The Exercises Verses Vice
Never before did it dawn upon the soul that the Devil is like a commander in chief who goes about seeking to destroy his enemy. Like any commander, he is not a fool. He considers the fortress of your soul, and then attacks it upon its weakest point. This weakest point is what St. Ignatius calls the “particular fault” or the “dominant fault.” Happy indeed is the lot of he who knows what his dominant fault is before the devil knows … sad is the lot of he who knows not what it is while, for certain, the devil does. What would it profit the men of a fortress if the facing wall was great and powerful, but the enemy takes them by surprise from the back through a hole in the back wall.
Once the dominant fault is known, vice can be rooted up most effectively. Many retreatants, having discovered, even to their horror, what their dominant fault is, now begin a life of combat. There are those also, who leave without having discovered it. Although this is a pity, they nevertheless have come to realise that they may indeed have one. It needs to be found, and finally, perhaps with counsel, to be eradicated.
One may go about destroying an edifice by slowly hacking at it from the outside. Slowly one would come to that stronghold, which would then cause the rest to fall to the ground. Would it not be much more efficacious to go about finding where this stronghold is and wrecking it first. Much labour would be spared and the job would be done so much more efficaciously.
It is the same when it comes to the edifice of vice. Finding the stronghold and destroying it, would cause the edifice of vice to come tumbling down.
The Exercises in the World
Because of the allurement of riches, there are many today who would like to serve God, but wish to do it their own way. They wish God to come to their inordinate desires. They put the cart before the horse. Instead of seeking first to do the will of God, they first seek some rich way of life, and then seek to serve God in it.
The apex of the retreat is found in the meditation on the three classes of men. Each has obtained a certain richness. What do they intend to do with it? How do they now seek to order their lives? The first attaches himself to the riches, even with the danger of losing his soul. The second is quick to say to the Lord God, “Behold, here I am … yet, not without my riches.” The third lays his riches before the feet of God saying: “If Thou wilt, take it, if Thou would want me to keep it, I will, but, above all, I want to do Thy Holy Will!”
How very very few people reach this third degree, this total detachment. St. Ignatius reminds us again; riches are not an evil in themselves, they cannot enter your heart. It is, however, the attachment to them that corrupts the heart. In our holy Catechisms we learnt that sin causes us to turn away from God, but, since our hearts were made for love, since they cannot remain empty, they turn and fill themselves with the riches of creation. Thus strictly speaking, the very first commandment is broken, for the soul places the idol of riches before God.
With great sanity, St. Ignatius reminds us once again; “things created were given to us by the good God in order to help us to salvation. It does not follow from this that all things are necessarily going to be a help. There will be things that will place my soul in danger. These things I must reject. Were there something which would not help me to salvation nor be an obstacle to me, I must be totally indifferent to it.
Although I constantly used the example of riches, we are to understand it as regarding all things created. Thus it could be my honour or glory, it could be my health etc.
The Exercises and Strength of Character
Having laid down such firm foundations, what else can we expect than a deep conviction. Since this conviction is not based upon my likes or dislikes, nor my own interior dynamical feelings (God forbid!), it will necessarily feed the virtue of perseverance. Here again we see a capital difference between the exercises and some other good recollection retreat. Whereas the last normally enflames the heart, the exercises fixes the heart on a solid foundation. When the enflamed heart has cooled down due to the allurements of the world, it has thereby also lost the fruit of the retreat. In the case of the exercises, the soul might not have been enflamed, yet, even many years later, the firm foundation once laid will still be there.
Now the nature of perseverance is not a temporal enflaming, but rather a firm continuance through thick and thin. Then we also remember the words of Our Lord; “He who perseveres unto the end, he shall be saved.” (St. Matt. 10; 22)
The Exercises as a Preparation for Death
One of the most beautiful replies I have ever heard to my question; “why did you come to do the exercises?” came from a lady well into her nineties: “Father, I think this is the best way I can prepare for my death!” I had nothing more to say. What more could I say? The thought came to me over and over again; “indeed, what a beautiful way to prepare for death, grounded in humility, filled with a desire to see God, contempt for the vanities of the world, walking under the banner of Christ the King, … how can such a one damn her soul? Then comes to mind the words of St. Alphonsus de Liguori; “you will die the way you have lived.”
The Exercises as a Powerful means of Obtaining Divine Love
Most of what has been said up to this point, concerns the “first” and partly the “second week” of the exercises. Yet, last but certainly not the least, let us speak a little about the “third” and the “fourth weeks”. Truly, these weeks may be said to be the highlight of the retreat, the golden dome of the entire structure. These are the “weeks” in which the soul turns all her attention to the Divine Master, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
All that has been learnt up to this point is now sealed by the example of Our Lord in His public life and teachings and in His passion and death, and in the glorious mysteries of His life. The first part of the exercises, as explained above, could be compared to the stage in the spiritual life called the Purgative. Now, in the second to the fourth “week”, it could be compared to the illuminative way. It is in this stage of the spiritual life that the soul turns her gaze to more to Our Lord. The spiritual writers call this the “illuminative” degree because the soul is so much more enlightened with the grace of God that she seeks only to clothe herself with Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this part of the exercises the soul is guided then to focus her whole attention upon the person of Our Lord. In the “second” week, the marvel of the incarnation and birth of Our Lord fills the soul with a reverential awe as she sees the inexpressible humility of the God-man. He Who is God, deigns to make himself subject to man. The tender love of the heavenly Father for mankind shines forth from the crib, such that when before the soul was overwhelmed with the horrors of hell, she is now immersed in the sweet tenderness of her heavenly Father.
The contemplations on the public life of Our Lord helps the soul to understand more deeply than before His saving doctrines. Truly it is at these moments of contemplation in the exercises that the soul savors these doctrines in a way that no book could ever explain. It is the heavenly Master Who is teaching and revealing Himself to the soul.
But come the third week, and the soul is immersed in the contemplation of the passion and death of Our Lord which is the lesson of lessons. Whereas before, in the first week, sorrow for sin was obtained through a servile fear, now a much more perfected and exalted sorrow is obtained through a sweet filial fear. By the meditations on hell, death and judgment, the soul was filled with that fear which made her recoil. It made her reverse, as it were, into heaven, not so much because of the love of God, but rather for the fear of eternal punishment. Make no mistake! This servile fear is no evil fear … but an imperfect fear. It is already the beginning of wisdom. The perfect fear, a fear that is akin to charity, is this filial fear of which we have just made mention. This is the fear which turns the soul about and attracts her directly to heavenly things. This is the beautiful fear obtained by the contemplations on the passion and death of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Here again the soul is plunged into a deep sorrow for sin, but this time filled with a deep confidence in God, she has but one desire: to unite all her sufferings with those of her divine Master upon the cross.
The fourth week is the week of holy joy, of confident hope. It is the week of the glorious mysteries of our Blessed Lord. If the soul, in the first week, might have been tempted to believe that all is lost, the contemplations on the glorious resurrection and ascension of Our Lord restore all hope again. What is more, they produce in the soul an exquisite confidence and hope which leaves the soul not only in a state of peace, but fills her with a most profound gratitude and love. The exercises produce this gratitude and love, but I should say, still more, it produces an inexpressible sentiment of humility because the soul finally understands that, notwithstanding her utter unworthiness, God in His infinite mercy has showered her with His grace and blessings.
Dear dear souls, how I wish that each and everyone of you may benefit from so great a grace. Come, come to do the exercises!
May God and His Holy Mother bless and guide you always.