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During his youth, Ignatius of Loyola fantasized about romance and chivalry. According to Father Juan Alfonso de Polanco, a close friend and coworker, the young Ignatius indulged in "gambling, dueling, and romances with women."1 Marriage was not on his radar. When his promising military career was cut short by a crippling injury, the battle-hardened soldier resolved to re-dedicate his vocation to Christ rather than the globalizing Spanish empire. From the religious and vocational conversion that began during his convalescence, and deepened during his experiences at Montserrat and Manresa, Ignatius discerned the core features of a transformative spiritual process that came to be known as the The Spiritual Exercises. The irrepresible dynamism of this spirituality soon gave birth to a major religious movement that evolved into the Society of Jesus. Within a few years intrepid Jesuit missionaries were trekking across India, China, Japan, South and North America. Ignatius' thirty-day closed retreat, Spiritual Exercises, became spiritual boot camp for these celibate special-operation forces spearheading Catholicism's world missionary work during the 16th and 17th centuries.

What relevance could a spirituality forged within this religious crucible have for contemporary reflection on the vocation of marriage? Not much, apparently. In his extensive correspondence with women we do find Ignatius dealing with marital issues. However, his reflections can seem dated and, at times, diverging sharply from current perspectives. For example, addressing a marital separation that was causing political and ecclesiastical turmoil, Ignatius exhorts his confidant, Donna Joanna of Aragon, to submit herself to a husband who seems to be abusive:

. . . with a generous mind and trusting in the Lord, . . . go to Señor Ascanio's house, putting yourself entirely in his power, without seeking for other security or making any other conditions, but freely, as a wife is normally, and ought to be, in the power of her husband.2

Ignatius insists that the laws of holy matrimony require that "a wife is normally, and ought to be, in the power of her husband" given the biblical mandate that "the head of the woman is the husband and that wives should be subject [End Page 14] to their husbands."3 These views may resonate with certain strains of Christian fundamentalism; however, they do not reflect the course of Catholic teaching on marriage since Vatican II.

In the centuries following Ignatius' life and mission, there is little evidence of any meaningful attempt to engage the Sacrament of Marriage through the Spiritual Exercises. The 20th century did witness concerted efforts to revive lay participation in Ignatian spirituality in Europe and North America. An insistence on the critical relevance of Ignatian spirituality for the laity lay at the heart of the work of Canadian Jesuits such as John English, Gilles Cusson, and John Wickham who helped spearhead this revival.4 However, the marital vocation remained a somewhat elusive calling in these modern movements. English's popular study of the Exercises does cite the key passages where Ignatius speaks of marriage as one of two "unchangeable choices." However, his study offers a fairly thin exegesis of these texts, apart from noting that marriage is "a wonderful vocation and a way of sanctity."5 When John Wickham addresses the question of marriage his discussion gravitates to the challenges that marital ties might pose for individuals doing the Exercises.6 In recent years there have been attempts to explore how the Spiritual Exercises might speak to our modern fascination with the sexual and the erotic. Andrew Walker suggests that the Exercises can revitalize our experience of the erotic, or, in his words, "to resacralize the erotic and to eroticize the sacred."7 The focus of these studies is on the sexual and the erotic, not the marital vocation.8

The record of history and contemporary experience might suggest that the marital vocation just may be a poor fit for the Spiritual Exercises. There are obvious difficulties with this conclusion. Early Jesuit commentators firmly believed that the Exercises should offer "great fruit and light" to anyone "in whatever state one is in."9 More significantly, this dearth of attention to marriage seems at odds with Ignatius' discussion of the place of marriage in the Exercises. In his crucial exposition on the "making of an election" Ignatius identifies marriage, along with the priesthood, as one of two "unchangeable elections" in the path to Christ.10 The Ignatian "election" is a core feature of the Spiritual Exercises that distinguishes it from other forms of prayer and spirituality approved by the church.11 The Exercises describe the election as the process of coming to a decision to embrace a state of life, or a rediscovery and deepening of an election to a state of life that has already been made.12 One important form of election is the choosing of a vocation as the unique path to offer one's life to Christ.13 While there are many forms of election, the Spiritual Exercises specifically identify two permanent or unchangeable ones: marriage and religious life.

In classifying marriage as one of the unchangeable elections, Ignatius is not idealizing marriage, or for that matter the religious vocation. In fact, Ignatius [End Page 15] warns that one of the major obstacles for both religious and married laity is the tendency to view their vocation as an end in itself, rather than a pathway to Christ. His discussion of the election leads with an analysis of marriage, and a warning: "As it happens," he writes, "many choose firstly to marry, which is the mean, and secondly to serve God our Lord in marriage, although the service of God is the end."14 Ignatius positions marriage as one of the foundational elections to be discerned in the Spiritual Exercises. At the same time, he draws attention to an apparent paradox, namely the choice for marriage, like that of religious life, can often be disordered, covertly displacing Christ as the center of the life journey. What challenges does this Ignatian perspective pose for contemporary approaches to the marital vocation?

Arguably, the only meaningful way to uncover how the Ignatian tradition might engage the election to marriage would be to traverse the terrain explored by Ignatius, namely a journey through the Spiritual Exercises. This path would begin with the "Principle and Foundation" and move through the meditations and contemplations of the four weeks in order to discern the ways in which the Exercises can speak to the concrete realities and challenges of each marital vocation. The following discussion does not claim to be a historical excavation of Ignatius' original conception of the marriage election. His vision of marriage is shaped, in many ways, by the specific challenges and contexts of 16th century Catholicism. However, a 21st century retrieval of the evolving Ignatian tradition might enrich our understanding of the spiritual possibilities of the Exercises for a foundational vocation within the Catholic tradition, the Sacrament of Marriage.


