65-71.   Fifth Exercise: Meditation on Hell


For most of us it is unusual to reflect upon the reality of hell. Hell is the extreme end of the logic and dynamic of the mystery of evil, a definite and free alienation from God. In this exercise we need special help to understand the importance of such meditation and to visualize this “place”. It has a peculiar importance also because it is the last of the exercises of the First Phase.

Opening prayer and visualization

We suppose that the traditional, medieval images of hell are dubiously “appealing” to contemporary companions. However, the “fires of hell” and other endless tortures (even in the Scriptures we find this language of images) are a kind of reminder to pain and despair; of an extremely hopeless situation. What these stories about hell tell us is the seriousness of the danger to loose our life definitely, not only by natural death but also by something more radical and dramatic - the event of rejecting God. The danger of freedom lies in the possibility of wrong choices; for this reason freedom requires responsibility, too.

We don’t know if any of the companions reading this book ever thought or phantasized about hell, but maybe everybody had used or heard expressions such as “this is a hell”, or “hellish situation”. Language comes to our help, since we can see in these expressions an indication of something visible. These are situations that we describe as hell. Now we get closer to the idea of the “location of the damned” (which is not a physical place anyway), and we can recall these everyday “hell-experiences” and extend them to a totality (if we are able to do it at all). So the image of hell might be for us an extreme hellish situation.

Loneliness, frustration or fighting with someone can be such a situation. Others might be more touched by the vision of hell as nuclear war, concentration camps, gulags and Auschwitzes, or some of the wars actually raging in our world. Then there are the hellish situations of psychiatric clinics, addictions and violence, hunger and disease in Africa, Asia or South America, oppression under terrorist regimes and dictators, the emptiness of the life of the “common people” in the developed world, the eternal circle between job and television and so on. Our age offers sadly many such experiences, all consequences of sin. In this exercise after the opening prayer we will use our imagination to recall one of these situations as a definite state of being.

Asking what we want

Here we ask to know at least by imagination how the pain the of being definitely lost and damned might be; and we pray that we don’t fall into this danger of rejecting God if not for the love of him at least for the fear of the consequences. It is a realistic point, appealing to the basic love of self, which involves trying to avoid pain and it is a valid motive to begin with. This basic level of motivation works in the aversion therapy that helps addicts to reject the object of their addiction by a sort of negative physical feedback[1]

Five points for reflection: application of the senses

As John C. Futrell points out St. Ignatius used a highly anthropomorphic, biblical vision of hell and correspondingly the “application of the senses” method proposed for this meditation intends to help to get an experience of the damned as a “body-person” and so “Ignatius is helping the retreatant, through imagining psychosomatic suffering, to realize the consequences when the whole thrust of the human person’s being-toward God is entirely frustrated; and, therefore, every part of the person is frustrated, including all the senses”[2]

The five points of this meditation follows the five senses used by one to observe the reality in question. Here we will try to see a scene, to hear some noise, to smell the odors lingering around, to taste and to touch something associated with the situation that we chose in the visualization as a representation of hell[3]. We stop at each sense and give some time to our imagination to form an experience. Let us here add to the case of the smelling of the odors of hell a parallel pointed out by Bernard Tyrrell in the use of symbols with the Alcoholics Anonymous which members call “stinking thinking” every negative and destructive phantasizing, self-pity, anger, denial and so on[4]. This strong imagery is an excellent means in the existential clarification because it provokes the understanding of the problems involved in this type of feeling and thinking.

Finally let us help in this reflection with the words of Karl Rahner[5]:

“As long as I am a wayfarer on this earth, I can only approximate a full existential realization of the meaning of hell as a possibility for myself. I can only hope to realize existentially the hopelessness of hell when, proceeding from my own experience of sin, I try to apply my complete knowing power to finding out what sin finally is when it fully becomes itself. When the belief in hell has reached this intensity within the totality of my personal, human existence, then it necessarily signifies that ‘interiorly taste and relish’ of the fallen state that St. Ignatius seeks as the fruit of the meditation on hell. If this meditation is to be a truly existential experience, then it cannot stop at the application of the senses. Because I have every chance in the world not to end up in hell, I must place myself with all the seriousness of the hell-meditation under the cross of my Lord”.

Prayerful conversation with Jesus, sharing and review

Knowing that we are able to become unfaithful to everything that is good and life-giving, with the knowledge of our brokenness we go now to speak with Jesus Christ. Realizing the danger of ending up rejecting God we feel our gratefulness toward the Father because he kept us from falling and will be always available for us to renew our life through forgiveness and love. We thank Jesus for teaching and showing us that God is Mercy and Love and wants to save everyone and everything, even the last little creature in the entire creation. Close with an Our Father…

(Other exercises)

If the companions feel that it would be useful for them, they can continue with further exercises, always in the main thematic of the First Phase, that is sin and its consequences, the judgment or the mercy of God and so on[6]. In the background of the meditations always should be present the salvation brought by Jesus and we need to maintain the climate of hope. No additional exercises are presented here; they can be built up similarly to the precedent ones.


72. Note

In case the Exercises would be made in seclusion as a full-time retreat, the companions need to arrange a schedule for the five exercises each day and project circa one hour for each exercise. The first day can be spent for orientation in the material without a strict program. Later during the First Phase for example the first exercise can be during the night if the companions are used to it or want to try it out; otherwise early in the morning, after getting up, the second exercise before noon, the third and the fourth in the afternoon and the fifth in the evening. The schedule of course is very flexible and needs to be adapted to the age, the physical condition, experience of prayer and other habits of the companions. It is well possible to spend more days with the above given exercises, distributing them differently and also returning to the same material more times, if we feel that it is fruitful in insights and feelings. The time spent with the exercises of the First Phase varies between a couple of days and a week or so, depending on the possibility to stay in the retreat and on discernment of the companions that the main goals of the exercises have been achieved.

In case the Exercises are to be made keeping the everyday life of the companions - in this “Finding Our Way” interpretation we keep first of all this form in mind; it is hardly possible to set up a precise schedule. Our main effort should be on the continuity and perseverance in some daily timeframe dedicated to the Exercises as we pointed out earlier in [12]. The individual exercises can be split up, spending on each point of reflection one prayer session for one or more days. The general guideline for the time spent for each exercise and each reflection is determined by how long the given material is found fruitful by the companions (of course, at least once they need to make it). If they find abundant insights and feelings emerging, they can stay with the particular exercise and move on when they feel that it is time for it. In this arrangement the companions should feel themselves quite free to decide.



[1] The different levels of motivation in the tradition and in developmental psychology and the value of aversion therapy is placed in the context of the meditation on hell in Tyrrell, “Christotherapy II,” pp. 156-157.

[2] Cowan-Futrell, “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola,” p. 44.

[3] For example, in the vision that Ignatius uses, we see the fires of hell, hear the cries of the damned, smell the smoke and the filth, taste the bitterness of tears and touch the burning flames.

[4] Tyrrell, “Christotherapy II,” p. 155.

[5] Rahner, ”Spiritual Exercises,” p. 95.

[6] “An experienced director has suggested that, actually, Ignatius’ own meditation on mercy is The Kingdom of Christ [91-98]” (Cowan-Futrell, “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola,” p. 45-46.)