A Biography of the Spiritual Exercises

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Moshe Sluhovsky
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Moshe Sluhovsky Last modified: December 2016  

The history of Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises is to a large degree the history of the Society of Jesus. While the Exercises predated the Society, they have been the very core of the Society's spiritual and pastoral activities. Every Jesuit is expected to undertake the full course of the Exercises twice during his training. In addition, different variations and configurations of the Exercises were recommended by Ignatius (c.1491–1556) himself and then by his followers to be administered by Jesuits to large segments of distinct Catholic populations, be they male members of Marian Societies and Sodalities the Jesuits established, female devotees, or even peasants in both Europe and overseas. The Exercises have been instruments of spiritual growth of individual mystics as well as means of conversion of large populations in the metropole and the periphery. In fact, it is impossible to write the history of the Society of Jesus without at the same time recounting the history of the Exercises, and vice versa. Two major bibliographies were dedicated to publication of and writing about the Spiritual Exercises. In the early years of the twentieth century, Henri Watrigant (1845–1926), the French Jesuit scholar and one of the first Jesuits to be engaged in a systematic process of historicizing the Exercises, complied his Bibliographie des Exercices, and in 1991 Paul Begheyn and Kenneth Bogart compiled their “Bibliography on St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises.”1

This has not been the case, however, with the history of the historiography of the Exercises, the biography, if you will, of this small but foundational book. This was due, first and foremost, to the fact that for a long time, Jesuits apologists held to the belief that the Exercises had been dictated to Loyola directly by the Virgin Mary while at Manresa. As such, a history of their composition is meaningless. What ought to be done instead was to explain the meaning and manner of giving the Exercises, whose only history was the history of clarification and application. Jesuit tradition holds that the Spiritual Exercises, as they were being practiced during this long period of three hundred years, had been transmitted and delivered as Ignatius himself had received them from the Virgin and then had taught them to his disciples, and as they were codified in the official Directory of 1599. As such, the Spiritual Exercises have no internal history of revisions and alterations, but only an external one, namely the history of their diffusion and application, as well as the documentation of the proven benefits of the canonical compilation among practitioners.

Obviously, these positions have not survived the advance of modernist methods of source criticism. The systematic scientific research of both the origins and transformations of the Exercises started already in the last years of the nineteenth century and gathered momentum during the twentieth. Following this scholarly tradition, carried out mostly by the Jesuits themselves, this article discusses the history of scholarly research of the textual sources of the Exercises and the changing reconfigurations and manners of delivering them from the sixteenth century to the early twentieth century. By the early twentieth century, a major reinterpretation of the Exercises was established, one that was connected to the rediscovery of some foundational texts dealing with both context and manner of delivering them. The article excludes, alas, the transformations of the Exercises in the second half of the twentieth century, a topic that merits an article of its own.

I emphasize the term “delivering,” because the Spiritual Exercises are neither a book to be read on one's own nor a series of meditations or a spiritual treatise. Their value derives not from meditating on, or absorbing the compilation as one consult, say, a Book of Hours, a theological textbook, or inspirational hagiographical records. Instead, they are to be experienced and—as their name indicates—exercised. Furthermore, in their entirety, that it to say when the full set of Exercises is administered, they are to be transmitted to the practitioner one by one by a spiritual director, in a shared process of discernment the interior spirits of the practitioner. But while the delivery of the Exercises by a spiritual director is the more desired form of giving them, Ignatius himself already started giving only some of the Exercises to some people, and recommended this method, too, as equally beneficial [18]. The biography of the Spiritual Exercises, then, is both the history of the text and of the two distinct ways it has been delivered and experienced.

The first three sections of the following history of the historiography of the Spiritual Exercises deal therefore with the text itself: its origins, sources, and the attempts to stabilize an authorized version of the Exercises during the last years of the sixteenth century. Due to concrete historical and political circumstances, I will argue, these efforts created a version of the practice that was more moralistic and less spiritual that Loyola's original intend. The culmination of this process was the creation of an authorized directory of the Exercises in 1599. This, as we shall see, did not put an end to debates about the original intent of the text, and the conflict between two different emphases of the meaning of, and manner of giving and making the Exercises lasted another fifty years. I will therefore address changes in the manner of giving and undertaking the Exercises: the implementations of retreats, discussions concerning women's access to the collection, and the diffusion of exercises to the laity, as well as finding a balance between individual and communal giving of the Exercises. Each of these processes was accompanied by debates that shaped the history of the text in the seventeenth century.

Together, I suggest, the developments addressed in the three first sections led to the proliferation of manners of giving the Spiritual Exercises, while numerous collections of segments of the Exercises were compiled both by Jesuits and their followers to serve diverse segments of the Christian world. These sets of exercises used Loyola's text to offer spiritual exercises for the edification of believers of all social and educational stratae. The final part of the article will then discuss the post-Restoration imposition of a new standard manner of giving and making the Exercises, the scholarly research into their origins, and the rediscovery of individual retreats in the 1920s. The reverberation and impacts of these discoveries on the Society of Jesus are still with us today.


Written in Spanish in the 1520s and 1530s, the Exercitia spiritualia were published, with papal approval, in 1548 after being reviewed by Pierre Favre (1506–46), Alfonso Salmerón (1515–85), and Juan Alfonso de Polanco (1517–76), Loyola's earliest disciples. André des Freux (Frusius; d.1556) wrote the Latin version before it was submitted for approval to the Holy See. The Spiritual Exercises are a set of meditations on the sinfulness of humanity and on the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. Their goal is “to overcome oneself and to order one's life” [21].2 The research of the last century has led to the conclusion that Loyola's compilation had been shaped to a significant degree by late medieval collections of meditations and spiritual exercises. Dominant among them, according to the research that has been carried out since the 1920s, had been Ludolph of Saxony's Life of Christ (1374); the Flos sanctorum, which is a compilation of edifying lessons from Jacobus de Voragine (1228–98); Thomas a Kempis's (1380–1471) Imitation of Christ of the first quarter of the fifteenth century, which Ignatius read in Manresa; the Meditation of the Life of Christ by Pseudo Bonaventura; and García de Cisneros’s (c.1455–1510) Ejercitatorio de la vida espiritual of 1500. In the last one hundred years, a systematic analysis has established beyond doubt the primary sources that shaped Ignatius's document, and while a few questions remain (among them whether the “Pilgrim” read Erasmus [1466–1536]), the late medieval background of the Exercises is clear.3

