In the sixteenth century, Saint Ignatius of Loyola wrote out instructions for prayer based upon his own conversion experience. A contemporary of Saint Theresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, all spiritual giants in the Catholic Church, Saint Ignatius’ legacy to the order he founded (Jesuits), were his written instructions on prayer called “Spiritual Exercises.” Unlike Saint Theresa and Saint John, Ignatius focused upon imagination as a way of personally experiencing the life of Christ. He wanted his followers to experience what it felt like to walk with Jesus, his parents and his followers.
Anyone wanting to enter into the life and times of Jesus can follow the Exercises as written or adapt the idea of imaginative prayer as a way to experience what life must have been like in first century Judaism. For the Catholic, there are two major devotional prayers that deliberately call for imaginative prayer: the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross.
There are many Christians who deliberately ignore Jesus’ parents, especially his mother Mary. They say that Jesus is enough for them, they don’t need Mary to interfere with their relationship with Jesus. What would Jesus have to say about this attitude toward his mother and father? Entering into the infancy narratives in imagination, it is impossible to ignore Mary. When entering into the scene of the crucifixion and death of Jesus, and seeing, in imagination, Mary at the foot of the cross watching her son suffer and die; and ignoring her pain is simply unfeeling.
Set the scene in first century Nazareth. What does Nazareth look like? Is it a hot dry day or cold and windy? Are you walking or riding into town? How do you find Jesus’ home? Do you ask people the way? Do you ask: “Where is the home of the child Jesus? Or do you ask, “Where is the home of Joseph the carpenter?” Judging from other Gospel stories, Jesus and his family were just ordinary people. They didn’t stand out in any way. So how can you find them? Remember you need to enter into the customs of the times.
When you finally get to the home of Joseph the Carpenter, what do you see? A house made of brick or a house made of stone? Is it surrounded by a walled garden or by neighbor’s houses? Is there an undercroft for the animals or is the entrance to the house at the same level as the street? Is the entrance to the house covered by a wooden door or a simple leather curtain? Is the front of the house actually Joseph’s workshop and open to the street?
Imagine yourself approaching the house. Is Joseph working in his shop at the front of the house? What do you say? How do you greet Joseph? Do you say, “Good day, I am looking for your son, Jesus.” Or do you acknowledge that this is Joseph’s home and he is master of the house? Do you first greet Joseph with the respect he is due especially because he is the foster father of Jesus? Or do you ignore Joseph entirely and blunder into the house without an invitation or greeting him?
Perhaps you politely inquire if you have found the right house, asking if this is the house of the boy Jesus. If so, you would like to come in and visit. Does Joseph return your greeting and take you into the house, or does he call to his wife Mary to tell her they have a visitor?
In your imagination, what happens next? Does Mary come out and greet you and take you into the house? Will she take you into the garden, if they have one?
“But where is the boy Jesus you ask? I have come to visit Jesus.” Is this the way you would address a contemporary mother when you knock at her door? You might expect this from police, truant officers, or welfare workers, but certainly not from someone who wants to become friends with her son! Just how would you let Mary know, respectfully, that you would like to meet and visit with her son. Since Mary was fully aware of her son’s nature, she will probably not be offended if you want to meet and visit with him.
Or would you, in your imagination, simply barge though the house looking for Jesus and calling his name. How disrespectful! What must Jesus think of you? You have ignored both his mother and father, people he loves and respects. He, as a good and devout Jew, honors his father and mother and would expect you to do the same. To be a friend of Jesus, you must also be respectful to his parents.
Think for a moment, how you would feel as a parent, if someone came to your home and ignored you entirely. How would you feel if your son brought home his girlfriend or your daughter brought home her fiancé and they ignored you completely? What would your son or daughter think? Do you suppose Jesus would feel differently?
Entering into a biblical scene in imaginative prayer, makes the man Jesus far more real. So many of us tend to ignore Jesus’ humanity and concentrate only upon his divinity. To do so is to ignore his life and death and what it meant. It means ignoring the Gospels.
You have set the scene. But you have not yet met Jesus. Where is he? Is he out playing with the other boys? Doing chores? At the synagogue studying? How old do you imagine him to be? Since you can repeat this prayer as often as you wish, you can make Jesus any age you choose, then change the visit experience accordingly. You can imagine him as a baby or a toddler, a three year old or a ten year old. You can even imagine what a visit would have been like after the family’s return from Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve. It is your choice. What would you say to him and his family depending upon his age?
Engage all your senses in this prayer form. What do you see, hear, taste, smell and feel? What are you thinking about as you walk through this imaginary visit? Why did you decide to try this form of prayer in the first place? What did you hope to gain from it? What did you accomplish? What have you learned? How do you feel about the Holy Family now? As you watch them interact with each other and with you, have you come to know, understand and love them more?
If you come away from this experience with a greater sense of what life was like for Jesus, you have accomplished a great deal. If you feel stirrings of love and compassion, you have gained something you did not have. If you look forward to the next session, you have been filled with grace.