The spiritual exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola: Week 1

  • Sr Margaret Beirne rsc continues her series on the foundation of the charism of the Sisters of Charity, St Ignatius’ Examen.

In his article Ignatian Spirituality and CLC Formation (Progressio, 23 [1984]), Patrick O’Sullivan comments on the way tradition has mythologised the saints and often left their real message swamped by sentimental devotions. He continues:

“But this has never happened with St Ignatius. He is respected but he has never been what we would call a ‘popular’ saint, and never will be. Why? Presumably one of the reasons is that any attempt to tame lgnatius never gets very far because it is impossible to separate the man from his message. As a matter of fact, St Ignatius is a rather uncomfortable saint to get to know. The moment we draw near Ignatius, he takes us by the hand, leads us to Jesus on the Cross and says – ‘Take a good look; now, what are you going to do about that?’ Then he leaves us.”

It is in just this position before the crucified Lord that the person making the Exercises is invited to spend much of the “first week.”

This is no morbid reflection on one’s own sinfulness and inadequacies, although – comforted by the knowledge of God’s loving and constant presence, wanting to lead us into ever greater human authenticity – these will be part of our reflection and prayer.

But this does not come about by torturing ourselves about our past failures. Rather it is the natural response of the open and generous heart when, face to face with the crucified one, we contemplate the questions posed by the first exercise:

Image: Crucifix in the Church of the Gesù, Rome


What have I done for Christ?


What am I doing for Christ?


What will I do for Christ?


This is the spirit of the ‘first week’, which is the proper focus for the retreatant and director. At the beginning of the chapter A forgiven sinner: awed in gratitude, George Aschenbrenner writes:

Your experience of the foundation leads you directly into this first part of the Exercises. The difficulty that complicated your desire to be faithful to the vision of God’s glorious creative love cannot be overlooked. It is like a fissure in the foundation and must somehow be repaired. This healing is the goal of the First Week. Stretched to Greater Glory, p.51

The text of the First Week

Here is the outline of the text of the first week:

Exx 24-26 Particular and Daily Examen
Exx 27-31 Four Additions
Exx 32-43 General Examen
Ex 44 General Confession
Exx 45-90 Meditations of the First Week

The Examen of Conscience or the Consciousness Examen (Exx 24-43)

Even though the retreatant is praying for several hours a day, he/she is exhorted to devote time for this shorter exercise 2-3 times a day. Exx 24-26 provide the reason for this and Exx 27-31 gives four “additions” about its practice.

While its original context was the Spiritual Exercises, the Examen has become a core dimension of Ignatian Spirituality. For Ignatius, even if a person’s circumstances and/or minstry prevents them from fulfilling any other religious duties, they are to maintain at the very least the practice of the daily Examen. The section outlining the method (Exx 32-43) is therefore of great importance and, for this reason, deserves careful attention.

In Draw me into your friendship (pp.32-38), David Fleming provides a contemporary reading of the text. Read the original carefully, noting but not getting too distracted by the references to mortal and venial sins, nor the rather narrow specificity of the commandments. Clearly there is room here for acknowledging the cultural and theological context of the time and for contemporary interpretation.

Note the five steps and how, even in a literal version, they are couched in positive terms. It is God’s grace which flows through the whole process, not a morbid self-absorption. A timely shift in emphasis has been greatly assisted by Father George Aschenbrenner SJ who, in a seminal article in Review for Religious 31(1972), 14-21, coined the term ‘consciousness examen’, or in later adaptations, ‘awareness examen’. This important article moved the focus from a moralistic tone to a growing awareness of where God is and has been in our daily life.

Image: Fr George Aschenbrenner SJ (right)

There are many versions of how to make the Examen.

Some of the most helpful approaches I’ve found are those based on George Aschenbrenner’s article:

There is also a video of several people – Jesuits and others – who share their experience of the Examen on:

The meditations of the First Week (SpExx 45-90)

Exx 45-54 First Exercise: Meditation on sin
Exx 55-61 Second Exercise: Further meditation on personal sin
Exx 62-63 Third Exercise: Repetition
Ex 64 Fourth Exercise: Repetition of exercise three
Exx 65-71 Fifth Exercise: Meditation on hell
Exx 72-90 Helps (or ‘Additions’) to proceeding through the First Week

As you can see, the exercises of the first Week consist of several meditations on the topics of sin, sinfulness, punishment, repentance, forgiveness and the mercy of God.

