Finding God in New Things: Ignatian Spirituality Revisited

Approximately a year before Christopher Columbus launched his 1492 voyage, a son was born into the noble Loyola family in the Basque country of northern Spain. The infant’s name was Iñigo. Known later as Ignatius of Loyola, he became the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and the author of five major works.1 Most notable for our purposes is The Spiritual Exercises, the “manual” that has guided spiritual seekers and their mentors for over 450 years. It is a unique window into Ignatian spirituality.

Ignatius’s lifespan of sixty-five years coincided with a period of extraordinary social and cultural change in sixteenth-century Europe. Medieval feudalism was giving way to the emergence of nations. The bloom of the Renaissance was fading as Europe stood on the threshold of modernity. The Roman Church, struggling mightily to survive the Protestant Reformation, was in the midst of a difficult Counter Reformation. The worldview of the late Middle Ages was crumbling as “new worlds” were discovered. Not only were geographical horizons expanding; new intellectual worlds were opening with the dawn of modern science. Further, when the invention of the printing press made the Bible accessible to ordinary people, the need for a personalized spirituality emerged with considerable urgency. Ignatian spirituality evolved in response to this need.

One could argue that the upheavals of the twentieth/twenty-first-centuries likewise have evoked a resurgence of interest in spirituality, both within and beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition. The 1991 celebration of the five-hundredth birthday of St. Ignatius of Loyola prompted numerous studies of his legacy, including the use of The Spiritual Exercises in new contexts.

This essay explores Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises as a valuable resource for 21st century Christians. First, I present a brief overview of this spiritual classic. Secondly, I summarize the major criticisms and concerns expressed by a number of scholars and practitioners of the Exercises. Thirdly, I direct the reader to the work of five scholars who address these concerns in particularly effective ways.

Origin and Basic Structure of The Spiritual Exercises

The essence of the book is captured in its title: The Spiritual Exercises. Jesuit David Fleming explains:

Ignatius wrote a book of spiritual exercises. As with any exercise book, the one who uses it has to have another source for the content, that is, the subject matter to be exercised. For Ignatius, the content matter to be used for his Spiritual Exercises is primarily our own life experiences as seen in the light of the life experiences of Jesus depicted in the Gospels. His exercise book helps us enter into an active use of our life’s content in its relation with God and with the Jesus of the Gospels.2

As a manual for retreatants and those who direct them, the text in its present form has a long story behind it. In summary, the young Ignatius, who had been groomed for the high life of Spanish aristocracy (which included participating in occasional military expeditions) found himself facing the possibility of life as an invalid after being wounded in battle. Bored during his long recovery, he wanted to read some racy novels (libros de caballería), but instead was given a life of Christ and a book of the lives of the saints. Surprisingly, Ignatius immersed himself in these texts, jotting notes on the two texts as he did so, and began taking prayer and meditation very seriously, albeit with all the naiveté of a novice. Months later, when he was healthy enough to travel, a brief trip to a nearby small town became an eleven-month turning point for him. Spending a great deal of time in a cave near the monastery where he was staying, he experienced waves of “mystical illuminations” so intense that he tried sorting it all out by writing down the results of his reflections.

Ignatius’s practice of taking notes on what he was experiencing continued. According to Fleming, Ignatius discovered, through his conversations with others, that the notes he had made about his own experience were helpful to them.3 Thus, over a period of twenty-five years these notes evolved into his book The Spiritual Exercises. What is immensely important to note here is that Ignatius used experience as a starting point for reflection, a common technique today but not so familiar in sixteenth-century approaches to prayer. The structure of the Exercises is intended to draw the retreatant into this reflection on his/her life experiences with a view toward making a decision to direct his/her life along the path of the living God.4



Ignatius of Loyola was a Spanish knight who had a conversion experience when wounded on the battlefield. Inspired by St. Francis, he became a hermit, and eventually founded the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits were “missionaries for the pope” and responsible for founding educational institutions worldwide. In the U.S. there are over 50 secondary schools and 28 Jesuit colleges and universities, including Loyola University, in Chicago, IL.
Peter Paul Rubens, Norton Simon Museum

Basically, the Exercises begin with an important introduction and then are divided into four “Weeks,” based on Ignatius’s practice of directing individuals in a thirty-day retreat. Historically, the terminology has stuck, even though each Week corresponds not to a seven-day period but to a distinct kind of inner experience.5 Several writers suggest other terminology: Neil Vaney likens the Exercises to an orchestral symphony in five movements.6 Fleming describes the overall retreat (and each day therein) in terms of “dynamics,” to capture the notions of movement, development, or growth, especially as these words apply to insights and affections.7 The flow of the retreat is adapted to the needs of the individual.