Over the last 50 years, marriage has moved from a venerable institution entrenched by social custom and tradition, to a project that requires commitment and effort.15 In the late 1990s, we teamed with other couples to launch a marriage retreat center in an effort to contribute to the re-invigoration of marriage culture within our local Catholic context. Over the course of a 20-year history, this initiative turned to a wide array of marriage enrichment programs.16 Some of the leading secular programs such as the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) or Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills (PAIRS) have been repackaged as "Christian" or "Catholic" initiatives.17 Other faith-based programs such as Beloved: The Mystery and Meaning of Marriage or Alpha Marriage attempt to anchor their approach in a more thoroughgoing Christian world-view. Both religious and non-religious approaches tend to emphasize the same basic competencies as critical to building "great marriages." The list includes skills in communication, listening, managing conflict, resolving differences, fostering emotional connectivity, and enhancing [End Page 16] sexual intimacy. In the last few years, we began to explore Ignatian spirituality as a resource for marriage enrichment. As a married couple with shared journeys in Ignatian spirituality as well as marriage enrichment, this turn seemed like a natural, perhaps overdue, development. However, our journey with the Exercises took us in some surprising directions. It soon became evident that Ignatian spirituality is not inherently suited to the presumed goal of most marriage enrichment programs, namely building "great marriages."

The opening "Principle and Foundation" is the first impediment to any facile deployment of the Spiritual Exercises for the standard goals of marriage enrichment. From an Ignatian perspective, any human aspiration, however well-intentioned, may miss the key concern, namely the centrality of Christ to the vocational journey. Even attachments to basic human "goods" can be "disordered." Could the pursuit of such basic marital goods as marital satisfaction or erotic intimacy fall under this verdict? It could if the quest centered exclusively on the benefits of marriage for the spouses, or the achievement of a "great marriage" as an end in itself.18 To the extent that goods of marriage serve to deflect disciples away from rather than to Christ, they fall under the Ignatian judgment of enthroning themselves as ends rather than a means.

In words that echo the marriage vows, the Principle and Foundation insists that "we ought not to seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short life."19 Instead, we should desire and choose only that which draws us toward the end for which we are created, intimate union with Christ. Ignatian detachment invites married disciples to free themselves from any inordinate desire to pursue the good and benefits of marriage as ends in themselves. Only to the extent that we are "consumed by love for Christ" can we be free from the lure of other goods, however good they may be.20 This stance aims a shot across the bow of every marriage program, secular or religious, aimed at maximizing the interpersonal benefits of the marital bond.


In laying the groundwork for the Exercises, Ignatius offers a number of preliminary annotations or directives. Two key counsels should be highlighted in any application of the Exercises to the marriage election. First, Ignatius warns directors to avoid any form of controlled or overbearing direction. The aim of the Exercises is to "allow the Creator to deal immediately with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord."21 Each election should be a personal discovery that is the fruit of a free, prayerful journey toward Christ.

This plays out in a practical way in Ignatius' approach to prayer. He breaks with previous traditions in his minimalist and economical guidelines for meditation. Popular genres of late medieval devotional literature attempted to [End Page 17] direct the imagination of the reader by composing meditations that creatively filled in the missing story lines of biblical narratives. The pious reader was invited to personally enter into these constructed fantasies rather than reimagine the narratives for themselves. Ignatius' minimalism attempts to liberate the prayer experience from this kind of channeling. The goal is to free the retreatant to personally experience God at work in his or her prayerful imagination. In this sense, Ignatian spirituality places nothing in the way of retreatants bringing the very unique contours and histories of their married election into the prayer experience. This approach would also appear to veer away from approaches to "marriage enrichment" that presume the existence of some standard model or template to which one's marriage should conform. Imposing a particular blueprint for marriage, however spiritually well-intentioned, poses the danger of channeling the Exercises in a particular path that could violate the kind of personal encounter and freedom in which the Exercises are grounded.

Second, Ignatian spirituality offers a unique approach to praying with Scripture. Spiritual directors in the Ignatian tradition, going back to the earliest years, have emphasized the critical importance of its personalized imaginative encounter with Scripture. The Official Directory of 1599 says that the imaginative application of our senses should be "quite easy and beneficial," not forced. "It consists in using our imagination to see the persons, to hear their words or any other sounds, to touch or kiss places or persons." We want to experience the "presence of the reality or person . . . with a relish and heartfelt love for them."22 In Ignatian meditation, the retreatant is invited to imaginatively enter into the gospel narrative and to bring their personal journey into direct contact with the mysteries of the life of Christ.

Can the marriage journey be experienced and explored through Ignatian meditation? Given the marginalization of marriage from spirituality, one might assume that tradition might offer few resources to draw upon for this meditative exercise. However, digging into the roots of this form of spirituality opens some intriguing possibilities. The Spiritual Exercises were heavily influenced by genres of spiritual literature that had become popular during the late Middle Ages. Ignatius testifies to the direct influence of Ludolf of Saxony's Vita Christi and Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend). The popular Meditationes Vitae Christi was another indirect influence due to the fact that significant segments of this work were incorporated into the texts that shaped Ignatius' thinking. The prologue of the Vita Christi describes an approach to prayer with Scripture that proved to be foundational for the Spiritual Exercises. Ludolf encourages readers to place themselves in the biblical mysteries and to meditate upon them as if they were taking place in the present: [End Page 18]

Although these accounts describe events that occurred in the past, you must meditate upon them as if they were taking place now: there is no question but that you will savor them with greater pleasure. Read what once happened as if it were happening here and now. Put past deeds before your eyes as if they were present; you will experience them more discreetly and more happily.23

For Ludolf, each biblical episode offers an open script into which the retreatant can enter through the power of prayerful fantasy. Ludolf exhorts the believer to engage these biblical scripts in an intensely intimate and personal way.

