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Religion & Culture | Finding God online - 16th-century spiritual exercises offered via the Internet spark new interest

Published:Sunday | October 8, 2017 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
St Ignatius of Loyola

"Stretching oneself spiritually is as important as an athlete's conditioning routine"

- The Society of Jesuits


St Ignatius of Loyola's spiritual exercises aim to heighten one's attentiveness to God's mercy and love. Tailored to the demands of modern society, what was once a 30-day retreat is now offered online.

In the first week, the devotee reflects on one's life, and examines one's conscience and shortcomings in the face of God munificence. The second week is dedicated to meditation, contemplation on scripture, prayer, and how best one can heed the counsel of Christ.

In the third week, one reflects on the Last Supper and the passion of Christ. And in the final week, the devotee contemplates on Christ's resurrection and is committed to follow Christ's teachings.

Still, many opt for the 30-day retreat (also called the Long Retreat), a period of soul searching that has attracted many of diverse faiths. This is attributed to the overwhelming peace and tranquillity experienced.




Solitude, we learn, is the cornerstone of illumination. Wasn't Elias given double spirit during his retreat on Mount Carmel? The vigils of St Bernard, John the Baptist, and the solitude of Christ in the desert are also well known.

During such periods, the consciousness is heightened and many have reported an unimaginable closeness with the Divine; an experience that many in the Sufi community call nafsil mutma`inna or spiritual awakening. Some Christians have called one who has experienced the Divine a 'Christian Knower'.

St Ignatius recommended four weeks of silence and isolation. The devotee was only allowed marginal contact with the spiritual director of the retreat on matters related to scripture or spiritual experiences.

Of the significance of these spiritual exercises, St Ignatius said, "Man was created for this end: to praise, revere and serve the Lord his God, and by this means arrive at eternal salvation ... I come from God; I belong to God; I am destined to God."

St Ignatius, though, was mindful that not everyone is capable of undertaking this rigorous period of self-abnegation.

He wrote: "Let the nature, the length, the number of exercises be always suited to the age, the capacity, the health, the goodwill of the person in retreat; let no one be burdened; let each one do only what he can with profit ... without ever passing the limits fixed for him by a prudent director enlightened by experience."

But he was impatient with the indolent and those who rejected spiritual enquiry.




Always mindful of our frailty and life's uncertainty, especially in matters of life and death, St Ignatius emphasised the importance of spiritual preparedness.

He said: "To die is to bid farewell to your titles and your rank; farewell to your pleasures, farewell to your friends ... farewell to the world forever." He then asked rhetorically, "Are we prepared?"

The spiritual exercises are challenging - six hours of meditation partitioned throughout the day and night amid protracted periods of silence.

Of prayer, the founder of the Jesuits counselled: "Recite some vocal prayer ... feel and taste devotion; dwell on the words, meditate on them as long as they furnish you with thoughts and affections ... . When the time comes to conclude, recite the rest of the prayer without stopping ... ."

St Ignatius held that the devotee must feel and merge with prayerful meditations; that he or she must speak to God with raw honesty

He was convinced that these instructions constituted the very sin qua non of authentic spirituality.

Today, St Ignatius spiritual exercises are taught online to accommodate aspirants globally.

Not colliding with individual's social and economic responsibilities this approach has prove to be convenient. Online retreats can exceed four weeks, in some cases spanning more than six months.

They have been called "retreat in daily life" or "self-guided retreats" that require at least one hour of meditation and contemplation daily.

They afford individuals to immerse themselves in spirituality without interrupting their secular duties. Of the traditional retreat and its modern (online) version, the Jesuit society states on its website, "All of these techniques are geared to nurturing the habits of spiritual discernment among those who are ready to see God at work in all things."

Given the fragmentation of society and growing challenges on a personal level, it is hardly surprising that there is a spiritual resurgence. The Jesuit Society has come to the fore, ever so timely, offering these exercises as a spiritual compass, a balm for those wounded by the travails of life.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity' and the newly released 'The Mystical Qigong Handbook for Good Health'. Feedback to or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby