What does it mean to live in the gospel?

We can learn about that from Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, who composed his famous Spiritual Exercises in the early 16th century. Ignatius himself was drawn to the world of the Bible in a rather unique way. Born into a wealthy and noble Basque family, in his late teenage years he (like many young men of his rank in society) took up military service, fighting with distinction in a number of battles over the next two or three years.

But during a siege of the Navarrese city of Pamplona he was struck in the legs by a cannonball; one leg was gruesomely wounded and the other badly broken. Carried back home to his family castle, he spent a number of painful months immobilized while his wounds slowly healed.

During his convalescence he read voraciously, and after a while stumbled across a book by Ludolph of Saxony called The Life of Christ. Ludolph had collected passages from some of the greatest Christian writers (such as Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great) to retell the gospel story of Christ's life. He encouraged his readers to savor each of the stories in turn, taking time to imagine that they were present at each of the events described—to picture themselves at the stable in Bethlehem or watching the loaves and fishes being shared around the great crowd or standing at the foot of the cross. For months Ignatius immersed himself in the Gospel narratives and, as his body gradually recovered, so he found his soul gradually reformed and renewed by the experience of being so entirely steeped in Scripture.

After his recovery Ignatius was fired with a desire to help others discover the treasure of the Bible. This was the genesis of the Society of Jesus, the religious order known to most of us as the Jesuit fathers. Ignatius and his companions fanned out across Europe and beyond (some of the earliest missionaries to the recently discovered "New World" of the Americas were Jesuits) with one single burning passion: to help people know Christ through Scripture.

The Spiritual Exercises became their handbook and guide (and still is to this day). The short book, a manual for spiritual directors, describes a structured program for slowly and prayerfully reading the Gospels and finding ways of encountering the living Christ through his living Word.

The basic method of the Exercises is very simple. Ignatius would encourage people to begin by paying attention to every detail of a Gospel story: the setting, the people involved, gestures and words, the time of day or year. He would teach them to use their imagination to recreate the scene in their minds, making it as present to the senses as possible—if you were there, what would you see? What might you hear? What fragrances drift through the air? Is it warm or cold, wet or dry? Who is gathered around you? What are they doing? Where is Jesus in this story, what is he doing, and how are others reacting? We might imagine a director preparing to shoot a scene for a movie. In his mind he has to consider every detail. How will this scene look and feel? What movements are required? What dialogue will take place? The director has to become supremely attentive to detail—and so must we, Ignatius might add.

Then, following the teaching he had received from Ludolph's book, he would encourage people to insert themselves into the scene. Don't just watch; participate. Can you imagine yourself as a disciple or a person in the crowd? As a leper or blind man, a sinful woman or righteous Pharisee? What is it then like, experiencing these unfolding events? If, in your imagination, you are no longer a passive observer but an involved actor in the scene, how does it affect your perception of the story? In particular, Ignatius counseled his directees to pay close attention to their emotions: what do you feel? Our emotional responses often give us important clues about the way the story is directly touching us—where we struggle with or rejoice in the gospel message. They may shape the way we want to respond to what Jesus is doing, even taking the story off in unexpected directions.

We might be praying through the story of Jesus meeting a paralyzed man beside the pool in Jerusalem (John 5:1-9). Jesus approaches the man and asks him, "Do you want to be made well?" The man, of course, responds affirmatively. But we may be surprised, imagining ourselves in his place, to find that we are resisting Jesus, holding him at arm's length, uncertain whether we want his healing in our lives. We have allowed the story to unearth something deep within, something which can now become the focus of our prayer.

And that's precisely where Ignatius would have guided people next: into prayer. Each of the Exercises concludes with what Ignatius called a "colloquy," a spiritual conversation. But Ignatius taught people to allow the meditation and conversation to blend together in the context of the imaginative engagement with the Gospel story. To continue the example, we might have pictured ourselves as the lame man lying beside the pool, asked by Jesus if we truly want to be healed. We want to explore our reaction to that invitation more fully with Christ. Ignatius urges us not to break the meditation, to step out of the scene in order to pray. We have pictured ourselves in the presence of Christ: from within that scene, speak with Christ. As you lay beside the Jerusalem pool, talk with Jesus "exactly as one friend speaks to another," as Ignatius expressed it. Allow the conversation to develop as a natural extension of the meditation. And then listen. Be ready to hear Christ's response.