Go with the Magi to Bethlehem and adore the infant King. Help his parents carry Jesus when they present him in the Temple. In company with the Apostles, follow the loving Shepherd about as he performs remarkable miracles. Be present as he dies, sharing in the sorrows of his Blessed Mother and John and consoling them; with devout curiosity touch and caress each wound of the Savior who died for you. Search for the risen one with Mary Magdalen until you deserve to find him . . . Dear friends, you must gather this prized bundle for yourselves. Recall that Simeon took him in his arms; that Mary bore him in her womb, cradled him on her lap, and like a bride placed him between her breasts . . . .They are your models; do as they did.24

Ludolf also highlights the importance of another distinctive Ignatian technique, namely the colloquy, imaginative conversations or dialogues with Jesus, Mary, or other key characters in the biblical story. In these exchanges, the retreatant is encouraged to disclose very personal and intimate concerns and longings.

Tell him everything, entrust everything to him, cast all your cares upon him; he will calm the storm and relieve you. Do not simply yearn for the Lord Jesus when you keep vigil, but as you lie on your bed lay your head on its restingplace and imagine yourself reclining with John on Jesus' breast; and as you recline, nurse at that breast and you will peacefully slumber and rest in him.25

At times his directives suggest imaginative interactions and conversations with Christ that seem to transgress the boundaries of devotional propriety. Yet this push toward transparency, emotive daring and personal disclosure opens a prayerful space to explore relational intimacies, anxieties and burdens that often afflict the marital vocation.


Most marriage programs begin by setting an ideal. In Christian programs this is often framed as a theological meditation on the original beauty of this divinely [End Page 19] ordained institution. Working with couples in marriage renewal exposes the limited value of approaches that begin by focusing on the high ideals of marriage without adequately addressing areas of brokenness and difficulty within marital relationships. Ignatius seems to begin from a somewhat different starting point. Like John Paul II, Ignatius also directs our attention back to the "beginnings," but with a focus on the foundational origins of sin, rather than a prolonged meditation on the original purity and beauty of the conjugal bond. The Spiritual Exercises direct us to the fissures and cracks that, "from the beginning," compromise the very foundations of our marital bonds. Original sin itself is, as Ignatius suggests, a marital act. It is the sin of the original couple, "the sin of Adam and Eve."26

In the first week, Ignatius keeps our focus on original sin and its manifestations in our own personal lives. However, disorder and sin in the domain of sexuality and conjugality are openly displayed in numerous biblical narratives. Abraham cedes his wife to the Pharaoh in order to protect his interests (Gen. 12:10–20); Tamar's journey leads her through prostitution and incest (Gen. 38:1–30); the convoluted story of David's adulterous desires leads to the demolition of Bathsheba's marriage and the death of her husband (2 Samuel 11:1–25). In the gospels, Jesus' interaction with women is often the site where the encounter with conjugal brokenness is most dramatically displayed: the woman weeping at Jesus' feet (Lk. 7:36–50), the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4:1–26) and the woman taken in adultery (Jn. 8:1–11).27 All of these women seem to have conjugal lives that are in tatters. The opening chapter of the New Testament, the genealogy of Jesus, discloses patterns of brokenness. The only women mentioned in this genealogical overview are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, women whose journeys were marked by incest, prostitution, adultery, and struggle. This genealogical overture signals that even the Messiah's family line exhibits fault-lines common to most, if not all, family histories.

In ancient cultures, as well as our own, it is typically women's bodies that bear the scars of brokenness in the domain of intimacy. Perhaps the most poignant story of conjugal brokenness is found in the Gospel of John, the story of the woman "caught in the very act of adultery." This story strikes at the very heart of the marital bond. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect conjugal storm than the one depicted in John 8:1–11. Jesus has just spent a night of prayer on the Mount of Olives. As morning breaks, he descends from the mountain, enters the Temple, and people gather around him. A woman who has just spent a night in an illicit relationship has just been caught in the "very act of adultery." As morning breaks, she is snatched from the bed of adultery, dragged through the streets of Jerusalem, and brought to the Temple. [End Page 20]

Adultery stands as the primordial sexual sin, the only sexual sin listed in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:14). Most Mediterranean cultures regarded adultery as the kiss of death for marriage, and often for the woman as well.28 In ancient honor-shame cultures, it is women who bear the burden of these sexual codes. The man caught with this woman in the "very act of adultery" seems to be of no interest to those demanding justice.

The law demands that this violation of the marital bond be eradicated by the execution of the sinner. When the woman is brought before Jesus to test his commitment to the law, he kneels before her and begins writing in the earth. The text leaves us to imagine his words to her, and to her accusers. The authorities keep demanding Jesus' word of judgement, but Jesus simply says, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." He does not challenge the judgment of the law, but turns the finger of judgement from the woman to each person in the crowd around her. From the plight of this shamed and disgraced woman the brokenness of "everyman" in this difficult domain of human intimacy is confronted. When the dust settles on this examination of conscience, only Jesus and the woman remain. In the crucible of this conjugal crisis she found herself standing alone with the divine bridegroom.

The Exercises would invite every married person to stand with this woman in need of mercy, to acknowledge the complexity and breadth of human brokenness in this domain of human intimacy, and to recognize our shared need for redemption. The first week is the place to begin to acknowledge one's conjugal anxieties, adulterations, and sins; in the words of Ludolf of Saxony, to "tell him everything, entrust everything to him, cast all your cares upon him; he will calm the storm and relieve you."29

In the medieval traditions of meditation that Ignatius drew upon, the plot of this story thickens. The Johannine adulteress was commonly perceived to be Mary Magdalene.30 In the medieval imagination, this was a woman whom Jesus knew personally. She had married into Jesus' extended family, and Jesus attended her wedding. In some traditions she is also identified as the Samaritan woman who was involved with multiple relationships. In medieval devotional literature Mary Magdalene is the woman who kisses and bathes Jesus' feet with her tears. The intimate presence of this 'ruined' woman violates social and religious boundaries. Yet, texts like the Meditationes Vitae Christae also treat her penitence as a fearless act of bridal love. She is described as a woman fervently seeking "Beloved," "inflamed by the fire of love for Him."31

In the medieval devotional imagination, Magdalene highlights the woundedness that haunts the domain of conjugality. Those burdened by sin are invited to draw near to her. Yet, this same woman also emerges as the unique exemplar of bridal love for Christ. She is the woman who could not "raise her face from the feet of the Lord" and who "with increasing love she kissed them [End Page 21] often and affectionately."32 The Meditations of the Pseudo-Bonaventure exhorts believers to "watch her carefully and meditate particularly on her devotion, which was singularly loved by God."33 She personifies redemption at work in the midst of the intimate confusions and infidelities of the conjugal journey.


