The Spiritual Exercises are not just a listing of meditations separated into four “weeks.” They are much more than that. They are a work of art that has inspired thousands, if not millions, of Christians throughout the last five centuries. And while Ignatius offers them as a model of prayer and discernment, the Exercises also model how one lives the sacramental life in the Church.
Since Ignatius was very much a part of the Catholic tradition, he understood the importance of the sacraments in deepening one’s relationship with God, so he included some direction in the Exercises. This comes out primarily in two sacraments: Reconciliation and Eucharist.
The First Week of the Exercises involves an inventory of one’s soul and an examination of current and past sins. Ignatius suggests that the retreatant may be moved to make a sacramental confession of his or her sins as a sign of sorrow and acceptance that one is a sinner and in need of God’s healing. While he recommends a certain frequency of confession he ultimately leaves it up to how the retreatant’s contemplation on the story of sin moves him to seek God’s mercy.
Communion is also important for Ignatius. The Eucharist for him, as with Reconciliation, is a way to connect the meditations of the Exercises with the sacramental life of the Church. This is not only true for the meditation on the Last Supper but also for the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus doesn’t just break bread for them, he “[gives] them Communion.” And then they “told the disciples how they had recognized him in the Communion.” (Spiritual Exercises 303) For Ignatius, the Eucharist is “the greatest mark of [Christ’s] love,” (SE 289) which culminates in the final meditation on God’s love, the Contemplatio.
Ignatius seems intentional in how he places the sacraments and prayer within the rhythms of the Exercises. For Catholics, the sacraments also live within the rhythms of our life and directly connect us with the love of God that comes to us in those rhythms. Going to Mass or confession isn’t a pious act of gaining favor with God; it’s about recognizing God amidst our daily struggles and joys, a God whose love is poured out in a special way through the sacraments.