The Spiritual Exercises

St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556).
Exercitia spiritualia.
Rome: Jesuit College, 1576. (BRB0387)

First published in 1548, the Spiritual Exercises were the primary means by which the devotional practices of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, were disseminated throughout Europe. The text was compiled in 1522 when Ignatius, a worldly Spanish noble, experienced religious awakening during his convalescence from injuries suffered at the Siege of Pamplona. By 1524 Ignatius was preaching on the same themes, and in 1526 the zeal of his followers aroused the suspicion of the Inquisition, which led to his imprisonment. However, Pope Paul III approved the foundation of the Society of Jesus in 1540, and the Spiritual Exercises became one of the most popular devotional manuals ever published.

The Spiritual Exercises consist of instructions for private prayer, self-reflection, and meditation on Christ’s sufferings, to be used by both religious and lay people during a thirty-day period of spiritual retreat. In the exhibited edition of 1576, the right-hand page bears a diagram of fourteen horizontal lines to be used by the reader in a week-long process of reflection on his or her spiritual shortcomings. As the text explains (in translation), “Immediately on rising, one should be on guard against the particular sin or defect that you desire to correct or amend. . . . On the first line of the diagram mark as many points as there are times when you have fallen into that sin or defect, and resolve anew to improve before the next examination.” After further reflection at the midday meal, this process was to be repeated on the second line, and the rest of the diagram was to be utilized daily for the remainder of the week, with the expectation that after a few weeks this practice would bring genuine self-improvement.