By Henry Frank
In February, the Society of Jesus announced four Universal Apostolic Preferences. These Preferences—promoting discernment and the Spiritual Exercises, walking with the excluded, caring for our common home, and journeying with youth—will guide the global mission of the Jesuits for the next decade.
While the Preferences are not exactly ranked, it seems appropriate that the Spiritual Exercises should come first. In a letter accompanying the release of the Preferences, Pope Francis wrote: “The first [Preference] is fundamental … Without this prayerful attitude, the rest will not function.” Composed by St. Ignatius of Loyola himself, the Exercises are his great gift to anyone seeking a deeper relationship with God.
Simply put, the Spiritual Exercises are a blueprint for prayer to help people discern God’s presence in their lives. “The Exercises allow people to put God first, and God’s lead first in their lives,” said Fr. James Bowler, SJ, pastoral minister at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Charlotte, N.C., who stopped counting after directing more than 100 people through the Exercises. “They are a means to help people live out their authenticity, to help them embrace true human flourishing.”
In four stages, referred to as “weeks,” the retreatant contemplates various aspects of her life, as well as the life, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus. “I was thoroughly convinced of how much God loves me, in spite of all my flaws,” Debbie Thibeault said of her experience making the Spiritual Exercises last year.
The Exercises can sound daunting. “It’s a process,” said Ms. Thibeault. “You start out and you’re not sure if you can make it to the end. But once you dip your toes in, you just get absorbed by the love and acceptance of God.”
The experience is different for everyone, and that’s the point. St. Ignatius designed the Exercises to help people build a personal relationship with God. “People take to it so gracefully and so naturally, just totally enjoying the encounter,” said Fr. Bowler. “It’s not like they are doing penance the whole time.”
There are two primary ways to make the Exercises. The first is the “30-Day Retreat,” in which the retreatant goes through the Exercises in their entirety in about a month of continuous, silent prayer, usually in a retreat house.
For those whose schedule does not allow for 30 consecutive days on retreat, there is a second option. St. Ignatius appended 20 notes, called “annotations,” to the Spiritual Exercises. In the 19th, he writes that the format in which the Exercises are made can be adapted, so that the Exercises can be made in the midst of daily life. The 19th Annotation, sometimes called “the Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life,” is not an abridged version, or second-best to the 30-Day retreat. It is the full Exercises made over a longer span of time—typically about nine months.
As intended, the specific format of the 19th Annotation varies. In general, the retreatant spends an hour each day in prayer and meets regularly with a spiritual director. Often, the 19th Annotation is made with a group, which gathers regularly to process the fruits of their individual prayer. “At the beginning, it was a little awkward, because we didn’t know what to say,” Ms. Thibeault said of her group experience. “But by the end, it was very intimate. We were very close as a result of going through it together. It wasn’t just the people I got close to. It was also God.”
The Spiritual Exercises have been the foundation of the Jesuit mission since the founding of the Society in the 16th century. It is no surprise, therefore, that they feature so prominently in the Apostolic Preferences. Making the Exercises is a transformative experience for anyone seeking a deeper relationship with God.
To learn more, or to find out where you can make the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises, visit www.JesuitsEastOIS.org/spiritualexercises.