What I will convey in this, and the next few posts, is not for everyone. What I will write should not be taken as a general recommendation for all Christians. Many Christians read the New Testament, especially statements by Jesus, as a call to radical transformation. Therefore, it is conceivable that some might interpret what I am going to write as if it were my recommendation as to how they should respond to that call, but that would be inaccurate. One would also be committing an error to conclude that my recent experiences came out of nowhere or that I’ve adopted what will, in the end, amount to nothing more than a fad in my life. Several months ago, I spent considerable time over a period of weeks recalling and contemplating the ways in which God has been active in my life from childhood to the present day. Through this simple, but profound, exercise, I have come to appreciate the extent to which God, over many decades, has been molding and shaping me for this time. What might appear to others to be a radical change in my life that involves adopting a whole new set of behaviors and attitudes, in truth, is only the most recent expression of a life-long process. Therefore, when I encountered St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, I was ready in a way that many others might not be.
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St. Ignatius was, and is, an interesting character. He is simultaneously loved and hated, revered and despised. Even in his own time, he was a controversial player on the religious scene. Not only did he, a Knight and soldier by training, found the Jesuits (The Society of Jesus), but he was instrumental in the counter-reformation. Despite this background, millions upon millions of people have found great benefit from Ignatius’ writings, especially his Spiritual Exercises. That these exercises have survived and prospered for over 500 years constitutes evidence of the value that many, many people have derived from them. Since 1522, when they were composed, the Spiritual Exercises has been reprinted more than 400 times. I first stumbled upon the Spiritual Exercises at CCEL. The book is available from many sites, but CCEL reports that almost a million people have download Spiritual Exercises from their site alone. That Calvin’s Institutes has been downloaded about the same number of times from CCEL attests to the relative popularity of the Spiritual Exercises.
Consistent with my experience with other works from the same period, I anticipated finding in the Spiritual Exercises a book that would take a lot of time and effort to wade through and, ultimately, I was not disappointed. All I could hope, as I started reading, is that I would not regret all the time invested in slogging my way through the book. When I read the very first 2 sentences of the book, though, I knew immediately that I had found something very special:
“The first Annotation is that by this name of Spiritual Exercises is meant every way of examining one’s conscience, of meditating, of contemplating, of praying vocally and mentally, and of performing other spiritual actions, as will be said later. For as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all the disordered tendencies, and, after it is rid, to seek and find the Divine Will as to the management of one’s life for the salvation of the soul, is called a Spiritual Exercise.”
As I wrote, above, I had been primed and made ready. I immediately got a sense that Ignatius would address specific, fundamental, and heretofore insoluble, problems in my life.1 Sacred… meet secular. Superficial religion… meet the Spirit moving over the “formless and void” chaos of my life. Theoretical (doctrinal) understanding of redemption, atonement, and propitiation… meet the practical reality of how to draw near to God. As if this Annotation did not comprise sufficient rationale for continuing to read the Spiritual Exercises, the Second Annotation, following immediately on the heels of the First, states, “For it is not knowing much, but realising and relishing things interiorly, that contents and satisfies the soul.”
When I read that sentence, I thought, “Ignatius gets me!” I was hooked.
1 Intriguingly, Ignatius was not a priest at the time that he wrote the Exercises. In fact, he wrote his initial drafts while living in a cave near Manresa, Spain. Even without clerical credentials, he had a large impact on many people. The take-home message is that Ignatius wrote the exercises with “lay people” in mind. This perspective is explicit in Annotation 19, and contributes to my sense that “Ignatius gets me,” someone who is a working stiff, not a clergyman. Annotation 19, among many other statements in the Exercises, allayed my fears that Ignatius’ aim was to make a clergyman out of me. Quite to the contrary, Ignatius believed that anyone, regardless of station in life, in reflecting on their own lives and the life of Christ, could “draw some spiritual profit,” a phrase Ignatius invoked repeatedly. The “some” does not refer to the belief that a clergyman would derive more profit than a layman, but that some people (whatever their business) would profit according to the gifts (grace) of God.