Notes on Adapting the Exercises of St. Ignatius
David T. Asselin, sj.
published in Review for Relgious
Volume 28, 1969.

          The book of the Exercises is not monolithic. It contains, according to nos. 18, 19, 20, more than one series of spiritual exercises, demanding adaptation by the one who gives them. In the concrete, it is the director's responsibility to tailor the content, order, and method of these exercises to the spiritual and natural capacities, needs, and dispositions of his retreatants. Even within the 30 days' Exercises careful selection and adaptation are not infrequently indicated, for instance in nos. 4, 17, 72, 129, 133, 162, and so forth. 

          The conclusion, seems inevitable that adaptation is proper, even essential, to any authentic tradition of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. To give them without careful adaptation to the retreatant's concrete circumstances might gravely reduce, even eliminate, their genuine Ignatian character. 

          However, nowhere does the author of the Exercises deal directly with the kind of adaptation that is commonplace today, namely, the annual abbreviated (anywhere from two to eight days) Exercises given to a group; moreover, those Exercises that are made by private individuals are rarely guided by a director in the Ignatian manner. Such casually accepted adaptations of the Exercises involve considerable departures from their original concept, judged by the writings of their author and the first century or more of their practice. It would seem to be a basic rule of any adaptation that the essence or substantials of the original be preserved in the adapted form. It seems that on several points many modern adaptations fail in this regard. 

          First, the most accepted tradition involves telescoping all four Weeks of the Exercises into about a quarter of the time originally devoted to them, the point being that this abbreviation is usually achieved by omitting all or most of the repetitions that appear essential to the original Ignatian method. Second, the Exercises today are frequently experienced as a kind of annual "refresher" for those who have made them at least once already in one form or another. Third, these annual abbreviated Exercises are usually the only form in which most retreatants have any experience of them. The fourth and fifth points have already been mentioned, namely, that almost invariably the Exercises take the form of a group experience, and finally that those who make them privately usually make them without genuine Ignatian direction -- whereas the authentic Exercises on the human level seem to have been conceived as a dialogue not, mind you, between the retreatants themselves, but between the retreatant and the director. Although privately directed Exercises are doubtless the ideal, it may not be practical to suggest the immediate elimination of group retreats today. Let us content ourselves with a few suggestions about how to give or make them in a more authentic manner. 

          We might begin with some remarks about the Ignatian repetition. Although he never considers a group repetition of the Exercises, such as the annual retreats common in our day, Ignatius does not leave us without considerable evidence about his notion of repetition within the Exercises themselves, for instance in nos. 62, 118, 119,121-126,204,226,227, and elsewhere. 

          For Ignatius, a repetition is never the simple reduplication of a prior exercise. Perhaps it is on this point that we have made our greatest mistake in conceiving the annual repetitions of the Exercises. The activity characteristic of an Ignatian repetition is not a simple review of matter covered in a previous exercise; rather, it means returning to and dwelling on those points in that exercise where affective responses or spiritual experiences were stimulated in the retreatant, consolations, desolations, inspirations, and so forth (see no. 62). In the Ignatian repetition it is not so much the points of subject matter as the points of personal sensitivity that are revisited, so as to reinforce, deepen, or better appreciate them. The process might be compared to focusing closely with a zoom lens, which eliminates large areas of the original picture so as to concentrate on points of particular personal interest. 

          Ignatian repetitions, therefore, imply considerable abbreviation of the prior prayer matter, together with concentration on points of personal spiritual experience, which are most unlikely to coincide in any two individuals. Moreover, true to the general principle enunciated in no. 2 of the Exercises: "It is not much knowledge that fills and satisfies the spirit, but to feel and taste things inwardly," Ignatius does not aim in his repetitions at expanding concepts, spiritual theology, or noetic faith, but rather at simplifying and intensifying an awareness of spiritual realities, especially personal presence to and service of the Lord. What counts in repetitions is not new content, but renewed encounter -- not just repeating an old acquaintance with the things of God, but discovering deeper levels of friendship with Him. Over the period of a typical day of the Exercises, Ignatius usually insists on four or five hours of contemplation, of which three or four are repetitions of the first hour, in the manner described above. This is perhaps one of the most characteristic aspects of authentic Ignatian prayer. To drop it from plans for adapting the Exercises is no minor omission. 

