101-131. The First Period


101-109.   First Exercise: on the Incarnation[1]


Following the opening prayer this exercise consists of the visualization in a global way of the history involved and the historical place it happened, the prayer asking what we want and three points for the contemplation and it ends with a prayerful conversation. In this Phase the double visualization of “history” and “place” prepares the contemplation in which we “enter” spiritually the time and space of the contemplated event. Similarly to the exercises of the First Phase also this can be divided in more prayer sessions taking one point each time or pray through the three points in one session depending on the possibilities of the companions. If they decide to do it in three sessions, it is advisable to repeat it in one additional session in the complete form.


Opening prayer

In this Second Phase we use the same opening prayer as in the First Phase.

Visualization of the history

This exercise deals with the Incarnation, the event when the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - became man and Ignatius invites the companions in [101] to see the Triune God who makes the decision to send the Son to save humankind and do it by becoming one of us. That the Second Phase begins with the image of the Trinity is not an accident since St. Ignatius had special trinitarian devotion and had several mystical experiences of God as Trinity[2]. The strong trinitarian aspect of his spirituality shown in the way Ignatius teaches to pray the Three Divine Persons individually as well together and also in the Spiritual Exercises, where the references “Divine Majesty”, “God our Lord” and similar are generally meaning the Holy Trinity[3].

Our imagination will have a bit unusual task for most of us when we try to see the Trinity. The companions in their prayers maybe are used to address the Three Divine Persons individually and also together as the Triune God, and have already an image even if not reflected yet consciously. It does not matter what is the content of this image, the important is to follow our personal sensitivity and feel that image as meaningful for us. Maybe some have seen traditional representations of the Trinity as the old bearded man and a younger one with the dove of the Spirit in between. This could work perfectly. Maybe some have other images in mind as the three angels with the symbols of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit over them in the icon of Andrej Rubljov. This icon is very rich in symbolism, it is good for meditation, however now we don’t need to go in the details only have the general image pictured in fantasy. Karl Rahner writes so of the procedure of seeing the Trinity:


“We should behold the Father, ‘from Whom all fatherhood, earthly and heavenly, derives its name’ (Eph 3:15), Who is the originless fullness of mysterious life; then the Son, the Word of wisdom in the inner divine existence; and finally the Spirit, who as the alert love of the Father and the Son penetrates the depths of the Godhead. This Trinitarian God eternally conceived this world in such a way that He wanted to assume it with a love that is incomprehensible, as the place for His own created history, in order to participate in earthly multiplicity as the incarnate God”[4]


As for our personal images of the Trinity, John’s is a burning candle, matter, light and heat distinguishable but in one entity. This imagery is going beyond the anthropomorphic descriptions of the Trinity and is very helpful to free it from the impression that God is either male or female. Mystics as Juliana of Norwich refers to God and even to Jesus as Mother[5] and there are efforts to find a feminine principle or figure in the Holy Spirit and in the Middle Ages were representations of the “Quaternity”, bringing in God as feminine figure the Blessed Virgin Mary. Still these descriptions don’t free the image of God from anthropomorphism as the impersonal metaphors do, which also are frequent beginning from the Revelations through St. John of the Cross and so on. For example St. Ignatius mentions in his Autobiography “he saw the Holy Trinity under the figure of three keys”[6]. It is hard to “unlock” this imagery but it helps us to grasp that God who is love is totally different and surpasses all what we can say about him or her. For some help see what the three keys means let us look at the following quote: “One day as church bells pealed, Ignatius felt his soul soaring skyward like an eagle and «in the imagined harmony of three organ keys, he contemplated the mystery of the Trinity. Tears of joy ran down his cheeks.» (Autobiography of Ignatius)”[7]

Kris likes the image of a couple, two distinct persons in the communion of love, which is fruitful and becomes a third person in their child. That God is Trinity can be somewhat understood on the base that “God is love” (1John 4:8) and love exists between persons. Further, love by its nature cannot remain between two in a closed circuit but pours out – hence the third person of the Trinity. The couple as the image of the Triune God appears in the first creation story where we can note the shift of the singular and plural of the nouns as a sort of expression for the unity and distinction of them: “God created man [singular] in his image; in the divine image he created him [singular]; male and female he created them [plural]” (Gn 1:27).


“God is love and in Himself He lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in His own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. As an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit, man is called to love in his unified totality. Love includes the human body, and the body is made a sharer in spiritual love”[8].


Continuing our visualization we look upon the earth with the Trinity and see humankind’s need for salvation, see how they live in sins, sinful social structures, personal and corporate greed, oppression and manipulation. As they see all this, we hear the Trinity to decide to save humankind through the Incarnation of the Son. This event reveals the humanity of God, that is, in a mysterious way the essence of humanity is eternally present in God and now appears in the life of Jesus Christ. In the same time Incarnation tells us about the dignity of the human being, capable of God[9]. When thinking of the Incarnation, we need also to realize that it is related to us personally, the saving work of the Trinity resulting from this divine decision includes all the conversion, healing and spiritual growth we personally are experiencing in our historical situation.

