The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola by James Martin

The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola by James Martin

All the passages below are taken from James Martin’s book “My Life with the Saints,” published in 2006.

My own affinity to St. Ignatius is not one of great personal affection. Even after many years as a Jesuit, I see Ignatius as a sympathetic but somewhat distant figure, removed from the plane of average men and women. Demanding. Even severe. Still, my gratitude toward him has deepened over the course of my Jesuit life, to the point where he is one of my favorite saints. It’s the kind of gratitude you might have for a thrifty and taciturn uncle who has secretly provided the funds for your education without you knowing it. In essence, my gratitude is for his spirituality and for his way of looking at the world and at God. It is his brand of spirituality that changed my life and frames the way I see the world today.

At heart, Ignatian spirituality flows from the saint’s most famous work, The Spiritual Exercises, which Ignatius wrote over many years; it was the fruit of his prayer and his experience in helping others pray. Any understanding of the spirituality of St. Ignatius and of his Jesuit Order begins with this short work. What has been called his greatest gift to the church has enabled thousands of men and women—Jesuits, priests, sisters, brothers, laypersons—from almost every Christian denomination to experience a deep intimacy with God. It is no stretch to say that The Spiritual Exercises has transformed lives. 

Essentially, The Spiritual Exercises is a manual for retreat directors that maps out a retreat designed to fit into four weeks. During that time retreatants ponder the love of God, pray over the decision to follow Christ, contemplate events from the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and experience God’s creative activity in all things. The Exercises are intended to help one know Jesus more intimately, experience a growing freedom, and understand how to make decisions in accord with God’s grace.

“Though the Exercises are traditionally divided into four “Weeks,” in actual practice it usually takes more than seven days to complete each “Week.” To add to the confusion, Jesuits also refer to the Exercises as the “thirty-day retreat” or, for obvious reasons, the “long retreat.” A Jesuit will make the long retreat twice in his life, once as a novice, and once after the final stage of Jesuit formation, called “tertianship.”


The Spiritual Exercises begins, after some preliminary observations, with Ignatius’s famous “Principle and Foundation,” which lays out in broad strokes his religious worldview: “Human beings are created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save their souls.” As such, we should make use of things on earth that enable us to do this, and free ourselves of anything that prevents us from doing so. We should be, to use a favorite Ignatian expression, “indifferent to all created things.”

Thanks in part to the word that he chose, indifference, as Ignatius uses it, is a commonly misunderstood concept. It does not mean that we should set aside things (or people) as worthless. Rather, we should not be so attached to any thing or person or state of life that it prevents us from loving God. The Exercises invite us to embrace a radical freedom: “On our part,” Ignatius writes, “we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only that which is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.”

One young woman, after hearing those lines, said to me, “I’m not supposed to prefer health over sickness? That’s insane!”

Of course no one wants to be sick. But in Ignatius’s worldview, health should not be something clung to so tightly that the fear of illness prevents you from following God. As in “Well, I’m not going to visit my friend in the hospital, because I might get sick.” Ignatius would say that in that case you may not be “indifferent” enough; health has become a sort of god, preventing you from doing good. The goal is not choosing sickness for its own sake, but moving toward the freedom of knowing that the highest good is not your own physical well-being. For most of us, this kind of complete freedom will remain a lifetime goal.

In my own life, indifference has proven to be a durable spiritual concept. Whenever I find myself overly attached to something—my physical well-being, my plans for worldly success, my popularity among friends, and so on—I remember the need for indifference.

When I was working with refugees in Kenya, for example, immediately before I was set to begin theology studies, my provincial asked me to wait another year before moving on to this next stage of training. He didn’t think I was ready yet for theology studies.

I was crushed. Most of my peers were on the same timetable, and now I was being asked to wait.

The more I thought about it, the more I became consumed with concerns for my reputation, for how things would appear. What would everyone else think? That I was a failure. A bad Jesuit. Damaged goods. I was angry with my provincial and told him so. 

When I confessed these feelings to my spiritual director in Nairobi, he counseled not only patience but a prayer for, as he called it, the grace of indifference. “Can you be indifferent to your need to have things happen on your own timetable?” he asked. “Are you more concerned with how things appear rather than what is really best for you? Might God’s timetable be a better one than yours?”