Ignatius's mystical experience in Manresa in summer 1521 undoubtedly contributed to his decision to compile his annotations and record his experiences in order to help souls. Already in Manresa and later on in Barcelona, Alcalá, and Salamanca, he encouraged people he met to practice his exercises. The text of these meditations was then completed in 1541.4 But once it was printed, it encountered fierce opposition, mostly from Dominicans, who challenged its orthodoxy and accused its author of promoting alumbradismo, the Spanish Quietist-like movement of the first half of the sixteenth century. The Spanish Dominican Melchor Cano (1509–60), one of the fiercest enemies of the early Jesuits, was not, in fact, wrong when he objected to the Exercises. They offer “everybody” (todos) spirituality that ought to be restricted to the learned elite, he argued. Jesuits, he accused, believe that spiritual exercises and personal experiences assure personal salvation, and by so doing they undermine respect for reason, learning, and authority. Such easy access to spiritual exercises endangers clerical supervision, risks heterodoxy, and is more likely than not to lead believers to self delusion, vainglory, and demonic deceit. While both the author and the compilation survived the attacks, the period of the 1550s was to shape the later history of the Spiritual Exercises.5

The Exercises and the Directories

The opposition to the Jesuits led the Society to tread carefully. In the second half of the sixteenth century, notwithstanding the papal approval of the Spiritual Exercises, attacks continue relentlessly. For their opponents, the Spiritual Exercises resembled individualistic and quietist tendencies of the alumbrados. The insistence on supervision by a director was meant, of course, to distant the Spiritual Exercises from the accusation of Pelagianism, as were the Rules for Thinking, Judging, and Feeling with the Church [352–70], the last part of the Exercises. But it is crucially important to note that the director's involvement in actual directing the practitioner's experiences is restricted. “During these Spiritual Exercises when a person is seeking God's will, it is more appropriate and far better that the Creator and Lord himself should communicate himself to the devout soul” [15]. This discovery of God within one's self by oneself by means of the Exercises, this recognition of something within the self that could have come from no one but God, is what gives consolation. As such, the collection directs not to understand as much as to feel, to recognize, to discern.

The main goal of the Spiritual Exercises was election, the choice of a vocation. To achieve this goal, the entire set of four “Weeks” and four sets of exercises was the norm. The practitioner was to practice five exercises a day, each for at least one hour [12] and to do so “by moving out of one's place of residence and taking a different house or room where one can live in the greatest possible solitude” [20]. Only this manner enables “all the progress possible” [20]. But Annotation 18 indicates that from its inception, the Exercises had an additional goal, namely “reaching a certain level of peace of soul.” One should not mistake this manner of giving the Exercises to be equal in its potential to mold souls to the full set. This is merely an “adaptation” to get “some instruction,” and it is a procedure of “light exercises” (ejercicios leves) that “is more appropriate for persons who are rather simple (rudos) or illiterate.” Going beyond the First Week is a waste of time and “there is not sufficient time to do everything” [18]. Last and maybe also least, people who are too busy can take Exercises intermittently [19]. This manner of giving and taking the Exercises resembles teaching a catechism, a process of increasing the recognition of God's activities within the self and in the created world.6 Ignatius himself, of course, was a lay person when he started giving his Exercises to lay people, and from 1540s on, we have evidence of Jesuits making use of this simple form. A few days before his death in 1556, Loyola repeated his advice that the exercises of the First Week should be given widely. By 1547, Jesuits were also giving them to groups.7 In such cases, obviously, the goal was not the full recognition of God within the self but some degree of consolation and a recognition of God's benevolence. In later years, this manner of giving the Exercises to groups became known later on as “preached retreat.”

In the first years of its administration, different Jesuit provinces followed slightly different renditions of the Spiritual Exercises and the rules concerning the undertaking of these meditations. The period was a period of unsystematic diffusion and distribution of exercises by disciples of the Basque mystic. Some were more qualified than others; some emphasized different aspects of the short but complex text; and some adjusted it to political and theological conjunctures. Ignacio Iparraguirre (1911–73) and Joseph de Guibert (1877–1942) are the leading twentieth-century historians who have tried to put some order into these decentralized traditions, but we still lack detailed monographs on specific adaptations in specific locations, and the precise circumstances of their creation and diffusion.

One ought also to recognize that there has always been an inherent tension in the Exercises between divine infusion of grace and illumination on the one hand, and required penitential hard labor on the other. Loyola's Exercises promoted a unique and complex combination of practicing ordinary means of prayer in order to attain an extraordinary goal, namely an encounter with God and a conversion. As such, they offered a new balance between subjugation to clerical guidance and self-formation, and between liberating and constraining the imagination. No wonder, then, that the second half of the sixteenth century witnessed systematic and repeated attempts by superiors general to establish one authorized manner of delivering and undertaking the Exercises. And as we shall see, not only that these generals failed, but that attempts to determine “what the Exercises were really all about” and “how should they be carried out” reverberated in debates until the middle years of the twentieth century.

