This post is based on Week Four of An Ignatian Prayer Adventure.
A young girl of maybe 16, wearing all her worldly possessions, sits in the middle of a lunch table and shares her story. Although her words must be translated and the temperature is near freezing, her audience pays rapt attention. They are mainly upper middle-class professionals, administrators from Jesuit colleges and universities, who have come to the Arizona-Mexico border town of Nogales to understand firsthand the plight of the immigrant. Most of the audience has never been face to face with such poverty in their lives.
The girl is not alone. Her younger brother stays near her side but is unable to speak a word. He sits in a dazed trance. Her words make clear why. Their journey has been hundreds of miles, much of it on foot, from Guererro, the province where 43 students were killed two years ago by a gang hired by the mayor. They were robbed by the cartel and forced to carry drugs across the border. They were caught, jailed, and deported with felonies on their records—all for wanting to reunite with their parents whom they have not seen in eight years. They live at the mercy of strangers, and often that mercy is not shown.
When we pray about the Incarnation and imagine the birth of Christ, it is easier to imagine it was 2000 years ago and picture it like a scene out of a Hollywood Christmas special. But what if it were like the experience of the girl from Nogales? Do we imagine Mary as a young teenage girl with terror in her eyes? Do the door slams of the innkeepers have the same harsh clank as the door of the border jail for detainees? Was Joseph paralyzed with fright at the prospect of being hunted down and slaughtered by Herod’s army just as this girl’s younger brother feared the gangs or coyotes? Did they huddle together in the frigid desert night or stumble from thirst in the noon desert heat?
These details are not shared in the Gospels, but they are vivid in my imaginative prayer. In fact, the more I experience poverty in 2016, the more my prayer is plastered with connections to the life of Jesus two millennia ago. Or is it the other way around? The more I root myself in the life of Jesus, the more my eyes are opened to the parallels of his life still being lived today. His is the story of the immigrant, the single mother, the child, the victim at the mercy of others. My calling is to discern what role I am to play in this modern-day Gospel narrative. Am I the border guard? The trafficker using other people for my gain? Am I the Jesuit showing mercy by serving a hot lunch?
The power of the Spiritual Exercises is not in taking us back 2000 years to get to know Jesus as a young Israelite, but in bringing him into our lives today to get to know him in those right before our eyes.