In the second week of the Exercises, the Wedding at Cana stands out as an obvious site for nuptial meditation. The Cana story seems to provide a fairly conventional setting for exploring the choice of a married state of life, a festive wedding celebration where the wine is flowing. However, in the devotional sources that Ignatius drew upon, the Wedding at Cana was a focus for some intriguing conjugal explorations.34 For example, the Meditationes Vitae Christae builds on a longstanding medieval tradition in depicting John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple, as the bridegroom in the story.35 John's mother is portrayed as Mary Salome, the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. The wedding at Cana is not depicted as some chance celebration that Jesus happens to cross paths with during his travels. Jesus and his mother are members of the bridal party's extended family. Pseudo-Bonaventure invites the reader to view Jesus' mother, the elder sister, as the directress of these nuptial celebrations, thus explaining her readiness to intervene when confronted with the problem of depleted wine. In short, the medieval texts prod the reader to view the wedding as a very intimate affair involving Jesus and Mary in extended familial relationship with the bride and groom. This reading breaks with a tendency to treat Ignatian meditations as an individualist encounter with Christ that brackets out the complex nexus of social relations critical to our identities. Could a married retreatant prayerfully imagine herself as the Cana bride in the midst of the complicated social realities of her own marriage? Could the Cana bridegroom imagine Jesus and Mary as intimate members of his extended family? Could they imagine Jesus and Mary entering into the very messiness and neediness of their marriage? The spiritual traditions that Ignatius drew upon seemed to encourage such imaginative boldness.

Ludolf of Saxony takes this meditational imaginary one step further by incorporating another intriguing medieval tradition, namely identifying the bride of Cana as Mary Magdalene.36 In this imaginative reading of the biblical text, Jesus' most beloved male and female disciples, John and Mary Magdalene, are celebrating their nuptial union when Jesus arrives. But Jesus is calling both of them into a messianic communion with the Bridegroom. In some versions of this legend, Mary Magdalene is distressed by the immediate and unconditional response of her spouse to the call of the Bridegroom. She falls into a desperate search for fulfillment in other relationships. Eventually she repents and offers her own nuptial surrender to Jesus as the woman weeping, kissing and wiping [End Page 22] his feet. Here Magdalene, the bride of the Cana marriage, represents spouses tortured by doubts and confusions about the marital vocation, struggling with unfulfilled and illicit desires. Yet Mary Magdalene, like John, will find her way to conjugal union with Christ.

In medieval art this imaginative rendition of the marriage of John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene informs Giotto's famous depiction of the Wedding at Cana in the Athena Chapel.37 Giotto's art offers a window into this biblical mystery. John the Evangelist, the bridegroom, is seated between Jesus and Joseph. Mary Magdalene, the bride, is seated between John's mother, Mary Salome, and Jesus' mother.

John is being drawn into communion with the divine Bridegroom. Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, seems to be left in a state of uncertainty. She gazes out of Giotto's window, engaging those looking into this biblical story. She seems to be connecting with us, drawing us into the narrative, inviting us to enter with our own questions, doubts, and anxieties.

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Marriage at Cana, Giotto di Bondone. © 2018 by ArtRes.

In Giotto's depictions of the life of Christ, this married couple, Mary Magdalene and John, appears in a number of mysteries such as the raising of Lazarus, various scenes of the crucifixion, the lamentation, and the ascension. What are we to make of this intimate presence of this curious couple in the [End Page 23] pivotal mysteries of Jesus' life? These medieval traditions of meditation offer some intriguing openings for the prayerful play of the conjugal imaginary.

Given the theological backdrop to this genre of spiritual literature, arguably the real message revolves around the bridal call to the celibate life. Jesus appears at Cana as the true bridegroom for both Mary Magdalene and John. They are both being called, in the very midst of their marriage ceremony, to turn away from "carnal marriage" to a "higher wedding," a celibate union with Christ.38 When Christ the Bridegroom arrives, the new wine begins to flow symbolizing the inebriating fullness prophetically linked to the coming of the messiah.39 When Aquinas turns from the literal to the "mystical meaning" of this Johannine story, he highlights the spiritual marriage between Christ the bridegroom and the Church. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is described as a covenantal matchmaker drawing the community of believers to the bridegroom:

In its mystical meaning, the mother of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin, is present in spiritual marriages as the one who arranges the marriage, because it is through her intercession that one is joined to Christ through grace . . . Christ is present as the groom of the soul, as it is said below (3:29): . . . "I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ"

(2 Cor. 11:2).40

But these imaginative renderings of the wedding at Cana could point in other directions. One interpretive path would be to avoid the problematic split between "carnal" and "spiritual marriage." Instead of pitting the human against the spiritual as two conflicting nuptial options, one could look to the Sacrament of Marriage itself as a path leading to the Bridegroom. The couple at Cana could still welcome Christ into the celebration, but as an invitation to see their marital bond, with all its joys and pains, its losses and gains, as a shared journey toward Christ the Bridegroom. Jesus arrives not to undermine their marital journey, rather, to enter into it as the messianic bridegroom. Such readings do open the door to a certain imaginative retrieval of these traditions of nuptial mysticism into the heart of the marital bond.41 An invitation, so to speak, to follow the conjugal path of John and Mary Magdalene, a conjugal path intimately wedded to Christ.