          By dint of these repetitions, Ignatius expects a characteristic development to occur in the retreatant's daily prayer; there is a pattern of simplification and spontaneity, there is a penetration of the true meaning and relevance of the mystery contemplated, there is an increased realization of the contemporary actuality of that mystery in the world of the retreatant's experience, finally day by day there grows a cumulative sense of the interdependence and relationship of the mysteries of the Word made flesh. By virtue of repeatedly entering the mysteries of the Lord at successively more intimate levels, a man can be expected to see, savor, and know the Word in a new and wholly personal way -- eventually, to borrow Ignatius' favorite prayer phrase, to "find the Lord in all things." 

          The retreatant does more than appropriate a mystery of the Lord; rather, he begins to appreciate how completely his own mystery has been appropriated by the Lord. 

          It is clear from the days described in the book of the Exercises, that what began as meditation and rumination of a mystery of the Word is designed to conclude with intimate contact, spontaneous response, and personal colloquy. Day by day facility in entering the mystery of the Lord should grow, which implies a growth in faith, hope, and love, or, essentially, a growth in consolation according to Ignatius (see no. 316 of the Exercises, and no. 11 of the Autograph Directory). This results in a growing realization of the Lord's presence and dynamic involvement in the entire world of one's everyday experience, and an integrating overview and comprehension of the Lord's concrete engagement in all contemporary reality. This cumulative integration of the Lord's mysteries is explicit in the book of the Exercises, for instance both in prospect (in no. 116) and in retrospect (in no. 130). When the Word of God becomes enfleshed anew ("nuevamente," no. 109) in the retreatant's world of experience, contemporary reality takes on incredibly new value and significance for him: his faith view of events interior and exterior to himself deepens and matures. Really, it is only in virtue of such repeated contemplation of the mysteries of the Word of God that one can personally discover the full and real significance of the events of human history and one's own existence. "Only by faith and by meditation on the word of God can one always and everywhere find God . . . seek his will in every event, see Christ in all men. . . make correct judgments about the true meaning and value of temporal things," as we read in the decree on the layman in the Church, of Vatican II (see Abbott's edition, p. 493). 

          If what is known as the "lectio divina" or meditation on the word of God, is a kind of common denominator of authentic Christian prayer (see J. Leclercq, O.S.B., "The Unity of Prayer," in Worship, v. 32, # 7, p. 408 and "Meditation as a Biblical Reading," by the same author, in Worship, v. 33, # 9, p. 562 ff), we should be able to discern its essential elements in the typical prayer form of the Exercises. We submit that the text reveals the pattern of the "lectio" in several ways, at least in its three basic phases: first, the reading or listening to the word of Scripture; second, the personal appropriation of this word in a concrete, contemporary, and meaningful way; third, the spontaneous response, personal contact, colloquy, or prayer, which emerges by grace and the action of the Lord's Spirit ("who teaches all things and brings to your mind whatever I have spoken to you" Jn 14:26) out of the preceding phases of the "lectio." In the Exercises the director's role touches all three phases: he is to feed the word of God to the retreatant, guide the method of prayer and repetition, and discern the action of the Lord's Spirit. The Exercises are a school of prayer on Scripture and of discernment of the initiatives of the Spirit, which is of course why they are ideally dispositive for one confronted with making a decision, if personal circumstances call for one. 

          The Scripture centered character of the Exercises is not difficult to determine from a simple perusal of the text where the focus for thirty days is almost uniquely on the word of God introduced daily in the so-called History Preamble --a fact that was formally recognized by the late Father J. B. Janssens, General of the Society of Jesus, in an instruction of May 7, 1964, declaring that "masters of novices and spiritual directors should draw their teaching and their direction principally from Holy Scripture, from which St. Ignatius drew the matter of the Exercises." 

          If we examine the historical beginnings of the Exercises, which, according to no. 99 of Ignatius' autobiography, occurred on his sickbed at Loyola, it is not difficult to discern the basic phases of the same "lectio divina," at least in their rudimentary forms. His spiritual experience began with a kind of Scripture reading (the Vita Christi and the Imitation of Christ; it was the words of Christ and of Mary that he transcribed carefully in a copy book, from which the book of the Exercises apparently evolved). Secondly, there followed long hours of rumination and personal appropriation of what he read, imagination and affectivity reducing his discoveries to their contemporary implications for him. Finally, from this emerged notable peace, a taste for prayer and spiritual things, and a consuming desire to change his whole way of life so as to please and serve his Lord in all things, a decision that took many forms but was never retracted. This, as he notes in the same autobiography (no. 100), was the beginning of the characteristic trait of his lifelong spiritual development, a growing facility in finding God in all things. 

