The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola are best suited for prayer during a silent retreat. However, Ignatius knew that they could also be effective when employed in a less isolated environment. It is the hope of the authors of this blog that you, the reader, find the meditations that we offer here useful in your own search to encounter Christ in prayer in your daily life. The meditations are intended to be prayed in order, from as close to the beginning as possible, perhaps over the course of a dedicated time such as the season of Lent. (more…)
Grace: To imitate the humility, forgetfulness of self, and patience exhibited in the saints who follow Christ.
Text for Prayer: Lk. 2: 22-38
Reflection: Today’s meditation is on the mystery of Our Lady’s purification and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. We take time during our prayer to imagine how Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus make their way from Bethlehem up to Jerusalem in order to fulfill the law. They get in line just like everyone else—without privileges or exceptions. They offer two turtledoves: the sacrifice offered by the poor unable to afford a larger animal. They meet Simeon, who has been promised that he would see the Savior of Israel before passing away and Anna, an untiring servant of the Lord who passes her day praying in the Temple. These individuals allow us to ponder what it truly means to be humble, selfless, and patient.
At the time of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Mary has already completed a major part of her mission: she has said Yes to the angel and has become the Mother of God by bringing the Christ child into the world. What is she to do next? What more does her mission require of her? First, we should consider that Mary remains humble even to the point of submitting to the purification requirements of the Mosaic Law which held that women were ritually unclean in the week following childbirth (Leviticus 12). Obviously Mary had no need for purification being herself conceived without sin and conceiving Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, but she nevertheless chose to obey the Law, a true mark of her humility before the Lord.
Grace: To feel shame and confusion at myself because of my sins.
Text for Prayer: 1 John 1:8-2:6
Reflection: St. Ignatius of Loyola describes the point of spiritual exercises as follows: they are meant “to conquer oneself and to organize one’s life without the influence in one’s decisions by any inordinate attachment.” Just as God’s first act of creation was drawing order out of chaos, Ignatius invites us to take an unsparing look at our own lives, to see that they have an element of chaos and disorder about them, and to set to work straightening things up.
One of the first steps that we must take as we begin to put our spiritual house in order is to recognize the sheer ugliness of sin. In the City of God, St. Augustine famously describes sin as “love of oneself even to contempt of God.” It should shock us to think that we could ever reach a point where we would love and prefer ourselves so much that we hated or disregarded God. How could such a scenario possibly come to be? The way that we usually arrive at such a spiritual morass is through a slide into what theologians call venial sin, rather than through a willing rejection of God in one fell swoop.
Grace: That I may feel intense joy and gladness for the great glory and joy of Christ our Lord risen from the dead.
Reflection: We now come to the Fourth Week of the Spiritual Exercises and shift our focus to the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord. In this week our goal is to arrive at an intense and lasting joy and gladness characteristic of true consolation.
The basic dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises is that in the First Week we take a brutally honest look at sin and this humbles us. From this point forward we recognize that it is foolish to try set up any rival good to God. We see clearly that if we try to live by our own lights rather than God’s will, we are bound to failure. Therefore, we look to Christ in order that we might imitate Him and model our lives after His: this is the only way out of the abyss. Then, in the Third Week of the Exercises, we try to accompany Christ in His suffering, staying near Him as long as we can bear.
Grace: The grace that my heart might always be a welcome abode for the Divine Word which so longs to dwell there.
Reflection: We consider two points in this meditation. The first point is that between His entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and His Last Supper, Jesus continues to labor on our behalf by preaching daily in the Temple. The second point is that, due to men’s neglect, there is no one to receive Him in Jerusalem, therefore He goes back to a place where He is loved and welcomed: Bethany.
Regarding the first point, let us note that this passage (Luke 19:47-48) is one of the many instances in the Gospel where the evangelists tell us that Jesus spoke to the crowds and instructed the people; however, the evangelists do not inform us what the specific words were or what lesson Jesus may have taught on these occasions. Instead it is left up to our prayerful imagination to discover what Christian message the Lord desired to convey to His hearers. This allows us to have a deep encounter with the Lord in our own prayer and to discover the lesson that the Lord desires to teach us today in the intimacy of the conversation we will have with Him in our heart through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. Whenever He taught the crowds, Jesus desired for His Word to be received with love in the heart of each person who listened and He desired for His Word to abide there. It is the same with us whenever we meditate on His preaching and think about the words he used on these occasions.
Grace: To choose what is for God’s greater glory and the salvation of my soul.
Reflection: This meditation on the three forms of humility is an excellent meditation for Lent. At the beginning of Lent we head out to the desert for forty days to pray and prepare spiritually for the coming celebration of Easter. We do this in imitation of Christ who, compelled by the Holy Spirit, went into the desert where he prayed, fasted, and withstood the temptations of the Enemy. In his description of the three forms of humility, St. Ignatius uses language reminiscent of the temptations Christ faced in the desert to describe the temptations that can be withstood by persons who possess the first two forms of humility. Ignatius says that the first form of humility is found in the person who will not consider committing a single mortal sin, not even in exchange for all the created things in the world or to save his earthly life. Likewise, the second form of humility is found in the person who cannot be tempted to commit even a single venial sin—not even if doing so would make him master of all creation or save his life on earth.