His reminder about indifference helped me weather a short but intense spiritual storm. As it turned out, that extra year, spent working at America magazine, was a wonderful period in my life—one that helped me dream about a new career as a writer—and also helped to better prepare me for theology studies.

A few years later I said to my provincial, “You know, I finally realize that I did have to wait that extra year. You were right.”

“I know I was!” he laughed.

But indifference can be a costly grace. Ignatius and the early Jesuits understood this well. In 1539, when a Jesuit whom Ignatius had hoped to send to the Portuguese colony in India fell ill, Ignatius’s best friend, Francis Xavier, volunteered. Faced with the decision of keeping his friend at his side or sending him away “for the greater glory of God,” Ignatius chose the latter.

It must have been a painful step, one he was able to take only with true indifference. It was this radical kind of freedom that enabled Ignatius to let his friend go, and it was the same freedom that enabled Xavier to become one of the world’s greatest Christian missionaries. But the two men, best friends since their university days, would never again see each another. After spreading the message of the gospel in India and Japan, Francis Xavier died off the coast of China in 1552.

Before his departure for India, Francis wrote his best friend a letter from Lisbon, in 1541. To my mind, it is the most moving thing he ever wrote, as it captures both his love for Ignatius as well as his dedication to his new mission:

There is nothing more to tell you except that we are about to embark. We close by asking Christ our Lord for the grace of seeing each other joined together in the next life; for I do not know if we shall ever see each other again in this, because of the great distance between Rome and India, and the great harvest to be found.


Retreatants usually spend a few days praying over the “Principle and Foundation” not just as a way of thinking about indifference but also as a means of meditating on their relationship with God. This stage of the Exercises allows people to experience gratitude by contemplating God’s creative activity in their lives. For many, it may mean pondering the beauty of nature, or the blessings they have received from God, or any of the ways in which they’ve experienced God throughout their lives.

At this point Ignatius introduces a simple but powerful form of prayer called the “examination of conscience,” a way of noticing where God is active in your life. It’s also called the “examen,” the Spanish word Ignatius used in the Exercises, or examination of consciousness,” another way of translating the Latin, conscientia.

There are five steps in the examenFirstyou ask God to be with you. Next, you recall the events of the day for which you feel grateful. Your gratitude need not he for anything extraordinary: it can be for a phone call from a friend, an enjoyable meal, a tough job finally completed. Small things are important, too: a sunny day, a refreshing nap, a baby’s smile. Offering gratitude helps you recognize God’s presence in these moments.

The third step is a review of the dayHere you try to notice God’s presence in the day, seeking an awareness of where you accepted (or did not accept) God’s grace. I like to think of this as a movie of the day being replayed. When you recall someone offering you a kind word, you might say to yourself, “Yes, there was God.” Conversely, when you recall treating someone with disrespect, you might say, “Yes, there I turned away from God.” This leads naturally to the fourth step: asking forgiveness for any sins. The fifth step is asking for the grace to follow God more closely during the following day. Ignatius recommends closing the examen with an Our Father.

The examen is a simple prayer of awareness. It’s about noticing God’s presence in the everyday events of life. Prayer, as the Jesuit Walter Burghardt once wrote, is a “long, loving look at the real.” And the examen is just that: a way of seeing God in the reality of everyday life. “Finding God in all things” is a succinct summary of Ignatian spirituality, and the examen is a good way of starting to live this ideal.


Besides these everyday graces, at this point in the Exercises retreatants may also recall moments of particular grace, those times when God’s presence felt especially near, when we encountered what Sebastian Moore, OSB, has called the desire for “I know not what.”

These “peak” experiences are not simply the province of mystics. Many, if not most, people encounter them—though often they are not recognized. Let’s say that you are alone on the beach during a beautiful sunset and are overwhelmed by the beauty of creation. Or you are in the midst of an intimate encounter with your spouse or partner and are made aware of a deep connectedness to the Source of all love. In each of these experiences you are encountering God in a profound and personal way—whether you know it or not.

There are a number of descriptions of such experiences in contemporary novels and autobiographies. In my late twenties, when I was first thinking about religious life, I stumbled across a lovely passage in Surprised by Joy, by C. S. Lewis. Early in his autobiography, the author recounts a moment when he was standing before a currant bush in a garden and recalled a fond memory from childhood. Lewis was overcome by a desire “from a depth not of years but of centuries.” He writes:

It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation that came over me…. It was a sensation, of course, of desire, but a desire for what? … And before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, and the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing which had just ceased.

