(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Born of a noble family in the Basque region of northern Spain, Ignatius of Loyola embarked on a military career, intending to become a soldier. At the battle of Pamplona in 1521, he received a severe leg wound that left him disabled. During his painful period of recovery, he spent long periods in prayer and study of the lives of the saints. Through numerous mystical experiences, he concluded that God was calling him to be a soldier for Christ. He spent several years in study and contemplation, with an extended period (1528-1535) in Paris. There in 1534, he and six of his friends constituted the Society of Jesus with a concern to extend apostolic witness wherever they went. In 1540 Pope Paul III approved the Jesuits as an official order of the Roman Catholic Church, with Loyola as its first “general.” The Spiritual Exercises, which he began writing as early as the 1520’s but revised throughout his life, served as a guide to the spiritual life of the Jesuit order. It has become a textbook for spiritual renewal and discipline used by persons throughout the Church.

The materials that make up The Spiritual Exercises were written over a period of several years and grew out of the religious devotion and idealism of Loyola himself. They represent a handbook of Christian spirituality intended to move the faithful to ever-increasing maturity through moral reflection, meditation, and discipline. Just as the worldly soldier prepares for warfare through an unending series of drills and exercises, the Christian soldier must prepare for the battle against evil. The Spiritual Exercises therefore constitute a training manual for life in the Spirit. By following this organized spiritual method, the Christian grows and matures in the faith and knowledge of the Lord.

The book is divided into basic sections, each to be practiced for one week. The time spent on each exercise may vary from a month to a few days. There is freedom to extend or restrict the time available for the observance. A brief introductory session provides “directions” for understanding the nature of the material and preparing the heart of the pilgrim for spiritual reflection. These introductory directions are aimed at purifying the person of sin and worldly distractions. Each exercise seeks to lead the believer to continuous reflection on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to the end that Christ’s love may be experienced anew. The instructions also suggest that the spiritual exercises are best observed under the guidance of a retreat master or spiritual mentor. In fact, younger Christians require such direction for the proper use of the exercises. Special instructions to the “master of the exercises” are provided throughout the book.

The first week is a time of spiritual purgation and preparation. In this section Loyola defines the purpose of the exercises as intended to help the seeker “to conquer himself and to regulate his life so that he will not be influenced in his decisions by any inordinate attachment.” The pilgrim thus learns to practice Christian discipline in such a way as to reject everything that might distract from Christ. Spiritual renewal, therefore, begins with self-examination. The chief end of human beings is to “praise, reverence and serve God.” Any activity that helps achieve that goal is acceptable for the Christian. Any activity that inhibits the goal is unacceptable. The “exercitants” (those who practice the exercises) are called upon to examine their lives with utmost honesty and intensity. No sin, mortal or venial, is to be overlooked. One is “to ask the grace to know my sins and to free myself from them.”

The first exercise also establishes some basic spiritual steps that are repeated in all other sections of the book. These include the “preparatory prayer” and the first and second “prelude.” The preparatory prayer is an invocation of divine grace upon the individual that all “intentions, actions and works” may be completely devoted to the service and praise of God. The first prelude calls the participant to focus mental attention on a particular place (location) in which the object or event of contemplation occurs. The mind thus moves back in time to significant moments in the life of the Virgin or Christ. The exercitant may be asked to create a mental image of Mary receiving the Annunciation, or of Christ in the carpenter shop, on the cross, or by the seashore.

The second prelude involves supplication, asking God for what one wants, needs, or desires. Such desires are not whimsical or self-centered but are prompted by the specific subject matter of the exercise. When reflecting on the Resurrection one asks for joy. When meditating...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)