          We also discover the same basic phases of the "lectio" in Ignatius' so-called preambles to each of the' contemplations of the Exercises (see 102-105). These are more than mere preludes to Ignatian contemplation: they are integral parts of it, providing its fundamental structure and essential movement. What is known as the "Historia" is designed to begin invariably (see no. 105) with the eye of faith focused on the heart of the divine Trinity as it contemplates man's spiritual plight and total helplessness and determines to take salvific initiatives by sending the divine Word into the world; every History Preamble begins this way and leads to reading a selection from Scripture; thus it corresponds to the first phase of the "lectio." 

          The second preamble, known as the "Composicion," is designed to assist the concrete and personal appropriation, or ... the embodiment of the Scripture just read, so that somehow it is realized more deeply and translated into more contemporary spatial-temporal dimensions for the retreatant. The process of rumination is designed, to our mind, for realization, that is, to see, hear, grasp with greater effect, the contemporary relevance and reality of the mystery, truth, or event revealed in Scripture. In this way, revelation takes place anew, as it were, within the retreatant's consciousness of reality. Just as the "Historia" focuses on a Biblical event as one in a series of points of entry of the divine Word into human history, so the "composicion," by image, symbol, or parable, lends that event an actuality in the retreatant's present world. 

          It is both natural and effective to communicate great truths in concrete symbol and image, to capture the importance of events in dramatic portrayal, to point a great lesson in graphic parable. It is this kind of experience of things that touches more than the mind -- it moves the whole man, head and heart, to spontaneous reaction and response. In our culture of communication arts and imagery these remarks are almost trite, but they illustrate the importance of the second preamble of Ignatian contemplation whereby an invisible salvation event or truth is translated into concrete image or symbol to convey it to the heart and imagination that govern man's responses. 

          The third Ignatian preamble brings us to the point of personal contact and response, prayerful petition and colloquy, which characterize the third phase of the "lectio." It would be incorrect to consider this preamble as a mere prelude to spiritual encounter; it is already the first effect of it. 

          In his own particular manner, we feel Ignatius has reformulated the age-old method of prayer on Scripture. If this is true, then the preambles are more than introductory steps; they provide the basic structure and frame of reference for all that follows in the contemplations of the Exercises. The first step is taking up the word of God in Scripture as a revelation of the intimate concern and engagement of the Trinity in the history of man. The second step is realizing the contemporary actuality of this divine involvement in the world of human experience; and it is precisely at this point that many have found an apt use of short films, slides, symbols, and so forth, to be effective in stimulating realistic contemplation of the word of God and mature response to it. If appropriate, these parables, images, symbols function as vehicles of the divine word into the affectivity of the retreatant, deepening realization in and stimulating response from the whole man. 

          What are usually referred to as the "points" of Ignatian contemplations are really, as a glance at nos. 106 ff. will reveal, nothing more than repetitions in greater detail of the three preambles we have been discussing. The content of the "Historia" is unfolded more graphically; the function of the "composicion," which is to grasp the mystery more concretely in contemporary terms becomes, in these so-called "points," simply "to see. . . to hear. . . to observe closely" what the "Historia" presents. And it is not difficult to see how the closing colloquy of Ignatian contemplations both continues and expands the third preamble or petition for "lo que quiero y deseo." It is in the colloquy that the contemporary dimension of the salvific events or mysteries is indicated by Ignatius (see no. 109) as well as their cumulative integration (see no. 116). Everything centers around the presentation of the Scriptural word. By insisting on such repetitions within each exercise and within each day, Ignatius hopes to plant the word of God in the inner man to transform and move him entirely. 

          It would appear superfluous to submit by way of conclusion from the preceding observations that the director of annual repetitions of the Exercises might consider it his primary job to suggest apt selections from Scripture touching on a single theme of the Exercises for prayerful contemplation over each day of the retreat. If his remarks are appropriately brief leading the individual to find for himself what spiritual fruit he can, more time can be devoted to the private discussion and direction of his personal prayer experience according to the norms of discernment carefully outlined and emphasized by Ignatius. If the number of retreatants is large, the principal reason for a team of directors is to assure this daily guidance to each retreatant. 

          A careful use of short films and slides in conjunction with the director's remarks introducing Scripture, for the purpose indicated above, can be very helpful in a group retreat, but its importance is quite secondary. In general, films do not substitute for or contain the word of God proposed by the director; rather, they are meant to concretize it, to convey it to the affectivity, bringing home its full meaning and contemporary relevance to the retreatant's heart and mind. Needless to say, such communication aids should be very carefully selected in view of the purpose they are meant to serve. They are not intended in the Exercises of Ignatius as points of departure for group discussion; and it is a misguided hope, to say the least, to search for films and slides that will substitute for the director's role of proposing Scripture for private contemplation. 