This inherent tension in Jesuit spirituality between “evangelization” and “prayer,” or, to put it differently, between direct communication with God [15] and gaining “a certain level of peace of soul” [18] coalesced with attacks from without. Together, they led in the second half of the sixteenth century to a series of debates within the Society of Jesus concerning the exact manner of giving and undertaking the Exercises, the exact intent of their author, and the degree to which different individuals should be allowed to advance in their training in the Exercises. Due to these difficulties, Jesuit theologians and generals compiled or requested subordinates to compile directories, namely manuals of how to give the Exercises. These directories are not only a chapter in the development of Ignatian spirituality but also a chapter in the history of the canonization of the collection itself.8

Instructions how to give and undertake the Exercises started already with Loyola's own Annotations and with a few notes he left upon his death. They continued throughout the second half of the sixteenth century. The systematization of the Exercises took place mostly under the generalships of Everard Mercurian (in office, 1573–80) and Claudio Acquaviva (in office, 1581–1615).9 Superior General Francisco de Borja [Borgia] (in office, 1565–72), who had, prior to his appointment, been forced to escape from Spain while pursued by the Inquisition, and had some of his books placed on the Index, encouraged, once he took office, more time for mental prayer and meditations.10 But already in 1575 (and in accordance with decisions of the Council of Trent, 1545–63), his successor, the new superior general Mercurian forbade Jesuits from reading without written prior authorization some of the very same fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Rhino-Flemish mystics (Tauler [1300–61), Henry Suso [1295–1366), Jan van Ruusbroec [1293–1381], and Henri de Herp [d.1477]) that had shaped, indirectly, Loyola's own spirituality and the Exercises.11 Two leading Jesuits, Mercurian and the then provincial of Toledo, Antonio Cordeses (1518–1601), confronted each other during these years debating the right balance between mystical and pastoral readings of the Exercises and the degree of freedom that should be granted to the exercitant. While serving as rector of the Jesuit college at Coimbra, Cordeses had promoted a more mystical approach, treating the Exercises as means to enhance the practitioner's ability to contemplate God's love and to attune oneself to God's desire. During Mercurian's generalship and that of Aquaviva, mental prayer, as well as ecstasies, prophesies, and other “excessive” manifestations of mystical experiences, were de-emphasized, while an hour of vocal prayer and teaching was introduced.12

General Mercurian emphasized the Society's pastoral over the self-cultivating mission. Occupation with contemplation (“interior life”) rather than social activism (“works”) was perceived by him as a deviation from the Jesuits' vocation (nostrum rather than alienum, to use his terminology), and as a danger to the survival of the Society, which he rightly perceived to be under attack. Private and mental meditations according to the Exercises, when practiced excessively, Mercurian feared, could discourage people from thinking and acting in accordance with societal needs and the Society's requirements, and, as such, these practices do not follow Ignatius's original intentions in the Exercises.13 Mercurian's instructions and directives, as Philip Endean rightly points out, glossed the Exercises as a means to achieve ordered life rather than “exploring inarticulate levels of the self.”14 Self-control and ministry restricted and restrained affective mysticism. Even those practitioners who reach unitive contemplation should be instructed to return to the earlier ways, meaning moderation and “practices of virtue,” Mercurian advised. Acquaviva's official Directory of 1599 (parts of it drafted by Mercurian or at his request) put a (temporary) end to this theological/historical debate about the original intent of the Exercises. It institutionalized the correct—or what was ruled now to be correct—manner of giving and undertaking the Exercises. Acquaviva also set a limit on the number of hours the practitioner should devote to prayer, and, above all, insisted on the crucial importance of moderation in meditation.15

A distinct yet related history of the Exercises in this period is the history of visual images of spiritual exercises. Compilations of visual aids for the benefit of practitioners started circulating already in the second half of the sixteenth century. First in its importance and popularity has been Jerónimo Nadal's Adnotationes et meditationes in Evangelia (Annotations and meditations on the Gospels) of 1593. In Nadal's (1507–80) collection, each Gospel image is accompanied by a commentary and with a detailed description of the space and time in which the event took place. These images were not illustrations but meditative and contemplative means. And while the similarity to the order of meditations in the Spiritual Exercises of the First Week is evident, it is important to note that the book was not a visual narrative version of the Exercises but rather an illustrated version of the Gospel story itself. This being said, these prints were published in both folio edition and small size versions, accompanied by instruction for the devout practitioner how to observe the image and how to partake in the image. Authorized printed images and emblems, as well as detailed verbal descriptions of recommended visual meditations, circulated in large numbers and editions as prescribed pictorial aids to imagination. They had a dialectical and contradictory impact.

On the one hand, they diffused the Exercises. On the other, they systematized a method and order and restricted the practitioner's own imagination, thus turning the Spiritual Exercises into a collection of meditations one can practice on one's own for edifying purposes. As such, they echoed the tension inherent in the collection itself between the Exercises of the full four Weeks and Annotations 18–20 for “some profit” for the masses. They similarly represent the tensions of Jesuit spirituality during the last years of the sixteenth century and during the following hundred years. A systematic history of prints and engravings of the Spiritual Exercises still ought to be written.16

While the more self-transforming approach to practicing the Exercises was marginalized by the Directory of 1559, it was far from dead. Luis de la Puente (1554–1624), one of the most prolific Jesuit author of the period, composed in 1615 a hagiographical life of his teacher, Balthasar Álvarez (1533–80), one of the more mystically-inclined interpreters of the Exercises (and the spiritual director of Teresa of Ávila [1515–82]). Álvarez argued that there was no incompatibility between life devoted to contemplation and apostolic ministry. Álvarez's method of prayer was deemed strange and was banned by Mercurian, and Álvarez himself was silenced. Nevertheless, de la Puente's life of his teacher, which included a detailed explanation of Álvarez's method of prayer, circulated in many editions, as did de la Puente's own mystically-inclined spiritual guides and compilations.17 This debate also invented a vocabulary of “appropriate” spirituality, namely, a clear demarcation between what is “ours” and what is “strange,” what should be pursued and cultivated and what should be rejected as alien to the Society's message and mission.

Throughout the early modern period, attempts by Jesuits to maintain the more individualistic manner of undertaking the Exercises were met with accusations of "new spirituality" and alumbradismo. From Álvarez and the above-mentioned Antonio Cordeses in Spain, through Achille Gagliardi (1537–1607) in Italy to Louis Lallemant (1588–1635), Jean–Joseph Surin (1600–65), and Jean Labadie (1610–74) in France, the specter of individualized spirituality and contemplation continued to haunt the Society.18 Jesuits who deviated from the apostolic interpretation of the Exercises were accused of practicing “strange devotions,” “peculiar inventions,” “dangerous” and “contagious” illusions. And, in fact, had not Loyola already warned that “these who abandoned themselves with excess to retreats and long contemplations are exposed to demonic illusions”?19

One could even argue that this is where the attention of scholars of Jesuit spirituality prior to the suppression of the Society has been drawn to in the last thirty years or so, and the literature is immense. Mapping the precise chronologies and internal developments of each of the conflicts between the two “wings” of the Society over the issue of spirituality is an ongoing project.

