The Spiritual Exercises

Sant’Ignatius of Loyola is primarily known for founding the religious order of the Jesuits and for writing the Spiritual Exercises: a method of prayer and inner meditation that has become a cornerstone of Jesuit spirituality over time.

Structured into four weeks, the exercises involve moments of reflection on sin, the life and passion of Jesus, and the resurrection, with the goal of drawing closer to God. They are usually practiced mainly by devout Catholics, but I also recommend non-practicing believers and atheists read the original text: reflecting on inner meditation is always beneficial, to anyone.

In this in-depth article, we will explore:

To better understand these spiritual exercises, I recommend reading first the life and works of St. Ignatius of Loyola and also The Pilgrim’s Story.


What are the Spiritual Exercises?

Trying to explain them succinctly in simple terms: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola are a path of meditation and prayer designed by the founder of the Society of Jesus, with the intent of helping people strengthen their bond with God and live a more spiritual life. It is a structured method that involves a 30-day retreat, divided into four weeks, each dedicated to a specific theme: sin and God’s mercy, the life and teachings of Jesus, the passion of Christ, and finally, His resurrection and God’s love.

During the retreat, participants are invited to immerse themselves in an atmosphere of recollection and silence, which facilitates deep reflection and prayer. Although the full program requires a 30-day commitment, it is possible to adapt it to shorter periods to make it accessible to those with less time available (in today’s society, 30 days for inner meditation is only feasible for retirees or the unemployed). The exercises are conducted under the guidance of a spiritual director, who provides support and direction, helping participants to examine their conscience, meditate on Scriptures, and contemplate God’s presence in their daily lives.

The goal of the Exercises is to purify the heart from disordered affections, promote personal conversion, and discern God’s will for one’s life. This path of spiritual growth is intended not only for religious and priests but also for laypeople who wish to deepen their faith and find a deeper meaning in their existence. Even those who have never participated in a spiritual retreat can benefit from it, as it offers tools for personal and spiritual growth, allowing one to live more authentically and consciously.


Fundamental Concepts

Re-read the parts highlighted in bold: these are fundamental concepts for everyone’s life, regardless of their religious beliefs. And this is coming from someone deeply critical of the initial premise of St. Ignatius’s original text (see below). However, in this society that continuously drowns us in unnecessary noise, it is important to create at least occasionally a minimum of silence to listen to ourselves. And finding a deeper meaning to our existence is, I believe, the most important thing in this one earthly life we have. Therefore, it is worth trying at least once to read such a famous text: you might find some good and useful ideas. It doesn’t hurt to try. It’s much better to spend a few hours reading St. Ignatius’s advice than listening to the many self-proclaimed life coaches on YouTube.

However, be careful! While it is certainly possible, and in my opinion advisable, to listen with an open mind to the advice of wise men with whom we may not fully share the worldview, with a pragmatic vision like “maybe I’ll find some good idea that does me good,” the same cannot be done with Faith and Religion: one of the illusions of modern civilization, when it fails to completely erase the spiritual dimension, is to suggest “building one’s own personal religious view,” taking what we like from Christianity, discarding the rest, adding those good Buddhist ideas that sound so nice, adding a pinch of Eastern wisdom, with healthy agnostic skepticism, shaken not stirred… this doesn’t work!

But that’s another long and complex topic: let’s get back to the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius.


The Original Text (in PDF)

Many books have been published on the spiritual exercises, and surely some of them contain useful analyses and valuable advice from experts who can comment on them much better than I can, but I recommend starting by reading the original text written in the first half of the 16th century by Ignatius of Loyola.

And to be sure of reading the original text, I recommend downloading (freely and for free) the PDF directly from the official Jesuit site:

Just scroll down the page to find this section with free PDFs of the most important works:

Download Free PDF Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola

This is the link to the English version and contains only the original text, without any commentary or explanation.

The text consists of a series of numbered paragraphs with a series of practical advice and instructions: it is a practical manual for doing these spiritual exercises, intended both for those who are to do the exercises and those who are to guide them. For example, the first 20 paragraphs are annotations with a series of preliminary and very practical advice.

