The Exercises of Ignatius Loyola in the Western Tradition by Javier Melloni, SJ

About the author



The Exercises

1 Ignatius' Direct Contact with the Tradition

Four key works:

  1. Ludolph of Saxony: ex-Dominican Carthusian, (c. 1295–1378), Vita Christi

  2. James of Voragine (c. 1230–1298), Flos Sanctorum

  3. Garciá de Cisneros (1455–1510), Montserrat (Abbott 1493–1510), Ejercitatorio de la vida espiritual

  4. Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471), The Imitation of Christ

2 The Spiritual School of Fray Garciá de Cisneros

Ejercitatorio de la vida espiritual & Directorio de las Horas Canónicas:

2.1 The Compendio Breve de Ejercicios Espirituales

Tradition inherited

Specific original features of The Exercises not found in Cisneros:

2.2 Genealogical Tree of The Exercises


3 Features Inherited from the Tradition

The vocabulary of life in the spirit is not the creation of one person but fruit of a succession of witnesses by which it is progressively enriched and developed.

Three central aspects integral of The Exercises:

  1. devotion to the humanity of Christ

  2. pedagogy of prayer

  3. progression of the spirit life on the basis of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways

Ignatius radically transforms these by his specific mystagogy in which following Jesus and transforming union with Him

3.1 Devotion to the Humanity of Christ

Ignatius' devotion has many derivations:

The great reforms of the church have arisen from this return to the direct reading of the Gospel:

Devotion to the humanity of Christ

3.2 The Method of Prayer

Some of the 'modes of access' to this transfigured humanity of Christ (the contemplation of which transforms the one who contemplates) that Ignatius found in the Tradition.

a. Diversity of 'spiritual exercises'

The practice of 'spiritual exercises' is ancient in the Church

The custom of withdrawing for a period to dedicate oneself to the life of prayer and penance

Spiritual exercises have two elements/aspects:

Ignatius did not invent a method of prayer, but

The contribution of Ignatius:

b. The ladder of prayer

Lectio Divina (Guigo II: Ladder of Monks)

Ignatian Exercises

Read: "the careful study of the scriptures"

"provide a faithful account of the events to be meditated" [2]

Meditate: digest and draw substance; "the busy application of the mind to seek with the help of one's own reason for knowledge and hidden truth"

"one in meditating takes the solid foundation of facts, and goes over it and reflects on it … the intimate feeling and relish of the truth" [2]

imaginative meditation e.g. on evangelical scenes

• "visible" [47]

• composition of place [47]
(= composing of the person)

• shift from spectator to actor "as if I were present" [114]

intellectual meditation

• "invisible" [47] – "consider" & "consideration" e.g. of sin [47] and Three Kinds of Humility [165–8]

Pray: "heart's devoted turning to God in order to repulse evil and obtain what is good"

Monastic contemplation (transcendent?)

Ignatian contemplation (immanent/Incarnational?)

Lectio Divina of Guigo: mystical contemplative monastic tradition

Prayer leads to Contemplation

• the affective prayer of the Franciscans and mental prayer of the Devotio Moderna

Contemplation leads to Colloquy

The change in order implies a difference in the very nature of these exercises

• "when the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness"

• a quality of ecstasy: ecstatic repose culminating in silence; high mysticism

• a stance or attitude before the material or content of prayer: wonder and absorption (not reflection and analysis)

• the mysteries of the evangelical passages are God's revelation (not objects of analysis)

• accentuating the humanity of Christ as an object of contemplation

• a disposition of complete welcome and availability to the action of God (which is only possible after a work of inner purification)

• attain to God beyond the world

• raises the exercitant to divine perfections beyond the world

• a new direction in contemplation: attain to God who is revealed in the world to bring the world back to God

• the ultimate object proposed for contemplation is the world itself [230–7], which is contemplated so that it, too, should manifest its condition of mystery as the place of the transparency of God

prayer remains a matter of words

contemplation is silence

Colloquy (gratitude, request for pardon, desire to be identified with the passage) arises spontaneously

Culmination in silence

Primacy of word, spoken in time: all prayers in the Exercises are directed towards Election, i.e. to a Word that is expressed within history and for the benefit of history

3.3 The Three Ways and the Progress of the Spiritual Life

Generally, the movement of The Exercises corresponds to the ascending scheme of the Three Ways, i.e. purgative (First Week), illuminative (Second Week), unitive [10] and Contemplatio.

a. Denys the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius) (5th-6th Century)

St Bonaventure and Hugh of Balma

b. St Bonaventure (1221–1274)

The three ways conceived more as


through the three grades, following the three ways:

Even in the final (contemplative/unitive/perfect) state, one must continue with the purgative and illuminative exercises. With repetition, these exercises are made ever more profoundly.

c. Hugh of Balma (12th–13th Century?)

