The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola are best suited for prayer during a silent retreat. However, Ignatius knew that they could also be effective when employed in a less isolated environment. It is the hope of the authors of this blog that you, the reader, find the meditations that we offer here useful in your own search to encounter Christ in prayer in your daily life. The meditations are intended to be prayed in order, from as close to the beginning as possible, perhaps over the course of a dedicated time such as the season of Lent. (more…)
Grace: To have heartfelt knowledge of Jesus who wept over his friend Lazarus, so that I may love him more fervently and follow him more closely.
Text for Prayer: John 11: 1-44
Reflection: This past Sunday, we all heard this rather lengthy reading from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus raises his friend, Lazarus, from the dead. At the end of story, we can look back and better understand Jesus’ actions from the beginning. But if we were to insert ourselves into the various scenes of this passage, we cannot help but be like the disciples, Martha and Mary, who wonder why Jesus doesn’t immediately go to cure Lazarus if he considers him such a good friend or what Jesus means when he says that Lazarus is sleeping. Even after Lazarus dies and Jesus finally does come to Bethany, we might wonder if Mary stays at home because she is pouting and Martha’s initial reaction to Jesus is more filled with sarcasm than anything else: “Thanks for caring, Jesus. My brother wouldn’t have died if you had been here.” And finally, we cannot help but cover our noses outside of the tomb and think, “Why does this man want to open the tomb of a man who has been dead for four days?”
With its detailed plot, this passage shows both Jesus’s humanity and divinity in a way that is not always apparent in the Gospels. As Pope Emeritus Benedict said in a 2008 Sunday Angelus blessing:
Christ’s heart is divine-human: in him God and man meet perfectly, without separation and without confusion. He is the image, or rather, the incarnation of God who is love, mercy, paternal and maternal tenderness, of God who is Life. Therefore, he solemnly declared to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” And he adds, “Do you believe this?” It is a question that certainly rises above us, rises above our capacity to understand, and it asks us to entrust ourselves to him as he entrusted himself to the Father.
What would our reply to Jesus’ question be? This passage in John appears to generate confusion for the people around Jesus and it seems difficult to utter a simple yes to the question Jesus poses to Martha. We are human, but we always called to rise above and make that leap of faith entrusting ourselves to the one whose heart is human, aware of our own weaknesses and shortcomings, but divine, infinite and capable of holding all of us within it.
Questions: Who do I most closely resemble in this passage? Are there things that make me doubt that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? What are they? Am I willing to entrust myself completely to Jesus and to be his friend?
Grace: To know the Lord, so that I may love Him more and follow Him more closely, always trusting that He is there to help me through the storms of my life.
Text: Mt. 14: 22-33
In a post featured on this blog a few years ago, David Paternostro, SJ, provides the following words that can be helpful for picturing the scene in this passage and using the passage for prayer:
Jesus is in the storm with the Apostles, walking toward the boat, when He sees that they are even more scared because they think He is a ghost, He calls out to them “Courage! It’s me! Don’t be afraid.” (Mt. 14:27). The Apostles are not given sunshine, calm waters, and a good breeze, but they are given the strength to endure the storm…
Upon seeing Jesus, Peter calls out “Lord, if it is You, tell me to come to You across the water” (v. 28). Jesus’ response is simple: “Come”. Peter climbs out of the boat, starts to walk on the water, and things are fine, at first. While Peter is walking on the water, he begins “noticing the wind” and becomes afraid (v. 30). At that moment, what matters most to Peter is not that the Lord is with him, but that the wind is dangerous. So he begins to sink.
Even though Peter failed Jesus and doubted His care for him, and even though Jesus could expect Peter to do so again, He saves Peter from the waters. For Jesus to just say to Peter “Why should I bother with you? I can find another apostle who won’t keep doing this” would be understandable. But this is not the way of Jesus. Instead, He answers Peter’s plea for help by taking Peter by the hand, as one might take a child.
