(Note: The retreat I helped to lead on Friday and Saturday was on healing. The passages of Scripture were based on the following passage from a book by Sr. Marie Schwan called COME HOME: A PRAYER JOURNEY TO THE CENTER WITHIN:
“The admission of our woundedness is not a matter for self-denigration, but simply the recognition that we are creatures, that all of us carry within us the frailty as well as the majesty of being human beings created in the image and likeness of God.
“In the gospel, it is the leper who admits his leprosy, the woman who acknowledges her hemorrhaging, the bent over woman who could not deny her condition, the blind man who cried out for healing, who met and experienced the compassion of Christ. For us, too, it is an incredible grace and gift to know what it is in our lives that keeps us from being centered in Christ, that keeps us from living our lives to the full.”
My partner talked about the passages themselves and I talked about three Scripture-based prayer practices. The first is Ignatian Contemplation.)
(Matt. 8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16)
Does the irony of this strike anyone else? Tell no one.
John’s gospel begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (John 1:1-2)
And yet, here we are, at the beginning of Christ’s ministry – at least according to Mark’s gospel – and he is telling a leper who has been cleansed to tell no one. The Word says, “Don’t talk about it.”
Once Dave and I chose the Scripture passages for the retreat, I began to meditate on them. I did do a little research, but mostly I just asked God to open my heart and my mind so that he could speak to me. In his book, What Makes Us Catholic, Thomas Groome says, “we will never exhaust [Scripture’s] potency for life. Our most careful and creative interpretations notwithstanding, human words about God’s words will never be the last word.” He encourages us to “rediscover [the Word] with freshness and create new possibilities out of it.” That’s what meditation can help us to do. It can help us rediscover passages of Scripture we know so well that we really don’t even have to listen when they are proclaimed. Meditation can help us discover the possibilities it has to create in our lives new possibilities. And so this morning, I’m going to ask you to remember that the word of God is the living word. I’m going to ask you to remember that it’s what he uses to speak to us. And I’m going to ask you to explore this passage using Ignatian Contemplation.
If you attended the Advent retreat with Susan Safford, the diocesan vocations director, you are familiar with this because she introduced it on Friday night using the parable of the prodigal son. But, for those who weren’t there or are unfamiliar with the prayer practice, I want to give a little background. In The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Father James Martin explains it this way, “In Ignatian contemplation, you ‘compose the place’ by imagining yourself in a scene from the Bible … and then taking part in it. It’s a way of allowing God to speak to you through your imagination.”
Father Martin had not been incredibly active in the Church when he first began to explore the possibility of becoming a priest – a Jesuit, no less — and the first time he was asked to do this by his spiritual director, he was skeptical. In explaining this method he shared his first reaction: “When I first heard about this method in the novitiate, I thought it sounded ridiculous. Using your imagination? Making things up in your head? Was everything imagined supposed to be God speaking to you? Isn’t that what crazy people think?”
After speaking with his spiritual director, he began to see it differently. He wrote: “Using my imagination wasn’t so much making things up, as it was trusting that my imagination could help to lead me to the one who created it: God. That didn’t mean that everything I imagined during prayer was coming from God. But, it did mean that from time to time, God could use my imagination as one way of communicating with me.”
I, personally, use meditative writing as part of my prayer practice. We will be exploring that together a little later. Sometimes what I write is like the meditation portion of Lectio Divina, which we will also be looking at later, but sometimes I find that it’s more like Ignatian Contemplation. What I’d like to do now is share one of the meditations that I had on this passage of Scripture. I do this because of the challenges I faced when I was attempting to learn this spiritual technique. I’m a concrete thinker. I need to see how things work to understand them. I really struggled when I was attempting to learn meditative writing and Ignatian Contemplation and other spiritual practices which are now an integral part of my prayer life. I needed examples so that I understood how these various practices worked, so what I’m about to read is simply an example. I offer it to you as a way of empowering you to enter into the Scripture in an open and nonjudgmental way. I say ‘nonjudgmental’ because I first started doing this, I had a tendency to think, “This is really stupid,” which effectively prevented God from communicating with me through this practice.
I want to emphasize that each person’s experience with a passage of Scripture will be unique and personal. You may find yourself that each time you go back to a passage of Scripture, it speaks to you in a new and different way. There is no definitive understanding when it comes to this practice, only what God wants to say to you at that moment.
