God willing, in just under a month, I will no longer be Master of Novices, and among the many graces that the Lord has granted me in this office, a significant one is having had the privilege to preach the month long Spiritual Exercises six times – the latest one ended a few days ago.

These are the “typical” Spiritual Exercises, and St. Ignatius recommended that they not be preached to whosoever (in order to not waste time). In fact, he left in writing that there only a few raris hominibus – to whom the Exercises can be preached in their entirety. And this because, as we shall see, the demands are many, because it is not easy for someone to have a full month available for something like this, but mainly because it demands a person with “great courage and generosity with his Creator and Lord, offering his entire will and freedom” [5][1], who “desires to profit as much as possible”[20] and if he sees that he is inclined to something without knowing if it is the will of the Creator, he asks  “the contrary from God our Lord”[16] … and we could go on…

Our Constitutions indicate that we must do these exercises “at the end of the novitiate” and then, as far as possible, every ten years. In these last six times that they have been preached in our Province[2] about 120 novices, 30 priests and 6 lay have participated.

It is a grace to preach them because, firstly, one gets to know more profoundly the exercises themselves and the spiritual good that this entails and, secondly, because of the great good that can be done to the souls who do them. One could apply the following words to the preacher of the Exercises:

“The spiritual preacher or teacher who converts just one sinner and guides him to Christian perfection is more pleasing to God and gives Him greater glory than a preacher who converts many but leaves them lukewarm and imperfect” Royo Marín, Theology of Christian Perfection, n. 362.

Something else that I could add, is to observe close-up that the exercises are really a “conversion machine”[3] or, perhaps better, “a machine for making saints.”

How to achieve this? No doubt that the genius of St. Ignatius is unique in history; talking about the book of the Exercises, Fr. Castellani commented beautifully:

“This notebook contains the ascetic experiences of a soldier of the Renaissance, his description of them, and a method and training applicable to all. Have you reflected about a huge paradox involved in such a fact? The fact is this: one particular religious experience, one conversion, has been as if de-individualized and made to be an archetype, without in the least becoming rigid as a skeleton or abstract as a ghost.

I think that if the Sp. Ex. did not exist, it would seem impossible. Before St. Ignatius had written it, if we had presented the project to the theologians and philosophers, they would have laughed, or maybe got angry, according to the temperament. Some would have declared them impossible: Utopian. Others would have considered them heretic: Pelagian. Or they would been scandalized at the very idea…”. La Catharsis en los Ejercicios Espirituales, p. 15.

Just a bit of objectivity or having at least once done the exercises is sufficient to apply to these the words addressed by the magicians to Pharaoh in order to speak about the wonders done by Moses: Digitus Dei est hic (the finger of God is here) (Ex 8.15).

St. Ignatius himself, in his Autobiography, speaking about the great consolations and supernatural light received in Manresa, where he wrote and saw the substance of the Exercises, states that “at this time God was treating him the same way as a school instructor deals with a child, teaching him… and he had always judged that God was treating him in this manner; to doubt this would have been to offend his Divine Majesty”[4].

But beyond the Ignatian method, or better to say, as an integral part of it, the Exercises use what the spirituality of all times has called “the two wings of holiness”, namely penance and prayer. The Exercises have as their specific end the “overcoming of oneself” [21], and, as with everything in this holy Ignatian training, the practitioner learns not only intellectually, but actually is exercised during the month of retreat: a month without speaking (except for the preacher), no communication with the outside, praying a lot, which at times, can have its mortifying aspects, fasting and some other penance, are the way of life that the Lord commanded with crystal clarity: If you do not do penance you will all likewise perish (Luke, 13, 5).

This penance is primarily internal and consists in “grieving for one’s sins, with a firm purpose of not committing them nor any others” [82]. External penance is the result of the first and is almost strictly regulated by the saint of Loyola in order to reach the paramount purpose of the exercises which is “seeking and finding the will of God” [1], that is, “to order one’s life” [21].

To overcome oneself” in order to “to order one’s life” is all that the Exercises seek in a thousand and one ways. And the main obstacles that this “lame and balding soldier”[5] faces in this purpose are the “disordered attachments” [1]. It is impossible in these few lines to thoroughly explain what they are (we will do so in the recommended reading), but suffice it to say that by disordered affection is meant any act of the will, whether sinful or not, that is mine without also being God’s, i.e., a will that does not have the order that divine wisdom gives to everything.

The overcoming happens mainly by penance, as we said; this will help us to remove some disordered affections . . .  and thus pave the way for ordering one’s life to God. But the activity which properly St. Ignatius called exercise, the substance, the determinant, the crucial moment, the decisive battle –with oneself and with God– in which there occurs as much overcoming as in penance, where one discovers and annuls the disordered affections and orders one’s life to God is prayer. That is why St. Ignatius makes us dedicate “some hours” to prayer. . .