Grace: To be humble and to further die to myself so as to be able to live in a state of indifference that will allow me to better hear and follow God’s call in my life.
Text for Prayer: Mk. 10:17-31
Reflection: The second week of the Spiritual Exercises includes several meditations on discerning our state of life, including the Meditation on the Two Standards, the Meditation on the Three Classes of Men, and today’s Meditation on the Three Modes of Humility.
All of these meditations are meant to make us reflect on what it means to follow Jesus and the different ways that we are called to follow Him. We might be led to think that following Jesus is simply a matter of following rules or giving up our possessions. But following Jesus demands a more radical commitment on our part and the cultivation of our interior dispositions.
The rich young man in Mark’s Gospel might seem like someone who is willing to follow some rules and give up some of his possessions to follow Jesus. The disciples, with Peter as their spokesman, are quick to say that they have given up everything. But Jesus reminds them to think about their desire to follow him in terms of humility—it is not only about giving up worldly possessions, thinking that what we are doing is right, and giving ourselves a pat on the back. We must have the humility and courage to die to ourselves so that God can work in and through us to bring about his kingdom.
Grace: To know Jesus, the Son of God and my brother, so that I may love more fervently and follow him more closely.
Text for Prayer: Lk. 2: 51-52
Reflection: After Jesus’ parents find him in the temple and he returns with them to Nazareth, St. Luke tells us that Jesus was obedient to his parents, advancing in “wisdom, age, and grace before God.” We can only assume that the family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph was like any other family in the village of Nazareth. Jesus grew up like any other young man in his small town and most likely learned the trade of carpentry from his father, Joseph. They worked to support themselves and had relationships with other people in their village that were typical of the village craftsmen of their time.
We hear much talk about marriage and family these days, especially as the Church’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family approaches. Paragraph 17 of the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, released after a previous synod on the family held in 1980, emphasized that the family is a community of persons, that serves life, participates in the development of society, and shares in the life and mission of the Church. Ideally, the family should be that first place where we learn to pray and love as Jesus did, a love that is for the sake of the other and calls us to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.
Grace: To remain in the things of the Father, as Jesus did, so that I can love him more dearly and follow him more closely.
Text for Prayer: Lk. 2:41-52
Reflection: The Gospels tell us nothing about the life of Jesus from the moment he returns from Egypt as an infant to the time he begins his public ministry around the age of thirty, with the exception of this one event when he travels with his parents to Jerusalem for the Passover.
Pope Emeritus Benedict, in Jesus of Nazareth, points out that the Torah required every Israelite to make a pilgrimage to the Temple for three great feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus and his parents were a part of one of these pilgrim communities, on its way to the Temple. In the Temple, these communities journeyed towards a place where they received their identity and unity from their encounter with God.
Rather than returning with his parents to Nazareth, Jesus decides to remain in the Temple. Viewed in light of the pilgrimage, it makes perfect sense that Jesus should desire to stay there, where he tells his parents that he must remain, literally, “in the things of the Father” (Lk. 2:49). Jesus receives his identity directly from God, for he is God, God the Son obedient to the Father’s will.
Grace: To have an intimate knowledge of our Lord, Who has become human for me, that I may love Him more and follow Him more closely.
Text for prayer: Mt. 2:13-21
Reflection: No sooner has Jesus has been born than he is forced to flee to Egypt, along with Mary and Joseph, to avoid death. The Magi have deceived Herod, and Herod wants him dead, so much that he orders the death of all of the infant boys in Bethlehem. Herod is more concerned about the things of this passing world, rather than things that are divine.
We sense God’s protection of his only son. He leads him through the desert to a place of safety and when it is safe for him to return, he calls him back.
A child, forced to wander in the desert, cared for by God, and called back…
Though the circumstances of our lives might be quite different and we might not be threatened with imminent death, we often wander through deserts in our own lives. Our contemporary culture has little room for God or the eternal questions about truth, goodness, and beauty. Materialism and instant gratification are the norm. Often encouraged by others and our own appetites, we only wander further into these enticing, yet ephemeral deserts where we cannot experience the joy of being called a child of God or be part of the family of God in communion with others. We instead remain restless and become more lonely and isolated.
