Lexie Keller Sheard reflects on how Jesuit spiritual practices have helped her to connect with the sacred presence of God in life's times of confusion.
In the early hours of 31 December I found myself in East Gippsland, west of the bushfire evacuation, looking across the river to visible flames and a red sky. I felt frightened. I wanted nothing more than to push the mounting disaster out of my mind.
I had hoped that the holiday would be a good time to rest and reflect on my hopes for the new year. Yet I knew that focusing on my individual desires without taking into account the context of the suffering around me would be disingenuous.
How could I open up space for God to care for my own soul while keeping my eyes open to the realities around me? I have found Jesuit spiritual practices invaluable in helping me to see the sacred things of God in the midst of life’s confusion. St Ignatius developed these ways of praying over five centuries ago in order to help other Christians hone their faith in the context of seeking justice in the world. On this New Year’s Eve, amidst the smoke and flames, I turned to what St Ignatius considered to be the most important practice, the reflective prayer of The Examen. The Examen is a way of remembering our daily lives in the presence of God, with the idea that God is actively inviting us towards goodness through the ordinary events of our day.
I asked myself, “In what moments of this day did I turn towards the Light of God? In what moments did I turn my back?”. I’d actually spent some time looking up fad diets I might try in the new year, partly out of a desire to lose weight, partly out of a desire to hide my head in the sand from the fire danger around me. On reflection, that seemed to be a way that I had ignored God’s presence. However, there were other moments in the day which had felt more honest: I was able to honestly express my fears about the fires to God in my journal, and I had a good conversation with my husband as well.
Spending time in relationship with God and talking to my husband seemed to have opened up a bit of loving ground on which to stand. Afterwards, I felt more prepared to encounter other issues – from my feelings about my body to anxieties about climate. At the end of this prayer time, I resolved to spend more time investing in loving relationships rather than trying out another fad diet in the new year.
Another style of prayer St Ignatius suggests involves reading the Bible with your imagination. The idea behind this is that the Bible is a living document and that Jesus can invite us to interact with him in deeper ways through encountering it with all our senses. You choose a story from Scripture and imagine it unfolding, often choosing a particular character to inhabit. You then imagine the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and interactions with Jesus that arise. Often I am surprised by the very current revelations of grace which emerge.
After journaling about the fires, I chose the story of the arrest of Jesus. In prayer, I become Peter in Luke 22, in the home of the high priest as Jesus was condemned. As Peter sneaks in to join the crowd warming their hands, I see the glow on their faces and feel his confusion at his lack of a plan. I feel his fear of being caught up in the danger, his anxiety over what will happen. My throat tightens as Peter and I leave the crowd as we realise our failure: even though we cannot stop what is happening, can we not even be true to our own idealistic faith? We cannot. The worst can be true, not only of the world’s basest instincts but also our own.
Of course, for Peter, the worst part of this story (Jesus’ death) is yet to come. Neither of us can imagine what comes next: after the silence of death, a living Christ who has encountered the worst is resurrected beyond it. Yet this hope is hidden from Peter’s eyes at the moment, and from my own as I consider the state of our nation. I feel Jesus strengthening a sense of hope and grace in the midst of the fires.
These types of prayers help me to take seriously the realities and spiritual sign-posts of the world around me, as well as honouring my inner journey. They have shaped my choices to be increasingly loving and courageous as I recognise God’s invitations towards the co-creation of a more compassionate world.
May God bless you in your spiritual practice, and may we all continue to have open eyes and loving hearts as we meet the challenge of a new year.