Imagination is a powerful and creative human faculty. Ancient thinkers likened the imagination to a wax tablet. It is malleable. One’s experience can press upon the imagination and engender imprints, which one can shape further in reflection. Within our own tradition, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius represent a guide for Catholic Christians to meet God, particularly in the events of the life of Christ, in and through their imagination. This is an essential insight of the first Jesuits—contemplatives in action: God meets us in our imagination; God can reveal Godself vividly in the human imagination by the workings of the Holy Spirit. God can shape our imaginative impressions just as we can form and shape our own. This is graced contemplation. Such prayer is based upon the a clear principle that underpins the Spiritual Exercises:
While one is engaged in the Spiritual Exercises, it is more suitable and much better that the Creator and Lord in person communicate himself to the devout soul in quest of the divine will, that He inflame it with his love and praise, and dispose it for the way in which it could better serve God in the future. Therefore, the director of the Exercises, as a balance at equilibrium, without leaning to one side or the other, should permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with his Creator and Lord (The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Ann. 15).
The heart and soul of the Exercises is an encounter with Christ. The person praying the Exercises engages in the following two preparations before contemplating the life of Christ. First, one considers the place where Jesus is born or ministers or prays alone—the stable, the rooms, the fields, the lakeside, the din and dust of Jerusalem. One considers sights, smells and sounds. One inserts him or herself in the scene and contemplates the scene’s characters. Second, this is all to pursue the grace that Ignatius aims at:
This is to ask for what I desire. Here it will be to ask for an intimate knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love Him more and follow him more closely (Ann. 104).
Fr. James Martin’s book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, is both an introduction to and an account of one’s pursuit of the grace of knowing Jesus Christ more intimately in order to conform one’s life to the manifestation of divine love that is the human life of Christ. Fr. Martin’s book employs scripture, imagination, experience, history and place to enliven, enrich and deepen one’s encounter with Christ in prayer. It is his introduction to the Jesus of history, the Jesus of faith, and the Jesus Fr. Martin has encountered in his own imaginative prayer. In fact, Jesus: A Pilgrimage is a longitudinal study of the comprehensive and compassionate love that Martin has experienced throughout his life. The book is also a travelogue of two Jesuit pilgrims visiting the places where scripture tells us Jesus lived, healed, preached, was executed, and rose from the dead.
Fr. Martin begins his account of Jesus’ life at Nazareth where, the Gospel of Luke tells us, Mary encountered an angel and cooperated with the divine project of the incarnation. In the lower level of the Basilica at Nazareth, Martin marvels at the inscription on an altar in the Grotto of the Annunciation: Verbum caro hic factum est, that is, “The Word was made flesh here” (33). The hic—the here—of the incarnation fuels Martin’s whole book. It also underscores the mystery of Jesus’ full humanity and his full divinity. Jesus: A Pilgrimage is essentially a contemplation of this mystery in the here—the hic—of where it happened.
Throughout the book, Fr. Martin examines scripture, offers insights from years of spiritual direction, and synthesizes a great deal of modern scholarship on the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. He considers why scholars might understand the incarnation as a “scandal of particularity,” and Jesus’ childhood and adult life as “insufferably ordinary,” while the works of his public ministry are “irritatingly unique.” Martin introduces the reader to the depths of this mystery and how imaginative contemplation on Jesus’ humanity and the hic-ness of our God can change us.
Two major insights arise in Martin’s consideration of the life of Christ through his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. First, in describing both Jesus’ call of Peter and the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, Martin helps us realize that any conversion or healing brought about by God involves inclusion in and restoration to a community. Grace orients us outward, and the most miraculous actions of Jesus Christ—including the resurrection—are oriented toward community and fuller union with the Triune God. Second, as Martin writes in several ways, “God craves our honesty” (300). Imaginative prayer is not fantasy. It is a hic, a space, where one can be open and honest with God and where God can be honest with us. In his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus honestly agonizes over the emotional and physical suffering that he will undergo in his execution. Here, in the Garden, Martin offers a further insight about the incarnation. In Christ’s agony, “The human person is united with the divine will, and the divine one expresses human emotions” (362). Jesus entered honestly and comprehensively into our human experience. Our God opened himself up to the full range of human experience from birth to work to travel and suffering and death. Martin’s exploration of the places where God took up this full human experience only serves to enrich the interaction with God that Ignatius writes about in Ann. 15: the Christian God meets us—interacts with us—directly in our lives and in our prayer.
The Catholic Book Club selects Fr. Martin’s book to begin a consideration of several books on Jesus in the next several months. We will reflect on what modern scholars and writers think of Jesus as they attempt to relate his life to our lives some two thousand years later. The Book Club will advertise a list of its selections in the coming weeks. In the meantime, please read Fr. Martin’s book and consider joining a conversation about it. Below are some questions to ponder:
· What place or space has provided you the richest experience of God in your life? Was it a shrine or a street corner? Where have you had the fullest experience of the incarnation of Jesus Christ? Or, where do you continue to go in order to gain a fuller experience of Christ?
· Where do you go in scripture to experience Jesus? What passages do you visit time and time again? Which passages in the Gospels are stumbling blocks to your contemplation?
· How do you employ your imagination in prayer?
Post Scriptus: Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Fr. Martin describes a man in front of him in line to visit the tomb of Jesus who was continuously checking his smartphone. Instead of checking messages, he was playing video games. The truly secular and human meet the divine in places that mark the events of Jesus’ human life. Fr. Martin’s book triggered several memories of my own trip to the Holy Land in 2012.
In the summer of 2012, I was able to travel to the Middle East for seven weeks. I spent a month living in Beirut, some days in Amman, and two weeks in Jerusalem. I had signed up for an Arabic immersion course sponsored by the largest Jesuit community in Beirut so that I could learn more about the region that had so dominated the news during my lifetime. I also wanted desperately to visit Jerusalem. I finally made it to the Holy City at the beginning of August. Like Fr. Martin, the first place that I visited in Jerusalem was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Traveling alone, I made my own itinerary, but each day included time at the Holy Sepulchre. In the afternoons, I would sit across from the tomb and watch the crowd mill about it or fight to get in line to enter the tomb. I watched a peculiar, quite abrasive Orthodox monk scream at people in line and in the tomb itself. I saw folks walking around the shrine with open Diet Coke cans. People ate, argued, pushed and shoved. One afternoon, I saw a fight in the line only a few feet from Jesus’ burial slab. I saw Muslim families, who had traveled to the city to celebrate the last days of Ramadan, run around and eat ice cream as they tried to comprehend the ramshackle interior of this odd Christian shrine. Watching all this unfold before me, I thought that it made absolute sense. For, the slab of stone fifteen feet in front of me marked the place where divinity revealed itself to humanity in what Fr. Martin calls: “the greatest event in history” (410) which conveys “a message of unparalleled hope” (416). It makes sense that humanity is most human before the most sacred shrine in Christianity. Humanity pushes and shoves, fights, complains, and reveals all its pettiness in immediate proximity to the place where the Christian God gently revealed the depth of his love, mercy and peace. Jesus Christ rises from his burial slab as the perfect union of divinity and glorified humanity, the perfect incorporation of the most mundanely human realities into the concern and love of the Triune God. Jesus of Nazareth had risen here.