          In the course of annual repetitions of the Exercises, one should expect not only a simplification of prayer method, an abbreviation of subject matter, but especially an increase of personal individuation and responsibility in determining the structure, manner, and movement of the exercises, always, of course, in private dialogue with the director. Only in this way, it seems, can we permit the Spirit to breathe when and how he wills. Spiritual maturity cannot be orchestrated for a group in the same direction or at the same speed. Greater room for authentic repetition must be allowed for the individual to return to points of personal spiritual sensitivity; increased private direction must be provided so as to tailor the movement and content of prayer to the spiritual capacities and needs of each; greater respect must be had for the uniqueness of the inner inspirations and vocation of the individual, his personal spiritual maturity, his own relationship to the Lord. 

          Over a period of time, the emphasis should move from "lectio et meditatio" to "oratio." One of the principal purposes of repetition in the prayerful rumination of Scripture is precisely to increase the facility of this "oratio" or finding the Lord in things (which, incidentally, is Ignatius' definition of the word "devotion," see Autobiography, no. 100). 

          Such a movement or development is discernible on the whole within the Exercises themselves. The emphasis of the first two weeks seems to be rather on carefully structured meditation and contemplation, which, as the author notes in no. 162, is merely an introduction and model for better and more complete prayer later on. The last two weeks are distinguished by a personal penetration of and identification with the Lord's own experience of dying and rising, the focal point of the Gospels and the key to spiritual life. In the final contemplation of the Exercises ("to attain love") Ignatius accumulates in four points the progressive modes and levels of finding the Lord which were characteristic respectively of the four preceding Weeks. By then he expects the retreatant's sensitivity to have matured with respect to the Lord's presence and initiative in all things. In a word, what is anticipated as the fruit of each hour, each day, or of the many days of the Exercises, is essentially the same thing -- an increase of Biblical peace or "shalom," which is an experience not merely of the absence of inner conflict but of the presence of the living Lord. In Ignatian terms, it implies finding God in contemporary reality. 

          This shift from "lectio" to "oratio," from rumination to colloquy, from meditation to spiritual contact, in the Exercises as a whole, does not imply that Ignatius expects the earlier weeks to be entirely discursive and experientially dry; quite the contrary, in every exercise spiritual experience is both the goal and criterion of progress (see nos. 2,4, 15,48,76, and so forth). 

          Throughout the Exercises, whenever a moment of spiritual contact is attained, the retreatant is instructed to pause until the experience is exhausted before re-turning to meditation on new matter (see no. 76). The spiritual Exercises have this in common with the ancient tradition of the "lectio divina," that meditation and rumination on the word of God do not aim at what might be called faith education but rather at faith experience -- "no el mucho saber... mas el sentir y gustar las cosas internamente" (no. 2). But if we stop at the point of spiritual satisfaction and experience we inadequately express the purpose of both the Ignatian Exercises and the "lectio." Both, it seems, aim at achieving prayer experience not merely to satisfy the soul for the moment, but hopefully to have the experience somehow overflow into daily life. By habitual and varied repetitions, the spiritual impression and awareness of the Lord's presence and engagement in realities will linger afterward, return more spontaneously, become an abiding awareness that accompanies both the events of life within oneself and those in the world around. Thus begins the spiritual maturity of finding the Lord not only in the exercises of prayer, but in all things. This, perhaps, is what it means to "pray always." 

          It is not surprising to read in the opening lines of the first charter of the Society of Jesus (the Formula approved by Paul III in 1540), that the Jesuit "is part of a community founded primarily for the task of advancing souls in Christian life and doctrine, and of propagating the faith by the ministry of the word, by spiritual exercises" (emphasis added). 

          It may be interesting and relevant at this point to indicate how the first group adaptations of the Exercises were conducted. About the middle of the 17th century near Vannes in Brittany, a certain Father Vincent Ruby, S.J., and others had been granted the use of a house for the purpose of directing the Exercises. At first, all who came were directed privately, beginning from the day on which they happened to arrive. After a while it was promulgated throughout the parishes that any wishing to make the Exercises should apply on either of two designated days each month. When the first of these days arrived, a large crowd of all sorts of people came and the first group retreat on record began (see Watrigant, "Collection de la bibliotheque des Exercises de s. Ignace,' no. 2) about a century after the death of St. Ignatius. 

