The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius

What Are the Spiritual Exercises?

The Spiritual Exercises grew out of Ignatius Loyola’s experience of seeking to discern God’s will in his life and to grow in union with God. As he gained in spiritual insight Ignatius kept a journal over many years in which he recorded his observations about how his own life of faith developed and how faith grew in the lives of those he taught. These observations, including prayers, meditations, reflections, and directives became The Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatius wrote that the Exercises “have as their purpose the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.” Inordinate attachments are those factors in our lives that distract us from growing close to God. Ignatius wanted individuals to undertake these exercises with the assistance of an experienced spiritual director who would accompany the “retreatant” to help them understand what they were experiencing. Today, Ignatian spiritual directors – or guides — rely on the Exercises as a manual to help them accompany those taking retreats to discover God’s activity in their lives. The book of Spiritual Exercises is a handbook to be used by the spiritual director “giving” the Exercises, not by the person “making” the retreat.

The Structure of the Exercises

Ignatius organized the Exercises into four “weeks.” These are not seven-day weeks but are the stages of a pilgrimage journey by one making a retreat toward spiritual freedom and wholehearted commitment to the service of God. For centuries the Exercises were commonly given as a “long retreat” of about 30 days in solitude and silence. In recent years, there has been a renewed emphasis on the Spiritual Exercises as a program for laypeople.  The Exercises can be taken as a silent retreat over an approximately 30 days ; in an 8-day format featuring many essential elements of the complete Exercises; or over a period of roughly 30 weeks in what is called the 19th Annotation, or “Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life” For more information about the 19th Annotation, click here.

The First Week of the Exercises is a time of when we reflect in gratitude on God’s boundless love for us and how God has sustained and provided for us. We also see how our responses to God’s love for us hindered and distorted by patterns of sin. But we face these sins knowing that God wants to free us from all that gets in the way of our loving response to him. The First Week ends with a meditation on Christ’s call to follow him.

The meditations and prayers of the Second Week we are asked to draw close to Christ as disciples. We reflect on scripture passages to accompany Christ’s at his birth and baptism; at his Sermon on the Mount; in his ministry of healing and teaching and his raising of Lazarus from the dead. We are invited to make decisions to change our lives to do Christ’s work in the world and to love him more intimately.

In the Third Week we meditate on Christ’s Last Supper, his passion, and death. We see and identify with his suffering and with the gift of the Eucharist as the ultimate expression of God’s love.

During the Fourth Week we meditate on Jesus’ resurrection and his apparitions to his disciples. We walk with the risen Christ and set out to love and serve him in concrete ways in our lives in the world. The Fourth Week culminates with the Contemplation to Attain Love when we come to understand what Christ has done for us, how God dwells in all his creatures and labors all things, and invites us to participate fully and with him in total surrender. The Suscipe, so named for the first word in one of the most famous Ignatian prayers appears here:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will,  all that I have and possess. You gave it all to me; to you I return it. All is yours, dispose of it entirely according to your will. Give me only the love of you, together with your grace for that is enough for me.

  • Michael Ivens, SJ

Prayer in the Exercises

Two primary forms of prayer are taught in the Exercises: meditation and contemplation. In meditation we use our minds to ponder the basic principles that guide our life. We pray over words, images, and ideas. Contemplation emphasizes feeling more than thinking. Contemplation stirs the emotions and enkindles our deep desires. In contemplation, we rely on our imaginations to place ourselves in a setting from the Gospels or in a scene proposed by Ignatius for our consideration. We pray with scripture. We do not study it.

The discernment of spirits underlies the Exercises. We notice the interior movements of our hearts, and discern where they are leading us. A regular practice of discernment  helps us make good decisions.

One of the most popular Ignatian exercises is the Daily Examen.   The Examen a spiritual self-review done each day that involves prayerfully recollecting moments during our day to reflect on how God was present followed by a decision to act in some way. The Examen is concrete: It focuses your mind on segments of time (no more than a day, preferably), and the feelings that stir in us at those specific moments. Walk through the five steps of the Examen here:

  1. Become aware of God’s presence.
    2.Review the day with gratitude.
    3. Pay attention to your emotions.
    4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
    5. Look toward tomorrow.



The Spiritual Exercises

The Spiritual Exercises are a compilation of meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices developed by St. Ignatius Loyola to help people deepen their relationship with God. For centuries the Exercises were most commonly given as a “long retreat” of about 30 days in solitude and silence. In recent years, there has been a renewed emphasis on the Spiritual Exercises as a program for laypeople.  The most common way of going through the Exercises now is a “retreat in daily life,” which involves a several month program of daily prayer and meetings with a spiritual director.  The Exercises have also been adapted in many other ways to meet the needs of modern people.

About the Spiritual Exercises

Elements of the Spiritual Exercises

Using the Spiritual Exercises

About the Spiritual Exercises

What Are the Spiritual Exercises?
An introduction: the purpose of the Exercises and their structure.

