Scanning the text of St. Ignatius, one quickly perceives that the exercises were written for those who are not in the religious life. The annotations often refer to life in the world. The rules for making a choice, for example, show how important it is for those who are yet to make one in the way of life, to follow these exercises for their own benefit, temporal as well as eternal.
The structure of these exercises is so good, that it aids any soul, not only towards his eternal salvation, but even in regulating his civil and temporal life. No wonder that systems, like the Alcoholics Anonymous, are simply borrowed somewhat from these exercises. Their deficiency is often accounted for from the fact that they deviate too far off the track.
Man is body and soul. What one does to the body will affect the soul, and vice versa. Although Sanctifying grace is the very essence of the supernatural life, it cannot be received in a soul that cannot bear it. It would be like throwing water into a punctured bucket. No soul could keep grace if it is not perfected, at least to some degree, by natural virtue.
The incredible beauty of the exercises, lies in the fact that it not only assures, but also disposes the soul for grace. It, as it were, carefully repairs the punctured bucket, rendering it strong and perfect.
Often retreatants are mistaken when they think that the exercises did nothing for them, because they felt no increase in fervour. Fervour is no surety for salvation. Unbeknownst to them, God has enlarged the soul, repairing and preparing it for a future grace. This is one hundred times more beneficial to the soul than a sudden burst of fervour that will soon cool down. It is normally the fortified soul that will persevere. "He who perseveres unto the end, he shall be saved!" (St. Matt. 10; 22) The soul full of fervour might indeed persevere, but, if one of the two should fall by the way side, it will most probably be this later. St. Ignatius alludes to this in his eighth rule of the second week. He says:
"Often in this latter period (when the soul is filled with consolations and fervour) the soul makes various plans and resolutions which are not inspired directly by God our Lord. They may be a result of its own reflections, in accordance with its own habits ... and they may come either from the good spirit or the evil one."
To clarify what I have said, let us look at this from many different points of view:
The Exercises and the Conversion of Souls
Whether we speak about conversion to the faith, or the conversion of a sinner, or even the conversion to a more perfect life, the exercises produce incredible results. The number of conversions to the faith is innumerable. A Protestant, heathen or Jew is presented with the unshakable truths of the Catholic Faith. We are tempted to believe that nice sayings, which warm the heart, will have great effect upon such souls. It is, however, not in this way that St. Ignatius proceeds. In fact, if I may term it as such, they are presented with the ice‑cold facts of our very existence. What are you doing here upon earth? Where are you heading? They cannot escape these necessary questions. Those truths proceed systematically from common sense.
Grounded upon this firm foundation of truth, the soul is slowly prepared for grace. How many of our young folk have had the grace of faith, and then, mysteriously, lost it. True, grace and evil are both opposing mysteries. These poor souls were somewhat taught in the mysteries of faith, yet without solid foundation. The exercises work in the opposite way. They first lay down the foundation, then, having, as I said, fortified the soul, prepare it for grace.
The Exercises and the Choice of Life
It is obvious to anyone who has looked squarely at life, that today most people make mistakes in the choice of their state in life. Without ever learning their lesson, they repeat their mistakes. What else can we expect? If they know not even why they are living upon this earth, if they live according to the impulse of their passions, in short, if they have no foundation, upon what criteria will they make a choice?
The exercises, on the contrary, having rooted their souls in the foundation of truth, reminding them of the aim of all life, warning them as to the weakness of human nature, but most of all, convincing them that God knows best, lays down a wonderful pattern for making a good and holy choice.
A priest, one day, focused my attention on those marriages which, could we say, were products of the exercises. "How good, how stable and holy they are!" he said. And in truth, so they are. Society would be so much better if young people would consider their choices carefully. Society would be vastly more excellent, if young people would come to the exercises before making a choice of life. Without sentimentality, St. Ignatius would ask them: What is the purpose of your life? Where are you heading? You must first seek the salvation of your soul and then choose the means that will help you to attain it! If you were now to die, and in a few minutes to appear before the judgment seat of God, what choice of life would you have desired? Were you to meet someone who is in your position and in whom you would like to see holiness, and were this person to ask you your advice, what answer would you give him? Give that advice to yourself!
One may ask: Following such a systematic and rigorous procedure, how could one still make a mistake? But alas, who follows it? Some have the idea that if they were to make the exercises, the priest would capture them for the religious life. He would force them into some monastery or convent. Such allegations are totally false and without foundation. If such be the case, either the exercises are at fault or the priest is. The aim is not the monastery or convent. The aim is to do the holy will of God. God has destined each according to His infinite wisdom. St. John Bosco said: "If only men would know what God would make of them if they let Him." For some God wants the religious life, for some the married, and for others a single life.
The Exercises and Married Life
When and if a choice has been correctly made, a couple desirous of marriage should do all in such a way as to assure receiving the sacrament not only in the state of grace, but as well disposed to it as possible. Another reason for so many marriages breaking is that they were received in the state of mortal sin. Such a marriage is valid, but lacks an essential element; that of the sacramental grace which helps them accomplish their duties of this state of life.