Yet we cannot forget that, in the midst of our wanderings, God still cares for us and is always calling us back to him. We have only to place our lives fully in his hands, as Mary and Joseph did, when they fled to Egypt. We might be forced to live in the world with its many distractions and because of our human weaknesses succumb to temptations, but we must always keep our eyes firmly fixed on God. Through the many examples of the saints, He alone can show us how to live as his sons and daughters. He always cares for us, despite what the world may want us to think.
Questions: Are there any particular deserts in my own life where I find myself wandering today? Where am I experiencing difficulty in trusting God’s Providence? Where have I experienced Providence in the past? Where has God brought good out of difficulties in my life? Am I willing to trust God now?
Grace: To stay with Jesus in his suffering and humiliation, borne on behalf of my sins and the sins of humanity.
Text for Prayer: John: 19: 1-5
Reflection: The image of the scourged Christ is often associated with Holy Week and the Passion. Such an image usually portrays Christ, bare from the waist up, a red cloak draped over his shoulders. On his head is a crown of thorns and emanating from the crown streams of blood run down the sides of his face. His torso is also covered with blood, the scars of the beating by the Roman soldiers. His mien reflects sadness, pain, and anguish, all at the same time.
The image of the scourged Christ depicts Christ after his questioning by Pontius Pilate and immediately before his sentencing to death. The Gospel of John recounts how Pilate asked Jesus whether or not he was a king and what is truth, Pilate asked the crowd if it wanted Jesus or Barabbas, a revolutionary, released to them. When the crowd asked for Barabbas, Pilate had Jesus scourged, thinking that this punishment would satisfy the crowd and keep it from rioting. He then brought Jesus out the people proclaiming “Behold the man!” or in Latin, “Ecce Homo!” As we know, the crowd kept clamoring for Barabbas and demanded that Jesus be crucified, so that Pilate acquiesced, and sentenced Jesus to death.
Grace: To experience a complete conversion of heart that will allow me to be with Jesus on his way to the Cross.
Text for Prayer: Luke 19: 41-44
All glory, praise, and honor
To you, Redeemer, King!
To whom the lips of children
Made glad hossanas ring.
You are the King of Israel,
And David’s royal Son,
Who in the Lord’s Name comest,
The King and Blessed One…
The above hymn that will be played in many Churches on Palm Sunday helps set the tone as the Church enters into Holy Week and reminds us of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It is not difficult to picture Jesus, his fame having spread throughout Judea, riding into the city on a donkey, greeted by the crowds who cry out “Hossana!” as they wave palm branches in their hands.
But the same hymn and the image of the scene cannot help but raise a few questions in our minds. What type of king enters a city riding on a donkey? Why are people so eager to greet Him, especially when a few days later they are no longer crying out “Hossana!” but rather “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” How and why do they have such a quick change of heart?
By the time that Jesus rides into Jerusalem He has already established that He wishes to be a different type of king, one who serves others and is not served. The fact that He would choose to arrive in a Jerusalem on a donkey speaks to that desire of His, and His desire for us is that we follow His example.
The change of heart experienced by the people of Jerusalem is a more complex question to answer. Luke’s account of the entry into Jerusalem, however, can perhaps help us to gain some insight. Luke mentions that Jesus wept over the city as he approached it and lamented “If you only knew what lay before you…” (Luke 19:42) Luke, catering to his audience, might be referencing the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 when the city was destroyed by the Romans. But could it not be, rather, that Luke is reminding us that sometimes we may want to recognize God in places where he cannot truly be found? Could it be that we want to make God into something He cannot be, and rather than seeing Him as He is, we only see Him as we want to see Him?