As a part of the new emphasis on activism and mission and the undervaluation or even suspicion of individual, mystically-inclined contemplation, the Society of Jesus's usage of the Spiritual Exercises was reshaped. The pastoral goal of the Exercises became more central to the vocation of the Jesuit than his personal spiritual growth by means of contemplation. Abbreviations and rendition of the Exercises for both clerics and lay people of different estates and professions were compiled in the last years of the sixteenth century and during the entire seventeenth century. Following Annotations 18–20, some were even meant to be read alone at home by the practitioner or used during a short retreat (more on retreats below).20 It was during the seventeenth century that the Spiritual Exercises came to be recognized as the practice most identified with the Jesuits and the one that separates them from other religious orders. Interestingly, it was also the time in which other religious orders adopted the practice. This process, too, awaits its historian. The history of the manner of giving and undertaking the Exercises during the seventeenth century was detailed in Iparraguirre's third volume of his immense (and arid) history of the Spiritual Exercises, which follows the diffusion of the practice territory by territory and from Europe to Peru, India, China, and Japan.21

To summarize the transformations of the second half of the sixteenth century and the impact of the Directory of 1599, one can argue that this period shaped the meaning and manner of giving the Exercises for the following two hundred years. Rather than a method of individualized self-transformation and introspection that takes place in a setting of one-to-one interaction with a director, who adapts the Exercises each day according to the trainee's progress the day before, Jesuits were encouraged now to practice the Exercises as a collection of prayers. Furthermore, while in the 1550s the section of the Exercises on the application of the senses [66–70] was still understood by Polanco as an effort to reach a mystical experience, the official Directory omitted this possibility, and advocated instead a more regulated manner of using the imagination.22 This process of codification was referred to as “ad usum nostrum”—for the use of ours—the project of cultivating unique Jesuit spirituality that balances apostolic and personal pursuits. This was not an attack on contemplation but rather an attempt to regulate it, a process that was typical of the post–Tridentine church. In fact, the Directory and following instructions continued to emphasize (and regulate) daily mental prayer while at the same time also emphasizing missionary and pastoral obligations.

The Spiritual Exercises as Praxis

Unlike compilations of meditations from late medieval Europe, the Spiritual Exercises were not, originally at least, be meant to be read by the practitioner. Instead, they are an operative manual for a spiritual director, who is to assign exercises to the practitioner. The director, in his turn, is mandated to follow the precise order of the Exercises as they were recorded by Ignatius. In their entirety, the Exercises are set in a four-week frame of organization (but not necessarily to be taken over four actual weeks). They teach the practitioner to free the mind from distractions and then mobilize the faculties of visualization, memory, reason, and attention to gain internalized experience of the historical and cosmological scene each exercise details. The exercises (and this is the case with both the four-week version and the shortened, more “democratic” version) lead toward a general confession of one's entire life and then to consolation. The longer version, however, has a more dramatic goal, namely a conversion, a self-transformation and a rebirth as a Christian.

Since a primary goal of the Exercises was to help all souls orient themselves toward God, Loyola himself, as I have pointed out, already recommended giving them to people of all “estates” (estados), namely social positions, regardless of their degree of religious vocation and education. “Exercises should be given, each one, as much as they are willing to dispose themselves to receive, for the greater help and progress” [18]. The Society of Jesus instituted the practice in the Marian Lay Congregations and Sodalities it established throughout Europe.23

Women, too, were to gain from undertaking the Exercises. Following his first spiritual experiences in Manresa, Loyola gave the Exercises to women. He later ruled, though, that except for very few women of noble extraction, the majority of women are weak in judgment, intelligence, and spiritual potential [325]. The official Directory of 1599 agreed. While most women should only be given the earlier Exercises, “there may be the case of women who possess such good judgment and capacity for spiritual things, and sufficient leisure at home, that they can make all or most of the Exercises in full form. There is nothing to prevent it.”24

Acquaviva's reforms addressed, obviously, not only the access to the Exercises but also the manner of giving them. As for novices and more advanced Jesuits, the decree of the 1608 general congregation ordered that each Jesuit should undertake the Exercises for eight or ten days periodically, at least once a year. Novices were to make the entire Exercises once, but with exactitude as a method to make election.25 But Jesuit novices were no longer allowed to own copies of the entire four weeks of the Exercises, and the circulation of the Exercises in the vernacular was restricted to clerics. Last but not least, the retreat, itself another Jesuit invention, was transformed. Retreats were originally voluntary (and recommended in Annotation 20), until Acquaviva made it mandatory for all Jesuits in 1608.26

Retreats had originally been given in rooms in colleges and houses, but in the early seventeenth century, special houses for retreats were established. The innovation immediately attracted non-Jesuits, and retreats for clerics were established in Paris by Jesuit-trained Pierre de Bérulle (1575–1629) and Vincent de Paul (1581–1660) and in Milan by Charles Borromeo (1538–84).27 It was at the same time that retreats, the month-long period of daily meditations under the personal direction and attention of a spiritual director, became a rarity for non-Jesuits and Jesuits alike. Instead, group retreats, originally intended for children and women, became the new norm for all. This, obviously, reduced significantly the potential of using the retreat to discern the divine plan for an individual retreatant.

We still lack a history of retreats for the laity and of communal “preached retreats” in the early years of the Society. The only detailed case study deals with the retreat in Vannes, established by Vincent Huby (1608–93) and Jean Rigoleuc (1596–1658), and the local retreat for women, established at the same time by Catherine de Francheville (1620–89). It was Huby's method that was to shape retreats until the early years of the twentieth century. The Vannes retreat was open to all clerics in the district as well as to devout and experienced laymen. It lasted eight days and was mostly a periodic voluntary communal meeting of refreshing one's memory of the catechism and of listening to sermons. While the director may or may not assign meditations to the retreatants, these were never offered individually but communally and there was no attempt to follow the Spiritual Exercises in their entirety. While the benefits were supposed to be individual, the routine was not. In fact, some retreats had hundreds of participants.