The Spiritual Exercises do not, and should not, corral married couples in the direction of a particular conjugal experience, including one shaped by nuptial mysticism. Ignatius himself suggests that a reconnection with the vocation of marriage through the Exercises could be pointing to a life of selfless service through good household management and the dedication of resources to the poor.42 This line is followed in the Official Directory to the Spiritual Exercise (1599). It does not invite an exploration of the marital relationship, but focuses on the cultivation of virtues required for good governance of households. Aspects of good household governance include: "helping them [fathers] govern [End Page 24] their families," "nurturing the ability of married persons to instruct their children and servants according to God's commandments," and fostering "a just, religious, and responsible use of their incomes and resources." 43

Hugo Rahner further complicates these discussions by suggesting that this Ignatian call to selfless service itself is driven by Ignatian mysticism, namely the "boundless" and "unshackled love . . . to do ever more and more" for the Beloved.44 Should the Exercises direct us to more selfless service in the conjugal vocation? Or, does it invite us into encounter our nuptial journey to Christ? A nuanced Ignatian approach would be to resist any impulse to choose between pathways in a way that would suggest a "for or against" stance. Ignatius insists on avoiding anything that would interfere with the intimate and personal encounter with God's grace.45 This deliberate ambiguity or openness in the Exercises avoids attempts to over-determine the implications of the Exercises for married retreatants. The Exercises are not designed to narrow and restrict one's experience, but to expand and personalize the range of spiritual possibilities. Each marriage constitutes a unique vocation and mission shaped by the distinct personalities that shape the bond. Each marital vocation is anchored in their interpersonal histories, their particular patterns of woundedness, and their specific ways of encountering Christ.


David Schnarch's influential study, Constructing the Sexual Crucible: An Integration of Sexual and Marital Therapy, depicts marital intimacy as a "crucible" for personal transformation.46 Schnarch breaks with standard approaches to marriage therapy in positing a path to the renewal of marital intimacy that often involves high and painful levels of anxiety, risk, and emotional intensity. In his view, the passage to breakthrough may require something akin to psychological crisis in order to break routinized relational patterns. At one point in his complex investigation, Schnarch actually draws on the metaphor of crucifixion to elucidate the intense types of transformative experiences that marital relations may require. He believes that "experience of Christ on the cross," namely "feeling forsaken by God (such as experiencing fears of abandonment and existential loneliness), and enduring unbearable pain" speaks to the difficulty of conjugal transitions. Spouses can reach a point where they feel that "their partner is out to crucify them, that the marriage is a trial designed to test their breaking point," that the decisions they face to effect meaningful change are "absolutely untenable, overwhelmingly anxiety-producing, and excruciating."47 In some ways, Schnarch's reflections offer a prelude to the third week.

The cross looms large in the Spiritual Exercises. In the first week, the exzercitant is invited to an encounter with the cross in the meditation on sin. The [End Page 25] third week draws us fully into the Passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus. Its grace leads to a recognition of our brokenness and the gift of redemption. This week can be especially difficult in the intimate domain of conjugal relationships. Retreatants are tempted, like Christ, to pray for the cup to pass, or to simply entrench ourselves in stubborn patterns of avoidance by continuing to repress hidden fears and discontents. The 16th century Jesuit, Gill Gonzalez Dávila, exhorts retreatants to struggle to "behold the Lord's heart in the midst of the story of his most holy Passion" and to find "reminders throughout the day to keep close to Christ crucified," so that we can say, "My love is crucified."48 Can one imagine conjugal love as a form of crucified love? The sources that Ignatius drew upon did open the door to imagine conjugal relations mixed into the Passion and death of Christ. As noted above, medieval traditions of meditation on the Passion depict this curious married couple, John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, as intimately immersed in the Passion and death of Jesus. Ludolf of Saxony's Vita Christi constantly pairs "John and Magdalene" in his references to those gathered close to the Passion and death of Jesus.49 They are at the foot of the cross, kissing the nailed feet of Jesus, taking Jesus' mother into their fold, grieving over the crucified body of the Messiah.

Giotto's frescos offer a vivid account of this married couple accompanying Jesus through his agony, Passion, and death. In his portrait of the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene is at Jesus' feet, while John is embracing Jesus' mother. Jesus' head is bowed toward them.50 In the San Francesco Basilica in Assisi, Giotto's crucifixion fresco depicts Mary kissing Jesus' feet, while John is gazing upon his crucified Lord.

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Crucifixion, Giotto. © 2018 by ArtRes.

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In the depiction of the Lamentation, Mary is holding Jesus' feet while John is gazing at Jesus' face in grief. Other late medieval paintings portray John and Mary helping to carry Jesus' body to the tomb.

How would spouses begin to prayerfully imagine the ways in which their marital bond could be implicated in the Passion and death of Christ? Obviously, it would be difficult and dubious to attempt to overly determine or direct outcomes. Each meditation would be specific to the wounds and trials that trouble each marriage. However, bringing intimate wounds of marriage into the bloody redemptive wound of Jesus' crucifixion can provide remarkable openings to delve into some of the darker and more painful dimensions of the marriage crucible. In one session of our Ignatian marriage retreats, a husband recounted his own struggle to imagine himself and his wife beside the cross. When images finally started to surface, he pictured himself as tied to one of the wooden crosses beside Jesus. This was a man who struggled with issues of trust. At times he felt very alone and almost abandoned, despite their well-established marriage. The ropes cutting into his flesh were the insecurities, anxieties and fears which seemed to bind and fetter him in his relationship to his spouse. At first, he said, the close presence of the crucified Christ seemed to ease his pain. Then, he began to wonder where his wife was. He looked for her. He presumed that he should be able to conceive of her as the other cross beside Jesus. However, his imagination simply could not see her in this way. All he could imagine was her empty cross, lying in the blood and mud at the foot of Jesus' cross. Yet, she was nowhere to be seen. The unfolding meditation seemed only to be intensifying his anxiety and pain. The message seemed dark. When it came to the crunch, the moment of crucified love, he was alone. The empty shell of their marriage lay upon the ground.

