Spiritual Exercise, Part I

a woman on an exercise bike
Prayer has a lot in common with exercise

Maybe surprisingly, St Ignatius in his retreat manual, the Spiritual Exercises, doesn’t talk much about prayer. OK he talks endlessly about prayer but always as a variety of spiritual exercise. Spiritual exercise is his preferred category.

There is a prejudice that prayer, if you are doing it right, should be serene, peaceful, passive, restful even. That is often an issue for people coming on retreat for the first time: they expect that, if they can do it right, it will be quiet and easy. They might doubt that they can do it right but they expect they should.

St Ignatius sees prayer rather differently. He expects that if you do it ‘right’ it will be rather turbulent — a roller-coaster ride of alternating emotions as you find yourself passing between consolation and desolation and back again as you try to encounter God (or try to let yourself be encountered by God). In fact, he advises the retreat-giver faced with a continually serene retreatant to ask some questions to see whether the person is actually doing the exercises as set.

Ignatius can talk about ‘doing it right’ because he has a particular aim in mind for the spiritual workout he designs a retreat to be. It isn’t primarily about becoming proficient in any way of praying but about encountering God with honesty. He knows enough about human beings to expect that our encounter with God will stir up desires and resistances in us, we will be drawn by the good spirit and unsettled by the bad spirit, and handling all that will be strenuous. It will be work. It will be exercise. And we will learn and grow in the process.

Ignatius takes seriously the analogy between spiritual exercise and physical exercise. If you want results from exercise you approach it systematically, you do whatever is known to help, you maybe even find a personal trainer. He is very down-to-earth with his advice:

  • attend to your spiritual exercise regularly — just fitting it in here and there when you feel like it doesn’t much work
  • find a place, a time, a posture, for your spiritual exercise that seems to suit you and stay with it as long as it keeps working for you
  • don’t just stumble into your spiritual exercise– warm up! — think in advance of what you might be doing — if you are going to use a piece of scripture or some other material find it, read it, then put it on the back burner
  • if you have decided your spiritual exercise should last half an hour, say, stick to it — don’t duck out if it proves boring or extend the exercise if you are on a high
  • and after your spiritual exercise stretch and cool down — don’t compartmentalise your prayer, review the time and maybe make a note or two about what happened and what moved you so you can integrate the experience into the rest of your life

So if Ignatius sees a time of retreat as a workout what exactly is being exercised, trained, grown, stretched? Well, a familiarity with the God who is already familiar with us. A facility to engage imaginatively with that God. Maybe a falling in love with that God. An honesty about our experience so we see it as it is, not how we want it to be. A growing understanding of what brings us closer to God and what pulls us further away — what Ignatius calls the ability to discern spirits. Discerning spirits is, for Ignatius, all about making the choices to follow God in ordinary experience. His has been called a mysticism of choice. Spiritual exercise is aimed at training us to choose well, to seek and find God in all things, and choose to go where God goes.

I’ll write in Part II how the careful way Ignatius structures spiritual exercise to work toward these ends.