This transition to group retreats preserved this core practice of the Society of Jesus while at the very same time transforming its foundational rationale. It was no longer meant to be an individual meeting of God, the director, and the exercitant, but an encounter of spiritual counselling and edification.28 This, let us not forget, did not contradict the original goal of the Exercises. But what had originally been a fallback option, whose benefits were significant but not as significant as those of taking the full four weeks individually, became, during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the more common and even the preferred practice. This was accompanied by an additional revision. Rather than being employed “to overcome oneself and to order one's life” [1], the Exercises were taken now sporadically as a means to revitalize one's spirituality. After the restoration of the Society, Superior General Jan Philip Roothaan (in office, 1829–53) renewed the tradition of retreats as communal experiences. No less an authority that Dominique Salin, S.J., who held the chair of spirituality at the Facultés Jésuites de Paris, described this manner of giving the Exercises “boring.”29 It was only in the 1920s that individual retreats were rediscovered and reintroduced in the Society, but even as late as 1969, George Ganss still had to remind Jesuits that individual and personal retreat that is attuned specifically to the needs of the retreatant was the original intent of the Exercises.30

The Restoration and the Exercises

A new chapter in the life of the Spiritual Exercises opened under Roothaan, who took upon himself the spiritual restoration of the Society. Revival of Jesuit apostolic and education missions loomed large on his agenda in this period of rapid expansion. On December 27, 1834, Roothaan published a letter on the importance and practice of the Spiritual Exercises. In this letter, he described the study and use of the Exercises as the most essential means for the restoration of the Society of Jesus. They, better than all other instruments, combine the Jesuit core precepts of prayer and activism.31 This instruction was augmented the following year by his own literal translation of the collection from Ignatius's original Spanish. Finally, his Ratio meditandi of 1847 was a detailed (yet short) manual how to practice the Exercises. “Rigid” and “literalist” are terms often used to describe Roothaan's interpretation. But it is important to remember that after almost two hundred years of proliferation of editions, variations, and adaptations of the Spiritual Exercises, the original text had become obscured in a flood of alternative collections. Political expulsions, tensions between states and the church, and immense expansion enforced authority and created a climate resistant to change or innovations within the Society. Reading and memorizing the Rules About Thinking with the Church and about the role of ordinary and communal prayer took central stage in Roothaan's interpretation, while mental prayer and individual meditation, as well as individual retreats, were de-emphasized. Like Mercurian's institutionalization of a standard edition in a time of crisis, Roothaan's reading valued apostolic work and the communal coherence of the Society above the pursuit of individual life in and of prayer.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, individual retreats (even for members of the Society) all by disappeared and were forgotten. At the same time, the seventeenth-century tradition of communal retreats for the laity became extremely popular, performed usually as a series of pastoral sermons on the Exercises of the First Week rather than as an actual experience in meditating the Exercises one by one within a one on one setting. Jesuit houses for periodic communal retreat became common in the last years of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, and have become one of the characteristics of the Society's educational mission.32

Roothaan's return to literalism also meant a beginning of a new period in a systematic examination of the Society's foundational documents. Here not a few surprises awaited scholars. Obviously, this process cannot be divorced from the Catholic Church's struggle with modernity during these years. Following the Oxford Movement and the British Jesuit George Tyrrell (1861–1909), the French ex-Jesuit scholar Henri Bremond (1865–1933) promoted an interpretation that viewed the history of approaches within the Society toward the Spiritual Exercises as a conflict between asceticism and mysticism.33 He was also influenced by the recent discovery by Henri Bernard Maître (1889–1975), a young Jesuit scholar (and later to become one of the leading Sinologists in the world) of Loyola the mystic, the layperson who had already given the Exercises to lay men and women prior to his move to Paris. While Maître's Essai historique sur les Exercices spirituels de St. Ignace depuis la conversion d'Ignace (1521) jusqu'à la publication du Directoire (1599) was published in 1926 and immediately withdrawn from circulation, Bremond's interpretation was extremely influential in shaping the study of French spirituality for the following hundred years.34 Jesuit scholars Ferdinand Cavallera (1875–1954) and Alexandre Brou (1862–1947) then confronted Bremond's interpretation, arguing that prayer and works have always been equally important in the Society and that both are the core principles of the Exercises. One must admit that this battle of giants looks very much like a rerun of the same interpretative conflicts that have been threatening the unity of the Society since the 1550s.35 In France and England (and later in Italy as well), Bremond's spiritual school won. In the 1950s, the French journal Christus promoted the spiritual tendency of the collection as an example of the sacralization of daily life by means of democratization and “normativization” of spiritual exercises. The historical and linguistic analysis of major early Jesuit texts by Michel de Certeau (1925–86) continued this tradition of excavating the mystical orientation of the Spiritual Exercises and other foundational Jesuit texts.36

In Germany, a similar mystical interpretation of the Exercises was put forward by Baron Friedrich von Hügel (1852–1925) and the sociologist of religions Lilly Zarnke (dates unknown), and then pitted the two luminary brothers Hugo (1900–68) and Karl (1904–84) Rahner against each other. While both insisted on the divine (rather than historical and textual) origins of the Spiritual Exercises, Hugo's interpretation emphasized much more the compilation's consolatory role and the place of the church and its evangelical mission in the Exercises, while Karl its individualistic and transformative potentiality.37 In German, too, the journal Korrespondenz zur Spiritualität der Exerzitien is an indication of the victory of the spiritual wing. Due to Bremond's and Karl Rahner's interpretations, by the second half of the twentieth century, the more mystical interpretation of the Spiritual Exercises won the day. And yet, as the history of the Exercises and the history of writing about them show, while codified for almost five hundred years, the Exercises have always been first and foremost a practice, and as such, always open to new materializations and interpretations. They have never ceased to change, be experienced, interpreted, and adapted to changing spiritual and historical circumstances. While this article follows their history only until the first quarter of the twentieth century, the previous hundred years witnessed additional changes, leading toward more spiritualization and democratization of Ignatius's collection. But the democratization of exercises of meditation and prayer came with the price of the restriction of the entire four-week retreat to members of the Society of Jesus alone, and they, too, only once or twice in a lifetime.