With Ignatian Contemplation, you start by choosing a passage of Scripture, and then you begin to experience it with the five senses: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? What do you taste? And then you enter into it and let it unfold. Surprisingly, by doing this, you sometimes do gain insights you might not have had otherwise.
So, when I was meditating on this passage, I imagined the early morning sun casting a golden glow across the landscape as Jesus and his entourage left the Galilean village in which they had spent the night. I’ve never been to the Holy Land, so I have no idea what it might have smelled like, so I imagined it smelled like western South Dakota in a drought, when even mornings smell dusty because there is no dew to freshen the air. Everyone around Jesus was talking about the healings that had occurred the night before. Nobody was really listening to anybody else, and Jesus was creating a little personal space for himself by ignoring them as much as possible. I knew he just really, really wanted to be alone to pray. As I was watching Jesus, walking along with a stick and his head bent down, I suddenly realized I was a doubter in the midst, waiting for him to slip up.
This is what I wrote:
“I had no idea what you meant when you said, ‘For this purpose have I come.’ In truth, I was there for the magic show. I know; that’s not what you called it. But, I have to admit, I didn’t see it as much more than that. I really wasn’t the religious type. Yeah, I went through the motions. If I didn’t … well, my mom, my neighbors, my brothers … it wasn’t worth the hassle.
“And, as long as we’re on this truth thing, I really didn’t pay any attention to you in the synagogue. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Those friends of yours went around telling everyone how great you were, talked about your teaching. But, I was more interested in the miracles they talked about. I wanted to see one myself, and I wanted to figure out how you pulled it off. I figured one of your buddies just pretended to be sick and if I followed you around, I would catch you in the act.
“But then, Simeon threw himself down in front of you. I knew Simeon … well, I guess I still know him … but I also know better than to claim friendship with a leper. I know some people take food out to them, say they’re people, too, still claim kinship … but not me. We may have chased around the streets as boys and sat together over coffee when we became men … but when the priests saw the leprosy on him, it was ‘Bye-bye Simeon’ as far as I was concerned.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when Simeon threw himself in your way. Here I was … following you around trying to figure out your gimmick … and there was Simeon really believing in you. When I saw you reach down and take his face in your hands, I almost gagged. I had taken bread from your hands, and there you were, touching a leper. I knew I could be struck with the disease, too.
“Then Simeon looked into your face. I could see the rage and despair, the sense of futility and abysmal loneliness melt from his. ‘Be made clean,’ you said, and I knew the numbness had begun to leave him. I saw him shift with discomfort on the stones and smile in wonder.”
At that point, I stopped writing, because suddenly I understood why this man, this leper who was cleansed, could not keep his mouth shut. Not only would the leper have been cast out from the human community, he would have felt alienated from God. In Deuteronomy, when the army is being instructed regarding its conduct, the purpose for expelling those who are unclean is stated quite clearly: “Since the Lord your God journeys along within your camp … your camp must be holy” (Deut. 23:15). The logical conclusion is that those who are unclean are not among God’s chosen people, and cannot know God. But suddenly this man, this outcast, experiences Jesus as the Emmanuel, as God with us, as God with him, and the joy that bubbled up in him could not be contained. His joy wasn’t about the healing at all, though I’m sure he appreciated that. His joy was about experiencing personally the presence of God.
I realized at that point that the leprosy in our lives is not a physical disease, but the numbness we have come to experience in our technologically sophisticated, immediate gratification world that prevents us from experiencing the presence of God. That in turn made me look at the choices I was making in my life. Of course, I could elaborate on that, but my point isn’t to interpret this passage of Scripture for you. Rather, I want to invite you to enter into it yourself so that God can speak with you and to show you where he wants to bring healing into your life.
I am going to read this gospel again. What I would like you to do is enter into it. Don’t start by deciding who you are going to be. Start with your senses and allow your role in the scene to be revealed to you. Trust that God is working through your imagination.
Close your eyes and open in your imagination your senses. As I read, what do you see? As I read, what do you hear? As I read, what do you smell? What do you feel? What do you taste? Let the scene unfold in your imagination..
READ MARK 1:39-45.