          From the detailed description provided in the source mentioned, we might draw attention to several points. First; these earliest group retreats were conducted by a team of about five priests, principally for the purpose of providing adequate private spiritual direction. Moreover, in the evening, the "points" for contemplation were given in the chapel completely darkened except for a large translucent picture, lit by candles from behind, presenting a scene concretely illustrating the "points" being given. Short of improvements in the field of communications at our disposal today, this technique of about 1660 might well be suggested as a considerable improvement over the method of presentation so many retreatants have been subjected to since that time. These pioneers in group retreats were thus attempting to communicate the word of God in conjunction with an image whereby the message was conveyed not merely to the mind but to the heart, to the whole man. It was an attempt to translate into a group situation the composition preamble, and appears as the legitimate ancestor of the modern use of slides and films in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius, as we have described it. 

          It is not for group discussion, but as a part of the contemplative prayer experience itself, that the best use of these media of communication is made during a retreat. They are not teaching aids, nor need they carry an explicit spiritual message in themselves. In point of fact, it is more important that they be works of quality and strength in their own right than bearers of a moral or spiritual lesson. The role of communicating the Scripture, of introducing the retreatant to the gospel mysteries for private contemplation, and of guiding and instructing him in his personal spiritual experiences, remains the principal work of the director. Whether or not he uses modern communication media will depend on whether he can find and employ in his approach some that are effective supports for his main task, not substitutes for or distractions from it. 

          The importance that Ignatius places on the use of images and parables for the essential functioning of the Exercises is not difficult to illustrate from the text. We have already seen this emphasis in the composition preamble (see no. 47) which he felt could never be omitted. In number 74, in a set of instructions about the immediate conditions and preparation for contemplation, he emphasizes the connection between the use of brief parables (in themselves purely secular) and the spiritual fruit desired in a particular exercise. The exercitant rising at midnight is instructed to turn his attention to the subject of his contemplation, moving himself toward the desired grace experience of that prayer, not by adding thoughts, ideas, resolutions, and so forth, but, by using examples, proposing to himself a little parable about a knight arraigned before his king and stricken with shame and confusion. In the following exercise he is told to identify with the image of great culprits going loaded with chains to appear before their judge. We find the same emphasis in the famous parables of the temporal king and three pairs of men. The connection between the use of these images or examples and the specific spiritual fruit and grace desired in the exercises ("'drawing myself to confusion for my many sins by setting before myself examples") is quite explicit. Today, a short film can play, perhaps even more effectively, the same role. In point of fact it can serve many purposes. 

          First, the film can portray some part or aspect of the real world which the director desires to impress upon the retreatant precisely as he invites him to contemplate that real world from the viewpoint of the word of God. This word thus unfolded works in him as he views concrete realities, helps him to see and evaluate everything anew from the standpoint of the gospel: a dynamic composition of the word of God and of human reality begins to occur in the retreatant, which can dramatically alter his whole attitude to the world, and his posture making decisions for the future. 

          Moreover, the film can act as a meaningful and effective symbol or parable, with similar effect on the retreatant's response to the word of God with which he has been confronted. It is clear, too, that some films may effect a certain atmosphere or mood desirable in. view of more fruitful receptivity of the word of the Lord. Finally, a second or third screening of films can be useful bringing about, at times, the desired effects of repetitions in a retreat. Clearly, all these film uses call for greater explanation and discussion. 

          These pages have been entitled deliberately and, it hoped, not ineptly, mere "Notes." They do not pretend to be more than observations which are pertinent the basic problem of adapting the Spiritual Exercises. Perhaps they may contribute something towards a renewal that will insure their continued effectiveness in an age of spiritual search and crisis. 

          Hopefully, further and more penetrating study will prompt concrete and detailed suggestions with regard to sources and techniques for group Exercises. But these would correspond rather to the second of three stages of renewal of the Exercises proposed by both Pope Paul VI and Father Pedro Arrupe, General of the Jesuits, namely, the practical reworking of the Exercises in the light of Vatican II and the spiritual needs of modern man. Such concrete efforts should be undertaken only on the basis of a more penetrating study of the documents and history of the Exercises themselves as the only solid ground for experimentation in adapting techniques for giving them today.

 l Prayer Helps l Understanding The Spiritual Journey l Companioning Others l
 l New Additions l Topical Index l About The Webmaster l Contact l Home l Of Interest To Jesuits l
 l Books l John English, SJ l East Blends With West l