It was only with his cry of the heart to Mary, the mother of Jesus, that his meditation took a dramatic and unexpected turn. She turned from her dying Son to him. With sorrow and love she gazed upon him in his shameful naked pain and sin. She began removing the ropes from his body and lovingly took him down from his cross into her arms. And then, she brought him around to the other side of his cross to reveal the truth that he could not see. His wife, his spouse, was bound to the same cross with the same ropes that bound him. The cross that he was hanging on, she was hanging on too. She had been there all the while. His fears and insecurities were tearing into her flesh as well. His meditation evoked tears. In the shared and often silent pains of their conjugal life, they were journeying together with the crucified Bridegroom. Without words, the meditation vividly exposed unspoken anxieties and wounds while bringing the healing touch of grace. [End Page 27]

The way of the cross, the Passion of Christ, the presence of the two crosses beside Christ, offer spouses intimate sites to encounter the raw wounds and crucifixions within their own marital journeys. Jesus, his mother, Mary Magdalene, and John are ever present as sacred colloquy partners, familiar with brokenness and betrayal, and ready to receive the most difficult conjugal disclosures. Praying with couples in Ignatian retreat settings we have often seen the impact of these imaginative meditations on the Passion in exposing and addressing hidden and personal wounds that seemed impossible to articulate.


The fourth week is often treated as a decompression stage in the Exercises where the retreatant is easing down from the intensity of the first three weeks and transitioning back to normal life. Robert Marsh, S.J., counsels against the tendency to treat the meditations of the fourth week as a kind of anti-climactic epilogue to the Exercises.51 Marsh insists "if anything should baffle us it is resurrection." He warns us not to consider the grace of the fourth week as something that comes cheap or quickly with one or two meditations.52 Ignatius wants us to encounter the risen Christ. The grace of the fourth week should be a baffling surprise, a revelation, just as it was for the first disciples. The Passion and death of Christ are not empty illusions that the risen Jesus shakes from his feet as if they never really occurred. The wounds of his crucifixion are on his risen flesh, that is, wounds that are joined to our defeats, downfalls, and sins. Nothing is excluded from the risen life of Christ. The risen Jesus is intent on entering the dead and grieving zones of our lives to bring new life. Like the disciples at Emmaus, the Exercises invite couples to break open the Sacrament of Marriage in order to discover the crucified and risen Christ in their nuptial journey.

Juan Alfonso de Polanco, Ignatius' secretary and intimate colleague, focuses on the experience of Christ's love in the fourth week. Polanco delves beneath the "sharing of resources," which he calls an "effect" of love, to invite lovers to experience "love's essence." He notes that "love itself properly consists in the affection of the lover considered as an act or passion in him."53 Polanco exhorts retreatants to taste, to see, to feel, to imagine this immediate affection, this passionate love of the risen Christ. What could this mean for spouses surrendering to each other in Christ (Eph. 5:21)?

Hugo Rahner notes that the Exercises are marked "not so much a mystical running away from the world as a mystical joy in running toward the world in order to win it back again for his divine leader, Christ."54 Rahner's emphasis [End Page 28] on the dynamism of Ignatian spirituality sheds light on the path of all elections. The Ignatian path for marriage does not aim at the construction of a home that will be a safe, settled and protected citadel. It envisages a constant movement and reaching out for Christ amid the vicissitudes and ever-changing circumstances of conjugal life.

Rahner's remarks receive an imaginative twist in Ludolf of Saxony's meditation on the disciples on Easter morning. John and Peter hear the news from Mary Magdalene, the first to see the risen Lord, the first to bear witness, "the apostle to the apostles."55 The apostles begin running toward the empty tomb with John in the lead and Mary Magdalene following. Here again we have this curious conjugal couple, Mary and John, immersed in the biblical mystery. In Ludolf's imagination, this Cana couple, Mary and John, are running together toward the risen Christ. He summons us to run with them.

They run, and Mary and her companions run after them; they all run, seeking their Lord heart and soul; they run faithfully, fervently, anxiously, eagerly. You, run after them—or better, keep up with them . . . 56

This image could be applied to the Ignatian encounter with vocation of marriage. Each couple is called to run with Mary and John in the direction of the risen Christ. In this sense, the Exercises do not lead to a mystical running away from the marital election, but a mystical joy in running together in the nuptial bond towards the messianic Bridegroom.

Ludolf's meditations on the appearances of the risen Christ highlight the intensity and passion of Mary Magdalene's bridal love for her Lord. This is a married woman who has constantly sought, and now found, her Bridegroom. While the other disciples fled out of fear, her bridal love made her fearless. "Mary's fervor and devotion," Ludolf writes, "were stronger than the other disciples because her love was more passionate."57 She remains by the tomb through the night, "bathing the sepulcher in her tears," just as she had bathed Jesus' feet with her tears: "Such was the fire ignited by divine benevolence, so intense had her desire become, so deeply had she been wounded by love, that only tears gave her relief."58

Giotto's portrayal of the resurrection profiles Mary Magdalene reaching out to her Lord in his depiction of the "nole me tangere" scene. Giotto vividly captures this woman's unrelenting searching love. How can Jesus resist her longing to touch him? [End Page 29]

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Resurrection of Christ and Noli me Tangere, Giotto. © 2018 by ArtRes.

