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The Spiritual Exercises in a Secular Age

Thomas P. Rausch, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Sep 2nd 2022

The Spiritual Exercises in a Secular Age

Few have better traced the roots of our contemporary loss of faith than Charles Taylor in his massive work, A Secular Age. The Canadian philosopher sees the process beginning with the Reformation, which with its emphasis on personal faith and its discomfort with sacraments, priesthood and the sacred, abolished the enchanted medieval cosmos, leading in time to the creation of a humanist alternative faith.[1]

In their emphasis on “faith alone” and “Scripture alone,” the Reformers contributed to the separation of faith from reason, which modernity would carry through much more radically. The Enlightenment hastened this process, replacing Revelation with an autonomous reason, while the scientific revolution would make the scientific method the exclusive avenue to truth.

What followed from these religious and cultural changes was an increasingly secular modernity, which influences the way we live spirituality today and, in particular, the practice of the Spiritual Exercises.

The context

Taylor argues that the Enlightenment’s substitution of Deism for historic Christianity can be seen as a “half-way house” to contemporary atheism.[2] God was no longer personal, interacting in history with human beings and the created order, but an impersonal cosmic architect. The universe was governed by unchanging natural laws, now the object of a secular science. There was no need for Revelation. Emphasizing observation and empirical demonstration, the scientific revolution would rule out a transcendent faith. With the loss of a sense for the transcendent and thus of the divine and distanced from traditional religious authorities, spirituality became increasingly focused on the self, on personal feelings. Religion was dismissed as institutional.[3]

Modernity’s unbounded confidence in reason and its ability to constantly better our lives was to lead to the reaction known as postmodernism, already evident in thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud who, against the received tradition that defined the human person as a “rational animal,” stressed that we are subject to the influence of subconscious dynamisms or economic laws. The horrors of the 20th century – two devastating world wars, massive civilian deaths, including those from the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, incidents of  genocide, the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, the AIDS pandemic, an increasing divide between the very wealthy and the poor, not to mention the global COVID-19 pandemic that in the 21st century was to take millions of lives – have largely shattered the illusion that autonomous reason alone can bring about the perfectibility of the human.

Postmodernism, a reaction to modernity’s optimism, is more a sensibility than a coherent philosophy. Suspicious of all metanarratives, it tends to see truth claims as relative, arguing that they are always conditioned by their social location, based on power relationships rooted in sex, gender, ethnicity and social status. The result is that the very concept of truth itself is at risk.


Certainly, spirituality or what passes for spirituality today has not been unaffected by these cultural shifts. For so many, God has become impersonal, reduced to a philosophical principle or “higher power.” Think of the contemporary New Age “spiritualities,” or “the Force” in the Star Wars movies. Many boast that they are “spiritual but not religious.” Some go even further, dropping even the spiritual dimension altogether.

In the West many are leaving their religious traditions behind. The phenomenon is often described as “the Rise of the Nones,” meaning those who answer “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious affiliation. The share of the U.S. population among the “nones” is 26 percent, and growing across most demographic groups – white, black, Hispanic, men and women – across all areas of the country, including those with and without a college education. The numbers are even higher among young adults. Only 49 percent of millennials (born 1981-1996) identify as Christian, while four-in-ten are religious “nones.” The number of Hispanic Catholics continues to drop, from 57 percent a decade ago to 47 percent today.[4] In Britain a little over half of cradle Catholics still identify as such.

