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Ignatius was born at the castle of Loyola in Spain in 1491. He founded the Society of Jesus, one of the largest religious orders in the Catholic Church in 1540. Ignatius of Loyola has had a lasting influence on Christian spirituality and was canonized a saint by Pope Gregory XV in 1662. Members of the Society of Jesus are commonly known as the Jesuits. Today there are more than 20,000 Jesuits ministering in 112 countries. Their formation as Jesuit priests and brothers, as well as their distinctive spiritual ministry is rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
Ignatius had little spiritual inclination in his early life. He was raised a nobleman and warrior and enjoyed a rather self-indulgent life of an aristocrat of his time. When he was 30 years old and engaged in a battle defending the fortress of his town of Pamplona, Spain, against the French, he was seriously wounded by a cannonball. Both his legs were injured in the assault and surgeries without the benefit of anesthesia did not produce a complete healing. He was forced into a long recovery in the castle of Loyola where his only activity was reading. The only books available to him in the castle were a four-volume life of Christ and the lives of the saints. Serious reading was new to Ignatius and with it he experienced a journey into previously unexplored regions of his imagination. In place of his former dreams of being a victorious warrior and courtier of princesses, he found himself identifying with the stories of Holy Scripture and imaging himself in the gospel stories or taking on the spiritual quests of one of the saints, which he was reading about during his long convalescence. This was the beginning of his religious conversion, initial experiences of contemplation, and his discovery of spiritual discernment, or discernment of spirits, which is at the heart of his Spiritual Exercises.
Gradually Ignatius felt called to abandon his former ways and old desires for fame and fortune. When he was sufficiently recovered from his wounds, though limping, Ignatius decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to walk the way that Jesus walked. His journey took him toward Barcelona, the point of embarkation for Rome, where pilgrims sought permission to visit the Holy Land. Ignatius stopped first, however, in Manressa where he stayed in a cave outside of town. While intending to stay only a short time, Ignatius was drawn into the deeper caverns of his own interior life. He experienced an encounter with God-a vision-that would direct him to embrace the truth that life is the journey of "finding God in all things." This grace, finding God in all things, has remained a core virtue in Jesuit spirituality for 450 years. It was in the literal and metaphorical cave at Manressa that Ignatius began to detail his own experience of spiritual awakening and conversion. The little notebook that he carried from his healing time in the castle of Loyola began to expand to become a book, Spiritual Exercises, which is the heart of Ignatian spirituality.
Ignatius composed and revised the spiritual exercises over a 25-year period prior to its first publication in 1548. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius contain instructions, admonitions, annotations, examinations, warnings, methods, prayers, meditations, and other "exercises" designed to lead one to virtue, discernment of good and evil spirits operating in one's life, deeper renewal in faith, clearer sense of direction in life, and personal and social transformation through love.
Ordinarily, the Spiritual Exercises are experienced in the context of a 30-day retreat, although there are now many variations of experiencing the Exercises. For example, Jesuit Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska provides an online Ignatian retreat. In all instances, following the spiritual path laid out by St. Ignatius through involvement in a series of exercises is meant to assist people in following a path, which leads them to greater self-awareness, a felt appreciation for God's loving design in their lives, and a pattern of prayer that enters the daily rhythm of one seeking greater union with God.
Each day of the week is divided into five exercises. There is a pattern to each exercise, each day and each week of the 30-day retreat. The five periods of prayer are spaced throughout the day and evening. Prior to the beginning of each meditation period, the retreatant, guided by a director, is invited to focus on a theme, such as God's creative goodness or one's own struggle between the forces of good and evil. One begins by praying for the true desire to be open to interiorly exploring the workings of God in the now of one's life. Scripture reading is part of each exercise, and a retreatant is asked to experience the scriptural story as being personally addressed to her or himself. The retreatant, through quiet listening and patient waiting, gains access to the inner realm and attends to the spiritual stirrings and the experience of communing with God (spiritual consolation) or, as sometimes happens, to the felt sense of God's absence (spiritual desolation). Keeping a journal, like Ignatius's own notebook, is often part of each prayer session so that one can record the inner happenings and reflect on these periods of prayer with the spiritual director who helps interpret the movement of God's Spirit and acts as a guide day by day through each of the themes of the Ignatian Exercises.
The retreat programs, spiritual growth opportunities, and social service outreaches connected to any Jesuit educational institution or spiritual life center is founded on principles of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The men and women who are trained in Ignatian and Jesuit spirituality give retreats to youth in parishes and are retreat team leaders for Jesuit high schools in and beyond the United States. No adolescent or young adult would graduate from a Jesuit institution without experiencing an encounter with Ignatian spirituality.
In brief, Ignatian spirituality is engaging and adapts itself to each particular person wherever one is on life's journey. The flexible disciplines of the Spiritual Exercises create the interior condition for spiritual awakening and deeper self-knowledge.