Throughout the year, we’ve been celebrating the 200th anniversary of Saint Louis University in our region. Although there is much to say about Jesuit spirituality, one of its distinctive dimensions is an emphasis on imaginative prayer. St. Ignatius invites us to consider the power of the imagination in our lives.
Think about how desire operates in us. What lures us? Our lives are dominated by images.
Foremost are images of the good life. They capture our hearts and imagination by suggesting what it looks like for us to live well. Such images are communicated most powerfully in stories, legends and films, not in dissertations or technical journals. When our imaginations are hooked, we are hooked. We begin to emulate the particular vision that we desire.
The 1998 World Cup, for example, opened the imaginations of young girls on a larger scale to play soccer. Perhaps the recent Winter Olympics will do the same for various sports. In a less positive bent, one of the tragedies of the cycle of poverty is the conditions it creates for a failure of imagination; children and young adults have difficulty imagining a flourishing life as a possibility.
St. Ignatius grasped the importance of the imagination during his time healing from battle wounds. His mind had been inflamed by books of fiction, along with an overwhelming desire for honor, wealth and fame. Then, he came across the lives of the saints, and the saints touched his imagination. What if I could do what St. Francis and St. Dominic did, he asked? Shortly thereafter in the town of Montserrat, Ignatius made a confession of his whole life, hung up his sword and dagger before the altar of the Virgin, exchanged his expensive clothing for a beggar’s clothing, and began a new life dedicated to the greater glory of God. In his classic spiritual work “The Spiritual Exercises,” Ignatius invites us to imagine in two different ways.
First, St. Ignatius asks us throughout the exercises to place ourselves within the Gospel stories. In terms of the nativity, for example, he instructs us to imagine Mary and Joseph and their different responses to God. Let the hardship of this family’s circumstances weigh on you — their hunger and lack of shelter. Then, imagine serving their needs with humility and reverence.
Second, St. Ignatius invites us to meditate on the mystery of the incarnation from God’s point of view. He challenges us to “enter into the vision of God” and to look down on a broken world the way God looks at the world. Imagine people being born and dying, the old and the young, the rich and the poor. Imagine the joy and the despair, the acts of charity, but also acts of violence and hatred. Imagine the sick and the undernourished. Imagine many praying, along with many others cursing God. Mindful of the complexities of life, St. Ignatius asks us to focus on the divine gift — as if the Divine Persons say, “Let us work for the redemption of the whole human race; let us respond to the groaning of all creation.”
St. Ignatius encourages us to reflect on the images of the good life (or so-called good life) that have impacted us, both negatively and positively. What images of flourishing or holiness do we hold up for our children, grandchildren, friends, neighbors, etc.? He also challenges us to spend some time contemplating the world in its darkness and light, to consider more deeply the gift of the incarnation, and to discern the ways we can continue to mediate the presence of Christ in the concrete circumstances of our lives.