The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to dive deeper into Ignatian Contemplation. To learn more about this form of prayer, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: Ignatian Contemplation, Encountering God Through Our Imagination.”
As a high school theology teacher, I am constantly wrestling with the question: how can I communicate to my students why they should commit themselves to pursuing God? This “how” question, however, begs justification, Why do I think it is good to try to convince my students to seek God?
The best way I can answer this is through a story.
The year had reached its (literal) darkest day on Christmas a few weeks prior. From then on, the days would become progressively filled with more light.
I was in Guelph, Canada. Snow covered the ground and temperatures reached below freezing for the majority of the time I was there praying through the Spiritual Exercises. The snow made the world more still. Cold, deep silence impregnated the air throughout the month with an otherworldly spiritual atmosphere.
I usually prayed in the large chapel with a Seiza bench in front of a tabernacle, lit by a small, glass-blown oil lamp. But one day, I decided to pray in a smaller chapel on the other end of the retreat center. The room was a carpeted square, with a tabernacle set near two gently-colored windows, which allowed in some sunlight.
I was near the end of the retreat, and in this time of prayer I was making an Ignatian “colloquy”, which is an imagined conversation with Christ where one speaks with Christ “as one friend speaks to another.”
I had prayed many of these colloquies over the retreat and had come to gain a “sense” of what it was like to sit with Jesus, in the same way that a person has a “sense” of what it is like to be with a close friend or family member. At first, imagining a conversation with Jesus like this was weird, and of course, I worried that I was just making things up. However, over the course of the retreat, lacking a better way of saying it, I simply found myself not speaking to myself, but being spoken to by Christ.
Usually, my imagination worked less on the visual level and more on the affective level, meaning I didn’t so much imagine what Christ looked like as I prayed, but what it felt like to be with him. This day however, there was a change. I settled into prayer, kneeling on the Seiza bench, and allowed my mind and heart to enter the colloquy. The image that came to me this time was radically different. I was in an undefined space, kneeling the same as I was there in the chapel, but with Christ present a few feet in front of me, facing me. Then for no apparent reason, my vision was drawn to his hands, his right hand in particular, and more specifically to the wound on his hand from the crucifixion.
My vision magnified to see his right hand with its wound more closely. I was uncertain. I didn’t know why I was looking at this, especially because my sight was strangely attracted by some kind of unseeable force to this hand with its wound. I hadn’t ever prayed like this before.
I gazed for a time, wondering. Then I was moved back to facing Jesus’ full person again. We were now facing each other. Unexpectedly, Jesus reached out both of his hands, and I was moved to reach out my own hands to him to hold them.
Next, without warning, awareness of my brokenness, sinfulness, and pain – which I had prayed with over the course of the retreat – welled to the fore of my consciousness. It was so intensely present that I felt it physically, like something coursing through my veins like blood, pumping to the rhythm of my heartbeat.
I then immediately felt a pull, like a magnetism, from the hands of Christ I was holding. The closest thing I can compare it to is a moment when you are in pain and you hug someone and feel like all you’ve held inside is in some way being given over to the other person. Or like someone sucking venom out of your hand after being bitten by a snake.
I felt my pain, like venom, being drawn out of my body by Christ through his wounds. It was physical, psychological, and spiritual all at the same time and it was overwhelmingly strong and intense. It was completely understandable, but almost indescribable. Tears of relief poured out of my eyes. Goosebumps rippled through my body. I felt love in every way I knew I desired it: as a force for healing, satiation, unburdening, quickening, joy, etc. I was being evacuated, somehow I knew it, of all my fears and darkness.
Thoughts entered this affective orchestra; I was convinced in a way that had previously evaded my assent that all of the built up baggage now being evacuated was ultimately and completely conquered, overcome by, and made powerless in the face of Christ now present to me through his resurrection wounds. The victory over all the darkness within me I had consistently longed for in the back of my mind was made viscerally real and believable.
To put it most simply, everything I wanted, had ever wanted, or could imagine wanting was happening to me through Jesus right there in holding his wounded hands. Redemption, salvation, glorification, union, love, compassion, energy; it was all there. I now understood what these too-often abstract words meant for me personally. I knew I was existentially okay, safe, and taken care of. There was no fear, no separation from the love of God. Christ drew out the poison, the venom of sin in its fullest sense.
Soon the prayer drifted toward a natural conclusion. The intensity of Christ, his wounds, and the experienced grace of consolation subsided and I remained in an afterglow of joyful peace.
This time of prayer comes back to me now and then. It is a touchstone, a divining rod, as if its message has been laced through my spiritual skeleton, so to speak. It provides an “answer” to new times of desolation, confusion, or uncertainty. It’s certainly not magic, and not like any other kind of memory, but it is real, and it does speak to me. I know it is true, even if I don’t live out of that truth all the time.
This is the best explanation of why I want to communicate to my students that they should seek God with their whole hearts. I want them to receive what I have received. I want them to know the God I have come to know: the God whom I follow imperfectly, but with hope, and who communicates in an inexplicably real and powerful way his love, mercy, and healing grace. The God who, when sought, we find to already be seeking us.