Ludolf adds another twist to the biblical story. He acknowledges the theological point that Jesus is making in asking Mary not to touch him. Jesus will only reach the fullness of his glory in the Ascension. However, Ludolf cannot imagine that Jesus really resists her request. Mary has been at Jesus' feet so many times, both in his life and in his dying. In Ludolf's account Mary does touch the risen Christ; she does kiss the feet of her risen Lord. He wants to make his own theological point in his meditation, namely all of us are invited to join Mary in her conjugal passion for the divine Bridegroom: "Let us throw ourselves at those feet and kiss them by our devout prayer, contemplating his humanity. If you want to lay hold of the majesty of God, first take hold of Christ's humanity."59

In the medieval imagination, it is Mary Magdalene, this married woman, who is the unique exemplar of bridal union with Christ. For these traditions, Mary is not just any married woman. She is a woman whose marital journey has been marked by confusions, failures, and sin. She pours out her woundedness to the crucified love of her Jesus. And in the end, Mary and John are running together, running toward the risen Christ. [End Page 30]


Could the experience of the marital election in the Spiritual Exercises also challenge and enrich our theological understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage? Perhaps. The discussion of marriage in the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes a reflection on the call to virginity as the unique bridal path to Christ. It begins by acknowledging, "Christ is the center of all Christian life" and this "bond with him takes precedence over all other bonds, familial or social" (CCC 1618). However, the primacy of this bond is uniquely highlighted in relationship to the path of virginity:

From the beginning of the Church there have been men and women who have renounced the great good of marriage to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, to be intent on the things of the Lord, to seek to please him, and to go out to meet the Bridegroom who is coming.

CCC 1618, (emphasis added)

This reflection taps into deep veins in the Catholic tradition emphasizing the bridal nature of humanity's relationship to Christ.60 Ruysbroek's treatise on spiritual marriage opens with a proclamation of bridal theological anthropology: "The Bridegroom is Christ and human nature is the bride, whom God created according to his own image and likeness."61 Pope Innocent III viewed the nuptial relationship as a key to unlocking numerous key mysterious of faith.62 However, if the nuptial bond with Christ is fundamental to all human bonds, and if marriage is a bond that should reflect the mystery of Christ and the Church, should not a theological reflection on virginity's nuptial relation to Christ also resonate with the vocation of marriage? Ignatius writes:

That love which moves me and brings me to choose the matter in question should descend from above, from the love of God; in such a way that the person making the election should perceive beforehand that the love, whether greater or less, which he or she has for the matter being chosen is solely for the sake of our Creator and Lord.63

Should men and women seeking to draw closer to the Ignatian vision of the marital election join those going out to meet the Bridegroom? From the perspective of the Spiritual Exercises, the call of article 1618 could reveal, with a change of but one word (from renounced to chosen), the nuptial call that lies at the heart of the Sacrament of Marriage:

From the beginning of the Church there have been men and women who have chosen the great good of marriage to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, to be intent on the things of the Lord, to seek to please him, and to go out to meet the Bridegroom who is coming. [End Page 31]

Daniel Cere and Jacqueline Cere

Jacqueline and Daniel Cere are married with six children. Daniel Cere is Associate Professor of Religion, Law and Public Policy at McGill University. He rececently served as Director of McGill's School of Religious Studies. Jacqueline Darwent Cere has extensive experience as a spiritual director with the Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Montreal Quebec. She also serves as the administrative coordinator for the Dominus Vobiscum Marriage and Family Retreat Centre.


1. Hugo Rahner, S. J., The Spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola: An Account of Its Historical Development (Westminster, Md.: The Newman Press, 1953), 8.

2. Hugo Rahner, S.J., St. Ignatius of Loyola: Letters to Women (Freiburg, Germany: Herder and Herder, 1960), 142.

3. Rahner, Letters to Women, 141–142. Ignatius does conclude his advice to Donna Joanna with this somewhat perplexing or Jesuitical comment: "you may take it for certain that this way is the right one, because thus Señor Ascanio is given into your hands and will now be your slave" (144).

4. Gilles Cusson, The Spiritual Exercises Made in Everyday Life (St. Louis, Mo.: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1989); John J. English, Spiritual Freedom (Guelph, Ontario: Loyola House, 1973).

5. English, Spiritual Freedom, 196–198, 202.

6. See John Wickham's discussion in Prayer Companion's Handbook (Montreal: Ignatian Centre Publications, 1991), 45.

7. Andrew Walker, "The Spiritual Exercises and Sexuality," The Way 47 1/2 (2008): 201–210, at 205; Robert R. Marsh, "Id Quod Volo: The Erotic Grace of the Second Week," The Way 45/4 (2006): 7–19; Timothy Muldoon, "Ordered Affection: Sexuality and Ignatian Spirituality," The Way 49 (2010): 7–22; Ann Smith, "Sexuality and the Creativity of God," The Way 23 (1983): 96–207.

8. In Spiritual Exercises for Married Couples, Krisztina and John Strangle offer a manual for married couples who wish to direct each other in their personal journeys through the Exercises. However, it does not explore the Exercise as a path to a rediscovery of the election to marriage. Accessed July 25, 2016,

9. "Directory Dictated to Juan Alonso de Vitoria, (1555)" in On Giving the Spiritual Exercises: The Early Jesuit Directories and the Official Directory of 1599, translated and edited by Martin E. Palmer, S.J. (St. Louis, Mo.: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996), 16–17.

10. Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, translated by George E. Ganss, S.J. (Chicago: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1992), 74–75, 169, 171.

11. John S. Hardon, S.J., All My Liberty: Theology of the Spiritual Exercises, Chapter 7, "The Retreat Election." Accessed December 17, 2016,

12. Spiritual Exercises, 189.

13. Spiritual Exercises, 169.

14. Spiritual Exercises, 169.

15. Andrew J. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and Family in America Today (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

16. An inventory of secular and faith-based programs can be found at the Smart Marriages website, Directory of Programs. Accessed on August 30, 2016,

17. For the Christian version of PREP, see Scott Stanley, Daniel Trathen, Savanna McCain, and Milt Bryan, A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for your Marriage (San Francisco: Jossey-Boss Publications, 1998).

