Ignatian Prayer and Scripture: A Brief Essay

By The Rev. Margaret Guenther

I must begin this reflection with a confession: I love stories!  If I am compelled, I manage to use my left brain–which is sort of like learning a second language–but I am happiest when my mind is alive with images, when things don’t necessarily add up, when I am invited to wander down mysterious, maybe awesome, often beautiful paths.

I managed acceptable, even rather good grades in my Scripture courses in seminary. But I have always been happiest when I could immerse myself in a story.  So sometimes in my imagination the Last Supper took place in the parish hall of my childhood–ample ladies, flushed with the heat of the kitchen, would peep out through the pass-through to acknowledge the applause of the Twelve gathered with Jesus around the table.  Blind Bartimaeus would sometimes be sitting beside a Missouri country road when Jesus passed by, and sometimes he would be in the heart of downtown Kansas City.  The stable at Bethlehem smelled like the barn on the farm I visited often with my father. It was a rather nice smell, not at all what one might expect.

The stories in my King James Bible– ceremoniously bestowed on me when I reached the fourth grade–were alive, vibrant with sound and color and action.

And I haven’t quite grown up–despite the ponderous commentaries in my study bookshelves.  It was a joy to discover that I am not alone!  To discover that St. Ignatius of Loyola was way ahead of me in the sixteenth century.

At the heart of Ignatian prayer is the conviction that God can be found in all things. As a consequence, this way of praying appeals to our senses and encourages our imaginations.  The Gospel becomes alive, vivid, and present as we put ourselves in the story.  This can be a dynamic experience for anyone who has plodded through Scripture, conscientiously squelching each stirring of fantasy. After all, the Bible is a holy book, right?  We are supposed to read it reverently, quieting our random thoughts and ignoring the pictures that flit through our consciousness–in other words, deaden ourselves as much as possible, right?  Yet if we let ourselves be guided by Ignatius, the answer is a resounding Wrong!  He invites us to read Scripture as if we were present, to let ourselves see, hear, taste, and smell.  Mere reading is transformed into a lively, imaginative experience.

His Spiritual Exercises currently enjoying great popularity, not just among Roman Catholics or among clergy and members of religious orders.  Ordinary folk are discovering them, either in the intense experience of the traditional thirty-day retreat or–more commonly–in way set forth in the Nineteenth Annotation to the Exercises.  Ignatius must have had these ordinary busy people in mind when he offered this provision: “One who is educated or talented, but engaged in public affairs or necessary business, should take an hour and a half daily for the spiritual exercises.”  In either event, the exercises are undertaken under the guidance of a spiritual director skilled in Ignatian spirituality.  For those drawn to this experience, William Barry’s Finding God in All Things offers a highly readable introduction, the first step in exploring whether this is for you.

It is not necessary, however, to make the Spiritual Exercises to benefit from Ignatius’ approach to prayer.    Welcoming imagination, instead of regarding it as distraction, gives permission to those parts of ourselves which we often suppress in worship bringing an immediacy to our prayer.   Only when we experience the Gospel in the present tense, can we truly own it. Instead of suppressing our five senses, we use them as a passage into the mysteries of Christ’s life. The Gospels, after all, depict Jesus as a person who used and delighted in the senses.  His denigrators–in the colorful language of the King James translation–called him a “glutton and wine-bibber.”  He told stories that abound in imagery of touch, taste, sight, and hearing.  He touched people when he healed them; he took his disciples’ dusty feet in his hands and washed them.  People brought their children to him so that he could touch them and bless them.

Hence Gospel stories are especially good material for this type of meditation, broadly called Ignatian. We let ourselves read or hear a familiar story, then let ourselves be in that story and let the story be in us. In a sense this is a playful kind of prayer, for we give our imagination freedom to lead us where it will.  Sometimes it takes us to surprising places where we hear surprising things.