A recent study by Saint Mary’s Press, Going, Going, Gone, gives three reasons for the disaffiliation of so many. A first category, “the injured,” are those who have had  negative experiences with family or the Church, disruptive events like the death of a loved one, a divorce, long-term illness, or other family crises. In these cases, there is often a tendency to blame God for whatever damaged their faith. Then there are “the drifters,” those who dropped out because of a lack of sufficient knowledge of their faith, lack of engagement with a faith community or spiritual companions, whether family or peers. Religious observance by both parents is a crucial factor here. So many young people today are raised in families whose members no longer practice their faith, or in the case of many Catholics, families whose Catholicism is more cultural than a matter of choice and commitment. The third category, “the dissenters,” refers to those who disagree with teachings of the Church, particularly on sexuality, women and abortion, though this last is more complicated because many oppose abortion but support a woman’s right to choose.[5]

Consider what Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, who was General of the Society of Jesus, called, in a reflection on spirituality, the “globalization of superficiality”: “The world is becoming very superficial. We have more information than ever, but less ability to think, to reflect, to digest the information.” We rely on feelings, “fresh” information or “first come, first served.” Even if the information is totally biased, or prejudicial, that is what sticks in our mind, and we do not have the ability to confirm, to study to see whether this is true or this is biased. And this is happening in the Church as well.[6] We should consider this a real epistemological crisis that has a direct impact on the way we live spirituality.[7] Our question then is: What is the value today, in this context, of giving and making the Spiritual Exercises?

Giving the Exercises Today

The approach to the Spiritual Exercises that characterized Jesuit life since the Restoration of the Society (1814) was largely dominated by a concern for ascetical practices and the development of moral virtues. It was only in the last half of the 20th century, building on the work of Jesuits like Joseph de Guibert (1877-1942), Miguel Nicolau (1905-1986), William J. Young (1895-1970), Karl Rahner (1904-1984) and his brother Hugo Rahner (1900-1968), that Jesuits began to speak of a Jesuit or Ignatian spirituality, based on the Spiritual Exercises.[8]

Examples might include replacing the traditional preached retreats with retreats that were personally directed, or a new understanding of the examen as a “consciousness examen,” searching for God’s presence in one’s daily routine rather than cataloging failings, or understanding faith as a faith that does justice. Or consider how St. Ignatius’ “Rules for Thinking with the Church” were long understood as thinking with the hierarchical magisterium. Pope Francis has considerably broadened our understanding of this principle. In his interview with Father Antonio Spadaro, Francis speaks of the “holy, faithful people of God” as constituting a subject, referring to “that complex web of relationships that take place in the human community” into which God enters. “We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the Church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.” He adds, “When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit.” Behind Francis’ thinking here is his emphasis on the sensus fidei and sensus fidelium, leading him to affirm that when all the people of God are walking together in faith they display an infallibilitas in credendo.[9]

Our secular culture, and not just in the West, has replaced the religious culture that many of us still take for granted, and therefore we need a broader context for giving the Spiritual Exercises today. Thus, we cannot simply presume a traditional religious culture. Many of our retreatants will either not be familiar with the biblical stories and narratives or will find them somewhat worn and no longer convincing. So many of them, coming to us from a secular culture, are either unfamiliar with or reject the faith and theology of the Church. I’m not suggesting a replacement of the biblical narratives but a need to supplement them in a way that appeals to the imagination and understanding of today’s retreatants. We might invite them to consider God’s work in the immensity of creation, or in the process of evolution, or in the dynamism of life. God’s gifts reflect a goodness and beauty beyond imagining, while the suffering, injustice and violence that wounds so many calls us to discipleship.

There are three fundamental pillars that structure the Spiritual Exercises. The Principle and Foundation reminds us to place God first in our lives. The meditation on the Kingdom of Christ is about discipleship, inviting the retreatant to discover his or her vocation. The Contemplation to Obtain Love is the foundation for the Jesuit principle of finding God in all things. Here I would like to propose a reflection on each of these fundamentals     .

Principle and Foundation

This initial meditation is well-named. Reminding the retreatant that he or she is created to “praise, reverence, and serve God” and by this means to save their souls, it is basically a challenge to spiritual freedom. For retreatants already open to God’s presence in their lives, it is inviting them to consider a call to deepen that relationship and gain the freedom to respond more fully.

But other retreatants, especially those formed by a secular culture, may find the concept of God somewhat foreign. A suggestion here is to move beyond the religious to the cosmological. Inviting them to consider the immensity of the cosmos we inhabit may help them to sense the mystery of a God whose creative presence is both veiled and intimated, transcendent and immanent, pouring itself out in what we call creation. And God’s immensity is beyond comprehension.

