The French philosopher Pierre Hadot has studied the origins of spiritual exercises among Greek philosophers. There seems to be a straight line from Hellenistic philosophy and its influence on Church fathers like Ambrose and Augustine, to the early monastic tradition, to the medieval monks who influenced Ignatius Loyola. (At one point Ignatius wanted to be a Carthusian and even permitted members of his order to transfer into that order and return later.) Ignatius borrowed from a very long tradition of spiritual exercises, of which Hadot writes the following.
What’s interesting about the idea of spiritual exercises is precisely that it is not a matter of a purely rational consideration, but the putting in action of all kinds of means, intended to act upon one’s self. Imagination and affectivity play a capital role here: we must represent to ourselves in vivid colors the dangers of such-and-such a passion, and use striking formulations of ideas in order to exhort ourselves. We must also create habits, and fortify ourselves by preparing ourselves against hardships in advance. (Philosophy as a Way of Life, Blackwell 1995, p. 284.)
What the ancients understood, and what Ignatius recaptured, is that people are not really governed by reason. We are governed by passions, and we can learn to master them or be mastered by them. Spiritual exercises are about choosing to act only on those passions which originate in God and lead us back to God.
Image: Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, from the Glyptothek, Munich, courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol.