The year I started doctoral studies in Christian spirituality I also took part in a nine-month retreat in everyday life. It was the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in their extended format and a powerful experience of entering into the scriptures with all of my senses open and attuned.
I was also taking a course in Judaism to help direct me toward the subject of my exam in a spirituality other than Christianity, part of the requirements of my studies. I was talking with the professor one afternoon and shared something about my experience in the Spiritual Exercises. I described them as an imaginative engagement in the scriptures where we are invited to enter into the text with all of our senses, open up the gaps in
the stories, and engage in dialogue with the characters. “Oh, just like Midrash,” she said casually. At that point I didn’t know a lot about Midrash, but was really taken by this new door opening for me between traditions. I began studying Midrash more extensively for my exam and ended up focusing on the work of contemporary feminist writers. These women were
telling the missing stories of biblical women and offering a new experience of biblical texts to their communities. I was enthralled by the Jewish perspective of scripture as black fire on white fire. The black fire is the actual words of the text while the white fire is the space between – the place where holy mystery dwells. Our imaginations help us to embrace both
aspects and begin to see the whole.
As I continued on my personal journey into Ignatian prayer through the
retreat, I discovered a new relationship to stories I had heard many times
before. I remember the moment in my contemplation when I encountered Jesus
in a wholly new way. I was engaged in a colloquy (Ignatius’ word for
conversation) with Jesus. Through my imagination I sat next to him while he
held my hand, and I asked him how he was able to have the kind of wisdom he
did. What I heard in reply was that he must have experienced a significant
loss at an early age. It was more than hearing it, I felt it in my gut, I
had an embodied response. Those “missing years” began to shimmer for me
with possibility of what other suffering he had to wrestle with.
Michael Card, in his book Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, describes the
imagination as the bridge between mind and heart and a means of integration.
His reflections on Luke’s gospel remind me of a delicious cocktail of lectio
divina, Ignatian contemplation, and Midrash. We are called to enter the
spaces of the text, wander around there with eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and
skin attuned to new possibility, letting what is revealed to our senses have
weight. So often we approach the texts with expectations, we know how the
story affects us already, we know how it all turns out.
Reading Card’s writing reminds me of how vital the experience has become of
seeing my dear friend and teaching partner Betsey Beckman dance the
scripture stories. They become alive and embodied; they take on flesh and
sweat and dust, all essential ingredients for the transformation of my own
heart. When she moves and proclaims with her entire body, she utters the
words of black fire and the white fire of mystery emerges in the space of
breath and bone. The texts become a living encounter with sacred presence.
When we unleash the scriptures through holy imagination, we really unleash
our own hearts and bodies into the landscape of possibility. We begin to
dance at the edges of what we know and may suddenly find ourselves in a new
Christine Valters Paintner Ph.D., is a Benedictine Oblate and the founder and director of Abbey of the Arts, a non-profit ministry integrating contemplative practice with the expressive arts. She teaches at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry and also works as a spiritual director, retreat facilitator, writer, and artist. She is the co-author of Lectio Divina: Contemplative Awakening and Awareness from Paulist Press. Visit her website www.AbbeyoftheArts.com.