Recently I’ve been practicing elements of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. One of the key components is contemplation. Contemplation in Ignatian spirituality is a mode of prayer that offers a unique view of the internal narrative. In the time of contemplation, we are invited to begin by asking for God’s grace and understanding from the experience of prayer. This request must be made with selfless motives. Ignatius writes that we are to ask for these things in order that we “may in all things love and serve the Divine Majesty.” We are then invited to imagine a story, whether a real one from the past or one made up in our minds, which may illuminate for us a divine reality about God. The hope is that we would see, hear, taste, smell, touch the story and feel the feelings fully. All of this is designed to help us experience more richly the divine reality of God moving in, through and around us.
In many ways, Ignatian contemplation offers an opportunity for a visceral experience of God often lacking in the busyness of our everyday lives. In this day and age of digital technology, the idea of being connected to a story, a person, or even a reality has been deconstructed and reconstructed into something that, while often convenient, is lacking something core to the human soul. We have Facebook “friends”, we “chat” with people online, we “follow” each other on Twitter. But often, these people aren’t really friends, we didn’t really chat, we just typed away on our keyboards and read responses, and we’re following from the comfort of our own personal spaces and cubicles, not moving a literal inch. So Ignatian contemplation speaks convincingly into this sort of digital reality we live in two distinct ways.
One, it speaks a familiar word. Contemplation is not actually physically stepping into a story. Instead, it is an invitation to use our imaginations, to explore the vastness of our minds and find out just how much reality we might sense in there. And all of it is designed for the purpose of experiencing something very real. This speaks effectively into our lives today because it accurately describes the digital age. Nothing is literal, everything is digital, and our imaginations are always in play. When I tweet something on Twitter and a friend replies back, its just 1’s and 0’s on a digital page but I can almost hear my friend’s voice as I read the reply. It is the exercising of my imagination in order to make the digital feel a bit more visceral. Ignatian contemplation offers an opportunity to do the same, but with a much grander purpose – to experience God himself.
It also speaks convincingly a second way. Ignatian contemplation speaks a very unfamiliar but necessary word by calling us to connect the personal feelings of the narrative we are contemplating with God himself. In other words, the emotions we experience in the story we are contemplating ought to lead us to an understanding of how God feels about us and about the world. This is a fresh understanding in light of the postmodern context of our lives because postmodernism has emphasized God’s bigness and mystery to an extent that personalizing him has become a bit awkward. This is not a knock on the postmodern church. In many ways, I believe the postmodern church has done a great thing in reminding us of the mystery of God and his unfathomable nature. However, we mustn’t lose the understanding that he desires to be known by us and to be in relationship with us, personally and intimately. We must also remember that God exudes emotions and that our own emotions are an extension of divine souls exuding what is in them because God put them there.
So take some time to exercise prayers of contemplation in your life. Be still for a few moments, dive into your own soul, and meet God there.
*To get started, check out St.Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises*