Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A primer in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Here is the first talk we received on our retreat last weekend, at the Galilee retreat Centre in Arnprior. It was given by Jason who is a Jesuit seminarian. 

Jason gives a great personal example of how to pray by using the structure of St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises.
Retreat: 17-19 January 2014 at Arnprior, ON
At my parents’ house in Scarborough, ON, there is in an album an old, sepia photograph that I am very fond of. It was taken the year I was born and it shows my grandmother cradling me in her arms. In her bedroom, she is lying on a bed in that floral dress she loved so much. Her head rests on a pillow and she holds the new born me, swaddling clothes and all, literally close to her heart. My fleshy face, in the photo, crinkles with confusion. The sun blazes through an open window and, just as my grandmother cradles me, the sunlight cradles both of us. In the photograph, my grandmother holds me so close to her that both of us seem to be one being. She smiles broadly and proudly, and her eyes sing songs of tenderness and gratitude. As you can tell, this picture evokes strong feelings in me. When I look at it, I feel comfort, gratitude and tender love for my late grandmother, who raised me. I miss her. Even my senses react to the photograph. I actually feel the softness of her skin against my cheek. I smell acutely her homely scent. I feel her soft bosom in which I am ensconced. I see her smiling eyes. There is no doubt that images exact great power over us. Which image do you find evocative? It could be a photograph, a scene from a film, a painting, or a picture in a newspaper or magazine.

Ignatius of Loyola knew that images are powerful. He, therefore, popularized imaginative prayer, which we call Ignatian Contemplation. Ignatian Contemplation means prayerfully imagining yourself as a character in a scriptural story. To properly explain how to go about this, I would like to elaborate on the following three points. Ignatius, firstly, believed that the Holy Spirit, through prayerful imagination, directs us into deeper companionship or friendship with the Triune God and, in particular, with Jesus. This deepening friendship, secondly, entails desiring and discovering what it means to be more like Jesus. I will, thirdly, briefly outline the structure of a typical Ignatian Contemplation.

Firstly, the Holy Spirit guides our prayer. This is no less true when we do Ignatian Contemplation. Since God made us to desire deeper intimacy with Him, He gives us the grace to be intimate. Jesus says in the gospel of John, “the Holy Spirit, whom the father will send in my name, will teach you all things” (14:26). When we pray, the Holy Spirit uses our imaginations to teach us what it means to be Jesus’ friends and companions. Trusting the Spirit is, then, very important. Remember, it is not we who control the dynamic of our prayer even though we might sometimes like to do so. “We do not invite God into prayer rather God invites us into prayer.” Our Ignatian Contemplations may not always unfold as we like, but we must still trust that the Holy Spirit guides us. This is the key.

Secondly, the whole point of Ignatian Contemplation is to accompany Jesus, and in accompanying him, to learn how to imitate him in our daily lives. In fact, the word “image” comes from the Latin word imitari, which means to copy or imitate. Ignatius believed that if we imagine ourselves accompanying Jesus through his birth, ministry, crucifixion, death and resurrection, we will not only grow closer to Jesus but also have a better idea of what it means to imitate him daily. If this is the whole point of Ignatian contemplation, then we need two more key elements. One of these is desire. During each prayer period we must tell God what grace we desire from the contemplation. The grace we ask for, naturally, depends on the scripture passage we are praying with, and we decide on this grace with our spiritual director’s help. The grace usually comes out of our desire to know more deeply Jesus’ mind and heart. The other element is discovery. Ignatian Contemplation is all about following Jesus like a pilgrim on a journey of discovery. We discover ourselves as loved by God, which transforms us into more arduous messengers of that love.
Thirdly, a typical Ignatian Contemplation has the following structure:

I. CHOOSE an appropriate place
  • Find a place that will best enable you to be quiet and prayerful. Remember that, just like Moses in front of the burning bush, this place is holy ground because it is where you will encounter Jesus in prayer.
  • After you have settled yourself, take a couple of minutes to become aware of God’s presence with you in that room and in your heart.
II. SEE: Imagine the Scene
  • Imagine the setting (topographical and social) of the scripture story. For example, imagine you are actually with the baby Jesus in the manger. What do you see, hear, smell and feel? What does the manger look like? How does it smell? Etc.
  • If it were a movie, what would this scriptural scene look like?
  • Who else is in the scene with you? For example, the Virgin Mary and Joseph might be present in the manger. The shepherds might be there as well. Or perhaps you are alone with the baby Jesus.
III. ASK for a grace that leads to greater intimacy with Jesus
  • For example, “Jesus draw me into the mystery of your birth”
  • Desiring a grace helps you to become more involved in the story.
IV. LISTEN to what the characters in the story are saying
  • Before entering into dialogue with Jesus, listen to the dialogue between the characters in the story. How does the conversation affect you?
  • For example, what is the Virgin Mary saying to Joseph and the baby Jesus? What are the Shepherds discussing about? Perhaps, there is only silence on that holy night, and that’s okay.
V. SPEAK: confide in Jesus
  • Since you are trying to become closer friends with Jesus, have a heart to heart conversation with Him.
  • What do you talk about with Jesus? Tell him about what moved you during your prayer. What did you like and/or dislike about your prayer? What were your thoughts and feelings during the prayer? Ask Jesus what he was feeling and thinking.
  • If absolutely nothing moved you during prayer, this is okay. Tell Jesus that nothing moved you and then imagine what his reply would be.
  • In addition to this, you may speak to other characters in the story.
VI. SILENCE with Jesus
  • Now take some time to enter into grateful silence with Jesus. Enjoying being with Jesus your friend. Rest in HIS presence. This isn’t an awkward silence. Very close friends are usually quite comfortable being silent with each other.
  • Thank Jesus for the time you have spent with him.
The above structure is not meant to stifle your prayer. It is meant, rather, to help you encounter God. An Ignatian Contemplation could last from 30 to 60 minutes. With your director’s help, decide on how long each of your prayer periods should be. The Jesuit Anthony De Mello once said that prayer is “all about the fire. Where is the fire?” When I look at that photograph of my grandmother cradling me, the fire is in my love for her and in my gratitude for her life. It is in my sensual reaction to the photograph - the feel of my grandmother’s skin, and her scent. The above structure is supposed to surface these fiery movements. In Ignatian Contemplation, Jesus plays the same role for you that my grandmother plays for me in that photograph. As you pray with Luke 2:1-19 (found at the top left hand corner of your sheets), I wish and pray that you may experience God’s fiery presence not only in your prayer and during this retreat but throughout your lives. Thank You.

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