Slí Eile Spiritual Exercises Video
Noelle Fitzpatrick outlines the Spiritual Exercises. Then Edwina Dewart speaks about the core values of the Exercises and the importance of the relationship with the spiritual director. Produced by the Jesuit Centre for Young Adults in Ireland.

Spiritual Exercises
By Ron Hansen
A noted novelist and essayist believes that Ignatius Loyola’s spiritual notebook is a practical manual for realizing our soul’s deepest yearnings.

dotMagis Posts About the Spiritual Exercises
From the category archives of the dotMagis blog.

Elements of the Spiritual Exercises

An Outline of the Spiritual Exercises
A simple outline of what is experienced at each stage of the Exercises.

The Text of the Spiritual Exercises
The Spiritual Exercises were not meant to be read by an individual but rather led by a retreat director.

The Meaning of Detachment
By Margaret Silf
Silf explains how the First Principle and Foundation came to life for her when she was looking at a fuchsia bush.

The Colloquy
By Kevin O’Brien, SJ

A colloquy is an intimate conversation between you and God the Father, between you and Jesus, or between you and Mary or one of the saints.

Poverty of Spirit
By Kevin O’Brien, SJ
Not all are called to material poverty, but all are called to “poverty of spirit,” or spiritual poverty.

How the Two Standards Meditation Can Help Outside of a Retreat
By John Monroe
A lay retreat director and spiritual director suggests that the Meditation on the Two Standards can be helpful as a way to periodically check to see how we are living our lives.

Ignatian Contemplation: Imaginative Prayer
By Kevin O’Brien, SJ
Ignatian contemplation is an active way of praying that engages the mind and heart and stirs up thoughts and emotions.

Contemplation on the Incarnation Part One: The Trinity Looks Down from Heaven
By Daniel Ruff, SJ
The Contemplation on the Incarnation begins with imagining the Trinity looking down from heaven and responding with the Incarnation. Ruff introduces readers to this aspect of the Spiritual Exercises.

Contemplation on the Incarnation Part Two: Mary’s Human Response
By Daniel Ruff, SJ
The second part of the Contemplation on the Incarnation explores the Annunciation and Mary’s response.

Freedom in the Midst of Suffering: The Meaning of the Passion
By Paul Coutinho, SJ
The Passion and the cross of Jesus mean two things to Coutinho.

The Language of the Cross
By Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ
Tetlow explores the idea that Jesus’ passion brings us to embrace the world as it really is.

The Resurrection Brings Joy
By Gerald M. Fagin, SJ
“Three significant truths rooted in the Resurrection open a window to the grace and virtues of the Fourth Week. In particular, they highlight some of the reasons for our joy.”

The First Two Degrees of Humility
By Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ
Tetlow explains the first and second ways of living humility according to Ignatian spirituality.

The Third Degree of Humility
By Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ
Tetlow explains the third way of living humility according to Ignatian spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises.

Contemplation on the Love of God
A basic explanation of the concluding meditation of the Spiritual Exercises.

The Contemplation to Attain Love
By Paul Coutinho, SJ
Coutinho discusses the four steps of prayer given to the retreatant in the last exercise of the Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatian Prayer and the Imagination
One of the principal forms of prayer in the Spiritual Exercises is imaginative reflection on scenes from the Gospels.

Ignatius’ Three-Part Vision
By David L. Fleming, SJ
Fleming, a renowned spiritual director and commentator on the Spiritual Exercises, describes Ignatius Loyola’s vision of life, work, and love.

Prayer Is a Conversation By David L. Fleming, SJ
The essential activity of prayer springs naturally from our humanity. It is a matter of conversing with a very good friend.

Pray with Your Imagination
By David L. Fleming, SJ
Ignatius presents two ways of imagining in the Spiritual Exercises.

A Spirituality of the Heart
By David L. Fleming, SJ
Heart, in the sense of the totality of our response, is the concern of the Spiritual Exercises.

Using the Spiritual Exercises

Images of God
By Kevin O’Brien, SJ

“We need to let go of images that get in the way of a grown-up relationship with God, who is both far beyond us, yet so close to us.”

The Foundation of Heroism: Magis
By Chris Lowney
Lowney considers motivation and the magis as he discusses how the Spiritual Exercises work as a leadership tool.

Learning to Live Reverently
By Gerald M. Fagin, SJ
Reverence is foundational for putting on the heart of Christ and enables us to find God in all things.

In the Footsteps of Ignatius
An article about the ways people are making the Exercises today.

Ignatian Spirituality Project
A remarkable Chicago-based Jesuit ministry which offers retreats to those who are homeless and seeking recovery, to help them find meaning and purpose as they reclaim their lives. The Ignatian Spirituality Project also trains the formerly homeless to assist in giving retreats.

Resources for Using the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola in the Classroom
By Anthony Borrow, SJ
Materials for religious educators to adapt the Spiritual Exercises for use in the high school classroom.