Last week, in celebration of the feast of St. Ignatius, I reflected upon the circumstances of Ignatius’s conversion and how God worked—through the reading of particular books—to reshape Ignatius’s desires. This week, let’s take a look at some of the fruits of this dramatic conversion and see how God continually called Ignatius to greater holiness through his own imagination.
It has been four hundred ninety-nine years since a cannonball shattered Ignatius’s leg and forced him to convalesce, bed-ridden, in a Christian home. God fulfilled his desires to become a man of renown but in ways his secular ambitions could never have imagined nor attained. His name is now proclaimed at the altar of churches in the litany of saints, not engraved upon monuments of war. His Spiritual Exercises and the subsequent formation of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, are, I’d wager, among the greatest contributions to the Church’s mission of evangelization and education in the last five hundred years. They’ve inspired thousands of Jesuit missionary priests to spread the Gospel in places and among peoples where the name of Jesus had never before been proclaimed, often at the cost of life or limb. Even more Jesuits have offered their lives as teachers in service of countless students, providing education to both the poorest among us as well as powerful elites.
What is it about the Exercises that have had such a profound impact on priests and laity alike? It is that they provide a means of encountering Jesus in such a real, powerful, and personal way that it truly changes lives. As a prelude to one of the exercises—and I might argue that it could be a prelude for the Exercises as a whole—Ignatius instructs, “Here I ask for an intimate knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love him and know him better.”
It is within the imagination that such knowledge is both sought and gained. More than any other facet, the Spiritual Exercises exercise the imagination. The imagination becomes holy ground. It, like all other aspects of ourselves—our intellect, our emotions, our work, our sexuality, our motherhood—can be sanctified to become places of divine encounter. Ignatius instructs us over and over “to see in imagination.” And then to hear, to smell, to taste, to touch the things and scenes recounted in the Gospels. In filling in the details of Scripture with one’s own imagination, it creates a way to interact with Jesus and Mary and the disciples that reading of the Scriptures alone doesn’t typically foster. While this type of imaginative contemplation is certainly not unique or original to Ignatius, I like to think he did perfect it.
Ignatius’s imaginary world then, if you will, ranges from the screams of hell to the quiet bosom of Our Lady at the nativity. It is the smell at the tomb of Lazarus and the touch of mud at the healing of the blind man. It is the feel of the breeze from the river Jordan at the baptism of Our Lord, and it is the taste of fish and bread at the multiplication of the loaves. It is the shouts and bustle of the crowd at Jesus’s sentencing and that eerie lack of light at the moment of his death. It is the hot dusty road to Emmaus and the smell of refreshment when the table is set for supper. But most of all, it is the face and voice and touch of Jesus. It is his gaze of love. And that encounter changes people.
As a final note, I’ll mention that while any good Jesuit would not recommend undertaking the Exercises without a spiritual director as guide, the practice of imaginative contemplation is accessible to anyone at any time. This Jesuit website provides a helpful start: https://pray-as-you-go.org/article/imaginative-contemplation-exercises.
St. Ignatius, pray for us and make holy the landscape of our imagination and those of our children.