In my own life, such moments have occurred only a few times. Each time I failed to recognize their importance at the time. Only in retrospect did I understand their meaning.

When I was a young boy, for example, I used to ride my bike to the elementary school located a few miles from our house. The twenty-minute ride was wonderfully downhill to school and miserably uphill home. The ride to school took me over the new sidewalks of our neighborhood and past familiar houses to a hidden sidewalk, sandwiched between two houses. At the end of this sidewalk was a steep set of concrete stairs, whose climb warranted dismounting the bike and dragging it up the six steps.

From the top of the steps, I could see my school in the distance. And between the steps and the school lay one of my favorite spots: a broad meadow, bordered on the left by tall oak trees and on the right by our school’s vast baseball fields. On cold fall mornings, clad in a corduroy jacket, I would pedal my bike down the bumpy dirt path through a meadow full of crunchy brown leaves, desiccated grasses, and dried milkweed plants powdered in frost. In the winter (when I would not ride but walk to school), the field was an open landscape of white snow that rose wetly over the tops of my black galoshes as my breath made clouds before me.

In the spring, though, the meadow exploded with life. It felt as if I were biking through a science experiment. Fat grasshoppers jumped among the daisies and black-eyed Susans, bees hummed above the Queen Anne’s lace, little brown crickets sang underneath pale blue thistles, and cardinals and robins darted from branch to branch. The air was fresh, and the field sang the words of creation.

One warm spring morning, I stopped to catch my breath in the middle of the field. I must have been ten or eleven years old. My schoolbooks, heavy in the bike’s metal basket, swung violently to the side, and I almost lost my math homework to the grasshoppers and crickets. Standing astride my bike, I could see much going on around me—so much color, so much activity, so much life. Looking toward my school on the horizon, I felt so happy to be alive. And I wanted both to possess and to be a part of all I saw around me. I can still see myself in this meadow, in the warm air, surrounded by creation, more clearly than any other memory from childhood.

Looking back, I believe that I was feeling a sense of God’s promise: an invitation to limitless joy. It was this memory that came to me at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises.


After reflecting on such moments, retreatants begin to see their unwillingness to respond to God’s goodness—in other words, their sinfulness.One director explained that the more we recognize God’s love, the more we see how, like the sun, it begins to throw a shadow, revealing our own sinful nature.

During the First Week, then, retreatants consider their own sinfulness. Ignatius reminds believers always to ask for what they want in prayer, especially during the Exercises. In the First Week, writes Ignatius, we are to “beg for the grace for a great and intense sorrow for my sins.” Over time, retreatants find themselves grateful that though they have sinned often, they are nevertheless loved by God: they are “loved sinners.” Gratitude for God’s unconditional love usually, and naturally, prompts a desire to respond to it.

To begin the Second Week, Ignatius offers a powerful meditation entitled “The Call of Christ the King.” He asks retreatants to imagine serving a charismatic human leader. We are to imagine our hero bidding us to follow him in his lifework, and “to be content to eat as I; also to drink, dress, etc.” This is often a deeply moving experience—wouldn’t it he fantastic if your own hero called you by name to follow him?

But after meditating on what it would mean for us, we are asked to consider something more important—“how much more worthy” it would be to follow Jesus Christ. This meditation offers a double invitation: to be with Christ and to work for a world of justice, love, and peace.

Now aware of the desire to follow Christ, the retreatant is invited to contemplate the life of Jesus. And Ignatius starts at the beginning of Christ’s life—the very beginning—with a meditation that imagines the Holy Trinity gazing down on the earth and deciding to “send” Christ. In one of the loveliest meditations in the Exercises, we are encouraged to see things as God sees them. We are asked to consider all of humanity and “to see the various persons … in such variety, in dress as in actions: some white and others black, some at peace and others in war; some weeping and others laughing; some well, others ill; some being born and some dying.”

How beautiful it was for me, during my own long retreat, to imagine the Trinity looking on the world in compassion. The meditation not only helped me see the world in a new way, but it also helped me appreciate God’s desire to send his Son to this world.

Thus begins the part of the Exercises that appealed most to me: the meditations on the life of Jesus. I was introduced to a type of prayer that goes by many names: “Ignatian contemplation,” “contemplative prayer,” “composition of place,” or simply “imaginative prayer.” It is a form of prayer that uses the imagination as a way of encountering God. The method also enables the retreatant to experience the characteristic grace of the Second Week: the desire to know Jesus more fully.