It's precisely at this point that some of us experience an important difficulty: if I'm imagining this scene, and imagining speaking to Christ, am I not simply imagining his response? In other words, I could "hear" Jesus speaking to me, but wouldn't I just be making it up? Isn't this simply self-delusion, pretending that I can put words into Jesus' mouth?

There are those who hold that God speaks to us today in no other way than through the written words of Scripture, and such people will never be able to understand this practice as anything other than a delusional game. But many of us believe that God continues to speak to his people directly and personally—in a way consistent with Scripture certainly, but not only through the book itself. We may have experienced this in a variety of ways: a vague sense that God is "nudging" us to do or say something; a feeling that God is speaking to us through the words of some poem, book, song or conversation; a clearer perception that God is present in some place; even (from time to time) the unmistakable experience of "hearing" the voice of God—although for most of us that last phenomenon is rare indeed. We are, in principle at least, open to the idea that Christ might speak to us. But we want to be able to distinguish clearly between the genuine voice of God and "just imagining." Doesn't an Ignatian colloquy lead us exactly where we don't want to be—into the heart of our imagination?

The simple answer is yes. But before we dismiss Ignatius out of hand, we might want to stop and explore whether that really is such a problem.

Spiritual Vision

In Western culture most people have come to see the imagination as frivolous, playful and essentially disconnected from the real world. In ancient times people greatly respected (even feared) their dreams, seeking to listen to the voice of their imagination by night; we dismiss our dreams as the product of stress, stimulation or overindulgence in cheese. Daydreaming and fantasizing are equated with wasting time and laziness. When others' ideas seem disconnected from worldly reality we say, with an ironic tone, that they have a "vivid imagination." The implication is clear: the imagination may be creative and entertaining, but it cannot be trusted. It is a purely internal playground where we can indulge our fantasies without consequence; to take it too seriously would be foolish and risky.

In previous generations, however, Christians took a much more positive view of the imagination: it was seen as the soul's equivalent of the body's physical senses. The imagination had a number of functions: it was the place where the information gathered by our five senses could be integrated and processed; the place where we could freely experiment with the store of ideas, concepts and memories held in our minds—and also as the primary gateway of spiritual experience. Traditionally Christians have assumed that we become open to spiritual reality primarily through the imagination, which is capable of receiving experiences that are incomprehensible to our physical senses.

Think of Ezekiel's vision beside the river Chebar. In the midst of a great storm cloud he saw multifaced living creatures, their four wings outspread, surrounding a burning fire around which sparks and lightning flashed. Beside the creatures were wheels within wheels, their rims circled with eyes; the wheels turned to and fro, rising and falling with the winged creatures. Over the heads of the creatures Ezekiel saw a crystal dome, over which was a sapphire throne on which was seated some kind of human figure who seemed wrapped in fire.

How did Ezekiel see this? It seems fairly clear that this was a visionary experience, not something he saw with his physical eyes. Traditionally Christians would have interpreted this as God revealing himself to Ezekiel through the imagination. We might be tempted to ask, "So, Ezekiel was just imagining this?" But the question would have made little sense to our ancestors in the faith.

Just imagining? Do you just see this book? Can you just smell your coffee, or just hear the traffic? Your perception of those things through your senses does nothing to undermine their reality. Why do we assume that our imagination is so closed to God and to the spiritual world that it can "only imagine" and never experience for itself? Ezekiel didn't just imagine the vision of God: he saw it! The fact that he saw it in his imagination made it no less real.

In the same way it is possible for Christ to speak to us in our imagination—the real and actual living Christ truly and directly speaking, not just in some fantasy. In fact, Ignatius is teaching us an incredibly powerful way of opening ourselves to God's presence through Scripture. When we engage so intentionally with the Bible in our imagination, we open ourselves more fully (not less) to the spiritual reality of God's presence. It becomes easier for God to speak into our minds, hearts and lives, not harder. Those who have practiced the kind of biblical meditation Ignatius taught know the truth of this for themselves. It is possible for us to deceive ourselves, to play pretend, to put words into Christ's mouth.

But, on the whole, we know when we are doing it. When I have a conversation with a friend, I can without difficulty discern the difference between what he is actually saying and what, in my mind, I wish he were saying. It is no harder to discern the difference between my fantasies about what Christ might say to me and the reality of Christ speaking. The psalmist wrote:

The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty ….
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness. (Ps. 29:4, 7-8)

Those with experience know that the voice of God has an unmistakable and undeniable quality. If God speaks, you will know.

Adapted from Fire in the Word by Chris Webb (IVP). Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

Free Newsletters

More Newsletters

Follow us