St. Ignatius asks that the exercitant be immersed in speaking with God five times a day for one hour, and he strongly advises: “the exercitant should always try to find contentment in the thought that a full hour has been spent in that exercise – and more, if anything, rather than less; for as a rule the enemy leaves nothing undone in his efforts to get the hour of contemplation, meditation or prayer shortened”[12].

After each of these five hours, the saint asks that there be fifteen minutes of examining the prayer, which is also a prayer . . . [77]. He also commands that a particular examination be made –we continue praying . . .  three times a day, and a general examination at least once, in the night. Some great commentators advise that it is beneficial to prepare for the prayer, which occurs for 15 minutes before the scheduled time; in this time of warm-up also, one is praying.

To these, if we add the Holy Mass with its thanksgiving, praying the Divine Office and the Holy Rosary, we are talking of 9 hrs. of daily prayer … and if you multiply this for thirty days, leaving out a few hours that are optional and a couple of days (and half-days) that are recreational, we arrive at 250 hours dedicated exclusively to prayer . . . i.e. more than ten complete days . . . can there be lack of fruit?

And what does the exercitant do the rest of the time? Some moments are dedicated to carrying out the needful so that, at the end of thirty days, the joyful soul does not decide to separate from the body, which is perhaps less heavy, but is still on the earth … For just over 2 hrs. every day the exercitant receives from the preacher, explanations about the exercises and the subject to meditate and contemplate on. And the rest of the time? He thinks, meditates and reflects. . .

After going to bed, one thinks about the “time I have to get up, and for what purpose, going over the exercise I have to make”[73], and on waking, “without allowing my thoughts to stray” [74] and thus also during the free moments . . . one thinks about the purpose for which he was created [23], about his sins, on his death which will come someday irreversibly and on the corresponding last things: judgment, heaven or hell, analyzing the consolations (where God speaks) time and again, the desolations (where the enemy intrudes), etc. but above all one thinks, reflects, and meditates on the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ “to love him more and to follow him”[104].

Does this seem too much? It only deals with fulfilling what our Lord told us, first directly: one ought always to pray and not lose heart (Lk 18:1); watch at all times, praying that you may have strength (21:36); Watch and pray (Mt 26,41), and then through the Apostles: be constant in prayer (Rom. 12:12), night and day (1 Thess 3:10).

This is getting a bit too long and I do not want to tire you, so I strongly urge you, to make the Spiritual Exercises: if on retreat, the better, and the more the days that one can do them, “greater and better” [83][6] . If you are not able to go on retreat, doing them online also produces fruits! The desire to be holy and to be generous with God can substitute for many things.

I have witnessed in the past six years, the “miracle” of sanctification of many exercitants, and as part of this, the quiet joy that they have during the exercises and, which becomes quite loud after the exercises … (at least in the case of novices). Among the priests / missionaries, to that joy is added some “godly sorrow” because sometimes it has been more than 10 years since their last exercises, and others, among whom I include myself-that joy is transformed into the desire to be able to do the exercises … (and I ask for your prayers for the next January …).

I conclude with the words of Bl. John Paul II: “The school of the Spiritual Exercises is an effective remedy for the evil of modern man who is dragged into the maelstrom of human events to live outside himself, too absorbed in external things; whether to forge new men, true Christians, or committed apostles. This is the desire that I entrust to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the contemplative par excellence, the wise teacher of spiritual exercises”[7] .

Fr. Gustavo Lombardo, IVE

http://verbo.ive.org

 



[1] All our numbers within [ ] correspond to the Spiritual Exercises.

[2] Province of “Our Lady of Luján”, which includes Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay.

[3] Leonardo Castellani, La Catharsis en los Ejercicios Espirituales, p. 15. He cites the phrase of Br. Pedroche in the latter’s reply to the Inquisition of Toledo.

[4] Autobiografía n.27; MHSI Fontes narr. I p.400.

[5] These are the words of Fr. Castellani to his founder… Else, I wouldn’t dare to write them.

[6] In the middle of the 20th century, many batches of Spiritual Exercises were preached in Spain; nevertheless, there was not much change in the society… Fr. Casanovas, the great commentator of the Exercises, who died because of the communists, asserted that according to his opinion, the “problem” was rooted in the fact the “typical” Exercises were not preached, namely those of 30 days.

[7] John Paul II – ANGELUS of Dec 12, 1979 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Encyclical Mens Nostra of Pius XI

 

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