18. Spiritual Exercises, 97–98.

19. Spiritual Exercises, 23.

20. English, Spiritual Freedom, 36.

21. Spiritual Exercises, 15.

22. On Giving the Spiritual Exercises, 321–22.

23. Milton Walsh, "'To be Always Thinking Somehow about Jesus': The Prologue of Ludolf's Vita Christi," Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 43 (2011): 34.

24. Walsh, "To be Always Thinking Somehow about Jesus," 25, 27.

25. Walsh, "To be Always Thinking Somehow about Jesus," 32.

26. Spiritual Exercises, 51.

27. The following section on gospel perspectives revisits reflections in an earlier essay by the author Daniel Cere, "Writing in the Earth: Discernment in Times of Conjugal Crisis," INTAMS Review 21 (2015): 128–145.

28. For a discussion of ancient societal and legal approaches to adultery, see Elisabeth Meier Tetlow, Women, Crime, and Punishment in Ancient Law and Society, vols. 1 & 2 (New York: Continuum, 2004/2005); Raymond Westbrook, "Adultery in Ancient Near Eastern Law," Revue Biblique 97 (1990): 542–580.

29. Walsh, "To be Always Thinking Somehow about Jesus," 32.

30. David Fowler, The Bible in Middle English Literature (Seattle and Washington: University of Washington Press, 1984), 102.

31. Meditations on the Life of Christ: An Illustrated Manuscript of the Fourteenth Century, translated by Isa Ragusa and Rosalie Green (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961), 171–173.

32. Meditations on the Life of Christ, 172.

33. Meditations on the Life of Christ, 172.

34. For exegetical debates over John 2:1–11, see Rudolf Schnackenburg's analysis The Gospel According to John, vol.1 (Freiburg, Herder/Montreal: Palm Publishers, 1968), 323–340. Sandra Schneiders argues that John 2:1–11 depicts Christ as the messianic Bridegroom bringing an abundance of wine; see Written that You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York.: Crossroad, 1999), 35, 135. For an alternative line of interpretation, see Jocelyn McWhirter, The Bridegroom Messiah and the People of God: Marriage in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 49–50.

35. Meditations on the Life of Christ, 140–151.

36. For discussions of these medieval traditions, see: Annette Volfing, John the Evangelist and Medieval German Writing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 26–41; R. Alan Culpepper, John, Son of Zebedee: the Life of a Legend (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1994), 259.

37. Wedding At Cana, Scovegni Chapel. Accessed on Aug 8, 2016,

38. Meditations on the Life of Christ, 150.

39. Mary Bodenstedt, ed. Praying the Life of Christ: First English Translation of the Prayers Concluding the 181 Chapters of the Vita Christi of Ludolphus the Cathusian (Salzburg, Austria: Analecta Cartusiana, 1973), 26.

40. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John: Chapters 1–5, trans. by Fabian Larcher and James A. Weisheipl (Catholic University Press of America, 2010), 135.

41. De Guibert notes the absence of nuptial motifs in Ignatius' writing compared to that of other Spanish mystics. J. De Guibert, The Jesuits: Their Spiritual Doctrine and Practice (Chicago: Institute of Jesuit Studies, 1964), 55–56. See also W. W. Meissner, The Psychology of a Saint: Ignatius of Loyola (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 284. These debates are part of a wider discussion over the place of Ignatius within the tradition of Christian mysticism. Edward Howells offers an overview of 20th century debates in "Spanish Mysticism and Religious Renewal: Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross," in Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, edited by Julia Lamm (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 422–436.

42. Spiritual Exercises, 189.

43. "Official Directory of 1599" in On Giving the Spiritual Exercises, 304–305.

44. Rahner, The Spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, xii-xiii.

45. Spiritual Exercises, 2.

46. David M. Schnarch, Constructing the Sexual Crucible: An Integration of Sexual and Marital Therapy (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1991).

47. David M. Schnarch, Constructing the Sexual Crucible, 158–59.

48. On Giving the Spiritual Exercises, 263.

49. See Ludolf the Saxon, The Hours of the Passion: Taken From the Life of Christ (London: Burns and Oates, 1887), 297, 300, 308, 363, 365–66.

50. Giotto, Crucifixion, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi. Accessed on December 17, 2016,

51. Robert Marsh, "Discovering Joy: Four Thought Experiments for the Fourth Week," The Way 5/2 (2013): 33–41.

52. Marsh, "Discovering Joy: Four Thought Experiments for the Fourth Week," 33, 37.

53. On Giving the Spiritual Exercises, 144.

54. Rahner, The Spirituality of St. Ignatius, b44–45.

55. Ludolf of Saxony, "Your Hearts Will Rejoice": Easter Meditation from the Vita Christi of Ludolf of Saxony (Collegeville, Minn.: Cistercian Publications, 2016), 64–66.

56. Ludolf of Saxony, "Your Hearts Will Rejoice," 40.

57. Ludolf of Saxony, "Your Hearts Will Rejoice," 46

58. Ludolf of Saxony, "Your Hearts Will Rejoice," 46

59. Ludolf of Saxony, "Your Hearts Will Rejoice," 62.

60. Rabia Gregory, Marrying Jesus in Medieval and Early Modern Northern Europe (New York: Routledge, 2016); Hildegard E. Keller, My Secret is Mine: Studies on Religion and Eros in the German Middle Ages (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishers, 2000).

61. John Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works, introduction and translation by James A. Wiseman (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 41.

62. See translation and commentary by Connie Munk, A Study of Pope Innocent III's Treatise "De Quadripartita specie nuptiarum" (University of Kansas, 1976).

63. Spiritual Exercises, 169, 184.

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