Today is the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and deviser of the Ignatian Exercises.
Ignatian spirituality, particularly the Exercises, and their ability to take us deeper into Scripture and into our relationship with God, and with our own true selves, is a topic I think beneficial for any Christian.
Ignatius, like many saints, started his life in the secular pursuit of fame and fortune, in his case as a soldier. But, it was the pain and suffering of recovery, after a cannon ball smashed his leg, in which Ignatius found the peace of Christ. He became devout, but soon — again, as is the case with many saints — entered a period of dryness, when the initial passion of faith had worn off, and the true work of the cross began. St. John of the Cross wrote extensively of this spiritual dryness in his 16th century classic, “Dark Night of the Soul,” and Saint (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta suffered more than four decades of this dryness in the middle of her ministry.
In the midst of that spiritual suffering, in which prayer, the Sacraments and penance no longer brought peace to Ignatius, he devised his Exercises.
I first learned of the Ignatian Exercises during a study of Gary Neal Hansen’s survey of prayer methods, “Kneeling With Giants” (highly recommended). The Exercises are a daily practice of lectio divina — of divine reading — in which you read, reread and meditate over a short passage of Scripture. The point is to go beyond an academic understanding of the text, and spiritually enter into it — to delve into the emotions and the deeper truth of the Word, and thus draw closer to Christ.
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 in the Exercises 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.
Christian author Annie Dillard, in a preface to the Exercises, beautifully explains in the need to “go in and down” into the “deep” within ourselves.
“Why must we go in and down?” she asks. “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.”
Getting to the bottom of what we hide within ourselves, or as Dillard puts it, “riding the monsters all the way down,” is essential to de-cluttering our inner space, and making more room for the light and love of Christ, who dwells within us. And, while Ignatian spirituality is generally viewed as a Catholic pursuit, I think that is a noble and necessary goal for any in the Body of Christ.
Authoritative instructions on undertaking the Exercises are available from Loyola Press at IgnatianSpirituality.com. To gain the full benefit of the Exercises, which originally were spread over 30 days of solitude and prayer, you will want a spiritual director familiar with Ignatian spirituality, but you also can gain a great deal by following along with one of the many online programs.
Detailed daily instructions and readings are available at the Sacred Space website, https://www.sacredspace.ie. Readings for the Exercises can come from any of the provided daily reading lists, from the Catholic lectionary, the Revised Common Lectionary or any other daily lectionary or the YouVersion Bible app.
The Exercises may not lead you to life in a monastery, but if they lead you to a deeper love and understanding of Scripture, and a more intimate relationship with Christ, they will be well worth the time invested. God bless you all.
Neal is a News & Eagle columnist and staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and online at emmauspath.church.