The First Spiritual Exercises
Take a slow scroll down this page to meet the First Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola – what it is, how it works and why it is a powerful companion for a spiritual life.
The Spiritual Exercises is the very best thing that in this life, I can think, perceive or understand for helping a person benefit her or himself as well as bringing fruit, benefit, and advantage to many others; for even if you felt no need for the former, you will see immeasurably and incomparably you will be helped with regard to the latter.
Ignatius Loyola, 1536 – Creator of the Spiritual Exercises
How The First Spiritual Exercises Work
Desire and transformation in three impelling movements
An Ignatian spiritual exercise is a structured prayer that does three things very well. It brings my desires to light and into the presence of a personal God. Then, it brings my own life experience into this relationship using various prayer methods such as imaginative contemplation. Thirdly, it takes me quickly and deeply into prayer.
What happens then is freely up to God. So a particular spiritual exercise is usually chosen because of a particular desire I have. And a FSE retreat is a collection of exercises and desires ordered into a continuous dynamic of desire, divine intimacy and transformation. In this conversation with God I am broken open and divine Light for greater good spills forth from me.
Spiritual Conversation is one of the great lost arts of helping another person. Ignatius encourages: be slow to speak, listen quietly, treat others as equals, be humble and sincere, speak with kindness and love, and see Jesus in each person. These are the harmonics of spiritual conversation, which can build into affectionate awe one moment, tears the next, and waves of divine assurance in all, now compressed now loosening free.
Since God moves in our desires and exercises, a spiritual conversation will also reveal the movements of three golden threads weaving through our life and conversations – the Creator, Jesus and Spirit at work in us.
Setting Out to Serve
Each Ignatian spiritual exercise, and FSE retreat, has three aims. The first is to give me the help I desire from God. The second is to teach me ways of prayer and connection that I can use after my retreat. The third is to give me the experience of an exercise, of receiving the grace I ask for, so that I can confidently give the same exercise to another person.
So the bigger picture is not about me, it is about bringing others into the presence and action of God. The FSE is about setting out to serve, an energy outwards from myself to others, an ever widening circle of freedom to let God work through me.
The five parts of an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise
- Preparation 15%
- Opening Prayer 5%
- Desire 5%
- Prayer 60%
- Conversation 15%
The five parts of an Ignatian Spiritual Conversation
- Silence – In the presence of the loving Trinity 10%
- Sacred Listening 40%
- Spiritual Conversation 25%
- Mini-Discernment 15%
- Silence – In the presence of the working Trinity 10%
“Love consists in mutual communication. That is to say, the lover gives and communicates to the loved one what they have, or something of what they have, or are able to give; and in turn the one loved does the same for the lover”.
Ignatius Loyola on love.
Givers of the First Spiritual Exercises give to receivers, who then become givers in turn. This is how the Spirit ripples out full of grace – person to person, receiving and giving.
Could this be you?
Number of FSE retreats
Number of FSE exercises
When Jesus sent his disciples out, he told them,
“Freely give what you have freely received”.
The First Spiritual Exercises will always be free – it defines who we are.
Five Good Questions
that helped to create the First Spiritual Exercises
What do I desire?
The deeper desires we live by surface in times of crisis and great need, but they also give balance to our ordinary lives, a keel to keep us steering in the right direction, a readiness for the wave of greater love when it arrives.
Every spiritual exercise has a clear desire built into it. The boy in the image desires to surf a wave. His father holds both his hand and the board on which he stands. The boy listens to his father’s advice and looks where his feet are. The father helps him to keep balance. And when a wave comes, the boy will be carried, not by his power, but the energy of the gifted wave and his desire to surf. So it is with the FSE and the guiding action of God.
Where can I find life?
Consuming, spending, thrill seeking, awesome everything, seems to fill us but can leave us feeling empty. The FSE offers life through something strangely ordinary – listening and conversation. In sacred listening we hold the other with tenderness, reverence and humility. In spiritual conversation, with the focus on the Spirit at work in the exercises, we give and receive life.
A single story from another can change us for life. Such stories reach deep and catch us up, to transform and nourish. And our life stories carry life for others.
The FSE is full of deep stories, five or six every exercise – our stories, the story of the universe, of people in great need, of intimacy with Jesus.
In this image we see the coronal loops and lines of energy as each centre, blue and gold, is attracted to the other. It is like the thousand stories within us, of the thousand graces, that can give and receive life. It is an image of how a deep story shared can suddenly flare in us. Such is the FSE for finding life.
