Spiritual Exercise

Andy Hawes 

Readers can take comfort from the fact that although the ‘lockdown’ ended for golf courses before churches at least churches seemed to higher up the league table than gyms and spas. Never having been in a gym in my life it might be foolhardy to comment, and I am sure that many readers do visit them and benefit from them. Living in the countryside, with the interests that I have, going indoors to exercise would be a bizarre way to spend time.

If I ride a bike it is go somewhere to do something, if I go for a walk it is either to exercise the dog or simply to benefit from a time of immersion in creation, which heals and informs. I don’t have to seek ways to exercise and stretch muscles and tendons because I have a garden, and an allotment. In the winter two stoves mean I carry the equivalent of three tons of fuel in and half a ton of ash out of the house. I do enjoy swimming but that is not part of any regular routine.

It often strikes me that so much of what purports to be spirituality is rather like gym exercise. It looks good, it makes people feel better, but it doesn’t actually achieve anything or go anywhere. St Ignatius of Loyola coined the phrase

‘ Spiritual Exercise’. As a soldier he carried over the practice of military discipline into his life of prayer. The Spiritual Exercises are shaped around a number of ‘drills’, of repeated patterns of posture, mental application and intention. There is a clear process to follow, a routine which places the participant in the exercises in a secure ‘place’ in which they are able to trust the movement of the spirit they are seeking to discern.

It is not advisable to dip into the Ignatian Exercises, as it is not advisable to throw oneself on a piece of gym apparatus if you are ignorant of how it works. Many people have suffered spiritual damage from not being guided through the exercises by a director; the spiritual equivalent to a fitness coach. One of the roles of the director is to make sure the process of the exercises is firmly secure in the retreatants mind and heart. They must come to the point where they intuitively pass from a preparatory stage, (equivalent to the warm up in physical exercise), through the prescribed points of the exercise to the repeated conclusion, until they come to the period of reflection at the end of the exercise. All this is then followed by a conversation with the directee.

For many practical and personal reasons only a very limited number of people ever undergo the full Ignatian Exercises, but some of the practical wisdom they are founded on can be used by every person who has a desire to open up their life to Christ. Ignatius’ insistence on routine and a disciplined pattern, of careful prayerful preparation for a time of prayer and an equal attention to reviewing the experience of prayer, are vital to everybody’s spiritual health. Ignatius also demonstrates the value of sharing experience with another person, something for every praying person to consider. If we apply gym discipline to prayer we will definitely go somewhere!