How to Read the Bible: Part VII

Part VII: How St. Ignatius read the Bible

By Jim Vitale

Do you ever wish you could have met Jesus during his earthly ministry? Do you ever wish you could have been a fly on the wall when David killed Goliath, or helped Solomon build the temple in Jerusalem, been on that boat with Jonah, or out in the desert with Jesus? Ignatius says you can!

In this series we’ve explored a variety of ways to approach the Bible, many of them rather academic. Today, we look at a more devotional approach, based on The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.

St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) found his first career as a soldier for the Spanish army. As a young man, Inigo (as he was called before he became a priest and changed his name) was far from a saint. One biographer reports that he was “a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status to escape prosecution for violent crimes committed with his priest brother at carnival time.” At 18 he joined up with the army and fought until he was wounded by a cannonball at the Battle of Pamplona.

As he recovered from his injuries, Inigo experienced a conversion and became radically devoted to Christ. He would go on to become a priest and the founder of the Jesuit order which devoted itself to education and mission. During his time as a Jesuit, he wrote an instruction manual called Spiritual Exercises which were designed to help draw his followers (the Jesuit monks) closer to God. These exercises have become the basis of what is now known as Ignatian Spirituality.

In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius invites his fellow monks to meditate on various images, which differ from week to week. For instance on one day, in the morning he invites the monks to imagine people from all around the world going about their business and in the evening he invites them to imagine a scene from the birth of Jesus. He writes:

The purpose of this contemplation will be to apply the five senses….

The first point is to see the persons in my imagination, contemplating and meditating in detail the circumstances surrounding them, and I will then draw some spiritual profit from this scene.

The second point is to hear what they are saying, or what they might say, and I will reflect within myself to draw some fruit from what I have heard.

The third point is to smell and taste in my imagination the infinite fragrance and sweetness of the Divinity, and of the soul, and of its virtues, and of all else, according to the character of the person I am contemplating. And I will reflect within myself to draw spiritual profit therefrom.

The fourth point is to use in imagination the sense of touch, for example, by embracing and kissing the place where the persons walk or sit, always endeavoring to draw some spiritual fruit from this.”

Ignatius encouraged his followers to stretch their imaginations during their contemplations. He wanted them to picture themselves in the scene using every sense imaginable (he excludes taste in the list above but certainly there are some scripture passages where taste would be applicable).

An Ignatian approach to reading the scriptures, therefore, is one that employs your imagination more than anything.

First begin by selecting a story from the scriptures (this works best with a narrative rather than, say, a Psalm).

Second, before you read the story, ask God to guide your imagination as you meditate on the story.

Third, read the story. If you feel you don’t have a good grasp on it, feel free to read it a second or third time.

Fourth, close your eyes and take a few moments to enter a still and quiet space in your heart.

Fifth, begin to imagine yourself within the story. Perhaps you are one of the characters, perhaps you yourself have been transported into the story, or maybe you are simply a silent observer.

Sixth, use all the senses you can think of. What do you see? What do you hear? What can you smell, touch, taste? What are people saying to you? What are they saying to each other? Perhaps, as you walk through the story in your imagination, you move past the end of the story from the scriptures. What happens next?

Seventh, close with prayer, thanking God for all you’ve experienced and asking God to continue to guide you as you go back to your regular life.

The idea with this kind of reading of scripture is not to read it “accurately” (this is not the place for exegesis and hermeneutics). The idea is to encounter God. Often practitioners of Ignatian Contemplation will encourage readings from the Gospels so that practitioners can have regular meetings and conversations with Jesus in their imaginations (and, therefore, in their spirit!). People who do this regularly find that they aren’t just “imagining” these moments as in a fairy tale or fantasy; rather they really encounter Christ coming to them in the wide and beautiful expanse of their own imaginative heart and soul.