Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality – finding God in all things

Picture of Ignatius at prayer

St. Ignatius of Loyola

Ignatius was born a nobleman but rejected a military career in favour of a life as a mendicant (a monk without possessions) and priest.  His zeal for the mission of the church and his personal charisma saw him found the Society of Jesus (commonly known as the “Jesuits”).

His approach to finding God through daily exercises has become a widely used pattern for self-examination and prayer within the Roman Catholic Church and beyond.

Who was Ignatius?

Ignatius was born into a noble family at the castle of Loyola in northern Spain around 1491.  He became a soldier but was severely injured at the siege of Pamplona by a cannon ball which shattered his right leg.

Ignatius as a soldier

Ignatius as a Monk

While recuperating from this injury he found himself attracted by reading the lives of the saints and rejected his previous life as a knight (hanging up his sword at the altar of the Virgin Mary in Montserrat and exchanging his clothes with those of a beggar) and so dedicated himself to the service of God.

In 1522 Ignatius spent a year at Manresa and underwent a series of spiritual experiences which formed the basis of the Spiritual Exercises which he developed later in life.

He travelled to Jerusalem subsisting entirely on alms.  Forced to leave by the encroaching Arabs Ignatius then spent eleven years (1524-35) studying at universities in Spain and France.

He joined with six like-minded companions with a view to returning to the Holy Land and was ordained priest in 1537.  Unable to sail for Jerusalem, Ignatius made his way to Rome and in 1540 his group, which included Francis Xavier were established by the Pope as the “The Society of Jesus” with Ignatius as its “General”.

Ignatius spent the remainder of his life working to increase Christian fervour and practice and after 1548 began to focus his attention on schools and the education of children.

He died in 1556, was canonised in 1622 and his feast day falls on 31 July.

Features of Ignatian Spirituality

1. The Spiritual Exercises

Based on Ignatius’s own manual for those leading retreats, the exercises are spread over 4 weeks and involve a large degree of guided meditation in which the leader asks the exercitant (the person going through the exercises) to imagine various people, places and scenarios engaging with each using all five of the senses in turn:

–      What did it look like?

–      How did it sound?

–      How did it smell?

–      What can you taste?

–      What can you feel?

 “For it is not so much knowledge that fills and satisfies the soul, but rather the intimate feeling and relishing of things” (Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises, Annotation 2)

The exercitant would be expected to perform at least 3 and ideally 5 of these “contemplations” each day.

Week 1: Reflection on one’s self and on the damage done by sin — including going through all the sins of the exercitant in his/her life to date. Meditation on the experience of the damned in hell.  Prayers to God for help.

Week 2: Reflection on the life of Christ.  This begins with contemplations on the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem and his upbringing at Nazareth and visits to the temple in Jerusalem.  Then there is a comparison of the standards of Christ and Lucifer as rallying points for their followers, angels and demons respectively.  Poverty, suffering and humility are the ways of the Lord and are contemplated in conjunction with the ministry of Jesus up to his arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Week 3: Reflection on the Passion of Christ.  The week begins with reflection on the last supper and the garden of Gethsemane before proceeding through the arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial.  Throughout the exercitant is encouraged to share in the human suffering of Christ and the misery of the disciples and especially Mary.

Week 4: Reflection on the Resurrection of Christ.  This reflection follows Christ’s soul as it separates from his body, descends to hell and returns to appear to his mother.  The exercitant is encouraged to feel the joy and glory of Christ’s resurrection.

2. How was your day?  The ‘Examen’

Based on the principles established in the Spiritual Exercises, the Ignatian approach advocates regular reflection on life and examining the role of God in key events and decisions.  An Examen routine (which would ideally be undertaken daily) might follow this order:

(i) Be still and become aware of the presence of God
(ii) Thank God for the day
(iii) Review the day—good points and bad – where was God?
(iv) Chose one feature which stands out – offer it to God
(v) Look forward to tomorrow – ask for God’s help to do better
(vi) Conclude with a simple prayer (e.g. Lord’s prayer)

It can be helpful to trace a development in thoughts and ideas as well as spotting trends and repeating issues – for this reason it is recommended to keep a journal as Ignatius himself did recording his daily experiences of God in his life. These diary entries reveal a man who is highly emotionally engaged in his spirituality. For example:

Wednesday 6th February:  “Devotion not without tears, before and during mass and more inclined to complete poverty.”

3. Making decisions the Ignatian way

When making important decisions about one’s life, “it is necessary to keep as [one’s] objective the end for which [you were] created, viz. to praise God our Lord and save [your] soul”.  Clarity can be gained by imagining that the decision is being made at the point of death – how would your decision appear when presented to St. Peter at the  gates of heaven on the Day of Judgement?

4. Ignatian ways to pray

Ignatius details a variety of different ways to pray:

  1. Using the 10 Commandments:  working through each one of the commandments reflecting on whether the commandment has been kept.
  2. Praying word by word: the prayer (e.g. the Lord’s Prayer) is said one word at a time thinking through the meaning, associations and implications of each word.
  3. Praying rhythmically: the prayer is said with one breath being said for each word which is read.

Ignatian retreats

It takes time and space to approach God in the Ignation tradition.  For this reason many people undertake Ignatian retreats.  These are usually guided with a director taking the exercitant through the series of exercises. The full spiritual exercises take 30 days to complete, but many people opt for a shorter one week retreat.   


Do something!
Though built on foundations of thought and prayer, it is an important element of Ignatianism that there should be some action as a result of the preceding self-examination.  It should make a difference to what we do and then what we do should feed back into further reflection through the Examen.


Relevance of Ignatian Spirituality

The Ignatian approach encapsulates much that is highly desirable as an approach to prayer and to life more generally.  Grounded in prayerful and contemplative reflection, Ignatianism demand the exercise of the imagination to see a situation from all perspectives.  In particular, we must look to see where God might be and how God might feel and want for us in a given situation.  This is followed by the expectation of action which flows from the exercise of examination, meditation and prayer and is very similar to the processes of Theological Reflection which are encouraged in the Church of England.  Similarly, the importance afforded by Ignatianism to the use of a guide to lead and share reflection is mirrored by the encouragement of Spiritual Direction by the Church.



Useful reading and links

What is Ignatian Spirituality?  Fleming, D (2008, Loyola Press)

Saint Ignatius of Loyola Personal Writings (Penguin Books)

The London Centre of Spirituality   (specialists in the Ignatian tradition)see

Fellowship of Contemplative Prayer (run by Anglicans but their retreats and quiet days include many Ignatian characteristics)

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