Spiritual Exercise, Part II

Fan vault
Fan vault at Corpus Christi College Cambridge

I noted in a previous post that St. Ignatius prefers to talk about spiritual exercises or practices rather than about praying as such. I explored the way new retreatants often are surprised that a retreat can feel like hard work.

Another surprise is in the offing if they come with the expectation that they will be invited to pray the way they usually pray, particularly if the are making the full Spiritual Exercises. Though Ignatius is all for finding a means that works and sticking with it, if a retreat is a time of spiritual exercise you wouldn’t expect to just potter along as normal.

St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, suggests quite a few different ways of praying but he embeds each of them in the same framework. Some people see his approach, with its pattern and structure, as appealing to their personality while others suspect it for the same reason. In truth the structure isn’t the point. What Ignatius is doing is shaping a space for prayer to encourage a particular outcome — an encounter, mediated by imagination, with the living God. The encounter is the aim of Ignatian prayer and the template stands or falls by how it promotes it.

The Ignatian template has a number of things to do ‘before’ the prayer proper and more to do ‘after’. I believe this template has a lot to say about Ignatian spirituality in general and Ignatian spiritual direction in particular and, if you like, you can read an article I wrote for The Way exploring that in some detail. Here I will be more schematic. Here’s the template that shapes the Ignatian ‘hour’ in the Spiritual Exercises:

  1. as you come to the place of prayer pause and consider how God is looking at you
  2. ask God for the gift that everything in this time be directed to God’s ‘service and praise’
  3. recall the gist of the material you are going to spend time with
  4. compose yourself in the space
  5. ask God for what you desire in particular from the exercise
  6. use whatever way of prayer you have selected to engage with the material
  7. speak to God face to face, one friend to another, about what has happened
  8. don’t drift away — bring the exercise to a close in some way

You have to wait till point 6 before you get to ‘praying’ but by the time you get there what will ‘fit’ has quite a definite shape.

The template begins with a simple but powerful move: looking at God who is already looking at you: not just reminding yourself that God is there with you but checking out how God is really looking at you. It involves an act of the imagination: you actually have to look. And when you ‘see’ (or ‘feel’, or ‘sense’, or ‘hear’) you will be moved to some kind of response: you might be delighted, or surprised, or dismayed, or amused, etc. You might have something to say. So the first move of Ignatian spiritual exercise is noticing what God is already doing and responding to that. And notice this practice takes for granted that God is real enough and interested enough to be there in your spiritual exercise waiting for a personal engagement.

Move 2 underlines that by asking God to help you direct all your efforts in what follows towards God. It is about both effort and grace, working at something but aware that what comes can only be given and received.

Move 3 is bringing to mind whatever it is you have previously prepared to pray with. Quite often it will be scripture-related but remember that Ignatius’ own retreatants are unlikely to have had bibles to look at — they had familiar stories and a terse handful of ‘points’ that summarised them. Often it is best, having used the scripture in preparation, to just bring such points into the exercise and recall them rather than picking up your bible.

Move 4 deepens that initial recall and does it imaginatively in the same spirit as move 1. It is about composing yourself and composing the context of the story you have brought with you. I don’t so much mean letting yourself be still: I mean in a way putting yourself together. Sometimes it will be more about getting into the imaginative world of a gospel scene and sometimes it will be more about seeing yourself in the gaze of God with whatever you bring with you. People often baulk at this ‘move’ on the grounds of not ‘having much imaginative’: but we are neither talking about employing creative genius nor about having a Technicolor visual experience — just about ‘noticing’ what memory and imagination put before you with any of your imaginative senses. You can do it spontaneously or by a kind of question and answer that builds up the space: is the road straight or does it wind? is it noisy or quiet? am I feeling eager or reluctant? etc.

When you have put yourself together in the context of your material, move 5 brings you back face to face with God, asking again, this time for what you desire. This is exercise and, as such, it has a point. What are you wanting from this time? What are you working for? And at the same time knowing that you can’t get it except as God’s gift. You have to ask? And sometimes you will find that your desires are conflicted or even unknown to you. You want freedom but you are quite attached to something in particular, perhaps. This move asks only honesty: what do I want, now, as I have prepared myself in this place before the gaze of God? Ask for it, or as close as you can honestly get to it. Or try on the desire to see how it fits.

It is only at this stage in the Ignatian exercise template that you are ready to engage the material you intended to ‘pray’ with. It might have taken a few moments to get here or the best part of your exercise time but when you do get here the ‘space’ you have made for prayer has a very definite shape. Some ‘ways’ of praying fit comfortably (Ignatian imaginative contemplation obviously fits well) and others take some shoehorning (apophatic styles, like centering prayer, feel odd in this kataphatically prepared space). Although often suggested on retreats I am, personally, not sure how well lectio divina fits in this context.

However you engage with the material in move 6, Ignatius, in move 7, wants you to take the experience back to God and a conversation face-to-face, friend to friend. Like move 1 this is not a monologue but a dialogue in which both you and God/Jesus/etc. talk about what happened and what moved you and how your desire was met or not. Sometimes this will be brief and sometimes it will take a lot of the time. In a sense, from move 1, theĀ  exercise has been set up to be conversational — with if anything God taking the initiative.

Move 8 is to finally conclude the exercise in a semi-formal way — get up carefully, or say the Lord’s prayer, or make a sign of the cross, or bow — anything that signals a conclusion and helps you not just drift away.

I’d then suggest a good cup of tea! And of course, as I mentioned in the first post, when you have shifted gears it is worth reviewing the exercise and noting down where you were moved.

Some people love this kind of structure and others hate it but either way the structure isn’t accidental — it does a job of preparing a space to encounter God honestly and it helps maintain the momentum of that encounter.It can be adapted to get the most out of it but it is worth trying it as it is for a while to see if it bears fruit.

Entered into generously it is a great way of developing a personal relationship with God.

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