45-54.   Beginning of the Exercises and the First Exercise

 

On the method of the individual exercises

 

We will use the following framework for every individual exercise with various contents for the reflection. The preparatory part and the material given to the meditation are intended to move all the spiritual-psychological reality of the companions. Traditionally is given a triple division to these faculties as if they are an image of the Trinity: memory, intellect and will. The method of dealing with the material of the exercises, called discursive prayer, engages all the three faculties[1]. The discursive method is thematic prayer, a meditation on and the application of a text or given theme to our own lives. By this we try to understand a message to us in the concrete existential situation where we are in the time of the prayer. In the Second Phase we will read the Scripture texts with another method, called “Ignatian contemplation”, which uses our creative imagination in order to achieve an experiential knowledge and assimilation of the truth contemplated. Sometimes the companions will need to have some movement also physically like taking a walk, maybe singing, and similar activities that help to concentrate or to relax according their judgment. The Exercises are also a time for “experimenting”, to see and learn what and how much is good for each participant in terms of work, prayer, study, rest, sleep, food, outdoor activity, social contacts, and so on. In all these thing there is no general norm, but only the individual or couple can find out what is more conducive for them to live a meaningful, fulfilling, dedicated, and harmonious life taking into consideration also the circumstances of their next or larger social-economical-political ambient.

 

Opening prayer

Before entering the exercise, we make conscious the presence of God somehow with a gesture, or simply stopping for a second at the place where we will pray (see also [75]). We will begin each exercise with a simple prayer to God asking that all our intentions, desires, and actions would be directed to love, to praise, and to serve him; a clear reference to the Principle and Foundation [23] so that by repeating it the grace of freedom involved in it might deepen in the companions and become operative in their desires, decisions, and actions. This prayer, which the companions formulate for themselves, will remain the same during the entire Exercises process.

Visualization - Seeing the place

After the opening prayer we try to visualize in our imagination a scene that is somehow related to the content of the particular exercise. In the case of considering an event of the life of Jesus from the Gospels, we imagine the place where he is in that story, the Temple in Jerusalem, the mountains of Galilee and so on. If we are called to reflect on an abstract subject, as in the First Phase it will be the case of sin, we must use our creativity to recall in our mind an image that we associate with the subject matter. The companions will have their personal imaginary scenes as they have somewhat different backgrounds and sensibilities. It is important that the image be meaningful and alive for them. The image chosen here will be useful also later during the meditation as a reminder: if we would be distracted we can gently turn to the image and go on with our prayer focused again.

Asking what we want

At this point of our exercise we must present to God our desire and simply ask from him what we want to achieve in this reflection according to the subject matter. What does this mean? For example, if we begin our reflections on the resurrection we ask for joy and thankfulness. If our theme is the suffering of Jesus we want to have compassion and so on. It is important to ask something that moves all our being, searching not only abstract considerations about the matter but to have a first hand inner experience of what is involved in it.

To name the goal or desire openly will help us to be open to receive the grace of it from God. Maybe the companions recall some healing stories from the Gospels where Jesus asked the person coming to him “What do you want that I do for you?”[2]. It seems evident that the blind man wants to see, the lame walk and so on, however it is important that they name their need. Similarly, when two disciples of the Baptist shyly follow him, Jesus turns around and confronts them, “What are you looking for”. The surprised and maybe embarrassed disciples tentatively answer, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” for which Jesus invites them “Come and you will see” (Jn 1,35-39). And they have seen much more than maybe their first curiosity toward the person of Jesus was.

Points for reflection

The opening prayer, the visualization and the prayer asking what we want should be made before all the reflections. This whole preparatory process of each exercises should not be too long, it takes usually only some minutes and is followed by several points of reflection proper to the exercise. In the case of the first exercise we will have three points. The general guideline for the time of these is that the companions need to remain on each point until they find insights or spiritual “fruits” from the reflection. They need to agree when both of them are ready to move on and can share at each point their experiences.

