Happy St. Ignatius Day
Friday is the feast of Ignatius of Loyola and I thought I'd post a bit from an article on Ignatian prayer by Philip Sheldrake. There are many things I like about Ignatius but one of the best is his style of prayer in the Spiritual Exercises - gospel contemplation/colloquy - in which one puts oneself in the company of God, allowing for interaction. When I first learned about this kind of prayer I was intrigued at the implications, but I have to admit that lately I've been skimping .... face to face conversations can be daunting if you're not sure all's well between you and the other person :/
The article is pretty long and I've only posted just the first four paragraphs of it, but it can be read in its entirety or freely downloaded if you search in the archives at The Way.
Imagination and Prayer
by Philip Sheldrake
IN RECENT YEARS many people, seeking to deepen or expand their experience of prayer, have found great help in what is called gospel contemplation. Stated very simply, this consists in taking a scene from the gospels, and 'putting oneself in the midst of the action', or making it present through the use of the imagination. Perhaps the easiest way to explain how gospel or imaginative contemplation proceeds is to begin by describing the experience of one retreatant, a school teacher, who had never tried this way of praying before. She was asked to use the incident of Peter walking on the water (Mt 14,22-33). When she came to describe this, she said that to start with she had no difficulty in imagining herself in a boat, as she had in fact been sailing as a youngster. She knew what it was like to experience the frustration and fear of fighting against a strong wind and current. This helped her to 'get inside' the scene. She recognized that Jesus was there, and found herself, like Peter, with a strong desire to join him, to be alongside him. However, she also felt unable to get out of the boat. Try as she might, she could not imagine herself doing this 'and so the prayer went wrong at that point'. Why did she feel this? 'Because, up to then I could identify with the actual story in the gospel, but when I could not get out of the boat, it all broke down'. And so, what did she do? 'I said to Jesus, "I can't get out of this boat" '. And then, 'I felt that Jesus asked why and I had to admit that I was scared. You see', she said, 'I can sail, but I can't swim very well'. Then she felt that Jesus was asking her whether she thought that he would make her do something beyond her capacity. 'Yes, you would . . . you often have'. This experience led the person to spend the remainder of the prayer sitting and talking to Christ about the fact that she did not really trust him because she did not know him well enough.
This example, it seems to me, underlines with great clarity some of the more important elements of the imaginative kind of prayer. Most importantly, the person was fully involved and was not just a spectator observing a picture, as one might contemplate a painting in a gallery. Quite instinctively she found herself identifying with one of the characters in the gospel scene. And yet she did not become Peter, she remained herself. In this sense she did not put herself back in time. Rather, the story became present, and became her story. In this case she found it easy to enter the scene by some initially detailed imagination of being in a boat. However, as the story progressed, the degree of pictorial imagination grew less and less. Those with a strong ability to picture details find the notion of seeing the people, or feeling the wind on the face, or smelling the fish in the bottom of the boat very easy indeed. However, this is not a necessary part of imaginative prayer. Pictorial imagination is only one way of imagining. Not all are capable of it, and not all find it necessary. This person, as the story progressed, found that this aspect was less apparent. She 'sensed' that Jesus was asking her something, rather than heard specific words coming from a figure whom she could visualize and describe. This fact is important because some people object to trying imaginative contemplation precisely because they feel unable to imagine pictorially, or because it is unreal. Likewise, for those who do find it possible and helpful, there is the danger of becoming too involved in the trivia which, if used at all, are only a means to an end. That end, of course, is some kind of personal encounter with the Lord which touches the deepest parts of my reality. And that encounter was really present for this woman in that the imaginative representation of a particular scene provoked a realization of something very vital to her relationship with Christ: that she did not trust. Did the prayer go wrong because it ceased to follow the gospel story in literal detail? On the contrary, the gospel was a medium for the revelation of something very important and true about herself. And yet the gospel story was not left behind entirely. It was this specific scene of walking on the water which formed the backdrop to everything else that was valid about the prayer. And the prayer certainly remained within the general parameters of the gospel passage.
Another characteristic of this form of prayer is that it can free the person to allow deep-rooted feelings to emerge which are blocking any further growth. Imaginative contemplation, when it works, takes on a life of its own -- and the life is that of the person praying. It therefore serves to bring the gospel into direct contact with the reality of this person's life, and frequently in a challenging way. Such prayer may also help a person come to terms with, and admit to, inner feelings which previously he or she felt were inappropriate before God. 'I should not feel angry'. A more distanced approach to scripture, where one asks 'What did Jesus say? What did he mean? How does this apply to christian action?' rarely does this. For when one is bringing only reason to the gospels there is a tendency to apply a priori limits to what is valid. Thus another retreatant, in praying the calming of the storm in Mark (4,16) was brought face to face both with what she felt about Christ, and how she herself behaved in life. Jesus, lying at the bottom of the boat, was in the way as she rushed around trimming the sails in the midst of the squall. At first she was politely apologetic at bumping into him, but eventually she shouted at him 'What do you think you are doing there? Lolling around when we have to do all the work? Why don't you do something useful?' To which the only reply was 'Who is in charge here anyway?' This brought the person to a halt and led her to reflect that this imaginative experience underlined both her feelings that God was generally uninvolved in her concerns, and that, in fact, she rarely let him act because she did not let go, or relax, either in life or in prayer. A similar realization came to the person who prayed the call of the first disciples in John (1,35-39). When Christ asked him 'What do you seek?' his instinctive response was 'To be with you'. Jesus then invited the person to follow, and set off at a rapid pace which prevented him from keeping up. When he cried 'Why do you have to go so fast?' Christ merely smiled and kept going, up hill and down dale and eventually into a town in whose winding streets the person finally lost sight of Jesus. Final panic set in, but with it the realization that the problem was that he felt that Christ was always too fast for him, and that consequently his life was always a struggle to keep up with impossible demands.
The realization of 'impossible demands' raises the question as to whether all images which emerge from such gospel contemplation are true. If we take the example of someone who felt in prayer that Jesus said to him 'I'm not going to start loving you, until you learn how to love me', it is clear that this is not a truly christian image of God. We all come to prayer with images -- of God, of self and of
our world 7 but none of them is perfect and some are radically unhelpful. Does this mean that the feeling just described (that God demands that we merit his love) is totally untrue? It is true, surely, in that it is what the person actually feels. Distorted images cannot just be repressed; they can only be refined if exposed, admitted to, and offered to God. But such an image is not from God for, if we follow the sound advice of St Ignatius's 'Rules for discernment', we can see that what produces joy, harmony and growth is the gift of the good spirit, and that which produces sadness, despair or fragmentation is (to use Ignatius's language) a temptation of the evil spirit ............