Science tells us our universe began with the “big bang,” imagined as a superheated, high density point of matter and energy that exploded, forming infinitesimally small particles, then atoms and molecules, gasses ultimately transformed into stars, planets and galaxies as well as space and time. Each galaxy is a whole system of stars and star fragments, interstellar dust, gas and dark matter held together by gravity. As these galaxies continue to move away from each other, the universe itself expands. We sometimes begin to sense something of its immensity on those rare nights when we can see the heavens open up above us, filled with stars, but the actual numbers estimated by scientists are simply staggering. According to the psalmist, God numbers all the stars, and calls each of them by name (Ps 147:4). Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, consists of 100 to 400 billion stars and at least as many planets. Astronomers estimate that it is only one of some two trillion galaxies in our observable universe.

But this universe is more than inert gasses, burning stars and dead planets. It is pulsing with life. On one of these planets – we call it Mother Earth – atoms and molecules over an estimated 4.5 billion years ago began to expand, developing into cell life, micro-organisms, bacteria, amino acids, plants and, in time, animals, leading to the nearly one trillion species presently inhabiting our planet, including our own.

For many of the animal species closest to our own, life is a constant struggle for survival. To cope, nature has imprinted a predatory instinct within them and adapted their bodies for the kill. The psalmist speaks of night when the beasts of the forest come out of their dens and roam abroad, the young lions roaring after their prey (Ps 104:20-21). The poet Tennyson describes a nature “red in tooth and claw.” This evolutionary inheritance has left its mark on us also.

Still, even in the animal world there is a drive toward togetherness, for bonding, community. Many animals tend naturally to group, often with complex social structures. We speak of herds, packs, flocks and schools of creatures. Animals often show not just instincts but also emotions, signs of affection, even intelligence. These will reach a transformed fullness in humans. Mothers care for their young with an amazing tenderness, defending them fiercely or sometimes sacrificing themselves. Dogs greet their returning masters with unbounded joy and excitement. They love to play, chasing after balls or catching frisbees. Porpoises also show a delight in play, leaping out of the water or sometimes dancing on their tails. Social media is full of videos of cute dogs and cats who have become friends, playing together or lying on each other.

Even trees have a social life, as revealed by recent studies that have discovered them exchanging carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones through their underground networks, even with trees of different species. Resources flow from older trees to younger and smaller ones, while trees separated from their subterrain links are more likely to wither and die.[10]

Whence comes this tremendous energy called life. Should we learn anything from this drive toward togetherness? Should we conclude that the incredible complexity of the universe is just an accident? Or that the human body just “happened,” a chance combination of atoms and molecules and micro-organisms? Its complexity mirrors that of the universe. Scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson argue that there are as many atoms in just one molecule of our DNA as there are stars in most galaxies, and more atoms in a single human eye than all the stars in the known universe.

But many scientists find no room in their scheme of things for an intelligence that transcends the sensible; they do not reach past what is experienced to ask about what might lie beyond. The person of faith believes that behind and indeed within the complexity of the universe and present in our own spirit is a God whose creative agency continues to sustain all that is, including ourselves, who continues to reach out to us, a God revealed in Jesus as a loving Abba, father. This is what the Principle and Foundation asks us to consider.

The Kingdom of Christ

The meditation on the Kingdom of Christ is strangely placed between the conclusion of the First Week of the Exercises and the beginning of the Second. My own preference is to begin the Second Week with the contemplation on the Incarnation, and then the consideration on the Kingdom and call of Christ the King, which is certainly consistent with the coming focus on the life of Christ. The contemplation on the Incarnation, in imagery and language that strikes us today as somewhat naive, invites the retreatant to consider the three divine persons looking down on the earth in all its diversity, tragedies and violence, and then deciding that the Second Person should become man to bring about the salvation of humanity.