What is my true face?
There are three faces in this image. The mother, her son and his reflection. Our faces are a map of our life journey. They also reveal our feelings, where we are looking, and what we turn towards or away from.
Christians believe we are created in the image of a loving Creator, that mysteriously we reflect God. Of the three faces in this image, God’s image is the only face directly looking at us.
When we get blinded or distracted, we lose our awareness of the true faces of our parents, self and God. The FSE can bring us swiftly back into relationship with a personal God and the meaning of our life journey. We rediscover the direction we wish to travel. So it is with the FSE and our three true faces.
What Is under my feet?
The ground is under our feet. When we walk with bare feet on the earth we feel grounded. When work and a fast life take us out of the simple present, enslaved to future anxieties or attachments, or driven by impossible demands, we can become detached from life giving relationships and the earth upon which we live.
This disconnect leaches the life out of us, we hunger and thirst for life and spiritual refreshment, but may not know the way back down. We may never have remained still enough for the grounding we need, a profound movement of descent that touches the real in us and remains poised for rest or purposeful movement.
One hand of the dancer in this image is pressed with the weight of her body, grounded in that connection. The other hand is finger spayed like a runner at the line, ready for the race to come. She is deeply aware and centred.
The FSE slows us down, stops us for a time, to reground us in what matters. It can bring us back home to ourselves and the God who created the earth upon which we stand. It nurtures life. We become our simple but beautiful selves. This is a true descending incarnation. So it is with the FSE and the grounding of our being.
Do I have to be strong to serve?
No one grows or is able to give life with strength alone. We learn most of the great lessons in life through weakness, fragility and suffering. Yet how quickly we forget this when suffering ends. The denial of vulnerability is a favourite ploy of the bad spirit.
The Spiritual Exercises was created by a strong willed man who, in a conversion after near death and many months of weakness, wanted to do great things for God, extreme acts of personal courage and service. You see the inherent conflict in this! But God taught him to rely on divine power and desires, to accept illness and find greater interior freedom, to be poor and humble for himself and others. So seeking like-minded companions, he went to change the world with both strength and vulnerability.
This image shows the flow of strength and vulnerability. Each flows in, through and around the other. The twisting dance of flame and the soft embrace of living water – we need both.
Ignatius wrote his exercises to help others reach the same gift and understanding. In them, he introduces the God who is both strong and vulnerable. With them, intimacy grows through shared vulnerability. This awareness of God and self leads to a deep personal acceptance and a freedom to be who we are – peace settles upon us. Now we can really help others.
So the First Spiritual Exercises are ultimately about humble service and the spiritual consolation of deep inner peace. So it is with the FSE and vulnerability.
Consider the FSE retreat
Easy prayer structure
No preparation necessary
Made in daily life
Begins where you are
Values your life experience
Weeks in a retreat
The number of spiritual conversation meetings over four weeks
Prayer days in a week
Daily prayer time in minutes
The First Spiritual Exercises may be made by anyone of good will.
The very first exercise actually—I started with hesitation then just plunged in and I remembered being loved so fully that I had a physical response. I was moved to tears. It was an experience that just pulled me into the retreat.
I plan to spend more time reflecting on this thought: “I begin to see how God works best through me.” This idea acknowledges our personalities, individual talents and gifts, and how we can best use them, but still be me.
What surprised me is that I expected St. Ignatius’ exercises to be all about asking forgiveness for sinfulness and just a little bit about mediation and grace. It was so much more.
These truly are exercises for the spirit, and we all know how important exercise if for our general well-being! Come and learn the techniques!
I feel drawn to this ministry because it seems to me to be the easiest most accessible way to bring people into a profound relationship with God. With no skill on my part, only a desire, that is what I experienced, I want others to have that opportunity.
There is an energy within the FSE that generates desire for a deeper personal relationship with God and a dynamic movement of the Spirit for the transmission of God’s love beyond the boundaries of the institutional church.
Sometimes when I am just “being” there with people or sitting as a giver of FSE, I hear the words “and he had compassion on them” and I feel a deep, deep overwhelming compassion and I can momentarily have clarity of how beautiful God is in all of us.
I am particularly drawn to this aspect of the FSE – receive with no payment, give without payment. Fantastic, makes sense, it’s aligned with God’s character. I should have done more of this in my life….