end around Easter.

Today the popularity of the spiritual exercises has taken on an independent life of its own. “It’s kind of a contagious thing,” said Fr. Charles Currie, head of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in Washington. “When people see how helpful they are, they tell their friends,”

Advocates say people are seeking a spirituality they can adapt to their busy lives.

“People are hungry for a spirituality that fits their own experience, and the experience of many people today is that they can’t go away to find God. They’re hungering to find God in the midst of their everyday life,” said Jesuit Fr. Andy Alexander of Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

In St. Louis, the Bridges program started by Joan Felling and her husband, Jim, in 1989 provides the 19th annotation of the spiritual exercises both through St. Louis University and through Catholic parishes in the city. Bridges offers another program, Prayer Companions, which trains those who have done the exercises to become spiritual directors for others doing them. Approximately 600 people have done the spiritual exercises through Bridges, most of them attracted by word of mouth. Its success has helped make St. Louis a center for Ignatian spirituality.

The St. Louis Center for Ignatian Spirituality hosted the first national conference on Ignatian spirituality in 1999 and will host a second in 2002. But the spiritual exercises are flourishing in many other cities -- Seattle, Boston and Washington, to name just a few -- and myriad retreat houses and centers around the country.

The spiritual exercises are even available online. Since September of 1998, Creighton University has offered the 19th annotation of the exercises at nistry/online.html. At the Office for Collaborative Ministry at Creighton, Alexander and Maureen Waldron developed the 34-week program for the Web site, which they report is attracting close to a thousand visitors a day. The 34-week program on the Web includes a guide leading people through the various movements of the exercises, photos by the well-known Jesuit photographer Don Doll, a guidepost for the week written by Jesuit Fr. Larry Gillick, a place where retreatants can share their experiences of the online retreat and several links to related sites.

Listening to the Spirit

Whether they make the exercises online or off, retreatants are urged to bring their imagination and all their senses to their contemplation of specific moments in Jesus’ life.

“Imagination is [Ignatius’] favorite faculty of human beings,” said Jesuit Fr. David Fleming, author of a contemporary translation of the exercises. “People think of Ignatian prayer as meditative. Ignatius does talk a bit about meditation, but his emphasis is on contemplation -- prayer by imagination.”

A theologian who writes about geography and the sacred, Belden Lane said Ignatius brings both a poetic imagination and a keen understanding of place to the prayers he prescribes. Meditations on the Nativity and other moments in Jesus’ life bring exercitants into the gospel story and make it their story as well.

“You go there. You work through the five senses. You hear the hornets in the cave, you see the straw thrown over the mud, you smell the urine of the animals. That place then and there becomes your place here and now,” Lane said.

An intrinsic component to the exercises is a spiritual director. Those practicing the 19th annotation meet with a spiritual director once a week. The exercises become a guide to Christian maturity in the freedom of the Spirit, practitioners say.

“The spiritual director is key,” said Mary Flick, assistant vice president of the Office of Mission and Ministry at St. Louis University. “You can’t do the spiritual exercises alone,” said Flick, who did the 19th annotation of the exercises in 1994-95 and has since become a spiritual director guiding others through them.

“Ignatius would say pay attention to your desires and in your desires is what you are called to do,” said Joan Felling. “And that’s why you have a spiritual director -- to help you listen to the Spirit.”

The emphasis on reflection, interior experience and imagination may account for why people so frequently describe the exercises as transformative in unpredictable ways.

“I describe Ignatius as the great reflector because he has you pray and then reflect in your journal, and then he has you sometimes repeat that,” Felling said. “He encourages people to keep careful notes of their prayer, and he kept careful notes and that’s why we have the spiritual exercises.”

In particular, Ignatius directs retreatants to attend to movements of consolation and desolation they’re experiencing within themselves, consolation being described as anything that moves a person to greater hope, faith and love of God and desolation as movements toward selfishness and self.

