The Retreat that Never Ends: Who Should Take the Ignatian Exercises?

Certain words in our society connotate an image of a positive experience or quality of service. For example, almost any pre-school that brands itself as Montessori will have a waiting list. The image of Montessori education creates a demand for it.

Similarly, in the Catholic and wider Christian world, the phrase “Ignatian Exercises” connotates an image of an ethereal spiritual experience. Generally, people are unaware of what the Spiritual Exercises are but have heard their praises.

While the Montessori name may attract interest, parents must discern if that approach to learning is a good match to their child’s needs and learning style. They do not enroll their child simply based on its name.

For the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, the Christian may be desiring of a consoling, peaceful experience or to learn how to pray. While these are good desires, these alone do not indicate the person is a ‘fit’ for the Exercises. The Ignatian Exercises proper (19th and 20th annotations) are intended for the Catholic who desires something more, often unable to identify what that ‘something’ is. They want to grow in their love of our Lord and also of the people He has placed in their lives. But they do not know what that ‘looks like’. They cannot quite place their finger on it, not realizing it is the action of the Holy Spirit inviting them to a deeper relationship with our Triune God.

That ‘something’ which is so difficult to articulate is transformation.

That ‘something’ which is so difficult to articulate is transformation.

The Ignatian Exercises bring “a gradual unfolding of truth and order” (p. 5) to the soul. Through his own many mystical experiences with all three persons of the Trinity, Ignatius was taught of a “continual dynamic presence of God in all things…by His power, essence and presence” (p. 4). The ordering of our soul to God in love then brings us into harmony with all of creation. To benefit, then, the retreatant should already have some ‘space” in their heart for the Lord to work.

The Exercises have a precise order to be followed that permits this unfolding. This order mirrors the stages of spiritual growth taught by the saints since the earliest centuries of the Church. However, because the Holy Spirit is to be in control, the Director follows His inspirations in determining the Gospel meditations to select. Listening to the work of the Spirit in the retreatant, the Director also suggests repetition and points of focus that enable them to remain in the Spirit’s embrace. The retreatant’s contribution is in the composition of their prayer: time of day, place of prayer and prayer environment, mentally composing the Gospel passage to be prayed, and then surrendering into silence with the Lord.

The purpose of the Ignatian Exercises is commonly thought of as choosing a state in life (priest, religious, or marriage). In modern times it also encompasses making a very important, impactful decision such as career vs. missionary work. However, Ignatius did not intend its purpose to be restricted to this alone, which is particularly evidenced as he expanded inclusion of participants to the catechized laity. Within any of these purposes lies a primary purpose: the perfection of the soul. Thus, he says the Exercises are for “those who wish to make as much progress as possible (Sp. Ex. 20). For this reason, Ignatius gives meditations to grow the retreatant’s knowledge of, and desire to follow, Jesus’ standards vs. Satan’s standards (Sp. Ex. 136-148). He captures the disposition of the person’s heart towards God in a three-part typology of “classes” of people (Sp. Ex. 149-157) that reflect the wisdom of the saints who preceded Him. All of this is captured within the context of how choices are made by the retreatant, with the Holy Spirit illuminating for them the underlying causes and motives. As knowledge of self and God unfolds, the Spirit encourages them with experiences of His love and the retreatant is ready and desiring to embrace growth in humility so that God’s love and power may increase within and through them.

To an outsider, it may sound as though the Exercises risk forming the person to become a more self-aware narcissist or Christian-minded humanist! To develop the retreatant’s character to conform to that of Jesus, the Exercises have safeguards of honesty built within. Whether taking the Exercises in the format of the daily life (7-9 months with weekly direction) or secluded in a 30-day retreat, examining both the prayer experience itself as well as time outside of prayer brings to light the many ways the retreatant is self-reliant or fooled by the enemy of human nature. God’s movements in their soul then become more distinguishable too.

Coupled with the meditations of the Exercises, healing takes place and self-reliance is slowly replaced with God-reliance. The enemy loses his hold on them.

Thus, the Exercises provide the structure to develop a life lived in the fullness of God’s love, moving in accord with His Divine Will. And while this sounds appealing, the candidate for the retreat must be ready to maintain the discipline required to stay the course, for discipline is necessary for any type of exercise to be efficacious. But do not fear: God provides all grace necessary.

For more on the Exercises, see The Retreat that Never Ends: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, also by Debra Black.

Unless otherwise specified, quotes are derived from The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Exposition and Interpretations by William A. M. Peters, The Program to Adapt the Spiritual Exercises, 1967.

References to specific sections of the Exercises come from The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius translated by Louis J. Puhl, Vintage Books/Random House, 2000.

Photo by Salah Ait Mokhtar on Unsplash.

Share this post with your friends


Stay Connected

Sign up for our free email newsletter to stay up to date on the latest from!
  • Hidden
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Scroll to Top