The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, composed 1522–1524, are a set of Christian meditations, contemplations, and prayers written by Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th-century Spanish priest, theologian, and founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Divided into four thematic "weeks" of variable length, they are designed to be carried out over a period of 28 to 30 days. They were composed with the intention of helping participants in religious retreats to discern the will of God in their lives, leading to a personal commitment to follow Jesus whatever the cost. Their underlying theology has been found agreeable to other Christian denominations who make use of them and also for addressing problems facing society in the 21st century.
After recovering from a leg wound incurred during the Siege of Pamplona in 1521, Ignatius made a retreat with the Benedictine monks at their abbey high on Montserrat in Catalonia, northern Spain, where he hung up his sword before the statue of the Virgin of Montserrat. The monks introduced him to the spiritual exercises of Garcia de Cisneros, which were based in large part on the teachings of the Brothers of the Common Life, the promoters of the "devotio moderna". From Montserrat, he left for Barcelona but took a detour through the town of Manresa, where he eventually remained for several months, continuing his convalescence at a local hospital. During this time he discovered The Imitation of Christ of Thomas à Kempis, the crown jewel of the "devotio moderna", which, unlike the focus on labor in the Lord's vineyard which Ignatius will give to his Constitutions, gave little grounding for an apostolic spirituality. He also spent much of his time praying in a cave nearby, where he practiced rigorous asceticism. During this time Ignatius experienced a series of visions, and formulated the fundamentals of his Spiritual Exercises. He would later refine and complete the Exercises when he was a student in Paris.
The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius form the cornerstone of Ignatian Spirituality: a way of understanding and living one's relationship with God in the world as practiced by members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Although he originally designed them to take place in the setting of a secluded retreat, during which those undergoing the exercises would be focused on nothing other than the Exercises, Ignatius also provided a model in his introductory notes for completing the Exercises over a longer period without the need of seclusion. The Exercises were designed to be carried out while under the guidance of a spiritual director, but they were never meant only for monks or priests: Ignatius gave the Exercises for 15 years before he was ordained, and years before the Society of Jesus was founded. He saw them as an instrument for bringing about a conversion or change of heart, in the Reformation times in which he lived. After the Society of Jesus was formed, the Exercises became the central component of its training program. They usually take place during the first year of a two-year novitiate and during a final year of spiritual studies after ordination to the priesthood. The Exercises have also impacted the founders of other religious orders, even becoming central to their work.
Ignatius considered the examen, or spiritual self-review, to be the most important way to continue to live out the experience of the Exercises after their completion.
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