1 Henri Watrigant, Bibliographie des récentes publications sur les Exercices spirituelles et les retraites, 4 vols. (Enghien, 1907–13); Paul Begheyn and Kenneth Bogart, “A Bibliography on St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises in English, 1900–1993,” SSJ 23, no. 3 (1991).

2 Ignatius of Loyola, Exercitia spiritualia: Textuum antiquissimorum nova editio, ed. José Calveras and Cándido de Dalmases (Rome, 1969), is the new standard edition. For English quotations, I have used George E. Ganss's edition, The Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works (New York, 1991).

3 The literature is immense. It is important to credit Henri Watrigant, whose articles, starting in the 1890s, broke new ground in challenging the apologetic insistence on the divine or Marian origins of the Exercises and ignited the scholarly analyses of the sources. Since then, the most important discussions have been Arturo Codina, Los orígenes de los Ejercicios Espirituales de S. Ignacio de Loyola (Barcelona, 1936); Pedro de Leturia, “La ‘Devotio moderna’ en el Montserrat de S. Ignacio,” in his Estudios Ignacianos, 2 vols. (Rome, 1957), 2:73–88; Leturia, “Libros de horas, Anima Christi y Ejercicios espirituales de S. Ignacio,” in his Estudios Ignacianos 2:99–148; José Calveras, “Los ‘Confessionales’ y los Ejercicios de S. Ignacio,” AHSI (1948): 51–101; Henry Pinard de la Boullaye, Les étapes de rédaction des Exercices de S. Ignace (Paris, 1950); Joseph de Guibert, The Jesuits: Their Spiritual Doctrine and Practice (Chicago, 1964), 152–72; H. Outram Evennett, The Spirituality of the Counter Reformation, ed. John Bossy (Notre Dame, 1970), 43–66; Adrien Demoustier, “L'originalité des ‘Exercices spirituels,’” in  Les jésuites à l'âge baroque (1540–1640), ed. Luce Giard and Louis de Vaucelles (Grenoble, 1996), 23–35, here 27–31; Las fuentes de los Ejercicios Espirituales de San Ignacio: Actas del Simposio Internacional (Loyola, 15–19 septiembre 1997), ed. Juan Plazaola (Bilbao, 1998); Adriano Prosperi, “The Two Standards: The Origins and Development of a Celebrated Ignatian Meditation,” Journal of Jesuit Studies 2, no. 3 (2015): 361–86 (doi: 10.1163/22141332–00203001), recently added Antonio da Atri and Battista da Crema as possible sources of influence.

4 Ignacio Iparraguirre, Historia de la práctica de los Ejercicios espirituales de San Ignacio de Loyola: 1. Práctica de lo Ejercicios [...] en vida de su autor (1522–56) (Bilbao and Rome, 1946) offers a very detailed commentary on the Exercises. Cándido de Dalmases, Ignatius of Loyola: Founder of the Jesuits; His Life and Work (St. Louis, 1985), and his Ejercicios Espirituales: Introducción, texto, notas y vocabulario (Madrid, 1987) offer detailed textual and historical analyses of sources.

5 Victoriano Larrañaga, “La revisión total de los Ejercicios por San Ignacio en París o en Roma?” AHSI 25 (1956): 395–415; Iparraguirre, Historia de la práctica, 1:97–102; Hugo Rahner, Ignatius the Theologian (London, 1968), 160–65; Terence O'Reilly, “Melchor Cano and the Spirituality of Saint Ignatius Loyola,” in Ignacio de Loyola y su tiempo, ed. Juan Plazaola (Bilbao, 1992), 369–80. For an excellent history of the Society in this period, see John W. O'Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge, 1993).

6 The 18th Annotation: The Exercises and Catechesis (Rome, 1983).

7 Guibert, Jesuits, 125; O'Malley, First Jesuits, 128. See also Adrien Demoustier, Les Exercices spirituelles de S. Ignace de Loyola: Lecture et pratique d'un texte (Paris, 2006), 35–45.

8 Here, too, Ignacio Iparraguirre's work has been crucial for later generations of scholars. See his Répertoire de spiritualité ignatienne de la mort de S. Ignace à celle du P. Aquaviva (1556–1615) (Rome, 1961), as well as the first part of his Comentarios de los Ejercicios Ignacianos (siglos XVI–XVIII) (Rome, 1967), which discusses six hundred texts, written between 1587 and 1813. English translations of some Directories were published by Martin E. Palmer, On Giving the Spiritual Exercises: The Early Jesuit Manuscripts and the Official Directory of 1599 (St. Louis, 1996). See also R. Rouquette, “Le Directoire des Exercices: histoire du texte,” Revue d'ascétique et de mystique 14 (1933): 395–408; Michela Catto, “Dagli Esercizi spirituali alle Costituzioni della Compagnia di Gesù: Il discernimento spirituale e il governare; La struttura di ‘un modo di procedere’,” in Strutture e forme del discorso storico, ed. Achille Olivieri (Milan, 2005), 208–31; Catto, “I ‘Directoria’ degli Esercizi spirituali da Sant'Ignazio a Scaramelli,” in Zarri, Direzione spirituale, 331–51.

9 Iparraguirre, Historia de la práctica de los Ejercicios, 2: De la muerte de San Ignacio hasta la promulgación del directorio official (1556–1599), 504–27; Guibert, Jesuits, 218–47.

10 Cándido de Dalmases, Francis Borgia: Grandee of Spain, Jesuit, Saint (St. Louis, 1991), 159–66; Guibert, Jesuits, 192–99.

11 Pedro de Leturia, "Lecturas ascéticas y lecturas místicas entre los jesuítas del siglo XVI," in his Estudios ignacianos, 2:269–331; Michel de Certeau, La fable mystique: XVIe–XVIIe siècle, 2 vols. (Paris, 1982–2015), 1:340–45; John O'Malley, "Early Jesuit Spirituality: Spain and Italy," in Christian Spirituality: Post Reformation and Modern, Louis Dupré and Don E. Saliers, eds. (New York, 1989), 14–17.

