The following by Dr. Gary Gilley, pastor of Southern View Chapel, is republished at Apprising Ministries with permission:

One of the most popular and strongly promoted activities within spiritual formation is known as “The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola.” As the name implies, these are exercises or activities invented by the Roman Catholic monk Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century to enhance spiritual life, first his own and then that of the monks within his monasteries.

The exercises are complicated and difficult, and were practiced almost exclusively by Catholic monks for over 400 years until the birth of the modern Spiritual Formation Movement in the latter part of the 20th century. Today there is no doubt more interest in the exercises than at any other point in history. To grasp Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, we will begin with a short history of Ignatius, including the society of monks he founded, move to the original 16th century exercises as found in Ignatius’s book, examine their modern application especially among Protestants, and then discuss why the Exercises are of deep concern to lovers of biblical Christianity.


Ignatius was born into a wealthy Spanish home in 1491. As a Catholic living during the time of the Reformation, he found himself facing some of the most religiously turbulent times since Constantine. Trained to be a knight, he joined the Spanish army and, in May 1521, at the Battle of Pamplona while fighting against France, he was hit by a cannonball and sustained major damage to his legs. While recovering he spent much time reading spiritual literature which led him to leave behind his life of wealth and live as a hermit. He devoted himself to asceticism and the example of others of like mind, such as Francis of Assisi. In 1522, while living in a cave and practicing extreme asceticism, he claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus which radically changed the course of his life. Shortly thereafter he began to pen the Spiritual Exercises. In 1539, he and a few friends established the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, to aid in the Catholic struggle against the Reformation. Ignatius and the Jesuits became a leading force in what became known as the Counter-Reformation, which began at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and continued until 1648, when the Thirty Years’ War came to an end. This was Rome’s attempt to counter or turn back the Protestant Reformation through decrees, education, or force, including war.

As the Jesuits became better organized, Ignatius eventually became their Superior General, a position he would keep until his death in 1556. He spent much of his life in monastic settings and devoted himself to furthering the cause of the Pope (the Jesuits dedicated themselves to God and to the Pope) through education, missionary endeavors and attempting to lead the Counter-Reformation.

The Original Spiritual Exercises

Ignatius is best remembered today for two things – founding the Society of Jesus and inventing the Spiritual Exercises. It is his Exercises that have had significant influence on Protestants in recent years through their adoption and promotion by leaders in the Spiritual Formation Movement. Perhaps the best way to understand the Exercises is to turn to an official source such as the Jesuits’s Oregon Providence. Its website states,

Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola are a month-long program of meditations, prayers, considerations, and contemplative practices that help Catholic faith become more fully alive in the everyday life of contemporary people. It is set out in a brief manual or handbook: sparse, taciturn, and practical. It presents a formulation of Ignatius’ spirituality in a series of prayer exercises, thought experiments, and examinations of consciousness—designed to help a retreatant (usually with the aid of a spiritual director) to experience a deeper conversion into life with God in Christ,to allow our personal stories to be interpreted by being subsumed in a Story of God. [1]

The following brief summary is helpful in understanding both the purpose and mythology of the Exercises:

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius form the cornerstone of Ignatian Spirituality – a way of understanding and living the human relationship with God in the world exemplified in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Although originally designed to take place in the setting of a secluded retreat, during which those undergoing the exercises would be focused on nothing other than the Exercises, in his introductory notes, Ignatius provides a model for completing the Exercises over alonger period without the need of seclusion. The Exercises were designed to be carried out while under the direction of a spiritual director. The Spiritual Exercises were never meant onlyfor the vowed religious. Ignatius of Loyola gave the Exercises for 15 years before he was ordained, and years before the Society of Jesus was even founded. After the Society was formed, theExercises became the central component of the Jesuit novitiate training program, and they usually take place during the first year of a two year novitiate. [2]

The aim of Spiritual Exercises seems to be to enable people to know God better and aid them in their walk with the Lord, but the book itself is extremely confusing and virtually incomprehensible in places. Modern adaptations, as we will see below, use the skeleton behind Ignatius’s book but depart rather widely in application. The reason for this is that Spiritual Exercises is not a coherent, organized piece of writing. It is more like a collection of ideas, prayers, meditation and rules. Nevertheless Ignatius clearly divides his exercises into four parts, or weeks, each period of time focusing upon a different theme:

