St Ignatius’ greatest gift

Fr Gerry Healy SJ reflects on St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, and the gift that they offer to the world.

This week, on 31 July, we have the Feast of St Ignatius, the patron saint of our College.

I sometimes reflect on what was St Ignatius’ most significant contribution. He gave us the Jesuit Order, he gave us what was for centuries the greatest educational network in the world, and great missionary activity. However, I think his greatest gift is the Spiritual Exercises.

The story of their origin is well known: Ignatius’ time recuperating at Loyola after his injury at the Battle of Pamplona, his ‘conversion’, the time of reflection and prayer at Manresa.

The Spiritual Exercises were the outcome of Ignatius’ reflection on the many false starts and pathways in his journey. He wanted a reflective process that would enable others to find the right path, the path especially to a personal relationship with Jesus. But more importantly, that they would find the true path for their life.

It is often thought that the consequence of Ignatius’ giving of the Spiritual Exercises to others in the University of Paris and elsewhere always led to a vocation to the priesthood or the Jesuit order, but very often it was a different path that their reflection led them down, but still the right path for them.

What the Spiritual Exercises give us is a reflective process to discern the correct path for each of us – a path that leads to a relationship with Jesus, but in many different forms and expressions. For Ignatius, the person of Jesus was central, as exemplified by his desire – even obsession – to visit the Holy Land and walk in the places Jesus walked. Much of the Spiritual Exercises is taken up with meditation on the Life of Jesus. But it is a relationship with Jesus appropriate to each of our individual vocations and paths.

Pope Benedict, speaking to the Jesuits at their General Congregation in Rome in February 2008, spoke of the Spiritual Exercises as Ignatius’, and the Jesuit order’s, greatest gift to the Church:

‘I ask you to focus special attention on that ministry of Spiritual Exercises which has been a characteristic feature of your Society from the outset. The Exercises are not only the source of your spirituality and the matrix of your Constitutions but also a gift which the Spirit of the Lord has made to the entire Church. It is your task to continue to make them a valuable and effective means for the spiritual growth of souls, for their initiation to prayer, to meditation in this secularized world where God seems to be absent.’
Pope Benedict, 21st February 2008

The full Spiritual Exercises consists of a 30-day enclosed retreat – obviously an impossibility for most people. Various attempts have been made, especially in recent times, to enable people without that sort of time commitment to experience the Exercises. These include the Retreat in Daily Life, where the Exercises are done over an extended time with a daily prayer session and seeing a Director once per week or so. The First Spiritual Exercises is a mode of introductory experience of the Exercises, developed by Fr Michael Hansen, who is a member of the Riverview Jesuit community.

Central to the Exercises is the director-directee relationship. The Book of the Spiritual Exercises is a guide for the director, rather than to be used by the retreatant. The Director guides the retreatant through appropriate exercises, listens to the fruits of the retreatant’s prayer, leading to further suggestions for reflection and meditation. Arising from the director-directee relationship, and other aspects of the Exercises, comes the characteristic Jesuit educational practice – a mode drawing on the best of existing theory, but adapted using the mode of the Spiritual Exercises. It is expressed in our times by the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (IPP), a guiding pedagogy for the Jesuit schools.

Fr Gerry Healy is the Rector of Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview. This article first appeared in Viewpoint newsletter.

Share This