The people of Jerusalem may have wanted a king, and in Jesus, they weren’t getting the king they expected. But we, too, can sometimes place ridiculous expectations on God. We can think that God exists merely to answer our prayers or make us feel good about ourselves. When our prayers aren’t answered in a way that we prefer or if the good feelings disappear, we turn away. Similar to the change of heart experienced by the people of Jerusalem our cries of “Hossanna!” quickly turn to “Crucify Him!” We can think that God is merely out to get us and judge us or that he places too many rules and regulations on our lives that we can’t keep. We can be tempted to want to have Easter Sunday without Good Friday.
Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week is a call to conversion. It is a call to put aside all of those preconceived notions of what God should be like and simply allow ourselves to be with God, with his Son, Jesus, to follow Him “on the way” that Luke mentions throughout his Gospel and stand beneath the Cross. Only if we make this journey can we fully enjoy Easter Sunday.
Questions: Do I place expectations on God that He cannot fulfill? Do I have any preconceived notions of what God should be like for me and for others? Are these expectations compatible with who it is that Jesus says He is and how He calls us to follow Him? Can I place these expectations aside and allow myself to be with Jesus on his journey to the Cross and allow myself to be with Him at the foot of the Cross?
Grace: To choose always what will allow for a deepening of Christ’s life in me and be a benefit to my own happiness and the good of the Church.
Reflection: This week has clearly been a week that has been marked by choices. The Exercises have been all about setting us up to make choices. The Church and the world witnessed the election of a new Vicar of Christ—a historic choice in itself, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis is a man who has been formed by the Exercises and in his first homily to the College of Cardinals, in what appeared to be a reference to the Two Standards, he spoke about the choice that we must all make to either profess Jesus Christ or the worldliness of the devil.
The foundation of our lives as Christians is an encounter with God through a man named Jesus Christ, both God and man. We can choose to live as His followers or we can adopt the name Christian as a mere identity, treating it as any other identity that we can acquire and discard at whim. We can choose either life, the way of Christ, or death, the result of the ways of a leader who thrives on trickery and deceitful lies. We can choose to be near Christ and walk with Him in all that we do or we can distance ourselves from Him out of fear because of the requirement that we detach ourselves from the world and its ways. We can focus on the fact that we are loved by Christ and allow our spiritual lives dwell there or motivated by love, we can move towards our complete conversion to Christ, a conversion that requires greater sacrifices on our part but leads to sharing in the victory won by Christ on the Cross. We can choose to collaborate in a reform of the Church or not. We can choose to be faithful to our baptismal promises and live a life inspired by the Spirit and compassion for others or we can choose to be unfaithful and apathetic towards those around us.
“Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me,” says Christ (Matthew 16:24). This week we have meditated on what those words of Christ mean. We have begun to know a man who now sits at the head of the Church who has lived these words as a faithful priest and servant of the poor. Whether or not we choose to hear the words spoken by Christ and live them, allowing ourselves to share in the suffering and triumph of Christ – that is the choice we must make. As you look over the week, which meditation stands out as one where you felt closest to Christ and the most willing to follow Him? Revisit this moment, and allow yourself to listen to what it is that Christ has to say to you.
Grace: To know and be able choose how to draw closer to the Lord, to do what is most in line with His plan for humanity and most conducive to my own happiness.
Text for Prayer: Mark 10: 32-34
Reflection: Once we pass the half-way point of Lent, we start to think more and more of Easter, and how it will mean a return to the normal days when we can regularly enjoy the forbidden food or drink that we gave up for Lent. But in the Gospels, as Jesus approaches Easter—and his coming death and resurrection—He begins to remind his followers what it truly means to follow Him and the sacrifices they will be required to make if they are to continue along the path that He has set.
St. Ignatius, in the Spiritual Exercises, places one of the meditations on following Jesus in the second week of the Exercises and calls it a meditation on three types of men. This is an appropriate mediation to consider within the context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, if we imagine a long line of Jesus’ followers split into three separate groups, with Jesus at the head of the line, leading the way.