If you look for a moment at each of the exercises, you will see that there are four broad steps suggested for the period of prayer:
– preparatory prayer
– request for a particular grace
– point(s) for meditation
– colloquy

While the focus and form of each of these steps will change during the course of the Exercises, they themselves are constant throughout.

St Ignatius does not provide Scripture passages for the first week, but you will find some very helpful suggestions in David Fleming’s Draw me into your Friendship, pp. 203, 205, 207. As different texts appeal to different people, it is good to have this kind of choice. A useful website for suggestions for such scriptural passages is the online retreat in daily life:

Preparatory prayer

We are invited to begin by recalling the presence of God who continues to call them into life and to remind them of God’s inexhaustible love and fidelity.

Grace (‘asking for what I really want’)

Then we ask for the particular grace of this meditation.

In the first ‘Week’, this centres on the grace of deep sorrow for my own infidelity to God who is infinitely faithful. Realisation of my sinfulness is never intended to lead to despondency, much less despair. On the contrary, it is a gift precisely because it ultimately leads to deep and lasting peace and spiritual freedom.


In the first exercise (45-54), there are three points (or ‘settings’, a word suggested by Fleming). Normally, the director would not suggest all three in one prayer period. Rather, the person is encouraged to focus on the first point as long as it is spiritually fruitful; then move on to the second, and so on.

Remember the importance Ignatius gives to flexibility and respect for the experience of the individual. It is God’s work; the Holy Spirit is leading the person, not the director.


In the Spiritual Exercises, ‘repetition’ means returning to those points in which we felt particularly moved by God, towards either consolation or desolation. Once again, it is not a matter so much of recalling and mulling over ideas, but rather, returning to moments when we may have felt a certain ‘interior relish.’


Essentially the colloquy is a ‘conversation’. All the preceding thoughts, reflections and feelings are gathered up into a loving dialogue with God or Jesus or Our Lady, or all three.

As Teresa of Avila, Ignatius’ contemporary, defines prayer, it is “speaking with one whom we love and who we know loves us.” So, the colloquy is the real “prayer” of the exercise. As we proceed, the colloquy may become so central that it constitutes the greater part of the period of prayer.


It is suggested that, at the end of the prayer period, we spend about ten minutes reflecting on the experience, perhaps writing these reflections in a journal. While these may include insights, it is good to remember that prayer is essentially a matter of the heart: ‘go into your room’ (Matt 6:6) – not necessarily literally, rather your ‘private place’, your inner self, or as the French say, chez toi.

So, I reflect on what was going on at the level of my feelings. What thoughts attracted me to God? Were there moments when I was tempted to distraction? Or even to give up altogether?


Many of us remember being advised that “feelings don’t count.” As we now realize, this was never how Ignatius either experienced himself, or explained to others, how to grow in inner awareness of the movement of the Spirit within us.

In fact, if anything, it is primarily in the felt stirrings within our hearts that we first sense God calling us to the magis, the more generous response. Then we apply our intelligence to discern what this might mean in practice.

Perhaps we are being called to give more attention to the quality of our contemplative prayer. Or maybe we are being nudged by God to surrender an attachment that is holding us back from total self-gift. As Mary Aikenhead said, ‘God loves the heart that is easily made to bleed; He can the more easily imprint on it His own divine image.’

When we have so much to praise the Lord for, we must not complain.
True affection is to rejoice in the happiness of our dear ones. Never allow a sentiment of resentment to enter into our hearts.
Pray, reflect and consult – and may the divine spirit direct all to God’s greater glory.
May our dear Lord Jesus fill your hearts with His own love. Amen!
We must have patience with others as He has patience with us.
Under every difficulty try to pray fervently.
We have much to thank Him for, even for those little drawbacks on our comforts and conveniences.
Do pray that justice may be accomplished in peace and that truth may prevail.
Go on now as steadily as you can, relying on the Divine assistance and fear not.
What we do ought to be done well.

The Sisters of Charity acknowledge the First Peoples and traditional custodians of this land where we live. We respect, value and honour their history, culture and spirituality. We are committed to standing in solidarity and to actively working for justice, peace and harmony in this land.

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