In reflecting about their own life story as they contemplate Jesus’ life and in observing the emotions generated by their prayers, retreatants say they gain both a more intimate relationship with God and a greater understanding of themselves and their deepest desires.

People think of Ignatius as a very organized, intellectual man, but just the opposite is true, Fleming said. “He [Ignatius] is the saint who has given us an understanding of discernment, and discernment is based on feelings. Discernment is learning the language as spoken in or through my feelings. God does not so much touch our minds as touch our hearts,” said Fleming.

Marian Cowan of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a spiritual director for the exercises and author of a contemporary version of them titled Companions in Grace, said “discerning means I can figure out whether the desires that arise in me come from God or not.” Discernment is a tool that helps people to not only determine and decide between the good and bad in their desires but to choose between competing goods, she explained.

Inevitably, the spiritual exercises promote a better appreciation of a saint who’s been frequently misunderstood and sometimes vilified over the centuries.

Mysticism of service

Contradictions in the portrayal of Ignatius abound. Perhaps few saints have acquired a reputation so at odds with reality. Often pictured as a stern military man, Ignatius was never a professional soldier but a gentleman at arms inspired by chivalric ideals who, after his conversion, would break into tears sometimes four or five times a day, the effect of the gratitude he felt for God’s goodness. Conscious of his own early follies in the spiritual life, he never prescribed set prayers and penances for members of the Society of Jesus, and the spiritual exercises that he spent his life giving were meant to be adapted to every individual’s needs and temperament.

Fleming calls Ignatian spirituality a spirituality that is dynamic and active and reflects a mysticism of service. “A lot of people don’t associate Ignatius with mysticism at all, but the reason Ignatian spirituality has the flavor it does is because it comes out of his mystical experiences,” said Fleming. “Ignatius likes us to enter into our dreams and then he wants our dreams to be shaped by Jesus and the gospels. Ignatian spirituality always calls for creativity. How does it come together -- my dreams and the needs of the world, the church, my family?”

Though in this country the revival of the spiritual exercises of Ignatius has largely taken place during the last 30 years, and particularly the last 10, Jesuit Fr. John Padberg of the Institute of Jesuit Sources in St. Louis notes the conditions for the possibility of this resurgence began a hundred years ago with the discovery and publication of original source materials that gave a truer picture of what Ignatius and the early Jesuits thought and did. Incredibly, Padberg said, the autobiography and diary of Ignatius had sat unread, unedited and unpublished in the Jesuit archives for 300 years. When these and the writings of the other early Jesuits first began to be published in the 1890s, “at that point we began to recover our history,” Padberg said.

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s added further impetus to Ignatian scholarship. The council directed that religious orders should both respond to the needs of the present day and recover their original founding charism, a directive that the Jesuits were ready to respond to because they had a wealth of documents to help them do this. A tireless correspondent, Ignatius wrote approximately 7,000 letters as head of the Society of Jesus and insisted that his scattered companions in the Society of Jesus write quarterly reports from wherever they were posted. Few of Ignatius’ letters were published before the 1950s. Even now only about 150 of Ignatius’ letters are available in English; in the next few years the Institute of Jesuit Sources will publish an expanded collection of about 600.

Only after the Jesuits rediscovered Ignatius can you begin to talk about the resurgence of Ignatian spirituality, Padberg said, who notes that Ignatius’ autobiography and diary brought a fresh appreciation of Ignatius as a mystic and teacher of prayer.

“The resurgence of Ignatian spirituality started with the Jesuits and it didn’t start in the United States. It started in Europe with the rassourcement” -- the investigation of the theology of the early church that took place especially in the 1930s and ’40s, Padberg said.

Laypeople lead exercises

In Europe, people were giving individually directed retreats to laypeople in the early 1940s. That didn’t begin to be popular in this country for laypeople until the late 1960s at the earliest, Padberg said.