The meditation on the Kingdom begins with considering the call of an earthly king, and then invites the retreatant to envision Christ inviting each person to join him in his mission. The language is challenging: “Whoever wishes to join me in this enterprise must be willing to labor with me, that by following me in suffering, he may follow me in glory” (SE 95). The invitation might well echo the challenge of the earthly king, calling those who want to serve with him to be “content with the same food, drink, clothing, etc. as mine. So, too, he must work with me by day, and watch with me by night, etc., that as he has had a share in the toil with me, afterward, he may share in the victory with me” (SE 93).

But what is the context for this mission, this earth that Ignatius pictures the Trinity beholding in all its drama and sorrow? With a little imagination it can be made much more concrete. The presence of so much suffering, injustice and violence against the innocent is the greatest obstacle to belief today, and thus works against Christ’s mission.

Recall the genocides of the 20th century, the systematic killing and ethnic cleansing of Armenians under the Turks during the First World War, of Ukrainians under Stalin, of Jews and other minority peoples under Hitler, more innocent victims in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, more murder and ethnic cleansing. Think of the millions of civilians killed during the Second World War by the massive bombing of cities, including the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Consider the barbarity of the current war in Ukraine, the mass graves, the bombed hospitals, the raped and slaughtered civilians. Consider the millions of men, women and children maimed by the land mines sown in their farms and fields, the cynical use of political power for personal enrichment in so many countries, young people growing up without hope, millions of refugee children stuck in camps without adequate education. Statistics are impersonal, though they can be staggering.

The divide between the very prosperous and the destitute continues to grow. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2019 the number of migrants and refugees displaced from their homes by war, violence, climate change and persecution reached an all-time high, almost 70.8 million, and it continues to grow. Thousands drown as over-loaded vessels capsize, or they are victims of those who prey on them as they make their way overland, while “coyotes” or human smugglers pocket fortunes. In the Amazon indigenous peoples have been displaced by the deliberate burning of the rainforests for commercial profit. Modern day slavery is another problem, trapping an estimated 40 million men, women and children, victims of forced labor, child marriages, or bondage to debt. Three quarters of them are women and girls, many of them victims of sexual trafficking.

So many children are victims, caught up in the violence in our cities, in shootings and drug wars. Others suffer physical or sexual abuse from relatives or other trusted adults, even from priests. We can think of the billions of dollars spent on weapons of war, the threat of terrorism, the pornography and abortion industries. This is the world in which the mission of Christ the King is carried out. This is where we must follow him. 

Contemplation for Obtaining Love

The Spiritual Exercises end with the Contemplation for Obtaining Love, a powerful meditation reminding the retreatant that love is expressed in deeds rather than words and suggesting that each of the four points be concluded with a personal offering expressed in the Suscipe.

The first point asks the retreatant to consider all the gifts and benefits received. Here one’s imagination and affectivity should be fully engaged. Some gifts are cosmological, the immense, beautiful universe that we have been considering. Some are theological, such as salvation, grace: God’s self-communication as Rahner describes it, our faith, the sacraments. Some are personal: gifts of family, friends, experiences, personality, those who have loved us and whom we have loved. Some are technological, such as the Internet, putting so much information at our fingertips. Teilhard de Chardin would have seen it as a global nervous system. We are filled with gratitude, turning us toward our gracious God in praise and thanksgiving.

The second point asks us to consider how God dwells in his creatures, giving them in their diverse kinds and varieties life, sensation and understanding, making us temples of his presence. God is present in the stars above, the beauty of the earth, and the grasses, plants and trees that cover it. We sense this often when we find ourselves standing in awe before its beauty. Nature sings of its Creator.

The third point asks us to see God working in his gifts. The language of Ignatius here is not just figurative. If creation is in and through the Word (John 1:3; Col 1:16-17), so also it will be brought to fulfillment when Christ gathers all to himself and submits it to the Father, so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). What Teilhard calls “the slow work of God”[11] takes place within this evolutionary process. Ilia Delio sees it working “in the divine, continual act of creation-redemption, and sanctification of the total universe.”[12] We can imagine God’s creative work becoming evident in the energy of life, ever-expanding, overcoming obstacles, breaking forth in innumerable kinds and varieties.

