Praying the Word of God, meditating on the Scriptures, entering into the life of Jesus in the Gospels…. We are told how important it is to pray in this way so that we will mature in Christ, transformed in the Spirit.
But when we sit down to meditate, we might discover we don’t what to do. That "how" is what Saint Ignatius Loyola learned and then taught to millions who followed him both to his followers when we was alive and those of us who have benefited from his guidance since. For five centuries the teachings of Ignatius have been a sure guide for Christians yearning for spiritual transformation. The means he gave us include the contemplation of the Gospels, the examen of consciousness, the Spiritual Exercises, and discernment of spirits. What unites all these practices, what makes them truly Ignatian, is the recommendation to observe our hearts carefully.
So what does this mean for me? How would Ignatius help me to pray in a profound way? How can Jesus heal my heart?
Once I was meditating on Jesus’ call of the disciples. I went up to Jesus and told him that I wanted to come with him, too. Jesus turned around and walked away from me without a word. It took me a while to realize the alienation I felt because of this apparent rejection by Jesus, and how the Spirit working in my heart had made me aware of it. Several years of prayer and healing passed before I realized that Jesus no longer walked away from me when I put myself in the apostles’ shoes, but instead gathered me in an embrace whenever I approached him. My experience, my feelings about myself, and my prayer came together in a contemplation that helped me find God in my life in new ways.
Saint Ignatius gave us a form of contemplation that makes use of our imagination. Ignatius would have us contemplate Christ in the Gospels by placing ourselves somewhere in the scene, participating in the conversation and activity, and allowing God the liberty to reveal himself to us.
The steps for praying with Scripture this way are simple:
1. Prepare yourself for prayer. Quiet your mind. Ask God to reveal himself. Tell him what you desire of him in this time of prayer.
2. Talk to Jesus. Ask him to speak to you through the Scripture you are about to read.
3. Choose a story from the Gospel. For example, choose the story of the storm on the lake (see Mk 4:35~41). Read the passage slowly several times, leaving a few moments of silence between readings.
4. Imagine yourself in the Gospel story. Smell the air, feel the water as it pounds the boat and splashes you in the face. Run your hand along the edge of the vessel so precariously thrown about in the storm. Talk to the others there. See Jesus asleep.
5. Let your feelings surface. Is there someone in the story you identify with? Someone you feel repulsed by? Something that makes you afraid or joyful, that attracts or distracts you? Stay with the feelings and whatever seems most significant or meaningful. Forget the rest of the story for now.
Let things happen in the scene that aren’t described in the Gospels. Let’s say you feel angry that Jesus doesn’t wake up right away. Maybe you’re so angry you go back and shake him by the shoulders and tell him to his face exactly how you feel. You can’t believe the compassion and love in Jesus’ eyes as he listens.
Or perhaps it doesn’t even occur to you to wake Jesus up. You try to solve the problem on your own. As you are trying to stabilize the vessel, Jesus comes to you and asks you a simple question. What is that question? That question will have something to do with your present life experiences, your attitude toward God, and your feelings about yourself. What is it like for you to have the storm about you calmed?
6. Remain in the scene for as long as it is nourishing your prayer. You may choose to continue your prayer until you feel a shift. Or maybe you need to repeat the meditation over several days or weeks until you come to a moment of peace and faith.
7. End your prayer time with a period of silence and the Our Father. You may find it useful to record your impressions in a journal.
The overabundance of impressions all around us makes it difficult at times to get in touch with our deepest feelings. We rarely know what we most desire--I mean deep-down desires. Sometimes we haven’t the courage to ask. Many times, prayer consists in speaking about God or about ourselves to God, rather than speaking directly to God and letting him deal directly with us.
As we imagine ourselves in the scenes of the Gospel, we learn about God and about ourselves from our reactions, our attractions, our resistances. Ignatius was attentive to his feelings and experiences during prayer and throughout the day. Listening to our feelings is an exercise in authenticity—of bringing our whole self to God in prayer so he can reveal himself to us and tell us what he desires of us.