Meditation and Contemplation
An Ignatian Guide to Praying with Scripture
By Timothy M. Gallagher
The Crossroad Publishing Company Copyright © 2008 Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V.
All rights reserved.
"What I Wish and Desire"
Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. ... Speak now to God and say with your whole heart: "I seek your face; your face, Lord, I desire."
— St. Anselm
"These Cleansing Tears"
A woman was ready to pray. These were days of retreat dedicated to prayer with Scripture. This day she felt drawn to pray with the trial of Jesus. She writes:
The scene came alive in my imagination and my heart. I saw Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate and his accusers. How could Jesus stand there while everyone called for his death, I wondered. How could he be so calm? As I placed myself completely into that scene, feeling Jesus' calmness, I began to hear Jesus saying quietly to the crowd, "Yes. Take me. Do what you want with me, for my death will be your salvation." I could see the Father hugging him tightly. "Give yourself over to them," God told his Son. "I can never let you go, no matter what happens. I am with you. You are safe in my arms." After a long period of prayer, I realized that the Father was within me as he was within Jesus. He was also holding me: "Do not be afraid. You are safe in my arms."
Seventeen years earlier, this woman, Kathryn, had been admitted to a hospital for a simple outpatient surgery. She was young, healthy, strong, and capable. Soon after the surgery, however, something went terribly wrong. Four days later, she learned that she had suffered a stroke. Years of struggle with severe physical and emotional disabilities followed. Kathryn strove to cope with these disabilities and her efforts were, in some measure, successful. Yet deeper struggles remained. Now grace was about to touch that deeper level.
Kathryn continued her prayer:
On another day, I contemplated Jesus right after Pilate had condemned him to death and washed his hands of the whole affair. I saw Jesus dragged off by those who wanted him dead. The moment of terror I felt, as his final walk through Jerusalem began, was excruciating. I prayed many hours, holding that terror in my heart, desiring to comfort Jesus, to tell him I was there for him and that I would not leave him alone.
Kathryn shares Jesus' final walk through Jerusalem in deep communion with him. She desires "to comfort Jesus, to tell him I was there for him and that I would not leave him alone." Kathryn draws close to Jesus as she prays.
Her prayer deepens further:
One day in prayer, I stood beneath the cross and sank to the ground at its foot after he had died. I had told Jesus I would not leave him alone, and so I stayed there keeping watch. I kept the cross before my eyes for hours, feeling the sorrow Mary must have felt, as I asked for the courage to stay near the cross. It was at this point that my retreat director pointed out to me that perhaps God was bringing together Jesus' experience and my own. I began to cry when I returned to prayer. For several hours, in prayer ... scenes of my hospital stay after my stroke so many years before alternated with scenes of Jesus' passion and death. It was like watching a movie. My moments of loneliness and fear alternated with Jesus' loneliness and fear. I cried inconsolably for hours — seventeen years worth of tears. God was truly embracing me tightly and saying, "Do not be afraid even of this. I am holding you tightly and nothing can hurt you."
Kathryn describes the fruit of those blessed hours:
These cleansing tears began a process of healing, a miracle of God's love for me as I began to pray over my "passion." Just as I, in that prayer, had remained beneath the cross after Jesus had died, I now saw Jesus sitting on the floor at the foot of my hospital bed keeping me company. As I had stayed with Jesus, he now kept watch with me. The many lonely years of struggling with the consequences of my stroke ... were "healed" in this prayer. ... I began to see that though I had kept myself at a sufficient distance from God to protect myself from anything else God could "do" to me, God nevertheless had waited until the right moment to "seize me by the arms" and turn me toward him.
The eye of faith clearly perceives the authenticity and richness of this prayer. Before it, we simply stand in wonder and praise. These "cleansing tears" begin a process of healing that Kathryn, after years of helpless struggle, knows to be a miracle of God's love. Her prayer with Jesus' passion leads, by God's loving gift, to a healing in her own "passion."
Kathryn tells us that, as she prayed with Jesus' passion, "the scene came alive in my imagination and my heart." She hears Jesus speak. She experiences the Father's loving presence to Jesus and his loving presence to her. She shares with Jesus his final walk through Jerusalem. She stands beneath the cross and accompanies Jesus in his final hours. Her own passion alternates with Jesus' passion, is enlightened by Jesus' passion, and is healed by Jesus' passion. She sees Jesus keeping watch with her in her hospital room ... and cleansing tears begin to fall.
