The Spiritual Exercises begins, not surprisingly, with the First Week, or as the Stangles prefer, “Phase 1,” since even Ignatius makes room for the likelihood that, for some of us, the First Week will last substantially longer than one week, so why call it a “week”? Joseph Tetlow (Choosing Christ in the World), in contrast, begins with a Preparation period, which precedes the First Week. I suspect that he does this for two reasons, both of which are based on his experience working with people for many years. First, he wants to give exercitants a framework for determining if they really want to complete the Exercises. Second, most people (including me) need to do some important preparatory work, both in terms of learning some skills and dealing with life issues that, if left unresolved, are very likely to result in a nose-dive during the First Week. I was not aware of the latter rationale, except in retrospect. It required 8 weeks of daily prayer to make my way through the 6-week Preparation period. It’s not that I’m slow. The Exercises forced me to address some deep, long-standing issues with God that I knew about but had buried long ago.1
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Lectio divina. Eugene Peterson introduced me to this phrase in Eat This Book.2 “Lectio divina is a way of reading the Scriptures that is congruent with the way the Scriptures serve the Christian community as a witness to God’s revelation of himself to us.” So begins chapter 6 of his book. I read it, but didn’t get it. I read the whole chapter and still didn’t get it. Lectio divina is a form of prayer, of praying the Scriptures. It is not Bible Study. That is a worthy task, but for another place and another time. Lectio divina. I knew the phrase, but that was about it. Starting the Exercises, I found myself at the very bottom of a learning curve that would prove to be many months long.
You may be wondering: What is your problem? Why do you find all this so difficult? I can answer that. I have spent nearly 40 years as a Christian couch potato, living my “Christian” life vicariously through preachers and pastors, teachers and authors. “I read a really good book last week,” I’d say. “That was a great sermon,” I’d say. Peterson quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein, “You can’t hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being addressed.” My ears have undergone serious atrophy as a result of not having heard anything for 40 years. I have never, ever said, “God fed my soul last night.” Yes, I faced a long learning curve; but unless we begin, we will never arrive.
I obtained some useful advice from John and Krisztina Stangle: “One way that helps some people [practice lectio divina]: I notice the people themselves keenly, lovingly. Then I listen to what they say. Then I watch how they are acting.”
Ok. Let’s have a shot at this. Here are my notes from day one: an hour’s worth of prayer. The Journal entry is my record of what happened. (I won’t be offended if you skip the Journal entry.) What is important about that record is described and interpreted under Observations, below.
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Journal entry; Preparation, week 1, day 1
The story refers to a specific place, grounding this story in history and reality. Jesus knew Jacob, the one who originally dug this well and the one to whom the woman refers.
Jesus was wearied. How human!
It would appear that Jesus came to the well before the woman did. Why was he sitting at the well? He clearly had no intention of drawing water from the well, since he had nothing to work with. Then, the Samaritan woman showed up.
Would the woman have felt ganged up on had all the disciples hung around the well? It was, therefore, fortuitous that the disciples went to town to buy food. Why, actually did not Jesus go with them? He had journey the rest of the way with them. Why did he not continue into town?
From a human perspective, this would seem to have been a chance encounter. Jesus did not see the woman and then say to himself, “Ah. I must stop and talk to her.” The well was unoccupied when he sat down. In fact, she came to him!
Jesus speaking to a Samaritan woman would be like me speaking to a gay person. Who are the other outcasts (lepers; Samaritans) in my society? in my work-a-day world?
Jesus put himself at the mercy of this woman. He asked her for a drink. She could have denied him, since he was a Jew. In the end, perhaps she did; we do not know.
If Jesus is the living water, then why did he ask for a drink of water. Because, although “It takes more than bread to live…”, it does take bread (and water) to live. Jesus was not a superman, and neither am I.
Jesus did not answer the woman’s question. Why?
If the woman had responded to Jesus’ request, she would have given him a cup of water. If the woman had asked Jesus for living water, what, exactly, would he have given her?
It is possible that, given the bad relations between Jews and Samaritans, had Jesus asked for a cup of water, the woman might have refused. But, God is so generous that, had the woman asked, Jesus would have given her living water, even though she was a “despised, underserving Samaritan woman.”
Why did Jesus speak so cryptically to this woman? Surely, she did not understand what he had to offer her! Did he mess up this prime opportunity for evangelism? Or does he not see things this way?
Wouldn’t it be nice to know people well enough to be able to speak directly to their deepest needs?
