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Spiritual Exercises

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How to Make a Thirty Day Private Retreat,
Following the Spiritual Exercises

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Already in the lifetime of St. Ignatius, the Spiritual Exercises were made by people in the privacy of their homes.

In order to make the Exercises in their entirety, thirty full days should be given for the retreat. This means beginning the night before the first full day, and ending on the morning after the thirtieth day.

The Spiritual Exercises were written by St. Ignatius Loyola over a period of some ten years, from 1521 to 1533. They are based on three principal sources: Sacred Scripture, personal religious experience, and certain masters of the spiritual life, notably Thomas A. Kempis, the author of the Imitation of Christ.

The Exercises were first officially approved by Pope Paul III on July 31, 1548, exactly eight years to the day before the death of St. Ignatius.

Since then some forty Bishops of Rome have formally approved and praised the Exercises, and strongly recommended them for use by the faithful. In 1922, Pope Pius XI declared St. Ignatius the heavenly patron of all spiritual exercises and retreats.

St. Ignatius’ Exercises have thus become the Church's standard way for people in every state of life to grow in holiness and reach Christian perfection.

Basic Purpose and Structure

The fundamental purpose of the Exercises, in Ignatius' own words, is two-fold:

  1. To prepare and dispose the soul to free itself from all inordinate affections, and

  2. After it has freed itself from them, to seek and find the will of God concerning to ordering of life for the salvation of one's soul.

Each of these two ends of the Exercises is so important that they call for further explanation.

Prepare and Dispose the Soul. On the premises of our Catholic faith, we assume that we have a fallen human nature. We believe that, because of concupiscence, our minds have been darkened and our wills weakened by the fall.

Objectively speaking, God has made it clear that we are in this world to know, love and serve God, and thereby save our souls.

But subjectively, from the dawn of reason to the present moment, we know that we have not been as faithful to God's grace as we should have been. He provides the grace, indeed, but we must provide our voluntary cooperation with this grace.

Why have we not been as faithful to divine grace as we should have been? The fundamental reason is that our human wills have become more or less enslaved by inordinate affections and desires.

How can our affections and desires be inordinate? They can be inordinate when our spontaneous impulses are out of order. And they are out of order to the extent that our desires are not in conformity with the will of God for us. We have urges to do things that are forbidden by God, and urges to avoid doing things that are commanded by God.

Our prospect of reaching heaven, and even of being truly happy here on earth, depends on the mastery we achieve over our natural impulses and desires. After all, it is one thing to have some inclination or desire. It is something quite else to first recognize whether the desire is morally good, and then to either resist the desire if it is bad or give in to the desire if it corresponds to God's will.

We return to the primary purpose of the Spiritual Exercises. Through them, we are to prepare and dispose our soul to free itself from all inordinate affections.

How do we free ourselves from all inordinate affections? In two ways: by enlightening the mind and by strengthening the will. Each of these ways corresponds to the two terms used by St. Ignatius when he says we are to prepare and dispose the soul.

We prepare the soul to free itself from disorderly affections by educating our mind to know what is God's will in my life, why I should do God's will, and how I am to conform my will to His.

In the light of the knowledge thus gained, we prepare our soul to be free to do the will of God. We are truly free in the depths of our soul only when we choose what is truly good for us. There are many spurious attractions that entice our wills, so we must know clearly, firmly and intelligently what we should choose, not what we would like to choose.

We dispose our soul to free it from disorderly affections by strengthening our will. Naturally speaking, what God wants us to do is not always what we want to do. If we are to follow God's will through life, our wills must be fortified. Our wills are fortified when they are strongly motivated. We must provide our wills with motives for doing the will of God. We must see the benefits that come from doing the will of God, even when it does not naturally appeal to us. And we must see the harm that comes from doing our own will instead of God's will, even when doing the divine will is naturally displeasing to us.

On both levels, of preparing and disposing our souls properly, we need much help from God. We need light for the mind and strength for the will. These are infallibly available in answer to prayer. That is why the Spiritual Exercises are especially thirty days of concentrated prayer. We are to beg God to show us, so we might know what obstacles stand in our spiritual life and to strengthen us, so we might be liberated from our disorderly affections.

Seek and Find the Will of God. The second purpose of the Spiritual Exercises is to honestly seek the will Of God in our lives, and trust that by the end of the retreat we have found it.

This is not so obvious as may seem. One reason that many people never really find what God wants them to do is because they are not sincerely looking to discover the divine will in their lives.

