What does it mean to live in the gospel?

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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.

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