In the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises, we meditated on mortal and venial sin and the way that sin puts us out of step with God’s plan. We noted that even venial sin enervates our spiritual life and can eventually dispose us to disregard God’s law and commit mortal sin. Finally, we meditated on hell with the goal in mind of cultivating a healthy fear of hell. The idea was that such a fear could help us to avoid sin during those times when we don’t keenly sense God’s love or the times when His commandments seem particularly difficult to us. Certainly sin is such a destructive force that it is worth avoiding at all cost, even if it be through the motivation of fear of punishment rather than out of a motive of love.
Grace: A heartfelt knowledge of Jesus Christ who became man for me, that I might follow Him more closely and love Him more dearly.
This week we have been praying for a deeper knowledge of the God who became man for us. Specifically, we’ve begged for the grace, “to have heartfelt knowledge of Jesus who is the Son of God and my brother, so that I may love him more fervently and follow him more closely.” Because of the incarnational nature of our faith, we desire more than a mere intellectual knowledge of the Lord. What we seek is a transformation of our entire being—body, soul, and spirit—through an encounter with the living God. As Benedict XVI taught us in his encyclical Deus caritas est, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” The God whom we adore is not the God of the philosophers but the God of love who took on flesh in order to save us. In the memorable words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jesus Christ is “infinity dwindled to infancy.”
St. Ignatius of Loyola would have us to reflect on this marvellous truth by recalling that the Second Person of the Trinity took on so many hardships, perils, and sufferings not only out of a general love for humanity but, in a deeply personal and intimate way, He did it all for you. He lay in a crèche in Bethlehem bound in swaddling clothes out of love for you. He and His mother and father suffered persecution and fled the wrath of Herod out of love for you. And he lived for thirty years laboring as any ordinary man in anonymity in Nazareth out of love for you. All the while, he prepared for the ultimate expression of His love for you in His passion and Cross.
As you look back on the meditations from this week, where was your heart most touched by the love of God? Where were you able to “flesh out” your knowledge of God by encountering the Word Made Flesh as a child or as a man living His hidden life? Return to one of the moments where you found the most fruit in prayer this week and linger there a while with the Lord who, though divine, took on flesh in order to redeem you.
Grace: A deep awareness of the pain suffered by those damned to hell, so that if I should forget the love of the Eternal Lord, at least the fear of punishment will help me to avoid sin.
Text for Prayer: Revelation 14:6-11
Reflection: I was away on a retreat this weekend at a retreat center in a rural area where there must be a high mineral content to the water. Disturbingly, for the retreatant who desires to take a shower at this locale, the water has a rather eggy smell and leaves the skin feeling slimy and soapy, even after all the soap has been rinsed away. Other amenities, such as beautiful, peaceful grounds and a lovely chapel tend to compensate for this annoyance and, as far as I know, all of our students had a splendid retreat in spite of the stinky water.
What does any of this have to do with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola? Interestingly enough, in the fifth exercise of the First Week of the Exercises, St. Ignatius invites us to spend a little time contemplating the bitter smell of sulphur—using the interior sense of our imagination. This is one of the first instances in the Exercises of the method of prayer that St. Ignatius calls the application of the senses. An application of the senses is when our contemplation takes on a deeper richness through the application of our senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and even taste to the material being contemplated. In this case, the application of the senses is employed in order to help us to meditate on hell.
Grace: That all intentions, actions, and works may be purely directed towards the praise and service of God our Lord.
Text for Prayer: Genesis 1:26-31
Reflection: Why did God choose to make mankind? If I were to pose this question to the 8th graders whom I teach, they would likely—using their energetic imaginations—come up with various hypotheses: Maybe God made us because He was lonely and wanted some friends. Maybe He was bored. Maybe it was an experiment to see what would happen and what we might to do to entertain Him. Maybe He wanted someone who would pay attention to Him and do things for Him. These answers may seem humorous, but they flow from the difficulty of trying to envision a God who is not just one thing among many other things but who is wholly unique, wholly other.
When we ask the question, “For what purpose did God create man?”, we naturally tend to put ourselves in God’s place and to imagine how and why we would have created mankind, and the rest of creation, if we had been in the same situation. This can lead us to think that God’s purpose in creating must have been to fill some need or to make up for some insufficiency. However, if we want to understand better why God created us, we might be helped by first asking a related question: Who is this God who did create us?
The Church has always taught that God can be known through his effects, that is, through the things that He has made. Saint Paul writes to the Romans, “[e]ver since the creation of the world, his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). Thus, by using the power of our human reason and reflecting upon the things we see around us as well as upon ourselves we can eventually determine with certainty specific qualities which God must possess. We can know, for example, that God is totally simple, that He is one, that He is unchanging, infinite, perfect. Using human reason in this way, we come to see the inadequacy of some of the hypotheses proffered above: God couldn’t have made us in order to fill some gap because he is a perfect, infinite being and lacks nothing.