Summarizing this “flow” of the retreat, Tad Dunne explains that the first two Weeks build toward a commitment, and the last two Weeks deepen the retreatant’s share in the compassion of God for the world and in the assurances God brings to the world through the retreatant.8 Other components of the Exercises include additional notes regarding prayer and guidelines for examining one’s conscience and for discernment.

The structure of the Exercises is based on Ignatius’s own sense of what human life is all about. In general, any faithful synthesis of classic Ignatian spirituality will include at least these six components: (1) a focus on the goodness of the Creator who created all things as a means by which people could make their way back to God; (2) recognition of the importance of a dynamic personal relationship with Christ that includes cooperation with him in achieving God’s plan of creation, redemption, and spiritual growth in the unfolding of salvation history; (3) emphasis on “the greater honor and glory of God” as a motivation for all human endeavor; implying a strong sense of service of others; (4) cultivation of a habit of spiritual discernment in decision-making; (5) strong emphasis on the integration of contemplative and apostolic life with further emphasis on finding God in all things; and (6) movement toward authentic inner freedom, that is, grace-filled progress in addressing issues of disordered attachments in one’s life.

As with any classical expression of spirituality, this synthesis needs adaptation in view of developments in philosophy, psychology, historical criticism, Trinitarian theology, Scripture studies, gender studies, and emerging scientific understandings of the cosmos.

Critique of The Spiritual Exercises

As interdisciplinary insights have been brought to the Exercises, criticisms have been directed at the structure and theology of this classic. Some detect a hint of Pelagianism in it. It feels “mechanical,” more like a project than a process. Too individualistic; too much emphasis on examining one’s conscience and not enough on critiquing one’s social consciousness. Elevating the human to the top of creation’s pyramid is problematic. The undergirding theology is patriarchal. One feminist critique includes several concerns:

Some are put off by the symbolism embedded in the text of the Exercises. . . . Still others question Ignatius’s unswerving obedience to the church, an institution that has been singularly destructive of women’s full personhood at times in its history. The centrality of Christ in the Spiritual Exercises raises for others another cluster of reservations centered around the issue of a male savior. These women wonder how they can ever become autonomous spiritual persons if they “access” God exclusively through a male savior.9

Critical Appreciation and Creative Appropriation

Current Ignatian scholars and practitioners continue to wrestle creatively with the challenge of addressing these concerns and making the Exercises both relevant and accessible for today’s seekers. Several authors have demonstrated exceptional skill in this effort. Three books are recommended here, with brief examples from their perspectives: feminist, liberation theology, and ecology.

Feminist Concerns:
Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin, and Elizabeth Liebert wrote the book The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed: Uncovering Liberating Possibilities for Women (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001). The authors, each of whom is actively engaged in academia as well as in the ministry of spirituality development, have done a great service for anyone using The Spiritual Exercises either as retreatant or director. Here is one example of their approach: In analyzing the exercises of the First Week, the authors note that women’s realities raise probing questions and troubling issues about the material suggested for meditation. Consider, for example, the self-deprecation embedded in texts that exhort the woman to:

consider my soul as imprisoned in this corruptible body, and my whole compound self as an exile in this valley [of tears] among brute animals. . . . I will reflect upon myself by using examples which humble me: First what am I when compared with all other human beings? I will look at all the corruption and foulness of my body. I will look upon myself as a sore or abscess from which have issued great sins and iniquities and such foul poison.10

The authors note that these passages, and others, describing the self envisioned by the Exercises require critiquing, especially when the “self” is a woman, because meditating on this material can create hazards for both self-concept and God-image.