Today the laity is taking a leading role in the dissemination of the exercises,sometimes with the religious and sometimes without and sometimes via technology. As of early March, more than 230,000 hits had been recorded at the Creighton University Web site. Alexander and Waldron say they’ve received myriad letters from people saying their lives had been changed because of the online retreat.

“We’ve had so many letters from people who said they were just searching around the Net and they found this site a haven for the kind of spiritual nourishment they were seeking,” said Alexander.

The online retreat does not offer spiritual direction. Alexander and Waldron said they decided to offer the online exercises without a director because there are many people who have access to the Internet who would never speak to a spiritual director but who are nonetheless hungry for what the exercises offer. Waldron noted that many of the people who use the online retreat are people living in isolated circumstances. She mentioned a rancher in western Nebraska who lives 60 miles from town, a woman in Haiti who logs on to the site whenever the erratic electricity supply in Haiti allows her to, a woman in her 80s in Edinburgh, Scotland, dying from cancer.

“I think there’s a desire in every human being to draw closer to God, but the time and the place are not always there,” Waldron said. “We think we’re following Ignatius, who had a practice of leaving the churches and going out into the public squares to preach.”

People have adapted the site in various ways. Alexander and Waldron said they’ve heard from a priest in the Philippines who works in a school with few computers. Each week he prints out that particular week’s guide to the exercises and posts it on the bulletin board so that others in the school can do the retreat. A parish in Cincinnati did the online exercises and formed sharing groups for each of the 34 weeks; another parish in Long Island, N.Y., set up a bulletin board on the U.S. Catholic Web site for parishioners to share thoughts.

The Creighton University Web site also functions as a resource center, offering a list of Jesuit retreat centers around the world as well as information on the martyrs in El Salvador, spirituality links, and links to Catholic information sites.

An evangelizing mission

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is less a book to be read cover to cover than an instruction manual for spiritual directors. Most directors discourage retreatants from reading the exercises until they’ve finished their retreat. Alexander points out that just reading the exercises is meaningless. “If I read an exercise book, I don’t get in better shape. I have to do the exercises.”

Despite its dry language, the book has been published several thousand times. People continue to be influenced and inspired by the exercises, as much or more today as when Ignatius wrote his exercises.

Fleming said Ignatian spirituality is a practical spirituality that touches in right where people live. “It really does help them live their ordinary lives with a God perspective, with a real sense of the value of what they do. People feel that the way they live makes a difference not just to themselves but to the people they live with.”

“[Ignatian spirituality] is not a spirituality at odds with the world,” Alexander said. “Ignatius saw the world as good because God made it and didn’t feel we needed to leave the world to transform it.”

In Venice where Ignatius and his companions went in 1537, hoping to board ship for the Holy Land, they worked in hospitals for people stricken with syphilis. In Rome, their first church was chosen for its proximity to government offices, the papal courts, poor people’s homes and houses of prostitutes. There they opened orphanages, a house of instruction for Jewish converts, a house of refuge for prostitutes. Education, which became the Jesuits’ chief endeavor, was something Jesuits “glided into,” according to John O’Malley’s influential work The First Jesuits.

Ignatius said whoever wanted to join the Society of Jesus should keep in mind the following characteristics of a member of the society: “He is a member of a community founded chiefly to strive for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, and for the propagation of the faith by means of the ministry of the word, the spiritual exercises, and works of charity … ”

The spiritual exercises still accomplish this goal, seeding and strengthening faith.

“[Ignatius] has been able to translate his experience into a format that for lack of a better word evangelizes, that somehow transforms you from a passive Christian to a Christian who is in love with God and committed to the reign of God,” Joan Felling said.

Those who have completed the exercises describe their effect in the language of Easter: a renewed sense of God’s love, joy and freedom, growth and rebirth.

“Ignatius helps us see that a grateful person is a generous person,” Alexander said. “Once I become overwhelmed by God’s love for me, I want to share that love. That’s what we say is the mystery of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus.”