Why would you get in a boat to pray?

by | Oct 29, 2021 | Jesuit 101, Prayers

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.”

A dozen canoes bobbed peacefully in a cluster in the middle of a small lake as twenty-five teens held onto each other’s boats, paddles, or life jackets to keep from drifting apart. With their eyes closed and heads bowed, or gazing off into the reeds along the shore, they listened as I read aloud a Gospel passage from my kayak. The words from the call of Simon the fisherman floated to them over the sound of the lapping of the waves and the bumping of the boats.

“‘Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch,’ Jesus said to Simon.”

My two Jesuit companions and I were in the middle of putting on a week-long retreat for teens in the Chicago area. We had been showing them different ways of praying inspired by various saints. On this particular sunny afternoon, we were teaching them about imaginative contemplation, a method of prayer popularized by St. Ignatius that involves imaginatively placing yourself in a scene from Scripture and letting it play out in your mind. The point is to imagine, with as much attention to detail as possible, the sights, sounds, and even smells of the scriptural scene. When praying in such a way, the Gospel comes alive for us and we can find ourselves reacting to Jesus with surprising emotion, like that of Peter.

“When Simon Peter saw [what Jesus had done], he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’”

The teens had been begging us for days to get out on the canoes during one of our sessions. So when we were brainstorming the best way to show them imaginative contemplation, one of us had the crazy idea to take them onto the boats and literally enter the scene of one of the Gospel stories. What better way to do an immersive contemplation of place than by actually immersing yourself in some of the main elements of the scene?

Moments before our canoe-borne contemplation, we wrangled the teens into their boats and paddled out to the middle of the lake. After bringing the splashing and Cheeto-throwing to a minimum, I explained to them what we were about to do. I was going to read to them the passage of the call of Peter, a passage these highly catechized youth had likely heard countless times before. But as I was reading it, instead of just listening, I asked them to imagine what it would be like to be there, on the boat, with Jesus. They could already see the water and the waves. They could feel the sunshine on their faces and the precarious wobbling when they shifted in their seats. They could hear the scrape of the oar along the sandy bottom of the boat when they moved around. What if this was the boat that carried Jesus? What would it be like for Jesus to talk to me on this boat? These were the questions we encouraged them to reflect on.

Anyone who has worked with high schoolers before will know that what happened next was nothing short of miraculous. I read the passage aloud, and for many minutes afterward not one of them stirred. They floated quietly in their canoes as the sun shone on them and the birds chirped, holding onto each other’s boats to keep from drifting apart. The peace was palpable. Then I read it again, encouraging them to respond spontaneously in their imagination to whatever came up as they were in the scene. The peaceful stillness remained.

“For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him.”

After finishing the prayer period, we asked the students how the experience went for them. Their responses unanimously confirmed the depth beneath their silence throughout the prayer.

“It was so peaceful.”

“I felt like Jesus was really here.”

One of the boys asked, “Why can’t Church always be like this?”

Then one of the youngest girls cut right to the heart of Ignatian contemplation. She described a song about Jesus by the seashore that she had often heard in church. Speaking slowly, as if realizing it just as she was saying it, she mused, “The song goes something like, ‘you look me in the eyes and call me by name…’ I was always confused that the song was in first person… but after the prayer we just did, I get it. Jesus was talking right to me.”

She had an encounter with Jesus that captured her in a way that getting dragged to church by her parents or memorizing rote prayers had not yet. She experienced a connection that was personal: Jesus sat beside her in her own wobbly canoe, holding onto the rails of the other boats to keep them from drifting apart. This experience will bring life and depth to her relationship with the very same Jesus she encounters at Mass and when she prays the rosary. It will encourage her to respond to Jesus in a new and more personal way.

“When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”

This young teenager in a canoe spoke to what I and so many others have experienced in contemplation on the Spiritual Exercises. I will never forget the startling feeling of clasping Jesus’ wounded hand after imaginatively praying over the resurrection, nor the burning sense of closeness and desire for reconciliation that welled up in me from the experience. It is a deeply cherished memory of an encounter with a living person, a Living God, my Lord and friend, Jesus.

When we pray with imaginative contemplation, we create a space in our hearts and in our minds that we invite Jesus into, or that Jesus invites us into. These young students will not soon forget the time they sat in a canoe with Jesus, nor being looked in the eye and called by name while sitting across from him in imaginative prayer. And just as he stood in Peter’s boat and asked him to give up everything to follow him, so too has he invited these teens, and any of us who create the space for him, into a life of faithful friendship. Imaginative or not, this invitation is very real, as are the consequences of living in response to it.

Photo by Dawn McDonald on Unsplash.