Rather than with a sense of humiliation and self-loathing, claim the authors, “entering the Spiritual Exercises with a positive self-image and a holistic understanding of the human person engenders a positive valuation of oneself as a whole being with a body, mind, spirit, emotions and relationships. In this way, relationship and connection replace dualism and polarization. When the one making the Exercises discovers and appreciates her own story and uses her own voice to tell it, she contributes powerfully to the larger story of faith.”11

Liberation Theology Perspectives:
Dean Brackley, a Jesuit priest and professor of theology and ethics at the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador, contributed The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspectives on the Transformative Wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004) to the recent consideration of the Exercises. From this location of living and working with the poor, he brings to the Exercises new perspectives, particularly from Latin American liberation theology.

A few examples: he speaks more of participating in the Reign of God than he does of being a loyal knight in the service of Christ the King. Indeed, Christ is with the poor not as king but as compassionate co-sufferer. The background for every meditation is a deep-seated concern for the poor. Evil is described in terms of sinful social structures. Our own complicity as individuals within those structures is part of our sinfulness. For Brackley, God’s Reign means good news in a world of bad news. It is a project of liberation from sin, poverty, injustice, and violence. The call to humility in the Second Week is understood as a call to solidarity with the poor. Reflecting on Christ’s passion helps the retreatant not only to know Christ better, but prompts response to the crucified people of today. These examples are powerful and indicative of Brackley’s creative appropriation of liberation theology into Ignation spirituality.

Ecological and Cosmological Issues:
Neil Vaney, SM, who wrote his doctoral thesis on environmental ethics and the theology of nature at the University of Otago, New Zealand, wrote Christ in a Grain of Sand: An Ecological Journey with the Spiritual Exercises (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2004). In this book Vaney employs a critical appreciation for the Exercises, “following the order of meditations, exercises, and spiritual reflections that Ignatius himself finally settled upon as the shape of The Spiritual Exercises.”12 Vaney notes that the power of the Exercises is to free the imagination and let it discover images and manifestations of God both in the book of Scripture and the book of nature.13 Thus, there is a substantive ecological reflection for each exercise; one that ties in nicely with the selected scripture passage—even in the meditation on Christ’s passion. Nature is not romanticized; the destructive nature of the universe is recognized: “It is a violent place, full of death and destruction, and all higher forms of life are part of a web of life, living from and off one another.”14 Here, “unless the grain of wheat fall into the ground and die” takes on a deeper meaning.


The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius is a classic and, as such, it exhibits a remarkable resilience capable of not just surviving adaptation, but indeed thriving on it.

If the three adaptations of the Exercises recommended here are indications of the potential of Ignation spirituality to assist those on a spiritual journey, then the tradition can be expected to have a long life indeed. Ignatius had his finger on the pulse of human nature, and he had a remarkable sense of the living God at work within that nature—and within all creation. Ignatius’s charism has stretched across centuries, urging the “finding of God in all things,” including the new.

1. Of Ignatius’s five major works, two (The Spiritual Exercises and his Autobiography) are presented in their entirety in George Ganss, SJ, ed., Ignatius of Loyola: The Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York/Mahwah: Paulist, 1991). Also included are a few samples of his thousands of letters and selections from his Spiritual Diary and his Constitutions of the Society of Jesus.
2.David Fleming, SJ, Like the Lightning: The Dynamics of the Ignatian Exercises (Saint Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2004), 9.
3. Ibid., 10.
4. Tad Dunne, Spiritual Exercises for Today (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), xiv.
5. Ibid.
6. Neil Vaney, SM, Christ in a Grain of Sand (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2004), 12. See Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin, and Elizabeth Liebert, The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed (New York/Mahwah: Paulist, 2001), 89, for their use of the same metaphor.
7. Fleming, Like the Lightning, 16–17.
8. Dunne, Spiritual Exercises for Today, xv.
9. Dyckman, Garvin, and Liebert, Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed, 3.
10. Ibid., 157–58.
11. Ibid., 158.
12. Vaney, Christ in a Grain of Sand, 13.
13. Ibid., 21–22.
14. Ibid., 129.


This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2009, “Winds of the Spirit: Traditions of Christian Spirituality.”