The Exercises of Saint Ignatius have one main goal: to lead those called back to the roots of the Church, where she is always in the act of emerging from the action of Christ. It is there that they are to hear the summons to follow the Lord and to “offer themselves entirely for the toils” (Exercises, 96) his summons entails.

The Exercises break with the pious “manuals of perfection” that proliferated during the high and late Middle Ages. With pitiless practicality, they thrust the exercitant into the heart of the Gospel, into a solitary encounter with Christ, so that he can hear the voice of the triune God. In order to reach this point in truth, the exercitant must first be stripped of his illusions, imaginings, and sins. This is how he becomes free to follow nudus nudum Christum. This is how God’s Word – Christ himself – becomes “up close and personal” for him. The divine call isn’t for the periphery of his existence, but for the center of his being; it is meant to become the deciding event of his entire life.

Election is the center, meaning, and goal of the entire Exercises. It renews the encounter on the banks of Jordan: “As Jesus was passing by” (Ignatius emphasizes that Jesus never stands still, but is always passing by), “John saw him and said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. But Jesus turned around and, seeing they were following him, asked, ‘What do you seek?’” And when in reply they ask “Rabbi, where do you live?” he answers “come and see” (Jn 1:36-39). Make the decision to come (and so “leave everything”: Lk 5:11), and then you will see. “And they went and saw. . . . and remained.”

This episode is no mere model. Christ’s sacrifice becomes present in every Mass, and his post-Easter forgiveness happens anew in every sacramental confession. In the same way, his call meets us here and now in the Exercises.

For Ignatius, election is inseparable from mission. But mission requires a “Yes” on man’s part – a human act of assent no less important than the divine act of election. The dedication to the call is no less total than the demand of the call. Nevertheless, God’s word and man’s word don’t meet as equal partners. Our job is simply to welcome God’s call and mission, to say “Yes” to God’s eternal “Yes” to us. Our answer is meant to flow into the word of calling and become indissolubly one with it. 

Our act of electing our vocation is really an acknowledgment of God’s act of electing us. This explains why Ignatius doesn’t bother to distinguish election into its divine and human components. His sole concern is to help man choose what God chooses for him. He wants only to ready the exercitant to recognize and ratify the divine election. There is correspondingly scant emphasis on human “perfection” in the Exercises; the topic exhausts itself for Ignatius in the twin notions of disposition (nos. 1, 20, etc.) and indifference (nos. 23, 179, etc.). All that matter is the soul’s open readiness to embrace the divine will in whatever form it may declare itself to man.

Text by Hans Urs von Balthasar
Further Reading
  • Balthasar, Hans Urs von, Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Ignatian spiritual exercises: an anthology, edited by J. Servais SJ, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2019.