Only in paragraph 21 do we get to the title:


The first part is clear, the second uses terms that are outdated today, so let’s explain them: a “disordered affection” is an emotion or desire that drives us to make unbalanced or irrational choices, influenced by excessive passions or unhealthy attachments. In other words, it is a feeling that distracts us from our true goal and inner serenity, causing us to act impulsively or unwisely.

And paragraph 22 declares a presupposition that good Christians should remember to apply more often: “To help and benefit both the one who proposes and the one who makes the spiritual exercises, it is to be presupposed that a good Christian should be more ready to defend rather than condemn the statement of another.”

That’s why I say it’s worth reading them: even if you are not Catholic, even if you do not fully share St. Ignatius’s worldview, there are universal principles of life that would be good to reflect on. I’m not even saying “apply them”: it is already a good result to reflect on them seriously. Carving out some moments of silence in our life for calm and serene inner reflection. Then everyone gives themselves their own answers.

The actual exercises begin in paragraph 23, and I have some reflections to suggest on that.


A Reflection on the Principle and Foundation

In the original text, the actual exercises begin only in paragraph 23:



Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to
save his soul; the other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help
him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to make use of them
in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and must rid himself of them in as far
as they prove a hindrance to him. Therefore, it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to
all created things (in so far as it is left to the free choice of our free will and is not forbidden),
so that on our part we do not prefer health to sickness, wealth to poverty, honor to
dishonor, a long life to a short one, and so in all the rest, desiring and choosing only that
which is more conducive to the end for which we are created.

If it were all to be taken literally, I personally do not agree at all with the first statement: “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.” Are we to understand that God created us as his slaves? Just as we created machines and then Artificial Intelligence to be served?

But I believe we must understand and interpret what Ignatius writes with the spirit of his time and with language dictated by his faith so mystical and profound that it might seem almost exalted and unbalanced today. And therefore, NOT take his first words literally, but rather try to imagine what he meant. And then continue reading.

Not necessarily taking everything “literally” is especially important in reading sacred texts, not just Christian ones. For example, I believe it is not necessary to take everything written in the Bible and the Gospels literally; otherwise, one would notice that there are so many inconsistencies and absurdities that they would lead a rational mind to reject the entire evangelical message, a message that should rather be read symbolically.

As I recommend reading the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius symbolically.

Otherwise, we should also take literally the following part of the principle and foundation: “the other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help
him in attaining the end for which he is created”. Should we then understand that possible aliens were created to serve us and help us serve the Lord? I believe that possible alien civilizations would have much to say about that. Instead, reading the message symbolically, it is easier to agree that the beauty of nature is wonderful, and the vastness and mystery of the universe leave us in awe, awe and wonder that inevitably lead us to question the true existential questions of life, leading us to reflect on transcendence, and therefore to God. Just turn off the smartphone and abandon yourself to the contemplation of the starry sky on a clear night.

But continuing to read, I continue to disagree: dear Ignatius, I desire health, not sickness, as a good Roman I prefer honor to dishonor, and a long life to a short one. What good is the wonder of creation (which is supposed to be created by God) if we are sick and cannot appreciate it, or if we die immediately and cannot appreciate it enough?

However, the rest of the exercises contain many important points of reflection, which is why I recommend reading them. Perhaps without taking them literally, translating the language of five centuries ago into modern terms (I would say that “crusade bulls” are a concept that is outdated today), but reflecting on the inner truths they contain, which are valid for everyone.


Videos on the Exercises

Just as many books have been written to guide the faithful in understanding and practicing the Spiritual Exercises, so too there are many videos online that introduce and explain the Exercises of St. Ignatius.

Among the many available online, I recommend this one, which reproduces a long but interesting academic lecture on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: it is a lecture from the Pontifical Gregorian University, the Jesuit university, the evolution of the Roman College founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, and of which the namesake church was the university chapel.

invito alla lettura degli Esercizi Spirituali di Ignazio di Loyola

It is a long video, but interesting.


Church of St. Ignatius

Since this is the site dedicated to the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome, I also refer to other in-depth articles for visiting the church:



Cover photocredit: Doug ColdwellCC 2.0 license



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