First, the consideration and contemplation on their sins;Second, the life of Christ our Lord up to Palm Sunday inclusively;

Third, the Passion of Christ our Lord;

Fourth, the Resurrection and Ascension, with the three Methods of Prayer. [3]

As a person works his way through the exercises, hopefully with a friend or better a spiritual director, his goal is to better be able to discern God’s will for his life and draw closer in fellowship with the Lord. The Exercises, which Ignatius first wrote in 1522 and continued to revise until 1548, were essentially a set of rules designed to train those who desired to become Jesuits. As a matter of fact, the book is full of rules: rules for the discernment of spirits, rules for making good decisions, rules for eternal salvation and peace, rules to put oneself in order for the future, rules for the distribution for alms, rules to develop a militant church, rules for thinking, rules for eating and drinking, rules of education, rules to explain images,rules for secrecy, and on and on. The rules, as well as much of the book are very Roman Catholic, as one might expect. To give a flavor of how The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius read, I will quote 13 of the 18 rules found under the heading, “To have the true sentiment which we ought to have in the church militant:”

First Rule: All judgment laid aside, we ought to have our mind ready and prompt to obey, in all, the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, which is our holy Mother the church Hierarchical.

Second Rule: To praise confession to a Priest, and the reception of the most Holy Sacrament of the Altar once in the year, and much more each month, and much better from week to week, with the conditions required and due.

Third Rule: To praise the hearing of Mass often, likewise hymns, psalms, and long prayers, in the church and out of it; likewise the hours set at the time fixed for each Divine Office and for all prayer and all Canonical Hours.

Fourth Rule: To praise much Religious Orders, virginity and continence, and not so much marriage as any of these.

Fifth Rule: To praise vows of Religion, of obedience, of poverty, of chastity and of perfections of supererogation. And it is to be noted that, as the vow is about the things which approach to Evangelical perfection, a vow ought not to be made in the things which withdraw from it, such as to be a merchant, or to be married, etc.

Sixth Rule: To praise relics of the Saints, giving veneration to them and praying to the Saints; and to praise Stations, pilgrimages, Indulgences, pardons, Cruzadas, and candles lighted in the churches.

Seventh Rule: To praise Constitutions about fasts and abstinence, as of Lent, Ember Days, Vigils, Fridays and Saturday; likewise penances, not only interior, but also exterior.

Eighth Rule: To praise the ornaments and buildings of churches; likewise images, and to venerate them according to what they represent.

Ninth Rule: Finally to praise all precepts of the Church, keeping the mind prompt to find reasons in their defense and in no manner against them.

Tenth Rule: We ought to be more prompt to find good and praise as well the Constitutions and recommendations as the ways of our Superiors. Because, although some are not or have not been such, to speak against them, whether preaching in public or discoursing before the common people, would rather give rise to fault-finding and scandal than profit; and so the people would be incensed against their Superiors, whether temporal or spiritual. So that, as it does harm to speak evil to the common people of Superiors in their absence, so it can make profit to speak of the evil ways to the persons themselves who can remedy them.

Eleventh Rule: To praise positive and scholastic learning. Because, as it is more proper to the Positive Doctors, as St. Jerome, St. Augustine and St. Gregory etc. to move the heart to love and serve God our Lord in everything; so it is more proper to the Scholastics, as St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and to the Master of the Sentences, etc., to define or explain for our times the things necessary for eternal salvation; and to combat and explain better all errors and all fallacies. For the Scholastics Doctors, as they are more modern, not only help themselves with the true understanding of the Sacred Scripture and of the Positive and holy Doctors, but also, they being enlightened and clarified by the Divine virtue, help themselves by the Councils, Canons and Constitutions of our holy Mother the Church.

Twelfth Rule: We ought to be on our guard in making comparison of those of us who are alive to the blessed passed away, because error is committed not a little in this; that is to say, in saying, this one knows more than St. Augustine; he is another, or greater than, St. Francis; he is another St. Paul in goodness, holiness etc.

