“Contemplating a [Biblical] scene is not simply remembering it or going back in time. Through the act of contemplation, the Holy Spirit makes present a mystery of [God’s Love] in a way that is meaningful for [us] now.” – Fr. Kevin O’Brien, SJ
The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in Daily Life
I was 17 years old when I had my first informal experience of Ignatian Contemplation.
Short story: I was a teenager. I was depressed. I wanted to end my life. In a hasty act, that I now understand as an experience of pure grace, I opened a bible and started to read and pray. There, I found myself bound up with the characters in scripture and on a path of liberation and new life. I had an encounter with a living God that loved me and, in that moment, recognized my life had a greater purpose than my circumstances. I chose life.
It was a Saturday night in late May or early June of 1986. I was a teenager growing up outside of Norfolk, Nebraska. I came home that evening from my shift at Kings Four Theaters to an empty house. I was terribly depressed, and I wanted my life to be over.
Two things had transpired at work that catapulted my low-level esteem into full blown shame and despair.
- My best friend Jeanne came in to the movie theater that night and invited our other friend, and my coworker, Anne to go with her to Disney World that Summer. Not me.
- My ex-boyfriend arrived at the box office and asked Marcy, our newest staff member, out on a date.
It seemed no one was choosing me.
When I arrived home that evening, as I shared in the short version of this story, I knew I didn’t want to be alive anymore. I didn’t want to be experiencing this feeling of being unloved or unlovable. My parents and siblings were all out of town, which seemed to reinforce the isolation and loneliness I knew inside my body. Being physically alone ran parallel with the emotional despair inside me.
Sitting on the mauve carpeting of my bedroom floor, in a sea of floral papered walls, I contemplated all the ways to bring my life to a close. Rope. Rifle. Car exhaust enclosed in my garage.
In a moment of pure grace, I recalled a story I heard from a visitor to my speech class about despair and praying. A friend of my Catholic school teacher’s came and described a time in her life when she had known sorrow and powerlessness; she described how she had found solace in scripture.
Sitting atop the hope chest in the corner of my bedroom was a bible that my uncle, a Catholic priest, had gifted me for Christmas that winter before. Still in its cellophane, I reached for it, unwrapped its soft bound volume and opened, very haphazardly, to Acts, Chapter 12.
In the pages of that brand-new book, I read about Peter being in jail. I took in the details of his captivity and noted the description of the angels that companioned him to freedom. I gleaned his disbelief in the circumstances of the experience. I found myself emotionally inhabiting that space.
Imprisonment. A lack of freedom. Chains. Hopelessness.
I imagined Peter’s despair as I recognized my own.
The resonance invited me to go deeper. What did it feel like to encounter that angel? What was it like to be unshackled? The words and melody of Christian singer and song-writer Amy Grant’s “Angels Watching Over me” came to my lips.
Chained up between two watchmen, Peter tried to sleep,
But beyond the walls an endless prayer was lifting for his keep.
Then a light cut through the darkness of a lonely prison cell,
And the chains that bound the man of God just opened up and fell
I still laugh recalling the vibrancy of that moment.
In an instant, the isolation and despair dissolved. I felt a warmth and light all around me. My clenched chest and tight lips were loosened with the lyrics of the song and the experience of Peter there with me. I wasn’t alone.
I saw the course of Peter’s life and calling bear out like a movie before me. God working through him, despite his own doubts, despite Peter’s human limitation.
In that moment, I had an inkling of my own trajectory. Like Peter, something bigger could be at work in me, in store for me.
What happened next, over the course of the following 24 hours, is a pivotal part of my life story and part of why I am here, today, at Loyola.
While at 17 I had never heard of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises, or this form of prayer, that evening, I experienced what I now understand as the grace of the divine in contemplation. I encountered a living presence of love and affirmation –one companioning me in the depths of sorrow, and encouraging me on a journey to return that love.
This Advent Season I make a return of God’s love offering this form of Ignatian prayer. In three, one-hour sessions, on Monday afternoons, I will lead others through an experience of scripture, making space for imagination and the Holy Spirit. Using the Sunday scriptures from this Advent season, I will lead participants in a guided meditation, entering scripture with a prayer for the grace to encounter God, and glimpse Love’s promises and presence for all.
Will you join me? For More Information: Encounter and Conversation: An Ignatian Advent Retreat