When I attended my Jesuit Volunteer Corps orientation about two and a half years ago, my fellow volunteers and I were presented with all kinds of guides and articles on different forms of prayer: quiet meditation, reciting a mantra, praying with the saints…there was probably enough information to schedule a different style each day of the week and then some.
For whatever reason, Ignatian Prayer, which involves using the imagination to place oneself in Gospel scenes, was the one I struggled most to adopt. I think it felt a little too close to playing pretend. This was fine when I was 5 and donning Batman’s cape to fight my brother, but to a 22 year-old seeking communion with God through prayer, it felt a little juvenile.
Nevertheless, I find most things in life to be worth trying, so I gave imaginative prayer a shot today.
I had a number of insights as I read the Palm Sunday mass readings, but I will focus on one in particular. The Palm Sunday Gospel verses are mammoth, beginning with Jesus directing his disciples to collect a donkey and ending with his passion, death and burial.
I tried to envision what it might have been like to be one of the apostles sent to do Christ’s bidding. They had experienced three or so years trekking around with Jesus, watching him perform supernatural miracles and preaching in a way that seemed to turn common thought on its head. (The first shall be last? How can something be both first and last?) On the one hand, Jesus’s peculiar style may by that point have seemed commonplace. On the other, the disciples might have been thinking, “What is he getting us into now?”
I also considered the disciples’ dramatically quick turnaround. On Sunday, they are obediently following Jesus, worshiping him with throngs of other people. On Thursday, they are sharing dinner, announcing, “Surely, it is not I…” when Jesus informs the group that one amongst them will eventually betray him.
Later that night, however, they have abandoned him, running away in fear of their lives. As Jesus says, “The night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed.”
It can be easy to read the Gospels and shake one’s head in wonder at how dense the disciples appear. Sometimes I imagine Jesus doing just that: “Seriously?! You guys need me to explain this to you again?”
But even a cursory examination of my life reveals how fickle I am, too…not only in my faith but in pretty much everything. One moment I am hot to trot, ready to be a good neighbor to whomever I encounter. The next, I am completely wrapped up in my own nonsense, oblivious to the fact that anybody else shares this planet with me. John Lennon once said, “Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.” I know what he means, and my crack at Ignatian Prayer reminded me that if I vacillate between these two wrong interpretations of whom I am in the world, well…I’ve been doing it for years, and I’m not alone.
All in all, imaginative prayer can be a remarkably effective way to scratch the surface of what it might have been like to walk with Jesus in the flesh. It can also remind us how humble we really are beside a figure such as he.