St. Ignatius Loyola, from the Ratio Studiorum (1606)

Books Illustrating the First Two Centuries
of Contemplation and Action of the Society of Jesus

Thumbnail image from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Book 2

Ignatius of Loyola, Saint, 1491-1556.
Exercitia spiritualia Ignatij de Loyola.
(Douai: Ex officina Ioannis Bogardi, 1586)

The Spiritual Exercises, first composed by Ignatius in Spanish sometime before 1541,[6] are both a foundational document of the Society of Jesus and a guide with which Jesuits have led innumerable laypersons through a spiritual journey divided into four “weeks” or sections. This journey culminates in a confrontation between Christ and the Tempter (“The Two Standards”) in which the person undertaking the exercises is called upon to choose between the two.

The use of vivid imagery in the Exercises can be traced back to the Vita Christi of Ludolf. But the length and organization of the Exercises reflects the more fast-paced and mobile world in which the new Society was growing up. The work can be adapted for use in a thirty-day retreat or, for laypersons, in shorter segments.

During the first century of the Society’s existence, the direction of the Exercises was one of the most important media of connection between Jesuit priests and the laity, including many women. Priests also led Jesuit brothers through the puncta or points of the Exercises, thereby making this devotional text a pivotal link between these two categories of Jesuits.

The influence of this small book has long extended beyond the Catholic Church and played a significant role in the development of early modern English literature. While in no way "officially" Catholic, the culture of Elizabethan and early Stuart England absorbed and reflected the influence of the Counter Reformation in many ways; one was in taking to heart the continental practices of meditation embodied in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius and other treatises on meditation. The meditative poetry of John Donne (who may have been educated by Jesuits), George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw all approached reflection in an Ignatian fashion, and likewise the writings of English Jesuit Robert Southwell owe a major debt to the Exercises. "The art of meditation," as Louis Martz notes, "underlies the ars poetica: in English religious poetry of the seventeenth century the two arts fuse, inseparably...."[7]

This vellum-bound edition of a definitive Latin text of the Exercises shows on its title page a sixteenth-century rendering of the monogram of Christ (a reference to both the first three letters of the name “Jesus” in Greek, or ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, and to the initials of the motto In hoc signo vinces, “In this sign shalt thou conquer,” the phrase that guided the emperor Constantine to victory in 312 ad) along with the three nails of His passion, a detail not found in the earliest editions of the Exercises. The size of the book suggests that it might have been intended to be carried from place to place, perhaps by a Jesuit directing the Exercises among both clergy and laypersons.

[6] Many scholars place the first drafting of the Exercises as early as 1522 during Ignatius' sojourn in Manresa.

[7] Louis Lohr Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954).

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