I don’t know when I first heard about Ignatian contemplation, the imaginative reading of the scriptures.
As Jesuit Father James Martin explains in his book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage:
Ignatian contemplation encourages you to place yourself imaginatively in a scene from the Bible. For example, if you’re praying about Jesus and his disciples caught in a boat during a storm on the Sea of Galilee, you would try to imagine yourself on board with the disciples, and ask yourself several questions as a way of trying to place yourself in the scene.
I do remember, though, one of the first times it really touched me. Before going on a two month sabbatical to El Salvador, to do some research for a book I’m still writing, I had an eight day retreat with a Lakota Franciscan sister on the Pine Ridge reservation.
She explained the method and gave me a list of passages to work with. I chose the Gospel passage of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.
I read the scripture and, without planning, I felt myself as John within the womb of Elizabeth. I sensed something – the presence of Jesus – and jumped for joy.
Ever since that time I find myself reading the scriptures in a different way, a way also influenced by my experience with the poor.
Here I find that many people read the scriptures to get a message, often a moral message. That’s all very good but I think that the scriptures are also a way for us to encounter Jesus.
That’s what I really like about Ignatian contemplation.
A few months ago a few commentators noted that Pope Francis used a form of this in his Sunday homily in a parish in Rome.
So I thought I’d try it with catechists.
We first did breathing exercises to calm ourselves and to create a space of silence. Then I read the parable of the Prodigal Son and asked them to place themselves in the parable.
The silence was tangible and the atmosphere was one of deep prayer.
After a time I asked them to share what they had experienced with the people around them. Then a few shared with the whole group. One person noted how she felt the warm embrace of the father.
I think we are on to something.
So Padre German decided to try to renew the base communities, many of which had become top heavy meetings where one person talked and others listened or where the themes were very intellectual. He proposed that only once a month would the communities use materials. The second week they’d celebrate birthdays or anniversaries. The last week they’d discuss a situation in the village and propose some ways to respond. The third week would be “reading the bible in a different way” – Ignatian contemplation.
We tried it in a meeting of village base community leaders, I also have been using it in my training sessions with catechists. I have even written a form of this into the training for catechumens. I hope we can work this into much of our pastoral ministry.
It sometimes works, sometimes not. A few times I have read the passage and stopped with questions after a few verses. Other times I have read the whole passage, after urging them to place themselves into the situation.
I think this will be a good way to help the people revive their imaginations and see scripture not as a book to be read for its messages, but as a way into the heart of God.