12 Pedro de Leturia, “Cordeses, Mercuriano, Colegio Romano y lecturas espirituales de los jesuítas en el siglo XVI,” in his Estudios ignacianos 2:333–78; Joseph de Guibert, “Le généralité de Claude Aquaviva (1581–1615): Sa place dans l'histoire de la spiritualité de la Compagnie de Jésus,” AHSI 10 (1941): 59–93; José Martínez Millán, “Transformación y crisis de la Compañía de Jesús (1578–1594),” in Flavio Rurale, ed., I religiosi a corte: Teologia, politica e diplomazia in Antico Regime (Rome, 1998), 101–4; Alessandro Guerra, Un generale fra le milizie del papa: La vita di Claudio Acquaviva scritta da Francesco Sacchini della Compagnia di Gesù (Milan, 2001), 115–30; idem, “‘Os meum aperui et attraxi spiritum quia mandata tua desiderabam’: Claudio Acquaviva nella direzione spirituale della Compagnia di Gesù,” in Direzione spirituale tra ortodossia ed eresia: Dalle scuole filosofiche antiche al Novecento, Michela Catto, Isabella Gagliardi and Rosa Maria Parrinello, eds. (Brescia, 2002), 219–45; Stefania Pastore, Il vangelo e la spada: L'Inquisizione di Castiglia e i suoi critici (1460–1598) (Rome, 2003), 420–35; Pastore, “La 'svolta anti-mistica' di Mercuriano: I retroscena spagnoli,” Dimensioni e problemi della ricerca storica 1 (2005): 81–93; Philip Endean, “‘The Strange Style of Prayer': Mercurian, Cordeses, and Álvarez,” in Thomas M. McCoog, ed. The Mercurian Project: Forming Jesuit Culture (1573–1580) (Rome, 2004), 351–97; Sabina Pavone, I gesuiti dalle origini alla soppressione, 1540–1773 (Rome, 2009), 33–45.

13 See the official Directory of 1599 and Mercurian's “Short Instruction on Giving the Exercises,” in Palmer, ed., Giving the Spiritual Exercises, 289–349.

14 Endean, “‘The original Line of Our Father Ignatius': Mercurian and the Spirituality of the Exercises,” in The Mercurian Project, 35–48, here 42.

15 Claudio Acquaviva, “Quis sit orationis et paenitentiarum usus in Societate iuxta nostrum Institutum,” Epistolae praepositorum generalium ad patres et fratres Societatis Iesu, 4 vols. (Brussels, 1908–9), 1:248–70; Palmer, Giving the Spiritual Exercises, 289–319.

16 Jerónimo Nadal, Annotations and Meditations on the Gospels, 3 vols., trans. and ed. Frederick A. Homann; intro. Walter S. Melion (Philadelphia, 2003–7). See also Melion, The Meditative Art: Studies in the Northern Devotion Print, 1550–1625 (Philadelphia, 2009); Meditation—Refashioning the Self: Theory and Practice in Late Medieval and Early Modern Intellectual Culture, Karl A. Enenkel and Walter Melion, eds. (Leiden, 2011), and the bibliographies there; Pierre-Antoine Fabre, Ignace de Loyola: Le lieu de l'image (Paris, 1992); and Marc Fumaroli, L'École du silence: Le sentiment des images au XVIIe siècle (Paris, 1994). On Jesuit imaginings in the following century, see Ralph Dekoninck, Ad imaginem: Statuts, fonctions et usages de l'image dans la littérature spirituelle jésuite du XVIIe siècle (Geneva, 2005).

17 Luis de la Puente, Vida del V.P. Baltasar Alvarez (Madrid, 1880), 440–452; Paul Dudon, “Les leçons d'oraison du P.B. Alvarez,” Revue d'ascétique et de mystique 2 (1921): 36–57.

18 Pastore, Il vangelo e la spada, offers an excellent summary of the similarities among these tendencies in Italy and Spain. See also Endean, “Strange Style of Prayer”; Pietro Pirri, “Il P. Achille Gagliardi, la dama milanese, la riforma dello spirito e il movimento degli zelatori,” AHSI 14 (1945): 1–27; Michela Catto, La Compagnia divisa: Il dissenso nell’ordine gesuitico tra ‘500 e ‘600 (Brescia, 2009), 71–111; Michel de Certeau, “Histoire des jésuites,” ch. 7 of his Le lieu de l'autre: Histoire religieuse et mystique (Paris, 2005), 155–65; Dudon, “Les leçons d'oraison du P. Lallemant, ont–elles été blâmées par ses supérieurs?” Revue d'ascétique et de mystique 11 (1930): 394–406; Henri Bremond, Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France depuis la fin des guerres de religion jusqu'à nos jours, 11 vols. (Paris, 1915–36), vols. 5 and 8; Moshe Sluhovsky, Becoming a New Self: Practices of Belief in Early Modern Catholicism (Chicago, 2017). See also Philip Endean, Karl Rahner and Ignatian Spirituality (Oxford, 2001), and Terence O'Reilly, “Joseph Veale and the History of the Spiritual Exercises,” Milltown Studies 66 (2011): 1–18, for twenty-first-century reiterations of this on-going discussion concerning the “right” interpretation of the Exercises.

19 The warning attributed to Ignatius is quoted by Nicolau Orlandino in his Historia Societatis Iesu: Prima pars (Rome, 1615), 570, one of the very first histories of the Society of Jesus.

20 The best example for this new style of Jesuit exercises is probably Alfonso Rodríguez’s Ejercicio de perfección y virtudes cristianas of 1609. Rodríguez (1526–1616) compiled a collection of meditations, prayers, medieval exempla, and very traditional religious reflections. Within twenty years, the book was published in seven Spanish editions and was translated into all the major European languages. Alfonso Rodríguez, Ejercicio de perfección y virtudes cristianas (Madrid, 1954). Other examples include Jacob Gretser, Vitae D. Mariae Virginis (Ingolstadt, 1592); Johannes Busaeus (Johann Buys), Enchiridion piarum meditationum (Meinz, 1606); Luis de la Puente, Meditationes de los misterios de nuestra santa fe (Valladolid, 1606, and many abbreviations and translations); Luca Pinelli, Libretto d'imagini, e di brevi meditationi sopra quattro novissimi dell'huomo (Naples, 1594), and Quaranta Essercitii spirituali per l'oratione delle quaranta hore (Naples, 1605).

