As we approach the feast of St Ignatius and remember this week Pius XI declaring Ignatius as the heavenly patron of retreats and Spiritual exercises. Paul Nicholson gives us a reflection on how the giving of the Exercises has changed since the Restoration
In his best-known writing, the book of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius offers advice to a person who is attempting to guide someone else in a month-long programme of prayerful reflection. It is clear that for Ignatius this guidance was best given one-to-one, and only to very carefully selected individuals. We still have the notes of some of those whom the first generation of Jesuits guided in this way. Within a few decades of Ignatius’s death, however, it seems that this way of working was felt to be too labour-intensive, and methods were developed that allowed the Exercises to be delivered as a series of talks, to tens or even hundreds of individuals at a time. This pattern rapidly became the norm, and remained so for the next 350 years.
Fr Jan Roothan, a Dutch Jesuit who was elected Superior General of the order in 1829, led the Society into a deeper appreciation of the Exercises in letters that he wrote in his first decade as General. He argued that they could be a powerful tool, capable of transforming Christian lives. Over the next century this apostolate grew and developed. In the 1920’s for instance, the British Jesuits were establishing a network of retreat houses on the outskirts of the large industrial cities, specialising in weekend retreats for working men. It wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century, though, that the value of offering the Exercises in an individually-guided fashion began to be widely appreciated again. Reinvigorated by contact with some of the contemporary counselling techniques, this practice spread rapidly, at least in the English-speaking world.
Today the giving of the Exercises remains a major apostolate of the Society world-wide. The programme has proved, as Ignatius intended, widely adaptable. Enclosed month-long retreats are offered in spirituality centres as part of formation and sabbatical programmes. The same basic pattern can be followed over several months while continuing to live and work normally. Weeks of guided prayer give a taster of this Ignatian process, while themed retreats apply its principles to groups who approach it through film, dance, and social engagement. In countless different applications and expressions, the Ignatian Exercises continue to help people hear and answer the question Jesus put to blind Bartimaeus in the gospel: “What do you want me to do for you?”