A primer on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
As I mentioned in my last post, our aspirancy group in the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma is using the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius to prepare us for the spiritual journey toward possible ordination.
I had read about the Ignatian Exercises, and more specifically, the Examen, during a study of Gary Neal Hansen’s survey of prayer methods, “Kneeling With Giants” (highly recommended). But, I had little exposure to the practical method and application of the Exercises until last week, when our aspirancy group briefly ran through them.
What I’d like to share in this post is simply the method we are using, and to invite others to give it a try. Obviously, I am a novice. And, the method may differ slightly from others’ application of St. Ignatius’ 500 year-old method of prayer. Again, I am a novice sharing a novice’s journey. Authoritative instructions are available from Loyola Press at IgnatianSpirituality.com.
St. Paul points to the purpose of the Ignatian Exercises in 2 Corinthians 4: “Christ lives in us earthen vessels as a precious treasure, revealing to us the glory of God from within.” Christ lives within us, and it is our purpose here to go within, to silence the outside world for a period, to draw closer to Christ and to unmask that within us that would separate us from Christ.
The opening of our instructions included a passage from author Annie Dillard, which explains to the need to “go in and down” into the “deep” within ourselves.
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with them over the world’s rim, you find that what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good and evil its power for evil, the unified field; our complex and inexplicable caring for each other and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.
Why must we go in and down? Because as we do so, we will meet the darkness that we carry within ourselves — the ultimate source of the shadows that we project onto other people. If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy and we will oppress rather than liberate others.
To ride the monsters all the way down is to reach something precious — to the unified field, our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, to the community we share beneath the broken surface of our lives.
To begin this journey “into the deep,” you will need several tools: a quiet place to pray, meditate and contemplate with minimal distractions; a lectionary or Bible; a notepad or journal and pen.
In essence, the Exercises focus around the reading of Scripture, followed by meditation and contemplation, then journaling on what you’ve found, and concluding with an Examen — a review of the day, and where in it you’ve encountered light and darkness within yourself.
The Exercises can be conducted with any Scripture reading, though it is usually done with a Gospel passage or Epistle reading. You can use prescribed reading for the day from the Catholic lectionary, the Revised Common Lectionary or any other daily lectionary. We are using the “Sacred Space” prayer book, a lectionary published each year by the Irish Jesuits and Loyola Press specifically for the Ignatian Exercises. Detailed instructions, step-by-step leading through the daily prayer and daily readings also are available at the Sacred Space website. The benefit of this lectionary is it syncs you with millions of other pilgrims around the world who are undergoing the Exercises.
It should be noted the lectionary in Sacred Space is not designed to be your entire Bible reading for the day. Again, the RCL or Catholic lectionary or any number of Bible reading apps can give you a good daily reading list, including Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel. This is designed simply to give a relatively brief passage, in this case from the Gospel, around which to focus prayer.
Begin the Exercises by going into your prayer space. For me, this means more than just sitting in the nook in my office I’ve carved out for prayer. I like to begin with some deep centering breaths. I silently pray the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God / Have mercy on me, a sinner,” praying the first half while inhaling, the second while exhaling. I repeat that until I feel I’ve calmed my mind down enough to focus on the Word.
Once you’re ready, read the day’s passage slowly, silently or aloud. Go into Silence and notice what word, phrase, image, thought or memory emerges. Don’t try to force anything. Just passively let it come to you, and let your mind wrap around what emerges. If you wish, make a note of it in your journal.
Return to the reading. Read it more slowly and deliberately. Close the book and your eyes, and focus on a sacred word — Love, Grace, Cross, whatever works for you. Let go of whatever image, thought, feeling or memory that came to you earlier. When your mind wants to wander, gently but firmly bring it back to your sacred word. Spend as much time as is comfortable for you in the Silence. Start with a few minutes, and let it build naturally.
Coming out of the contemplation, immediately journal what comes to you. Do not force anything. Just put pen to paper and let it flow. Don’t worry about punctuation, grammar, sentence construct — just vomit whatever is in your heart onto that paper. Go until you feel it’s out, then stop.
End your prayer time with the Examen. Retrace your day, and find those grace-filled moments — the times when you could see God in the world, or God working through you or through someone else. These are Consolations. Next, go back and retrace the day again, remembering those moments when you acted counter to God’s grace — when the darkness got the upper hand. The moments that drew you away from Christ. These are Desolations. Make a note of these in your journal in two columns.
Make a definite end to your prayer time, to train your mind and body to the routine. Close down your prayer space — blow out the candle, if you use one, shut off the light, close your prayer book. Return to the world.
As I’ve said, I only just recently started this prayer practice. But, so far I have found it a tremendous addition to my routine. I am still tinkering with how to best fit it into the Daily Office. Right now, I am doing it immediately before Compline (so my “closing down” of my prayer space comes after Compline).
Let me know what you think. And, again — I am a novice. This is intended to spark interest and share some initial thoughts and instruction. For authoritative instructions, I recommend working with a spiritual director who’s used to practicing this method or consult the resources from the Jesuits’ ministry at Loyola Press.
Good luck, and God Bless!