The first purpose of the retreat must be kept in mind during the thirty days. I must keep preparing and disposing myself to be freed from inordinate affections. The more honest I am with myself in uprooting the obstacles to serving God, the more honest I will be with God in seeking His will for me--not only now or the near future, but until the end of my life on earth.

It is important to state here that to seek and find God's will for me I must rise above vague generalities. I should, by the end of the retreat, have come to some definite and specific conclusions.

One conclusion belongs to the essence of the Spiritual Exercises. I must see God's will for me as including some form of the apostolate. As St. Ignatius understood the spiritual life, he never separated personal holiness from zeal for souls.

So closely did he associate sanctity and the apostolate that the one stands or falls by the other. Unless I decide to cooperate with Christ in the salvation and sanctification of others, I am not really pursuing holiness as Christ and His Church have understood it for 1900 years.

What follows from this necessary relations between holiness and the apostolate? One consequence is that I must assume that God wants me to labor to save souls. During the retreat I should make this as definite as possible. I should not precisely decide whether God wants me to engage in apostolic labors. I should only decide how He wants me to be a channel of grace to others.

Some Practical Guidelines

A private thirty-day retreat should be carefully planned. The following are some practical directives.

  1. Make a firm resolution at the beginning of the retreat to give as much time and attention to the Spiritual Exercises as your state of life, employment and other duties allow.

  2. Have a copy of the Spiritual Exercises available. Use the text of the Exercises as your principal guidelines during the retreat.

  3. Map out for each of the thirty days a theme for the day, and three specific meditations following that theme.

  4. Decide how many meditations you can reasonably make each day. At least one clock hour should be given to reflective meditation. You may, of course, spend more than one full hour a day in meditation. But then decide whether you will cover one, two or three of the meditation subjects during the day.

  5. It is wiser to know each day how much time you can give to meditation. The amount of time can change from one day to the next, but decide by the morning of each day how much meditation time you will devote for that day.

  6. Assist at Mass and receive Holy Communion each of the thirty days of the retreat.

  7. Prepare to make, before the end of the retreat, a more-or-less general confession. This need not be a general confession of your past life. But it should at least cover a sufficiently long period to provide you with an inventory of your moral life. It will also bring you special graces from God, not only during the retreat but for the rest of your life.

  8. Do some writing every day of the retreat. It may be only a few jottings or it may be a greater length. It is recommended that you make some record of the lights and inspirations that God gives you during the retreat. This writing may be part of the meditation itself, or it may be done separate from the meditations.

  9. You may, but you need not, tell others that you are making a retreat. Prudence may suggest that others, except members of the immediate family, not be told. Use your discretion.

  10. Within the limits of prudence and charity, it is recommended that during the retreat you keep more or less recollected than usual.

  11. Provided the Blessed Sacrament is available, spend whatever time you conveniently can before Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist.

  12. Do not in any way curtail or neglect your regular duties. Learn to combine doing your ordinary work while remaining closely united with God.

  13. Do some spiritual reading daily. It may be directly connected with the retreat theme for the day, or it may be on some other subject that will help you in the spiritual life.

  14. It may be useful the night before to plan what you are going to specially meditate on and pray for on the next day.

  15. Avoid such secular reading or entertainment as you can, which would interfere with a spirit of recollection. But remember, do not neglect any of your ordinary duties or responsibilities.

  16. If listening to some religious recordings would help, by all means use them. The same with conversation with others. Do not fail in the virtues of charity or justice towards others while you are making the Spiritual Exercises.

  17. Those making the Exercises may find spiritual benefit in contacting one another and, if they wish, sharing with one another whatever lights the Holy Spirit may give them during the retreat.

  18. If desired, the priest director can be available by telephone, briefly and occasionally, during the Exercises to assist those retreatants who may want some counsel.

  19. Recite the Rosary every day. Say the Angelus at least twice daily.

  20. Make an Examination of Conscience every day, and plan on doing so regularly after the retreat.

  21. Familiarize yourself with the book of the Spiritual Exercises so that you can better understand such areas as Discernment of Spirits, Rules for Thinking with the Church and the Three Methods of Prayer.

  22. Keep yourself in peace. The evil spirit may tempt you to worry or discouragement. Ignore these temptations.

  23. Plan, by the end of the retreat, to have made the retreat Election. In other words, with God's grace make some definite resolutions for the future as the focus of the Spiritual Exercises. Come to some clear decisions on God's will in your life, and tell Him you will do what He asks of you.

  24. The retreatants should pray for one another during these Spiritual Exercises.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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