Saturday, July 02, 2011

Column (Redux): Let your imagination off the leash in prayer

(Michelle is on retreat here, but thanks to the scheduled post feature, she virtually inhabits this space as well. The ability to bilocate used to be considered a saintly characteristic....)

I've never been able to hear this passage from Isaiah in quite the same way, every time it appears at Morning Prayer I can remember the frantic beat of the lamb's heart against my (now utterly ruined) shirt. This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times April 10, 2008.

He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes.
[Is 40:10]

My 75 year-old father’s faint call for help drifted over the top of the hill.

The clang of the kitchen garden’s iron gate echoed behind me as I pounded down the vineyard steps to the back pasture, worst-case scenarios flashing through my mind. Ducking under the huge cypress that shades the gates, I was momentarily taken aback to find my father on his feet and apparently fine.

“Here — take her.” He thrust a wet, bloody bundle of wool over the fence at me and jogged back down the hill. Heedless of my white shirt, I cradled a terrified newborn lamb against my chest, feeling her pounding heart slow as I held her close. Meanwhile, my father was trying, without much success, to corral her mother as she struggled to deliver my charge’s twin.

Holy cards of the Good Shepherd favor white robes, fluffy lambs and bucolic scenery. After my summer sojourn as a shepherdess, I realized we’d been sold the sanitized version. Newborn lambs are not fluffy and white, the ewes do not always trot sweetly along at your side, and those white robes will never be the same after a day in the pasture.

Our urbanized culture pulls a misty, nostalgic curtain over Isaiah’s images, impeding our ability to use this gate to enter into the mystery of God’s relationship with us. We become like the people that St. Gregory the Great once chided in a sermon about the Good Shepherd: “foolish travelers who are so distracted by the pleasant meadows … that they forget where they are going.”

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, offers us a remedy for our tendency to fasten onto the pleasant superficialities of the rich and enduring images in Scripture: Pray with our imagination.

Ignatius encourages us to ask God for the grace to enter into the scene, itself. Don’t merely read a passage from Scripture, but take a part in it. Engage all your senses. Historical accuracy is not the point; opening yourself to hearing God at work in your own history is.

Slowly read the verse from Isaiah. Who are you in this encounter? Who else is there? What are you doing?

Smell the hay. Hear the ewe bleating for her lamb. Feel the dust tickle your nose. See the Good Shepherd try to charm the panicked ewe to His side — and never mind that he is wearing khaki shorts and a trout fishing t-shirt. Share His joy as He brings new life safely into being.

What does God want you to know? Ask God to reveal His will for you as the scene unfolds.

Ignatius challenges us to let ourselves be surprised by God in these lively, yet prayerful, encounters. Before the summer of the sheep, I had never quite understood how hard it was to lead a ewe. Now, when I pray with this passage, I wonder how hard God finds it to lead me.

Let God escape the confines of the holy cards. We need to move beyond our static, two-dimensional images of Creator, Redeemer and Spirit, and experience the reality of these Persons active in our lives.

Use your imagination. Allow the Word to become flesh in you.

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, faith in Your word is the way to wisdom, and to ponder Your divine plan is to grow in the truth. Open our eyes to Your deeds, our ears to the sound of Your call, so that our every act may increase our sharing in the life You have offered us. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. excellent reflection and call for us to reflect.