The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius: An enduring, effective practise

Massimo Marelli, SJ

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A useless experience?

It is a common opinion that the spiritual life and the hours spent in retreat, as in the case of the Spiritual Exercises, are basically a waste of time and energy that could be better devoted to more useful and profitable activities. On the other hand, some try to use it for “well-being,” to obtain the serenity promised in vain by drugs or by a carefree life. They soon abandon it when results of a completely different kind come to light. But those who have tried their hand at this experience, following the instructions of Saint Ignatius, notice exactly the opposite. Even in operational terms.

It is always good to distance oneself from one’s own situation, which is a prerequisite for the Exercises. Thomas Merton observed that the inner life, considered as both asceticism and spiritual practice, is the basis of commitment and of most of the social transformations that have taken place in history. Experience shows that when you learn to “detach yourself,” to make a separation from what keeps you busy, you become more effective, but above all you gain in health, as well as intellectual clarity. An experiment carried out by David Strayer of the University of Utah on a group of men and women around 30 years of age showed a great difference in performance and ability in carrying out requested tasks (up to 50 percent on average) when people enjoy a period of total detachment – from four to six days – from any activity (work or play), but also from any type of technological equipment (from tablets to mobile phones). The difference in terms of creativity was even greater if the period of detachment had been spent in contact with nature.[1]

Far from being a manifestation of alienation and escape from reality (as Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, the so-called “masters of suspicion” believed), the spiritual dimension is undoubtedly helpful for a person’s more general psychological balance. Its privileged references are silence, contact with nature and the depths of the self (conditions of openness for the encounter with the Other starting from the depths of the self.)

For this reason, Saint Ignatius invites people doing the Exercises to distance themselves physically from their customary place of living in order to be able to make the most of this experience: “Ordinarily, those who do these Exercises derive more fruit from them the more they detach themselves from friends, acquaintances and from all material concern. For example, retreatants can change the house in which they live and move to another house or room, in order to live there with the greatest possible recollection. And then it will be easy for them to attend Mass and Vespers every day, without fear of being disturbed by acquaintances. This isolation offers three main advantages, among many others.

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