Thirteenth Rule: To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it, believing that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride, there is the same Spirit, which governs and directs us for the salvationof our souls. Because by the same Spirit and our Lord who gave the ten Commandments, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed. [4]

As can be seen, since these rules would have little to offer those not deeply involved with the Roman Catholic Church, why are they making such inroads within Protestant circles in recent times?

The answer is that those in the Spiritual Formation Movement are largely borrowing the concepts offered by Ignatius and modernizing them to fit twenty-first century Protestant audiences.

Modern Application

We now move forward to see how the Exercises are being adapted and adjusted for a new audience who are mostly Protestant, usually evangelical, and who are unfamiliar with the ways and language of Roman Catholicism in general and Reformation-era terminology and ideas in particular. James Wakefield, a strong proponent for the Exercises and author of Sacred Listening, Discovering the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, claims that “the Spiritual Exercises are an invitation to renew and deepen our relationship with Christ…[they] are primarily a series of meditations on the Gospelsthat help us clarify and deepen our commitments to Jesus Christ.” [5] This certainly sounds inviting until we dig deeper. Before we do it should be noted that there are many who agree with Wakefield.

Promoters of Ignatius Exercises

Virtually everyone connected with the Spiritual Formation Movement recommends the use of the Ignatius Exercises. Leighton Ford, formerly connected with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, recommends ending the day with an exercise known as the “examen” which “was recommended by Ignatius in his SpiritualExercises, [and] because it helped to change him from a soldier to a pilgrim walking to Jerusalem.”[6] Richard Foster points to theExercises of Ignatius of Loyola as “disciplines of the spiritual life for training in righteousness.” [7] Bruce Demarest, in conjunction with his recommendation of the use of imagination in meditation, writes, “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius employ the imagination and have been widely used for centuries as an aid to biblical meditation. At the heart of the Ignatian method is the use of sensory imagination to engage biblical events at a deeper and more personal level.”[8] Mark Yaconelli claims, “In my own study I’ve found Ignatian or imaginative contemplation to be particularly effective in helping young people come in contact and conformity with the person of Jesus Christ.”[9]Mike King uses the Exercises in his personal retreats. [10] Gregory Boyd writes, “I and many others havefound Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises to be the most powerful tool for helping us grow in our walk with God.” [11] And Eugene Peterson states, “The task of every Bible reader is to become a Bible listener so that we can start living the text. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercisesis one of the most influential guidebooks for directing us in listening.” [12]

Ruth Haley Barton, who has written many books on spiritual formation themes and leads the Transforming Center which specializes in spiritual formation, recommends use of the Exercises in developing discernment. She writes,

Discernment is first of all a habit, a way of seeing that eventually permeates our whole life. It is the journey from spiritual blindness (not seeing God anywhere or seeing him only when we expect to see him) to spiritual sight (finding God everywhere, especially where we least expect it). Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and best known for developing a set of spiritual exercises intended to hone people’s capacity for this discipline, definedthe aim of discernment as “finding God in all things in order that we might love and serve God in all.” [13]

The Exercises for Modern Protestants

As far back as 1984, the Navigator’s Discipleship Journal was reporting that the Spiritual Exercises were “a great spiritual classic.” [14] Shortly thereafter James Wakefield, a Lutheran pastor and professor of biblical and spiritual theology at Salt Lake Theological Seminary, began to consider how he might adapt the Spiritual Exercises for use by Protestants who lacked the supervision from a trained Roman Catholic spiritual director. If you have read Ignatius’s original book, or even the selections given in this article, you will quickly realize that in their original form the Exercises would be virtually unworkable by Protestants and even by most Catholics outside the monastic system. The result of Wakefield’s efforts to “update” and make the Exercises more user friendly waseventually his book Sacred Listening, Discovering the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. [15] Wakefield claims that the “Spiritual Exercises are an invitation to renew and deepen our relationship with Christ…[and] are primarily a series of meditations on the Gospels that help usclarify and deepen our commitments to Jesus Christ.” [16]

Wakefield breaks Ignatius’s four weeks of spiritual exercises into four movements:

  • The first movement has as its purpose to create a space within us that the Lord can fill, better known in mystical literature as purgation. The first unit of eight, under the first movement, is to introduce the reader to contemplative prayer which has been discussed in detail in an earlier article in this series. Contemplative prayer is an imaginative method of praying that is never found or endorsed in Scripture, but is at the heart of all forms ofmysticism. Specifically the form of contemplative prayer that is introduced is that of lectio divina,[17] which is an imaginative form of praying the Scriptures also explained earlier in this series.