In an Ignatian contemplation we attempt to place ourselves in a particular scene, often from the Gospels. In the story of the Nativity, for example, Ignatius asks us to imagine ourselves with Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem: “to see with the sight of the imagination the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, considering the length and breadth, and whether the road is level or through valleys and hills; likewise looking at the place or the cave of the Nativity, how large, how small, how low, how high, and how it was prepared.”

As we journey with Mary and Joseph, we might ask other questions, beyond those suggested by Ignatius. What do Mary and Joseph look like? What clothes are they wearing? We use the other senses imaginatively as well. What do I hear? (Crunching gravel under the donkey’s feet … a bird crying in the distance.) What do I smell? (The food we have brought … the fresh wind off the grassy fields.)

It may also help to envision being a particular person. Perhaps you are a friend of Joseph, come along to help the couple. In that case, you might think about what you feel. Is your clothing rough or soft? Do you feel the warmth of the sun? Are you fatigued? Through these small details you recreate a Gospel passage in order to more completely enter into it.

As a novice, I had problems with Ignatian contemplation. At the beginning of the long retreat, my spiritual director, named David, gave me a brief introduction to contemplative prayer—using your imagination, placing yourself in the scene, and so on.

It sounded like just about the dumbest thing I had ever heard.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You want me to make up a picture of the Gospel story in my head?”

David nodded.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said.

“What’s ridiculous?”

“Isn’t it all just in my head?” I asked. “Won’t I just make the people in my fantasy do what I want them to do?” 

“Not necessarily,” he said.

I sat there, confused.

“Let me ask you something,” David said. “Do you believe that God gave you your imagination?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Don’t you think that God could use your imaginations to draw you closer to him in prayer?”

I had to admit that made sense. God communicates with us through every other part of our lives, so why not through our imaginations? David’s gentle questioning freed me from my doubts and allowed me to enjoy a new kind of prayer.

When I set aside my suspicions the results amazed me. Sometimes the prayer was difficult or dry, but many times I felt as if I actually was in the story. I was right there with the apostles or in the crowds, seeing a miracle, hearing Jesus preach, witnessing the Crucifixion. And I was astonished at the emotions evoked and the insights receivedUntil entering the Jesuits and experiencing this form of prayer, I doubted that God would ever, or could ever, communicate with me in such an intimate way. Today this type of meditation is the primary way I encounter God in prayer.

One example: during a recent eight-day retreat I was asked to pray over that same passage, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The previous few months had been difficult ones, focusing on the challenge of chastity in my Jesuit life. I was beginning to think that chastity was sort of a “second-best” kind of life, with its own rewards, to be sure, but not as satisfying as married life.

The first few times I prayed over the passage were largely fruitless. Gradually, though, I was able to imagine myself as a friend of the family. As Mary and Joseph readied themselves for the arduous trip, I decided to help as much as I could. So I went into Nazareth to buy some food for the journey—a few loaves of flat bread, which I bound up in a clean cloth. At the well in the town square, I used an animal skin to collect fresh water. From a vendor I bought a few dates, which I stuffed in my pocket. It felt good to be doing something for the couple—something simple and useful.

When I returned to their house, I found that they were nearly ready to go. Mary was hugely pregnant; I saw how difficult it was for her to move. I realized that she couldn’t do everything herself and needed help from Joseph and me.

Once outside, Joseph packed the supplies on his little donkey and helped Mary up. In the meantime I realized I had forgotten a flint for the fire, and I rushed inside to retrieve it. Outside again I watered the donkey, and we were off. Then I heard Joseph say to me, “You’re a big help.”

It dawned on me that though I was not a member of their family, I enjoyed helping them, walking alongside them. I was part of their life. And I thought of all the people who had invited me into their lives. As a celibate priest, I am welcomed into people’s lives not just in baptisms, marriages, and funerals, but also in the most intimate of ways—in hearing their struggles, celebrating their successes, breaking bread with them, seeing their children grow up. As I prayed, I was filled with an overpowering feeling of gratitude for my chastity and my way of life. For the first time as a Jesuit, I no longer saw it as second-best at all. The celibate life is different, but it’s a wonderful way for me to live.

All this from a meditation on a simple passage from Scripture. 