The three ways conceived more as


d. The three ways in Garciá de Cisneros: similarities and differences in the Exercises

Ejercitatorio-Compendio (Cisneros)

The Spiritual Exercises (Ignatius)

• Disposition days

• "magnanimity and generosity toward his Creator and Lord" [5]

The First Principle and Foundation [23]

Purgative way

"They can correct their past life by penance and compunction"

• stimulates the repudiation of sin by recourse to various kinds of fear

• concern that the exercitant recognise the destructive character that sin has in itself

• to arrive at "an interior knowledge of my sins and abhorrence for them" [63], not out of fear of punishment, but because one has perceived and felt their intrinsic malice [44; 52]

Examen is recommended once a monk has received the fruits of the purgative way:

• diligence vs negligence

• self-control vs concupiscence

• kindness and affection for others vs malice

Examen presented from the beginning [42–43]

The step from the First to the Second Week is taken when the exercitant has felt

• the destructive power of sin, which stimulates

• the rejection of it, together with

• gratitude for sensing oneself pardoned and

• the desire to respond to the One who has given His life to save us from our captivity [53]

Illuminative way:

"so as to give thanks to Him for His innumerable benefits"

consists in meditating on the benefits of God: creation, grace, vocation, justification, particular gifts, government, glorification

Contemplation of the person of Christ not in terms of union but of following

• "interior knowledge of the Lord who became human for me so that I may better love and follow Him" [104]

The step from the illuminative to the unitive way is made when certain signs of transformation can be perceived in the exercitant:

• devotion to an ever-increasing recollection and inner silence

• strengthening and consolidating the virtues

• domination over the sense and all the curiosity that leads to dissipation

• seeking God and finding His presence in all things

Contemplation to Attain Love [230–7]

Illuminative way

• 1st Point [234]: "the benefits of creation, redemption, and of particular gifts"

Unitive Way

• 2nd ("God dwells in creatures" [235]), 3rd ("God works and labours" [236]), & 4th (God as Source [237]) Points

Unitive way

"and through considering His perfection and wonders by the exercise of contemplation, to become through love one spirit with Him."

Contemplation raises the exercitant to divine perfection beyond the world. Consider how

• God is the Principle and end of all things

• God is the beauty of the Universe

• God is the glory of the world

• God is all love

• God is the rule of all things

• God is the peaceful ruler

• God is the giver who meets all our needs

A displacement of the mystical horizon: this contemplation is concerned with showing how

• these perfections, descending "from above" [237],

• saturate the world in which God dwells [235],

• "working and labouring" [236] to bring the world to its plenitude,

• in collaboration with the exercitant, who renews the offering made in the moment of the Election: "Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty…" [234].

Contemplation of the person of Christ

• comes last, as though such contemplation requires extensive foregoing preparation

• ecstatic union with Him: illumination, inflaming, sweetness, desire, fullness, rapture, confidence, and perfect repose

The Ignatian name for union with God is Election

e. The desire for union in the mystical tradition

Mystical-contemplative tradition


The unitive life is the ultimate objective proposed in the sources up to Ignatius

• ecstatic contemplation: "leaving behind all contemplation of creatures

• one goes through various stages of separation from the world to arrive naked at union with God

A new comprehension of the forms which union with God might take and the means to attain it

• through the attentive search for His Will, which

manifests itself in the heart of the world to bring all things to Himself

• an opportune response to the times in which Ignatius lived, at the dawn of the modern age: the awakening of the will to transform the world

4 The Specificity of the Ignatian Exercises

The salient themes of The Exercises:

This attention to, and respect for, every individual's unique and non-interchangeable route, gives to Ignatius' Exercises a distinctive and original feature with respect to the preceding Tradition:

4.1 The Process of Mystagogy

The paradox of Ignatian mystagogy:

The key to understanding the specific dynamic of the mystical union proper to Ignatian mystagogy:

The Ignatian name for union with God is Election:

Ultimately, discernment is about

The contribution of The Exercises to the mystical tradition of the West:

The Ignatian Exercises are the mystagogy that leads into this dynamic in two simultaneous ways:

  1. through the contemplation of Christ's life, passion, and resurrection, which imprints the image of Christ on the heart of the exercitant

  2. by discerning the concrete form of this Christic configuration in one's own life (i.e. the election and continuous choices) through the interior movements aroused by contemplation

4.2 The Mystical Act of Election, Way of Union and of Unification

Election is the most characteristic feature of The Exercises

Election is precisely the unitive and mystical way proposed by Ignatius

This way of life centred on the election is a that of offering

Election is kenotic

'Interior knowledge' is one of the keys of Ignatian mystagogy

This makes life a call to continuous discernment