21 Iparraguirre, Historia de la práctica de los Ejercicios espirituales de San Ignacio de Loyola, vol. 3: Evolución en Europa durante el siglo XVII (Rome, 1973); Guibert, Jesuits, 317–73. See also Guido Mongini, “Devozione e illuminazione: Direzione spirituale e esperienza religiosa negli Esercizi spirituali di Ignazio di Loyola,” in Giovanni Filoramo, ed. Storia della direzione spirituale, 3 vols., Gabriella Zarri, general editor (Brescia, 2006–8); 3:241–88, who lists many additional texts. See also discussions in Catto, “‘Directoria’ degli Esercizi spirituali,” in Zarri, Direzione spirituale, 3:333–35; 349–51; Massimo Marcocchi, “Modelli professionali e itinerari di perfezione nella trattatistica sugli ‘Stati di vita’,” in Lombardia borromaica, Lombardia spagnola, 1554–1659, Paolo Pissavino and Gianvittorio Signorotto, eds., 2 vols. (Rome, 1995), 2:859–76.

22 Guibert, Jesuits, 246–47; 605–9; Ganss, Spiritual Exercises, 164–65.

23 Louis Châtelier, Europe of the Devout: The Counter Reformation and the Formation of a New Society (Cambridge, 2005).

24 “Official Directory of 1599,” in Palmer, ed., Giving the Spiritual Exercises, par. 83, p. 307. On women and the Exercises, see Iparraguirre, “Las religiosas,” in Historia de los Ejercicios, 3: Evolución en Europa durante el siglo XVII, 519–39; Cándido de Dalmases, “The Exercises according to the 18th Annotation: History and Method,” in 18th Annotation, 11–21, here 14–16; and Silvia Mostaccio, “Shaping the Spiritual Exercises: The Maisons des retraites in Brittany during the Seventeenth Century as a Gendered Pastoral Tool,” Journal of Jesuit Studies 2, no. 4 (2015): 659–84 (doi: 10.1163/22141332–00204007).

25 Iparraguirre, Historia de la práctica de los Ejercicios espirituales 2: 235–39.

26 Marcel Viller, “Le 17e siècle et l'origine des retraites spirituelles,” Revue d'ascétique et de mystique 9 (1928): 139–62 and 359–89; Viller and Michel Olphe–Galliard, “Aux origins de la retraite annuelle,” Revue d'ascétique et de mystique 15 (1934): 4–33; Jean Daniélou, “Retraite ignatienne et tradition chrétienne,” Christus 10 (1956): 152–70.

27 Guibert, Jesuits, 302–6, and Iparraguirre, Historia de la práctica de los Ejercicios espirituales, 3:20–44, offer briefs histories of retreats, a topic that deserves much more attention.

28 Jacqueline Héduit, Catherine de Francheville (Tours, 1957); Mostaccio, “Shaping the Spiritual Exercises .” Iparraguirre, Historia de la práctica de los Ejercicios espirituales, 3:519–39 records the growing popularity of communal retreats among other religious orders.

29 Dominique Salin, “Methods for Sancho Panza: Henri Bremond and the Interpretation of the Ignatian Exercises,” in Ignatian Spirituality and Contemplative Prayer: The Way, supplement 103 (2002): 66–76. See also his L’expérience spirituelle et son langage: Leçons sur la tradition mystique chrétienne (Paris, 2015).

30 George E. Ganss, "The Authentic Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius," Studies in the Spirituality of the Jesuits 1 (1969): 1–36.

31 Roothaan, Epistolae, 5 vols. (Rome, 1935–40), 2:365–84.

32 John W. Padberg, “Predicting the Past, Looking Back for the Future,” in Jesuit Spirituality: A New and Future Resource, Padberg et al., eds. (Chicago, 1990), 33–40.

33 For a good general survey, see Marvin R. O'Connell, Critics on Trial: An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis (Washington, DC, 1994).

34 Henri Bernard [Maître], Essai historique sur les Exercices spirituels de St. Ignace depuis la conversion d'Ignace (1521) jusqu'à la publication du Directoire (1599) (Louvain, 1926).

35 Bremond, Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux, vols. 3 and 8; Bremond, “Ascèse ou prière? Notes sur la crise des ‘Exercices’ de Saint–Ignace,” Revue des Sciences religieuses 7 (1927): 226–61 and 402–28; Bremond, “Saint Ignace et les Exercices,” La vie spirituelle 20 (1929): 1–47 and 73–111, supplement; Alexandre Brou, Les Exercices spirituelles de Saint Ignace de Loyola: Histoire et psychologie (Paris, 1914). See also Emile Goichot, Henri Bremond, histoire du sentiment religieux: Genèse et stratégie d'une entreprise littéraire (Paris, 1982), as well as François Trémolière's “‘The Witness to These Witnesses’: Henri Bremond,” in Robert A. Maryks, ed. Brill’s Companion to Jesuit Mysticism (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming). Compare Michel de Certeau, “Crise sociale et réformisme spirituel au début du XVII siècle: Une ‘nouvelle spiritualité’ chez les jésuites français,” in Revue d'ascétique et de mystique 41 (1965): 339–86; and Jean–Claude Guy, “Henri Bremond et son commentaire des Exercices de Saint Ignace,” Revue d'ascétique et de mystique 178 (1969): 191–224, to Endean, “Strange Style of Prayer,” and Endean, “‘The Original Line of Our Father Ignatius,’” in The Mercurian Project, 35–48.

36 See especially his Fable mystique and Le lieu de l'autre.

37 Friedrich von Hügel, The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends (London, 1919); Lilly Zarnke, Die Exercitia spiritualia des Ignatius von Loyola in ihren geistesgeschichtlichen Zusammenhängen (Leipzig, 1931); Hugo Rahner, The Spirituality of St Ignatius Loyola (Westminster, MD, 1953). Karl Rahner, Sämtliche Schriften, vol. 13: Ignatianischer Geist: Schriften zu den Exerzitien und zur Spiritualität des Ordensgründers, eds. Andreas R. Batlogg et al. (Freiburg, 2006); Philip Endean, Karl Rahner and Ignatian Spirituality (Oxford, 2001).

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