The paintings and poetry on this site are a visual journal of the four phases which comprise this prayer manual, the Spiritual Exercises, composed by St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. Ignatius gave to the Church a method of prayer that he found instrumental in his own faith journey. The various exercises that constitute the book lead a retreatant to closer contact with God.
In many ways, Ignatius helps retreatants paint a picture with the mind and senses. The aim of his manual was to inspire someone, so that they could enflesh the Gospel of Jesus Christ and live their lives for God and others. This methodology heightened one’s awareness of weaknesses and strengths in order to know how best to serve others. The object is to undergo conversion in order to be free for God’s sake.
What follows is a general overview of the exercises as they seek to accomplish this. The Spiritual Exercises have been presented in different formats, which include 30 days in a secluded setting, or for periods extending over 30 weeks. The way to conduct the retreat depends on the retreatant and the best way to adapt the Exercises to their schedule.
For each prayer period of the retreat Ignatius would suggest at the beginning that people dispose themselves to God’s revelation through a moment of quiet reverence. The next step is to name the desire that they wish to receive in prayer, followed by an exercise of the imagination called the “Composition of Place.” As Hugo Rahner describes this exercise,
This Composition of Place … uses pictures and images to present what is otherwise beyond all conceiving; it prepares the soul for the Application of the Senses … and paves the way for the images, symbols and dispositions whereby the senses of the soul will be enabled to touch and savor spiritual truths. (Ignatius the Theologian; NY1968, p.189)
These directions do not guarantee divine favor. One is just becoming receptive to what God wants to reveal. The retreatant imagines interacting with the characters of the story or even becoming one of them and can thus enter into a scriptural scene, using all of the senses. This, in turn, helps one look at Jesus in scenes from the retreatant’s own life.
Composition of Place: An Example
For example, let us look at a selection from the second phase of the Spiritual Exercises, called “The Blind Beggar.” (Fig.15) As I prayed with Mk 10:46-52, which is the story of Bartimaeus, a blind man, I began to imagine the landscape of the setting. It was dry, hot and dusty as I found myself being Bartimaeus, sitting by the roadside. I can smell the animals as they pass by and hear people’s voices in the background. Then I realize from the conversation that Jesus is near, so I cry out to him. I hear the footsteps of someone I believe to be Jesus approach me. I become filled with eager anticipation. Jesus is so close I feel his breath on my face and I hear him say, “I trust you. If there is anything you want to tell me I will listen to you.”
At this point in my life I was wondering whether to consider other job opportunities. As I revealed my fears and hopes in prayer, I felt more freedom to continue looking for confirmation to remain in my present situation. I was asking to see how I could grow spiritually in order to help others by encountering Jesus in a deeper way. This was one example of Jesus restoring my sight in order to follow him.
The revelation of God through the stories of Jesus is made present through imaginative participation. The mind engages the heart. As Hugo Rahner comments, “… the aim of this mode of prayer is to make the events of salvation ‘present’ in the mind, and thus to attain that direct experience of love.”(ibid.p.194) One notices this love through one’s desires.
Desires in Prayer
Prayer in this context is the ability to notice feelings and desires inspired by an encounter with Jesus. Imagining, as Ignatius intended does not aim to seek truth based on concrete facts. Rather, contemplation helps to discover the truth of Jesus’ heart in order to know how to live out the goodness that God desires for each person:
Ignatius expects that God will elicit the desires that are most for our good if we open ourselves and our hearts to God’s tutelage and if we ask God to give us these desires…. If we have this desire (to be with Jesus), God must want us to have it, and for our good. (Barry, Finding God in All Things, 1991p.79)
We cannot force these desires. We are invited to notice desires to be with another by the very fact that we are social beings. Jesus is this other being to whom we become attracted when we desire to know God more. As Ignatius’ experience indicated, the stories of Jesus and real persons who shared similar values sparked this curiosity about the spiritual life. Through greater intimacy with Jesus, Ignatius was led to serve him.
Application of the Senses
To deepen such encounters, Ignatius recommends ‘savoring’ the experience. This means to go back to those points in prayer that provoked the strongest reactions in order to experience the desire for intimacy with God more deeply. This is called the “Application of the Senses.” Here, a retreatant can relish significant moments by envisioning the scene with more attention to the sensual responses felt in one’s body.
After each exercise, Ignatius suggests another prayer, called a “colloquy,” a conversation in which the retreatant imagines that they were talking to a close friend. They address for example, a member of the Trinity, or Mary, and discuss what happened in the prayer period. This mode of conversation continues when the retreatant meets with a spiritual director.
The director can be helpful in pointing out particular experiences from where the Holy Spirit seems to be more active. The images provoke an affective response that can lead to greater generosity and availability for revelation of God’s glory in ministry, for “… genuine meditation is only possible when a person is also prepared to put what he has contemplated into action.”(Rahner 1968,p.182) The imagination can serve the heart.
Contemplation Leads to Action
The exercises progress to the point of exacting a total commitment to participate in the life of Jesus even unto his death. Contemplating such scenes as Jesus’ passion invite believers to identify their own suffering lives with the suffering Body of Christ. In particular, death makes one focus on what is most meaningful in human existence. It spares no one. Confronting mortality and finitude can lead to enhancing each moment of life. Inspired by meeting God in these events moves one to return to daily life with enthusiasm and charity. These contemplative exercises are opportunities to be grateful for the gift of life. This felt response is the power to desire to help others.
Ignatius proposed a way to encounter God through the imagination. Such exercises provoke feelings of gratitude, which prompt one’s desires to follow Jesus. Contemplating such scenes evokes courage and humility, which are virtues Jesus exhibited in his obedience to do God’s will. These are values that characterize those who are called to proclaim God’s intention for love and beauty to flourish in the world. The language of images inspires this and has been a tradition in the Church even before the time of Ignatius. This method has continued since then through those companions of Jesus, better known as Jesuits who followed Ignatius.