I have always considered myself terrible at Ignatian contemplation. That’s a form of prayer that invites one to place oneself in a scene from the Bible. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatian contemplation is encouraged as the retreatant travels through the Gospel stories during Week Two. We are invited to engage all five senses as we place ourselves in the scene. Losing self in the story, we are able to hear what the Holy Spirit desires to tell us.
In the past when I have tried this method of prayer, I found it quite difficult. I would get lost trying to stay in line with the details of the Gospel stories as they were written. I would question whenever my mind tried to add in details that weren’t there. I would get frustrated when I would be drawn out of the scene because I came across something that didn’t quite make sense. I would get so frustrated when I couldn’t smell or taste or feel within a place I had never actually been. This frustration led me to abandon this form of prayer.
When I got to the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises this year, however, I was encouraged by my spiritual director to try Ignatian contemplation again. At first, I was resistant. “I’ve tried this many times,” I said. “I just can’t do it.”
Upon further conversation with my director, I realized I could give myself permission to make a few adjustments. So this time, I allowed myself to:
- Write out my imaginings. I struggle with sitting still in the quiet and contemplating a scene, but somehow when I place pen to paper it is easier for me to capture the sights and sounds and feel of a story.
- Let my heart move beyond the Gospel itself. I needed not to get tripped up by the details. After all, Ignatian contemplation is supposed to give me insight into what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell me right now in my present situation, which means the Holy Spirit may guide me beyond the details captured by the Gospel writers.
- Ask the questions as they arose. Since prayer is essentially a conversation between God and me, it’s OK if I have questions as I practice Ignatian contemplation. It’s even OK if I pause the scene as I would my TV, so that I can ask God for clarification.
- Let God meet me in the messiness of my attempt. There is no one right way to practice Ignatian contemplation. My attempt at this form of prayer is not being graded or analyzed. God is ready to meet me in my attempt and, I believe, appreciates the unique way I approach this form of prayer.
During this Advent season, we will hear the Gospel stories of the Annunciation and the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, and then at Christmas, we’ll hear of the birth of Jesus in the manger. These stories are incredible ones to start with in trying Ignatian contemplation. Feel free to give yourself permission, as I did, to make Ignatian contemplation your own. You might be surprised at the graces you will receive when you do.