St Ignatius read the “Life of Christ” allowing his imagination to situate him among the people and places where the events were taking place and encouraged his followers to develop a similar contemplative attitude in prayer. This enables the follower to develop an interior knowledge of the Lord. Brian O’Leary SJ explains.
The ’70s hit musical Godspel presented the story of Jesus in a lively, contemporary idiom. This resonated with a whole generation, many of whom, although nominally Christian, had drifted away from organized religion. One of the show’s best-loved songs was the infectious Day by Day, based on a prayer by a medieval English bishop, St. Richard of Chichester (1197-1253). In its original and fuller form this read:
‘Thanks be to you, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits you have given me,
For all the pains and insults you have borne for me.
a most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother,
May I know you more clearly,
Love you more dearly,
Follow you more nearly,
Day by day. Amen’.
As audiences at Godspel swayed to the rhythm and sang along with the music, they were frequently being drawn into a spiritual experience. They were getting in touch with some of their deepest desires. As they expressed in words their (perhaps suppressed) yearning for a close relationship with Jesus (‘Three things I pray’), they were reviving the religious dimension of their lives.
Was Ignatius familiar with this prayer of Richard of Chichester? Whether he was or not, he certainly came close to duplicating its final lines in the Spiritual Exercises. In introducing the kind of prayer that we know today as gospel contemplation, he writes, ‘I ask for what I want: here I ask for interior knowledge of the Lord who became human for me so that I may better love and follow him.’
The wording is more sober, and it lacks the rhyme and rhythm of Richard’s prayer or the Godspel song. But the ‘Three things I pray’ are essentially the same: to know, to love, to follow Christ. However, Ignatius has added a word of great importance, the adjective interior to describe the knowledge of Christ that is desired. We need to return to this.
Ignatius’ approach to gospel contemplation is a version of lectio divina, the venerable monastic way of prayer that has spread well beyond monastic circles in our own day. What is characteristic of the Ignatian approach, however, is his encouraging of the use of the imagination.
He suggests an imaginative entering into a gospel scene or event (what the tradition called a
‘mystery’ of Christ’s life), so that a person becomes totally present to it. We gaze at the persons, we listen to what they are saying, we observe what they are doing, we speak with Jesus or with some other person(s) in the scene about what is happening and what this is evoking in us.
We might even ‘take part’ in the scene (e.g. having our feet washed by Jesus at the Last Supper, or helping to place the body of Jesus in the tomb). We can do this either by remaining ourselves, or by (imaginatively) becoming one of the gospel characters (for example Peter or Mary of Magdala), or by (imaginatively) becoming an ‘extra’ (for example, another blind beggar in a scene of healing). There is no one way of becoming part of a gospel event; whatever way suits us is best.
All of this is aimed at drawing us into the full reality of what is happening, inserting us deeply into the event or ‘mystery’ we are contemplating. It is a way of ensuring that the knowledge of Christ that we are asking for will be truly ‘interior’.
What then is meant by interior knowledge? We might clarify what we mean by contrasting such interior or intimate knowledge of a person with that which is objective, intellectual, clinical. We are touching on the difference between knowing a person and knowing about a person. The latter can be attained through gathering facts and processing information. It is the result of research and study.
But in gospel contemplation we are seeking the kind of knowledge that a wife may have of her husband, or a father of his child, or a lover of her beloved. Such knowledge only comes from two people being together over a period of time, perhaps many years, interacting with each other, sharing life’s experiences.
So, in gospel contemplation we stay with Jesus as he is born, grows, relates, works, travels, teaches, enjoys, suffers, and so forth. We desire to get inside his experience, not just to know the external details of his life, but to know him from the inside out. Since such intimate knowledge of another person is always pure gift, we need to keep asking Jesus to be gracious and to reveal himself.
‘Come, my heart says, seek his face! Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me’ (Ps.27:8-9). With this desire we keep developing a contemplative attitude towards Christ, allowing him to reveal himself as he really is, and not as what we might want him to be.
Life of Christ
Ignatius had first learned about this kind of prayer from Ludolph of Saxony’s Life of Christ that he had read during his convalescence at Loyola. In the Preface to this work the author writes about entering gospel scenes or events:
Hear and see these things being narrated, as though you were hearing with your own ears and seeing with your own eyes, for these things are most sweet to him who thinks on them with desire, and even more so to him who tastes them. And though many of these are narrated as past events, you must meditate them all as though they were happening in the present moment, because in this way you will certainly taste a greater sweetness. Read then of what has been done as though they were happening now. Bring before your eyes past actions as though they were present. Then you will feel how full of wisdom and delight they are.
All relationships that have any depth involve mutuality. As we desire that Jesus reveal himself to us, so too we reveal ourselves to Jesus. We share with him our own lives, our struggles and successes, the darkness of our doubts and the brightness of our hopes. We allow him to get to know us, to have an interior knowledge of us, at the same time as we receive an interior knowledge of him.
Our human need to be known lies very deep within us. It complements our desire to know the other person. This mutuality brings a wholeness to the loving relationship that we long for with Christ.