Is such freedom possible in praying with Scripture? Can we too be present to a Gospel scene and live it from within in this way? Is such prayer open to all? Is it possible for everyone? Is it possible for me? These are fundamental questions for prayer, and much depends upon the answers to them.
"I Let Those Words Swim in My Heart"
Mark was baptized as an adult eight years ago, and his baptism began a quest for communion with God. He says:
During these years, I learned various ways of praying. I knew that the Scriptures were the Word of God and I knew that people had reverence for them. But, for me, they were just written words. I never really sank into them the way I could with a novel, for example. I always stayed on the surface. I heard the Scriptures proclaimed but I didn't really experience them.
Seven years after his baptism, Mark joined a group that shared his spiritual quest. One evening, the group prayed with Matthew 8:23–27, Jesus' calming of the storm at sea. The leader encouraged the members to quiet their hearts. Then he slowly read the passage, out loud, three times. He invited them to enter the scene imaginatively — to see, hear, and share in the events of the Gospel text: the rising of the storm, the fear of the disciples in the boat, their desperate cry to Jesus, his calming of the storm, and Jesus' invitation to faith. Mark recounts his experience:
It was a revolution. It opened a new world for me. I had felt as though I had God figured out, somehow, but I hadn't been able to get close to Jesus. That evening, the Scripture came alive. I'd been passive, outside of it. It had just been a story. When I prayed in this way, I no longer felt like I was outside the story; I was in the story. I could do more than just imagine Peter in the boat, for example; I could actually look Peter in the eyes. I could be one of the characters and follow the story from within. I was in the story, but not so bound by it that I couldn't ask something of Jesus or of Peter. And I realized that Jesus was not as far away as I thought. I found myself marveling at how near he was to me. I'm still amazed by this experience, still in awe of it.
It took me eight years of really seeking Christ to find this way of praying. Now, when I hear the Gospel proclaimed at Mass, I'm there in the scene; I'm not passive anymore. And if you experience something, you remember the details. If I just read something, I remember maybe 10 percent of it. But when I experience something, like the calming of the storm, then I remember it with all the details — even, for example, the pillow under Jesus' head as he sleeps in the boat. I try to do this now every time I'm at Mass. Sometimes it's easier, and sometimes it's harder.
Mark goes on to give another example:
A few months ago, I was praying with Mary's response to the angel in Luke 1:38: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." It was a beautiful experience. Those words stayed with me throughout the whole day and still remain with me. They give me a greater ability to make choices for God in daily situations. In a certain situation, for example, I may want to do something, but I sense that the Lord wants something else. It may be something simple, whether I should take a moment to help a person who is assisting me with a project. And I'll hear the words, "May it be done to me according to your word." That helps me take the time to meet the other person's needs.
On another day, Mark prayed with the passage about Jesus as the Good Shepherd in John 10. He describes his experience:
It was a beautiful time of prayer, an intimate time. There was so much in the words; it's so beautifully written. I wasn't reading words; it was alive, almost directly touching my heart. I had read this text many times, and it hadn't really spoken to me. The words had just lain there on the page. For some reason, this time I had a deep sense of Christ, of awe, of the Good Shepherd easing my fears, and leading me.
This time of prayer was more meditative and not so much in the imagination. I let those beautiful words sort of swim in my heart, back and forth. That prayer left me spiritually happy, kind of on a high for a day and a half. I couldn't stop thinking about those words. I used them in some teaching I was doing, and I knew that it wasn't just teaching; I was teaching from the heart, from experience.
Like Kathryn, Mark experiences the power of praying with the Gospel through active presence to the scene. This way of praying is a revolution for him; it opens "a new world" for him. Through it, the Scriptures come alive for him in a new way. Mark no longer feels passive with respect to the Scriptures, somehow outside the events. Now he can interact with the people in the scene. He can live the Gospel event "from within." With a sense of marvel, Mark realizes as he prays that Jesus is "not as far away as I thought"; he discovers how near Jesus is to him. Even a year later, Mark is "still amazed by this experience."
We may note Mark's awareness that at times his prayer with Scripture is more imaginative, at times more reflective. When he prays with the calming of the storm, for example, he is "in the story" — he can "look Peter in the eyes," can "ask something of Jesus or of Peter." He experiences the calming of the storm and can remember its many details. Here the imaginative element is predominant.
