A patron saint for religious retreats

For the last 400 years, Catholics who make a religious retreat under the direction of a priest have most likely followed the system set down by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his book, The Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatius was born into a family of Basque nobility in the family castle of Azpeitia; he was the youngest of the 13 children of Beltran de Loyola and Marina Saenz de Licona. From his earliest years Ignatius was enchanted by dreams of chivalry and adventure. His own father had performed deeds of valor in the final years of the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Moors. His oldest brother Juan sailed with Columbus on the discoverer's second expedition to the New World. With these models before him it is no wonder that Ignatius longed to sacrifice himself for a great king, to serve faithfully a beautiful lady, and to win immortal fame in the eyes of the world.

As a young man he tried to live out his notion of the gallant cavalier: He was ambitious, vain, prickly about his honor, a gambler, a fighter and a sexual adventurer. At age 26, he fought against a French army in his first - and last - battle. A cannonball struck Ignatius' legs, shattering the one and wounding the other. Ignatius and his comrades surrendered to the French commander who spared their lives, sent his own doctors to treat Ignatius, then provided an escort to carry him home to Azpeitia.

To help him pass the time during the long weeks of convalescence Ignatius read the only two books in the house - the life of Christ written by Ludolph the Carthusian and Jacobus de Voragine's collection of saints' lives, The Golden Legend. As he read these books Ignatius' heart was touched by grace: He became ashamed of the vanity, pride and lust that had ruled his life thus far. Ignatius underwent a conversion, but he had not abandoned his chivalric ideals of suffering and self-sacrifice - instead he shifted his focus from winning honor in this world to winning salvation in the next.

The Spiritual Exercises emerged from Ignatius' own conversion experience. It is a step-by-step program designed to help the Christian detach from those things the world considers essential - physical comfort, respect, success, even good health - and dedicate oneself to discovering the will of God and doing it, no matter how difficult, or unpleasant or even dangerous it may be. To emphasize this point St. Ignatius composed this prayer to be said by the retreatant making the exercises: "Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess you have given me: I surrender it all to you to be disposed of according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace; with these I will be rich enough and will desire nothing more."

It takes a full 30 days to complete Ignatius' regimen. Since most people cannot leave work and family for a full month, St. Ignatius' method has been adapted for a typical three-day retreat. Even in the abridged version, the goals are the same: the examination of one's actions, motivations, desires and the resolution to give up any of them that keep one from doing the will of God.

Craughwell is author of This Saint Will Change Your Life (Quirk, 2011) and Saints Behaving Badly (Doubleday, 2006).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012