In order to grasp the meaning of the Incarnation we need to consider the other side of the same event, the human side that is the Annunciation to Mary. Karl Rahner writes so of this necessity: “Actually it is impossible to speak of the Incarnation without at least implicitly thinking of the Annunciation to Mary. If we try to consider the truth of the Incarnation of the Word independently of the Annunciation then we consequently fall into the danger of reducing this truth, which is essentially news and an event, to an abstract metaphysical speculation. In any event we can only gain an existential understanding of the enfleshment of God by taking the unity of the Incarnation and the Annunciation in consideration. We can only really penetrate to the concreteness of the Incarnation by proceeding through the history of the Annunciation”[10]. “When the wholeness of time had come” (Gal 4:4) the loving Trinity sent the angel Gabriel to Mary in Nazareth. We read now the scriptural reference, Lk 1:26-38 and [262]. The companions might want to read it aloud to each other and then keep a short time of silence. Here they don’t need yet to share their images unless they want; they can continue with the exercise and as usual speak about their experience at the end of the prayer session.

Visualization of the place

Now we turn our attention from the Trinity to the entire earth, all inhabitants and all countries of it, and then slowly focus our attention on the image of Mary with the angel in Nazareth. This exercise of imagination is like to watch a movie with this opening closing down of the camera. With this visualization we have three big pictures to use in contemplation, the Trinity, the world and the scene in Nazareth.

Asking what we want

As for all the contemplations of the Second Phase “it will be to ask for an intimate knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love Him more and follow Him more closely” [104].

It expresses the basic faith that the contemplation of the life of Jesus promotes the conformation process to Christ today as we saw it earlier. Note also the use of the word “more” in this quote from Ignatius. This word expresses the inner force that drove him, the passionate love for God, that never stops satisfied with what achieved but desires always move beyond, toward the “more”, to love more, to know more and to do more for God’s “greater glory”. This desire for “more” is the underlying dynamics of the Ignatian spirituality and the Exercises in particular.

Now, after the global visualization of the three stages or we are ready to enter the scenes, to begin the contemplation itself. It will unfold in three points in which we will return three times to these scenes and doing so will have long enough time to look at the mystery contemplated and allow the Holy Spirit to arise in us inner movements, feelings as the Word slowly penetrates our spirit[11].

First point: seeing the persons in the scenes

First we see in our imagination all the people on the earth. We see in details the vastness of the world, the richness of history and culture, the diversity of the peoples individually and socially and we see them waging war against each other. Then we turn to see the Holy Trinity with the help of the concrete image we have from the visualization. We see their goodness and compassion toward the human misery. Finally we see Mary with the angel and stay with this image for a while, open to the feelings that emerge in us.

This contemplation and the feelings of wonder and gratitude that it provokes prepare us to grasp better the meaning of the statement that “God became man”. Both God and the human being is a mystery; the approach to understand them experientially-existentially is more appropriate in a way then the intellectual analysis.

Second point: hearing the persons involved

Now we try to use our auditive fantasy and hear the persons we have seen. First we listen to all the people of the earth, try to hear their talk, laughter and cry, whispers and yells, their expressions of despair and hope, sadness and joy, desires and failures. Then we turn to the Trinity. What we can hear? We sort of listen to what God has to say about humankind of history of wars, torture injustice and all sorts of suffering; as for a special grace we can se the world with the eyes of God and hear the opinion of the Trinity and expression of compassion for the human race. This compassion of God’s leads to his (or her) that is “suffering-with”[12] our misery and helplessness. Here we arrive to the scene of the Annuciation and hear the angel and Mary speaking about the birth of Jesus, the salvation of humankind that includes our personal salvation. Finally we stop for a while to understand better the grace we received in this contemplation.

Third point: observing what the persons do

At this point we turn our imagination to see what the persons are doing in the scene we contemplate. First of all we observe people of the earth, then the Trinity and finally the angel and Mary. We can also try to feel their inner attitude and so gain an existential knowledge of the history of Incarnation, a more intimate and personal knowing than that one achieved by solely intellectual study or received as mere fact of a tradition. We end also this point by recollecting the graces received during the contemplation.

Prayerful conversation, sharing and review

At the end of the entire exercise we spend a certain amount of time in prayer during which we address the Persons of the Trinity, especially the Second Person, the Son, the Word who became human for compassion toward us and finally we speak to Mary, the mother of Jesus. We can express ourselves according to what we felt and received during this exercise and ask for the grace to live in communion with God who just became man in our contemplation for us. Close with an Our Father…

As a fruit of this contemplation the companions will begin to note some of the patterns how consolations and desolations occur in their feelings. It is important to realize and make treasure of the fruits of the contemplation both in prayer and in sharing. Following the closing prayer the companions review the exercise, share what they experienced and take notes of this and of their insights in their diary.

