Pray with Imagination: Preaching Ignatius of Loyola

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Editor's Note: Below is a "Monday Sermon," from our series of sermons at the Patheos Preachers Portal that pastors can enjoy and learn from. It is our hope that this particular series from Daniel Harrell, which preaches through the Church Fathers, will encourage pastors, show them a way of approaching theological education from the pulpit, and refresh their theological memories.

See Reverend Harrell's columnist page for more information.

If you've ever seen the 1986 movie classic The Mission, or are a graduate of a Catholic institute of higher learning (for me that would be Boston College '93), then you know about the Jesuits, or officially, the Society of Jesus. A religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, the Jesuits number 23,000 brothers "ready to live in any part of the world where there is hope of God's greater glory and the good of souls." Jesuits work for social justice and promote education, having founded Boston College as well as a host of other schools such as Georgetown, Marquette, Holy Cross, and all the colleges and universities with Loyola in their name. If your experience of the Jesuits hasn't been through the movies or school, perhaps it's been through an experience of spiritual direction. Ignatius' popular handbook The Spiritual Exercisesisstill widely used for spiritual direction and retreats 460 years after its first publication.

Spiritual discipline is not something unique to Catholic orders. Plenty of Protestants have found following Ignatian exercises an invaluable help to reinvigorating their own prayer lives and bringing them into deeper intimacy with God. Stretching all the way back to Leviticus, a strong spiritual life has always depended upon rules and ritual to keep the human heart tuned to God. Some of these ancient guidelines, refined by the rabbis of Jesus' day, appear in Matthew 6. Giving to the poor fostered generosity and kindness, pulling your focus away from yourself for the sake of serving others. Generosity reminds the heart of the generosity of God; we give because God so lavishly gives to us. Fasting fostered self-control through self-denial. By subjugating your bodily desires to spiritual ends, you rein in your selfishness and better resist worldly distractions and temptations. Prayer is holy communication. As God and His Spirit abide in His people, so prayer is the primary way God's people participate in that presence; prayer is the natural, unselfconscious language of relationship.

Yet, Jesus, in addressing giving, fasting, and prayer, nevertheless warns that even these deeds designed to guard the heart may ironically be corrupted by the heart. "Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven," Jesus said, but also "Be careful not to practice your righteousness publicly, in order to be seen by others. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." Human sin can be uncanny. Which is why we need to pray rightly.

Prayer is so central to our relationship with Christ and thus so central to Ignatius' own life, but prayer is also so hard to do. I find giving and fasting hard to do too, but at least they're more tangible. You can see the results of giving and feel the results of fasting. But with prayer that's not always the case. My mind wanders at times when I pray. I get impatient. I doubt. I don't get the answers I want. People will tell me it's because I don't have enough faith. And that's true, but at least with less faith you get less disappointment. I can't tell you the number of pious folks I've had to coax back from the edge of apostasy due to unanswered prayer. Because our expectations of prayer can be so high, it's easy to understand why we might try and get something else out of it when God's giving you nothing. Faking it in public at least gets people thinking you're a good Christian.

Of course, if that's what you're after, Jesus says that's all you'll get. But if what you're after is something more eternal, then Jesus says you'd best do your praying in secret, in a room with the door shut. Now understand that Jesus employs hyperbole here. Given that most ancient Palestinian homes only had two rooms, praying in a room without anyone knowing would have been as difficult as your left hand not knowing what your right hand is giving. Likewise, few Jews deliberately prayed in the streets any more than they announced their giving by blowing trumpets. Jesus' point gets back to the heart.