Here again the exercises give them a deep awareness of their own natural frailty. How very profound is the thought of St. Ignatius when it comes to a typical tactic of Satan; the secret sin. In his rules he makes use of this tactic to show how Satan gets the upper hand when he has them do things in secret. Once, however, when this secret is revealed, or better still, when such secrecy is avoided, the devil loses control and knows that he can no longer fulfil his secret designs. (Rule 13 of the 1st week)
In this regard, St. Ignatius will have us meditate also upon, what he calls the "two standards." The first, that of the devil, the second, that of Our Lord Jesus Christ. By it souls come to understand how Satan works to destroy; first by riches, then by worldly honour and then on to an unbounded pride. Christ, on the contrary, attracts the soul by detachment from worldly riches, then by a scorn and even a contempt of the empty praises and honours of the world, and finally by the saintly virtue of humility.
When you come to think of it, is it not the same in marriage? From the attachment to riches, to worldly honours, and finally to that diabolical vice of pride. From this height, submission is scorned, love of self becomes the only interest, and independence becomes the norm. A little further and the marriage breaks.
One of the principle enemies of marriage is egoism. The exercises, on the contrary, continually show the true path to humility. Taking the soul, St. Ignatius opens up before its view the beautiful example of Christ and the ever Blessed Virgin Mary. The passage of St. Paul to the Ephesians; "husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church ..." becomes plain, and in most cases, even desirable. We have often witnessed this ourselves: Husbands become almost impatient to finish the retreat so that they may put it all into action.
The Exercises and Family Life
On a par with what has been said in the preceding passages, souls come to realise the importance of directing and orienting, not only themselves to God, but the whole family. True, the individual soul is a special creation by God, but did He not likewise create the family? Even though the family may not have a soul to be saved, yet it is one of the most fundamental instruments given to us by the Good God, whereby we may attain our salvation. How difficult it is to save one's soul in a family imbued with paganism.
How easy in a holy family. The soul is once again reminded of that principle and foundation: "all things were created to help me to my salvation ..." Returning home after the making of the exercises, husbands wives, and even young adults, have set about the reorganising of their families. Much prudence however must be observed in such affairs!
The Exercises and the Life of Prayer
The soul was introduced to a form of prayer, which in many a case was unknown before. This form is that of meditation or contemplation. St. Ignatius does not mean to say that it will replace regular vocal prayer, but that it will introduce the soul into a sweet intimacy with God. At once so sweet and so difficult, so attractive and so repelling. Yet, St. Ignatius knows our difficulties and so proposes a way or form of meditation. At first the retreatant may find it difficult, then little by little he finds it very logical, for it is formulated in the very way we think. Finally it takes on that sweet intimacy with God which is the very aim of all meditation.
That the Devil despises such prayers is evident. From the beginning of his own revolt, he preferred contemplating his own excellence. Now he seeks to make us do as he did. It is therefore not surprising that he attacks the one meditating. What then does St. Ignatius advise? Agere contra! Counteract! He tempts me to cut short my prayer? I will reply by a brief prolongation!
Before such an affront the Devil recoils. This time he returns in a more subtle way. He tries his best to drive the soul into desolation, or, if he is not able to do so, he awaits that God may permit the soul to fall into desolation. Now is the time to act! Now is the time to convince the soul that the only way to be rid of this terrible desolation is to comfort itself ... not in prayer or the things of God, but in worldly amusements. St. Ignatius warns: "In the time of desolation, do not make a change! Stand firm in the resolution taken before." (rule 5 of the 1st week) Strange as it may seem, it is neither consolation nor desolation that is the true enemy of the life of prayer, but rather indifference, or lukewarmness.
The Exercises and the Life of Virtue
Let me stress what I said before. One may well not walk away from the exercises as a man soaring in virtue. The exercises are too short for that, for virtue only grows by many repetitive acts. Yet the exercises lay an unshakable foundation for this growth. It does so in many ways. Firstly, it enlarges the soul. Thus a much greater degree of virtue can be hoped for in due time. It seems to me that, notwithstanding the preparation of the soul for the growth of the great theological virtues, there is one virtue for which the soul is not only specially prepared, but already finds its beginning. This is the virtue of humility. From the moment the retreatant begins the exercises, he is confronted with the almightiness of God. Before this attribute, he shrinks away like dust in the sand. Where as before he thought himself to be something, now he begins to recognise his worthlessness. His sins begin to stand out like giant dykes keeping back the many graces that throughout his life he spurned. Little did he even think of it! Little did he even consider their gravity. He had lived in a make-believe world, wherein he was the greatest gift to mankind. Now he begins to see how he rather is like an ulcerous sore and is filled with confusion. If this is really who I am, then why have all other creatures not refused to keep me alive?
This is why I say that humility is perhaps the greatest virtue that the soul receives in the exercises. It is, however, not always so, for, "the spirit blows where it will." (St. John 3; 8)