The water that Jesus offers is apparently self-regenerating, since it springs up from within.
Why do I not have a sense for this “artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life”? It would seem that if someone had this within, it would be pretty noticeable.
Jesus was offering life not faith.
What is this water that Jesus is offering? Is it faith? Is it eternal life? Is it the opportunity to go to heaven? Or is it God, Himself?
Jesus was at the well already when the woman showed up. She was just going about her normal everyday business. There was nothing special about her job of pulling water out of this well. But Jesus was waiting for her. He was part of her day. God was waiting at the well. Just like God was waiting in the bush for Moses. Every day God is waiting for me. I just have to notice the burning bush or the man sitting at the well as I go about my normal “non-spiritual” activities that I am sure God cares nothing about. Perhaps I need better eyes or maybe I simply need to take time to notice.
People find “solace” or comfort or meaning in all sorts of things: work, sex, hobbies, entertainment, drugs, alcohol, sports. What are people really looking for? Jesus said that if we partake of the living water that we would never thirst again. What do we thirst for? What do I thirst for?
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Observations (in retrospect)
1. The record above is not analytical (e.g., verse analysis Bible study); it is observational and interpretive: How do I understand the scene in John 4? What happened? How do I feel about what happened? Frankly, I do not record any amazing insights into the passage, but that is not the point, at all. I am keenly aware of the difference between Bible study and prayer as I pray through this passage. What I am not skilled at recording is my affective (emotional) response to the story in John 4. Nevertheless, be assured that items 4-8, below, are more than simple statements of fact. I feel them very deeply during this prayer tonight.
2. Lectio divina is not about the Scriptures, exactly. It is about understanding God and ourselves in the context of God. By “understanding,” I do not mean finding out more about God, but of knowing Him personally: What is He like? What can I expect of Him? What can He expect of me? There is far more to this than listing the attributes of God or His promises. It is about who He is. And who I am. I anticipate these questions as I go into my prayer time tonight. I have no idea if it will “work” or not.
3. Some observations about Jesus (e.g., “Jesus was wearied. How human!”) will become, over time, very important to me. For example, that Jesus and I are both entirely human suggests the potential for a relationship with him. The possibility of friendship with Christ will be fleshed out in the First Week, but I note that the groundwork is already being laid, even in this day-one prayer.
4. “Wouldn’t it be nice to know people well enough to be able to speak directly to their deepest needs?” This is an expression of weakness or deficiency on my part. It is crucial to recognize that this is not simply a “wish,” but a prayer to God. I must admit, though, that at this time I do not believe that God can fix this. The phrasing of this quote suggests (to me) that it is not a sincere request of God, anyway. There is also an implicit recognition (by me) that I am “in process,” meaning that He might fix this someday, but not today, which makes it easy to let this one go. Besides, I have a distinct sense that there are bigger, more important fish to fry.
5. “Who are the other outcasts (lepers) in my society? in my work-a-day world?” I do not answer this question. It is an important one, but I am not ready for this, either.
6. “my normal ‘non-spiritual’ activities that I am sure God cares nothing about…” On day one, I am sure that God cares nothing about my everyday life. As you might glean from my more recent blog postings, this view of my life is going to change dramatically.
7. “What is this water that Jesus is offering?” Although it is not explicit, I am expressing sincere doubt about the platitudes that are offered up routinely about exactly what Jesus was offering the woman and, by extension, me. Since the offer is being made to me, I want to know what he is offering. I do not have the answer, but I have a sense that asking the question is step one. I will not discover for many months why God did not address this seemingly crucial question during my prayer tonight.
8. “Why do I not have a sense for this “artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life”?” A confession of emptiness and lack of spiritual reality. It is more than a confession, though. It is a prayer, because I am praying to God (lectio divina is a form of prayer) at this time. In my own way, I am asking God for help. He and I both know that this is the reason that I have engaged the Exercises. I am disappointed about my current sad spiritual state, but hopeful, at the same time, because I am identifying a serious and central deficiency. I know that I am in the right place: the presence of God. I interpret my intense affective reaction to this question as an indication that God knows that this question is far more important at this time than the question in item #7. I trust His judgment. He must love me.
I am encouraged and want to come back tomorrow.
1 Note the level of personalization being implied, here. Ignatius could not possibly know what I have faced in my life. Yet, he designed the Exercises so that my personal spiritual needs and deficits would come to the surface in the presence of God.
2 Eugene Peterson. Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2006.