Prayerful conversation, sharing and review

At the end of each exercise there will be a prayer addressing or Jesus, or the Father or Mary about the experience we had during the reflections. This prayerful conversation is another important form of prayer during the Exercises and in the Ignatian spirituality. As St. Ignatius taught at this point of the Exercises to pray God in a very warm, intimate, familiar way “by speaking exactly as one friend speaks to another” [54]. The companions may do this prayer together but personally. Their sharing may take place after the prayer and then they make a review and write notes also in a diary about the insights, feelings and so on received during this exercise. It is good to see if the grace we asked at the beginning of the exercise was received or not. This review of the exercise is similar to the review of the past day in the Examination of the Consciousness introduced above [24-44]. Further we can use the guidelines given in the Additions [73-90] to verify how we proceed in the exercises, to see if and how we have put these in practice and if there is a need to change something[3].

 

First Exercise: existential experience of the history of salvation

 

Opening prayer and visualization

After the opening prayer we choose the scene for our imagination. Here it is a quite difficult point, which requires creative fantasy. To help our imagination we can consider what represents for us the state of being a sinner and part of sinful societal structures - of which we are often contributors without knowing it - and use the image that comes in our mind. St. Ignatius describes for example this situation of the human person as living among wild and mean animals, symbolizing the threatening reality of drives and sinful tendencies that lead us to sins if not controlled. For some scriptural images we propose Ps 32:3-5 (painful illness), Ps 69:1-13 (flooding waters) Jon 2:3-10 (deep waters, a pit, nether world). The biblical writers were well aware also of the weight of social sin in the eyes of God. As examples for the words of the prophets against this dimension of evil we mention Amos who relentlessly spoke against the injustice and oppression of the poor in the wealthy Israel (2:6-16; 3:9-11; 4:1-3) and Jeremiah who spoke against the false trust in religiosity while oppressing the orphans, the widows, and the aliens (Jer 7:3-15). Isaiah preached “woes” against the greedy and wasteful rich (5:8-16), against social injustice (10:1-4). In the New Testament especially the Letter of James speaks out against social sins, partiality (2:1-13), the emptiness of faith without concrete help to the needy (2:14-26), against the unjust and abusive rich (5:16). The companions can find many other examples with very touching imagery.

The beautiful words of Hosea are quoted several times by Jesus and they stress the crucial place of just relations in the context of faith:

 

“For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice” (Os 6,6)

 

“Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’…” (Mt 9:13)

 

“If you would know what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned these innocent men” (Mt 12, 7).

 

Asking what we want

In this exercise we should ask the grace to feel shame for contributing to the sin of the world with our faults and to be confused seeing the absurdity of every sin. We don’t think about the individual faults for now but on the gravity and absurdness of our many sins.

Even if the stress in this exercise is on the stupor of sin and upon the reality of sin, in the same time we will experience gratefulness toward God who loves us as we are and gives his goodness and takes care of our needs independently of whether we recognize him or not (Mt 5:43-48). Bernard Tyrrell has a similar opinion on this issue when he writes:

“Certainly deep sorrow, shame, confusion and tears for one’s sins are important fruits of the meditations in the First Week [First Phase]. But the sorrow and contrition are pervaded with a sense of the healing presence of the divine mercy, and of profound thanksgiving for the gift of forgiveness and interior reformation which the retreatant is experiencing” [4].

Following this preparatory part, the first exercise contains three points and ends with a prayerful dialog with Jesus Christ. The companions might present these to each other alternating the contents of these points and at the end of each they can share their reflections. We would propose to dedicate at least one meeting on the entire exercises. It can be extended also for three meetings, taking one point per meeting. In this case they begin each meeting with the preparatory part followed by the reflection on the actual point and finish with the prayerful conversation, sharing and review.

First point: on the origin of sin

This reflection recalls the sin of the angels. In the faith of the Christian tradition the angels are creatures of God and part of our world. They share with humanity the characteristic of personal beings, spirits, gifted with free will, intelligence and so forth, but they don’t exist in a body as humans. Part of our belief is that a part of the angels rebelled against God and by this they condemned themselves forever. These are Satan and his followers, called devils, evil spirits or demons. It is not exactly known in what consisted the sin of this group of the angels. St. Gregory of Nyssa uses the analogy of a mirror when tries to explain the origin of evil. The angels like mirrors ought to transmit the light of the sun, and if they refuse to reflect it wanting to be the source of light they became dark. The fact that some of them sinned and consequently are lost forever tells us two things. First of all that sin is possible for persons gifted with free will; God’s omnipotence does not oppress a creature’s free choice even when it is revolted against him. Secondly, the sin of the angels tells us that the origin of evil is in the spiritual dimension. Jesus teaches something in this line when says: “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one…things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy” (Mt 15:11 ff). He corrects the view that sin is originating in the bodily dimension of the person represented in this quote by the Jewish dietary rules; the most serious sins are originated in our spiritual reality; with biblical terminology, in our “heart”. Sin is not simply a violation of precepts and rules of behavior but something more profound. And because we are incarnate spirits, we cannot sin without involving also our bodily and psychic dimension, too. This is expressed in the general theological statement that illness and death are consequences of sin.