In the final point we reflect on how all God’s gifts descend from above, our limited power as a share in the infinite power of God. Life can never be reduced to mere chemical interactions or neurological reactions. The human person is more than a machine without spirit or ethical center, with only embedded patterns and biochemical laws controlling human behavior. Intelligence is more than reflexes or algorithms. Aquinas described it as a participation in God’s uncreated light. Gifts of justice, goodness, pity, mercy and love are only limited instantiations of their perfection in the divine. How often have we had our breath taken away by the beauty of a child’s face, a human body, a natural vista or work of art. We have known moments of great goodness or mercy, the triumph of justice over evil, or of a love which is life-giving, figuratively as well as literally.

And so we give thanks and pray the Suscipe. “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me” (SE 234).


In this essay I have attempted to suggest some ways that we might expand the imagination of our retreatants when accompanying them through the Spiritual Exercises. Not only has the secular culture from which so many of them come shaped their religious imaginations, not always positively, but many of them have only a superficial knowledge of the faith and teachings of the Church.

At the same time, our own understanding of the spirituality of the Exercises today differs in significant ways from that which shaped an earlier generation. Without taking anything away from the biblical narratives that support the Exercises and move them forward, we need to consider how we might enlarge the imaginations and deepen the understanding of our retreatants.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.9 art. 6, 0922: 10.32009/22072446.0922.6

[1] C. Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge MA, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007, 77.

[2] Ibid., 270. The sharp decline in religious affiliation is not an exclusively Western phenomenon. A recent Pew Research report, published in 2018, found that young adults tended more than other age groups to be unaffiliated with religion, not only in Europe and North America, but also in 14 out of 19 Latin American countries, including Mexico. The trend was less pronounced in the Middle East and North and sub-Saharan Africa, but South Korea, Australia and Japan showed some of the widest gaps in religious practice between young adults and their parents (Pew Research Center, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace”, September 2019).

[3] Ibid., 504-509. Some suggest that we are entering a post-secular age, challenging an absolutist science and the need for faith and reason to coexist and learn from each other. Jürgen Habermas is generally given credit for the term. However, popular and political culture is still decidedly secular.

[4]. Pew Research Center, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace”, October 17, 2019.

[5]. Cf. CARA, Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, Winona, MN, Saint Mary’s Press, 2017, 13-24.

[6]. Father Nicolás’ remarks in Heverlee, video; for the full text see F. Brennan (ed), Shaping the Future: Networking Jesuit Higher Education for a Globalizing World: Report of the Mexico Conference, Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, April 2010, 7-21.

[7]. Information overload is not necessarily a blessing. As Father Nicolás says, it does not encourage interiority or reflection. Social media is addictive, and often narcissistic.  We become self-obsessive, with little sense of community. Young people fill Instagram with hundreds of images of themselves or perform endlessly on TikTok. With easy public access, now everyone is an authority. We are bombarded with images and personal opinions; there is no vetting of judgments. Few take the time to read newspapers or magazine      articles, reducing what they know to soundbites reflective of their own opinions.

[8]. J. W. O’Malley – T. W. O’Brien, “The Twentieth Century Construction of Ignatian Spirituality: A Sketch”, in Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 52 (2020/3) 18.

[9]. Pope Francis, in “A Big Heart Open to God: The Exclusive Interview with Pope Francis”, America 209, No. 8 (September 30, 2013) 22; cf. International Theological Commission, ‘Sensus Fidei’ in the life of the Church, 2014.

[10]. F. Jabr, “The Social Life of Forests”, in The New York Times Magazine, December 6, 2020, 34.

[11]. From a prayer of Teilhard de Chardin, Patient Trust.

[12]. I. Delio, Christ in Evolution, Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 2008, 132.

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