The Spiritual Exercises, while formally a handbook for a spiritual director giving a retreat, can in principle be used by anyone seeking to grow in union with God and to discern God’s will. The key ingredients are the approach, overall progression, and methods of prayer utilized in a given retreat. The Spiritual Exercises developed out of Ignatius’ personal experience. He kept a journal as he gained spiritual insight and deepened his spiritual experience. He added to these notes as he directed other people and discovered what “worked.” Eventually Ignatius gathered these prayers, meditations, reflections, and directions into a carefully designed framework of a retreat, which he called “spiritual exercises.”
Ignatius organized the Exercises into four “weeks.” These are not strict periods of time, but rather illustrate an overall vision of progression toward a more full understanding of God and an alignment with God’s will for one’s life.
First week: The first week of the Exercises focuses on God’s infinite love for us. We see that our response to God’s love has been hampered sin. We encounter our sins with the knowledge that we are already forgiven and that God wants to lift the burden of sin from us. The first week culminates with a meditation on Christ’s call to follow him.
Second week: The reflections and prayers of the second week teach us how to follow Christ as his disciples. We meditate on Scripture passages: Christ’s birth and baptism, his sermon on the mount, his ministry of healing and teaching, and his raising Lazarus from the dead. We encounter decisions to change our lives to do Christ’s work in the world and to love him more intimately.
Third week: We meditate on Christ’s Last Supper, passion, and death. We see his suffering and offering of himself as a sin offering as the ultimate expression of God’s love.
Fourth week: We consider Jesus’ resurrection and his appearances to his disciples. We journey with the risen Christ and resolve to love and serve him in tangible ways in our lives in the world.
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