Reflecting upon the contents of this point we try also to “feel” and to realize and identify the emotions that emerge in us in a way similar to that of the anamnesis in the examination of consciousness.

Second point: on the consequences of sin

In this point we turn our attention to the third chapter of the Genesis, to the story of the sin of Adam and Eve. It is good if the companions read the text of Gen 3:1-19 discursively, applying the three faculties of memory, intellect, and will, which is the prayer method proposed for the First Phase. Here are some insights that might be helpful in reflecting upon the reality of sin as presented to us in this story.

As we see this is a very tangible description of sin in the history of humanity. With this story the author of the book of Genesis tries to give an explanation why is there evil in the human life, why is there sin and guilt, why is there suffering and hardships. The author’s answer is that there was a point in the human history when sin and suffering entered and the consequences of this event affect all humanity. Humankind is connected in a solidarity in which every one of us is born. This reality, usually called “original sin” is at the source of our weaknesses and sinful tendencies, and is transmitted by sinful structures in society, by cultural, economic and political injustice. We breathe a morally polluted air from the cradle to the grave and further contribute to it with our personal sins.

We can think of this fact a while longer and detect our feelings, especially on the social dimension of sin, how our sins influence others and how we are hurt by others’ sins, and so on.

Third point: on the seriousness of sin

We should remind ourselves here on the possibility to sin gravely – and theoretically it can be also one single, free and total act. And it is possible to die without repentance and so remain definitely separated from God, which state is called traditionally damnation or hell. Every grave sin brings with it a threat, a danger; and the fact that damnation is possible shows the seriousness of sin. On the other hand we should realize that the real and proper grave sin occurs rarely since it requires full consciousness and freedom of will which is not the case in most of our sins. The possibility of hell does not indicate that God’s mercy is not sufficient, but tells us about the measure of freedom that was given to us and that this freedom irrevocably brings with it responsibility. In the face of the possibility of hell we can see how blessed we are for every forgiven sin and how great is God’s mercy towards us.

For a scriptural reading we can take the story of the rich man and the poor Lazarus in Lk 16:19-31. Note especially how the distance that the rich man created between himself and the poor Lazarus during his life became an impassable and definite breach in death.

After reflecting on this material for a while we should pay attention to our emerging feelings in the usual manner.

Prayerful conversation and sharing

In this prayer we imagine ourselves at the foot of the cross of Jesus (placing maybe a Crucifix in front of us) looking at the reality of God’s forgiving love manifested in his suffering and death. Then we tell to him about our thoughts and feelings discovered during these past reflections on sin in a simple manner. We need to pray for understanding more the meaning and greatness of his love as he died in order to save us. We can reflect also on the question St. Ignatius raises here: “What ought I to do for Christ?” [53].

The companions need to have here a dialog about how this exercise went and make notes in their diary. Note especially if the grace asked was received or not. Close with an Our Father.

 

 



[1] See also Marian Cowan, C.S.J.-John Carroll Futrell, S.J., The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. A Handbook for Directors, (New York: Le Jacq Publishing, Inc., 1982) p. 50.

[2] See for example the healing of the blind beggar in Lk 18:35-43; Mk 10:46-52; see also Mt 20:29-34 and the healing of the lame at Bethesda Jn 5:1-9.

[3] We kept the original numbering of the Spiritual Exercises and the place of each number for easier orientation in the material and reference to the translations of the book of the Exercises. It happens that certain material as in this case the Additions, are placed later in the text by Ignatius but are necessary for the companions also earlier.

[4] Tyrrell, “Christotherapy II,” p. 150.