In the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius presented the birth of Jesus as the Second Exercise; but mentions in [162] that we can use more mysteries in to prolong the Second Phase according to the desire of the companions. We can insert at this point after the Incarnation a contemplation of the Visitation from [263] and Lk 1,39-56. We did not elaborate it here, but this exercise needs to be structured as the first: after the preparatory part (opening prayer, visualization of the history and place, asking for the grace of the phase) follows the contemplation in three points (seeing, hearing the persons and observing their actions) and it ends with prayerful conversation, sharing and note making. To maintain the rhythm of the periods after two mysteries we need to do always one or two repetitions and an application of the senses on these two before going on to new contemplations. We find the presentation of how to do the repetitions and the application of the senses at the third, fourth and fifth exercises (in [118-126]). This can be used accordingly also in the case if the companions take other mysteries to contemplate. Material to choose for these contemplations can be found in [265] “The Shepherds”, in [266] “The Circumcision “, or in [267] “The Magi”[13]. In this present interpretation of the Spiritual Exercises we follow with the Nativity as second contemplation.



[1] “Incarnation” is the moment when “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14), the moment of the conception of Jesus, which is for Christians the moment when God became man.

[2] W. W. Meissner point out that “among the passages marked for special emphasis, a dozen deal with visions of the Trinity, and four others with Christ in his role as mediator to the Trinity. The trinitarian insights are diverse: on different occasions Ignatius sees one or other of the persons...” in William W. Meissner, S.J., M.D., To the Greater Glory: A Psychological Study of Ignatian Spirituality, (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1999) p. 585.

[3] Ibid., p. 561 and in Tyrrell, “Christotherapy II,”, p.165.

[4] Rahner, “Spiritual Exercises,” p. 139.

[5] Her works are quoted in this context in Tyrrell, “Christotherapy II,” p.172. Jesus as Mother who feeds the soul of the faithful appears also in hymns.

[6] St. Ignatius’ Own Story As told to Luis Gonzales de Camara With a sampling of his letters, translated by William J. Young, S.J., (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1980) p. 22. The visions of Ignatius (reflecting some of his personality) are rather simple with respect to the rich imagery of his contemporary mystics, such as St. Therese of Avila or St. John of the Cross, but not less effective. “Unlike St. John of the Cross, Ignatius had no symbols nor poetry in which to frame his vision, his soul-transforming apprehension of intimate union with the Divine Persons, and could babble only in terms of things he knew so well, suffering and service.” (James Broderick, S.J., Saint Ignatius Loyola, The Pilgrim Years 1491-1538, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998) p.322. The apparitions he had were, “…in part purified symbols, and in part images of brightness and light. The Trinity appears as three keys, the humanity of Jesus as a white body, images carrying with them overwhelming feelings of consolation, joy…” (Meissner, “To the Greater Glory: A Psychological Study of Ignatian Spirituality,” p. 574)

[7] The quote is from Mark Link, S.J., “The Life of St. Ignatius,” Contact Magazine, 2003 Winter Edition of the Chicago province of the Society of Jesus (http://www.jesuits-chi.org/contactmagazine/2003winter/ignatius.htm). Mark Link in this article adapted his book Challenge 2000: A Daily Meditation Program Based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. (Allen, TX: Tabor Publishing, 2000). See also this remark: “In a footnote the editor of my edition of the Autobiography notes that ‘(t)his image or figure of the Trinity refers to the keys – teclas – of a musical instrument and probably signifies a musical chord – three notes producing a single harmony” in William A. Barry, S.J., Finding God in All Things, (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1991) p. 133.

[8] John Paul II, Apostolic ExhortationFamiliaris Consortio”, (Rome, 1981) 11.

[9] Let us refer here to Karl Rahner’s “transcendental Christology from below” in which the Incarnation is the highest realization of the essential nature of human reality. However, this possibility does not need to be realized in every human person, even if all humankind is on its way toward it, but in the One whom the Christians recognize in the historical Jesus Christ. Cf. Kasper, “Jesus the Christ,” pp. 48-49.

[10] Rahner, “Spiritual Exercises,” p. 136.

[11] Cf. the presentation of this threefold contemplation in Cowan-Futrell, “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola,” pp. 86-87.

[12] The word “compassion” derives from Latin “compassio”, from “compati” to sympathize, which is a composition of “com-“ with and “pati” to bear, suffer

[13] These scriptural quotes or scenes can be involved in the contemplation of the birth of Jesus as we do partly in this presentation, or treated as separate exercises, if the companions desire to go more into the details.