Wakefield offers a number of opportunities to practice the Exercises drawn from Ignatius. One example concerns hell where we are told to use ourimagination and take a journey to hell describing what we see, hear, taste, feel, and smell. [18]

In the original book Ignatius elaborates, “Ask for interior sense of pain which the damned suffer, in order that, if, through my faults, I should forget the love of the Eternal Lord, at least the fear of the pains may help me not to come into sin.” We are, with our imagination to see “the great fires, and the souls as in bodies of fire; to hear with the ears wailing, howlings, cries, blasphemies against Christ our Lord and against all His Saints…to smell with the smell the smoke, sulphur, dregs and putrid things…to taste with the taste bitter things, like tears, sadness and the worm of conscience…to touchwith the touch; that is to say, how the fires touch and burn the souls.” [19]

Of course nothing remotely similar to this exercise is taught or recommended in Scripture and such imaginings are clearly dangerous. Perhaps for thisreason Ignatius warned that the material found in the next three movements may not be useful and could actually be harmful to some people. [20] I would agree, but add that the first movement is equally as dangerous.

  • The second movement is concerned with imaginatively contemplating scenes in the four Gospels. It is during this movement that Wakefield claims, “In weeks to come, it is common for the Holy Spirit to move you into deeper forms of contemplation as you spend longer times of silence during your prayer time.”[21]
  • In the third movement the imagination is shifted to the Passion of Christ. The second and third movements combined seek communication from Christ that is often termed illumination in mystical circles.
  • The fourth movement determines to strengthen our attachment to Christ through imaginative meditations on the resurrection. This movement is to lead to the fourth stage of mysticism, that of union in which one is united in some mystical fashion to God. If someone reaches this stage he needs to be warned by Ignatius and Wakefield that “many disciples experience an odd phenomenon: they encounter a significant dry spell. They feel as though allconsolation has left them, and they are somewhat numb.” [22]


There are a number of dangers in the use of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises including elevating a man-made system for spiritual growth and development above the actual teachings of Scripture themselves. Then there is the complication of the system. It is no wonder that the Exercises are to be used with a Spiritual Director. Left to oneself, it would be virtually impossible to navigate through all the rules and imaginative projects that Ignatius offers.

But the primary danger is through the use of imagination the participant actually believes the Lord is speaking to him in some subjective form beyond thepages of Scripture. Wakefield says, “We need to focus closely on listening to the Holy Spirit throughout the process…” [23]just as “Ignatius’s own listening led to the development of these Exercises.”[24] This should be more of an indictment than a commendation. It was Ignatius’s imagination that caused him to develop this clearly man-made, unbiblical approach to spiritual formation. Where might our imagination, untethered to Scripture, lead us?

Read uncritically, Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises is little more than a program for spiritual discipline combined with devotional study of Scripture. Unfortunately it is much more than that. Besides its evident danger in regard to mystical practices, which opens the door to even more contemplative concerns, there is a subtle but obvious error. Throughout the book Scripture is used in an imaginative way. That is, a passage is read not to gain understanding but to engage the text with imagination. The goal is not cognitive knowledge followed by healthy, reasonable application, but emotionalinvolvement. This in itself is troublesome, but to add insult to God’s Word we are offered an alternative—the “resources” of Ignatius. [25] These resources include Ignatian “Rules for Discernment,” as well as Ignatian “Principles and Foundation” (“Kingdom Exercises,” “The Two Standards,” “Three Classes of People,” “Three Kinds of Humility,” and a prayer called “Take, Lord”). These resources form the instructional (cognitive) material which is supposedly used to guide the participant into “holiness.” In this process, the Scriptures become a mere by-product, utilized to engage the imagination. It was Ignatius’s teachings that actually became the foundational material for the adherents of the Exercises. Ignatius’s word, therefore, supersedes God’s Word. We should take seriously the words of Jesus in Matthew 15:9: “But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”

December/January 2012/2013 – Volume 18, Issue 6

The original appears here.

Further reading