When, however, Mark prays with the passage of the Good Shepherd, the words themselves of the text capture his heart. The words are "alive," and "almost directly" touch his heart. Mark lets "those beautiful words sort of swim" in his heart, "back and forth." In the following days, he cannot "stop thinking about those words." As he himself was perceptive enough to note, "This time of prayer was more meditative and not so much in the imagination." Here the reflective element is predominant.
Clearly, both ways of praying are fruitful for Mark. He appears at ease with both, ready to pray in either way, flexibly, as he feels moved that day.
Again, as with Kathryn's experience, the person of faith cannot doubt the authenticity of Mark's prayer. Again the same questions arise: Do we, too, have this freedom in praying with Scripture? Can we be present to a Gospel scene and live it from within in this way? Are both the imaginative and reflective approaches open to all? Is such prayer possible for all? Is it possible for me? If so, how can I begin such prayer with Scripture? And how can I grow in such prayer?
To the human heart that cries out to God with St. Anselm, "I seek your face; your face, Lord, I desire," these questions matter deeply. When this quest for God is, as Ignatius says, "what I wish and desire," then our hearts thirst for answers to these questions. Now, with Ignatius himself as our guide, we will search for these answers.
The Body of the Prayer: Meditation
Do you want to know what our Lord meant in all this? Learn it well: love was what he meant. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? Out of love.
— Julian of Norwich
A Threefold Process
When Mark prayed with the passage of the Good Shepherd (John 10:1–18), he tells us that the words were "alive," "almost directly touching my heart," and continues, "I let those beautiful words sort of swim in my heart, back and forth." Mark describes an unhurried, happy, faith-filled reflection on the words of the Scripture, with profound awareness of the Lord's presence. As these words "swim" in his heart and he ponders them again and again, he is aware that Christ is saying these words now, to him: "I had a deep sense ... of the Good Shepherd easing my fears, and leading me." His heart delights in these beautiful words, feels a sense of awe, and is made "spiritually happy" in the ensuing days.
In Ignatius's vocabulary, such loving reflection on revealed truth is meditation — the reflective process by which we enter the richness of God's Word and hear that Word as spoken personally to us today. Ignatius describes meditation as prayer "with the three powers" (memory, understanding, will). We begin by calling to mind this word. (Mark reads the text: "I am the good shepherd. ... I know mine and mine know me I will lay down my life for the sheep.") We then ponder its meaning. (Mark reflects with affectionate wonder on Jesus as the Good Shepherd who accompanies him, leads him, and eases his fears.) As the meaning of these truths is revealed to us, our hearts embrace this meaning with love and desire. (Mark feels a "deep sense of Christ," of loving awe, and his heart welcomes the Good Shepherd who eases his fears and leads him.)
With Ignatius, we may outline the natural unfolding of this process in the following way. When I turn to the Scripture I have chosen, I find there a number of revealed truths (in Mark's prayer, for example, that Christ is the Good Shepherd, that he knows his own, that he lays down his life for them). As my heart is drawn to one of these truths,
call to mind this truth, with love
ponder it, with love
embrace it, with love and desire
This process by which I call to mind, ponder, and embrace successive truths in a scriptural text is Ignatian meditation. Ignatius's description of this threefold process simply articulates what we do naturally when we reflect on God's Word with faith and receptive hearts. A conscious grasp of the human structure of this process, however, permits us to meditate with greater understanding, and so with greater confidence. Knowledge of this structure also assists us in times of distraction: it is a solid starting point to which we can always return. Some examples will further solidify our understanding of this process.
"I Opened the Epistles of St. Paul"
A classic text in the writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux provides a rich illustration of this threefold process. Thérèse describes a day when she prayed with 1 Corinthians 12–13. She tells us that she was led to this text through an experience of conflicting desires. As she prayed, she poured out these desires to the Lord:
To be Your Spouse, to be a Carmelite, and by my union with You to be the Mother of souls, should this not suffice me? And yet it is not so. No doubt, these three privileges sum up my true vocation: Carmelite, Spouse, Mother, and yet I feel within me other vocations. I feel the vocation of the WARRIOR, THE PRIEST, THE APOSTLE, THE DOCTOR, THE MARTYR. Finally, I feel the need and desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for You, O Jesus. ... O Jesus, my Love, my Life, how can I combine these contrasts? How can I realize the desires of my poor little soul? (Continues...)
Excerpted from Meditation and Contemplation by Timothy M. Gallagher. Copyright © 2008 Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V.. Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
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