During the Third Week, after retreatants have meditated on the ministry of Jesus, Ignatius invites us into each painful stage of the passion and death of Jesus—from the Last Supper to his burialThe grace that one requests during the Third Week is to have compassion for and to suffer with Jesus. And as we place ourselves in these scenes, we begin to see Christ’s suffering as a sign of his love, as well as the inevitability of hardships for those who follow Christ.

At this stage, retreatants are often drawn to meditate on Christ’s self-sacrificing love for humanity and to recall times of suffering in their own lives. Often they also find themselves invited to “die to” different parts of themselves that prevent them from following Christ more fully.

Seeking this grace means moving toward an important kind of indifference—the freedom to set aside aspects of your life that prevent you from following Christ: the freedom of “dying to self.” For me, this has often centered on pride: my desire to be popular, admired, and even desired. Those feelings, while not bad in themselves, can often prevent us from following Jesus wholeheartedly. It’s easy to see how an overriding concern for “popularity,” for example, would be an obstacle to preaching the gospel in situations where doing so would challenge the status quo. Jesus was frequently “unpopular,” and so was his message. Following Jesus may mean accepting the ridicule, the contempt, and sometimes the persecution that comes with preaching his message.

The Spiritual Exercises, then, invite us to cross the threshold of self-interest and become united with Christ in his mission—even to the point of accepting hardships and personal suffering. Experience with the Exercises was one thing that enabled dozens of Jesuit martyrs—from St. Edmund Campion (England, 1581) to St. Paul Miki (Japan, 1597) to St. Isaac Jogues (Canada, 1646) to Blessed Miguel Pro (Mexico, 1927) to the six Jesuits martyred in El Salvador in 1989—to understand the call to follow Christ in this radical way.

When I finally reached the last stage of the Spiritual Exercises, I was surprised to discover that the Fourth Week was relatively short. Ignatius recommends only one meditation on the Resurrection. And the grace that one asks for is easy to request: “to rejoice and be glad intensely.”

Once again in the Exercises, this grace usually leads to a desire to respond. After spending thirty days meditating on God’s love, being with Jesus in his ministry, witnessing the Passion, and experiencing the Resurrection, one wants to respond. By now the retreatant recognizes God’s loving action everywhere. So the Exercises draw to a close with a meditation on how God’s love works in our life and, finally, a prayer offering ourselves to God, positioning us to live out the fruits of the retreat.


St. Ignatius of Loyola intended the Exercises not simply for Jesuits, but for all Christians—no matter what their state of life. For Ignatius believed that God desires to be in relationship with every person. Out of this belief flowed his broad-minded and life-affirming spirituality.

Theologians often describe Ignatian spirituality as “incarnational.” In other words, while it recognizes the transcendence of God, it is also grounded in the real-life experiences of people living out their daily lives.

It is a spirituality that reminds us that God speaks to us through prayer—but also through our emotions, our minds, and our bodies. God can communicate through sexual intimacy, romantic love, and friendship. God can be found in Scripture and in the sacraments. God can show his love through your sister, your coworker, your spouse, your next-door neighbor, a teacher, a priest, a stranger, or a homeless person. Finding God in all things. And all people.

The path of St. Ignatius means searching for signs of God’s presence in the stuff of the everyday. And it means committing yourself to regular prayer in order to contemplate these signs. For without the discipline of prayer we tend to overlook and forget those moments of God’s presence. We are to balance, therefore, a life of activity and of prayer. The goal of Ignatian spirituality can be summed up in another succinct expression: desiring to become a “contemplative in action,” a person who maintains a contemplative stance in an active life.

It was this spirituality—both practical and mystical, earthy and otherworldly—that, during the first year of my novitiate, drew me close to God for the first time in my life. And it all made sense! Ignatian spirituality helped me meet God in new ways, opened my mind to new ways of prayer, fostered trust in God’s presence, and liberated me from the alienation I had experienced for so many years. For the first time ever I felt and believed that God was close to me.

But when I pray to St. Ignatius of Loyola, I don’t feel the same affection that I do for, say, Therese of Lisieux or Thomas Merton. I don’t linger over passages from the letters and journals of Ignatius the way I might reread The Seven Storey Mountain or The Story of a Soul. And I admit that, like that elderly Jesuit from Boston College who feared his encounter with Ignatius in heaven, I haven’t felt as close as I would like to the founder of the Society of Jesus. [83-98]

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