Scenes from the first day in Sydney

Scenes from the first day in Sydney
D, the Opera House, and the Bridge

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ignatian Prayer Practices

It's not that there's nothing going on in my life these days, nor that I have no thoughts on current events, but I'm going to spend a few blogs sharing some methods of prayer with you based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. These methods were developed when Ignatius was a lay person, and they are intended to help us become "contemplatives in action."


John 14:25-31

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.


In the prayer tradition of the "religions of the book," Scripture has a privileged place. It is one of the places where we believe we may encounter the Word of God spoken to us through the stories, poems, histories and prayers of our ancestors in faith. And it is the place where we have the best and fullest accounts of this man called Jesus of Nazareth, the one the Gospel of John calls “the Word Made Flesh.”

Where many of the scriptures were important as a source of more or less historical record, or a source of liturgical norms, moral codes, or wisdom teaching, there has always been a very central role for the scriptures in the lives of the communities who received them.

From the time of their earliest compositions, beginning in the Jewish traditions, the scriptures have been the basis of prayer… both for individuals and communities. The Psalms would be a good example, because they were recited every day by observant Jews, including Jesus, and subsequently by the Christian church in the form of the Liturgy of the Hours, the universal prayer of the Church.

So, scriptures have always been recited, reflected upon, and been the focus of meditation from the beginning. But it wasn’t until the sixteenth century when one particular Christian began to share a very innovative way of praying with Scripture, using the imagination.

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, certainly wasn’t the first person ever to imagination while reading the Gospels, but he was the first to popularize a method of prayer that could be shared with others. And in fact, over the centuries, people who have learned this method of prayer have expressed how profoundly it has changed their lives. I don’t say that lightly either.

How can Ignatian Contemplative prayer change a person’s life? Most of us live a second hand faith, meaning that what we believe about Jesus, and in turn, the way we express our faith through devotional practices, and liturgy… all these things have been handed on to us by others. That’s why tradition plays such a crucial role in Catholicism.

But second hand faith, as important as it is, does not guarantee a first hand, person to person encounter with the Word Made Flesh, with Jesus. Now, evangelical Christians have their own take on what it means to have such an encounter with Jesus, where we make a fundamental option for Christ and through this, are “born again.”

When I talk about this person to person encounter with Jesus, I am talking about how we are invited to enter into the scriptures to meet Jesus there, and allow him to affect us by his presence. The vehicle for this encounter is the Holy Spirit, working through the medium of our imaginations. So, I am talking about a method of prayer that takes the Holy Spirit seriously, based on the belief that the Spirit always works in a mediated way through our human ways of knowing and feeling. Just as the Holy Spirit inspires us, fills us with energy, or courage, or enthusiasm, or peace… so the Spirit moves our imaginations.

“Imagination…” the problem with this word is that in our modern, scientific and very pragmatic world, “imagination” has connotations of unreality or fantasy. Like “myth” or “story,” imagination is a tricky sort of thing, because we tend to think of it as less true than hard facts. This is a problem if we’re trying to make sense out of an encounter we have with Jesus in this type of prayer, because we might be tempted to downplay its significance. We say, “Oh, it was only my mind playing tricks on me that Jesus spoke to me like that, or reached out to hold my hand.”

But for us as Christians, imagination has always had a very important role, and not only in the creative exercise of art, music, literature, or drama. Imagination is fundamental to all human activity. It remembers the past, projects possibilities for the future, shapes human desire, and without it, there can be no action.

Imagination helps to make possible the most incredible human endeavors… the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, the technology necessary to reach the moon, the prophetic non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi… all of it began in the imagination.

There is a dark side to it, as there always is with things of the spirit…the possibility for infantile regression, delusion, prejudice, greed, grandiosity… and so we must acknowledge the need to discern the things we imagine. But let’s leave discernment for later at the moment. Stay tuned...

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