I am nearing the end of the Spiritual Exercises. During this phase, the exercitant considers, several times, an exercise that Ignatius refers to as the “The contemplation to gain love.” Joseph Tetlow helpfully translates this phrase as “The contemplation for learning to love like God.” Ok, now I get it: this is not about earning love, but learning to love. If the Spiritual Exercises is about anything in particular, it is about “learning to love like God” and this contemplation is designed to focus my attention on this approach to life as a leaving-off point in the Exercises. Ignatius continues: “The first Prelude is a composition, which is here to see how I am standing before God our Lord, and of the Angels and of the Saints interceding for me.” I have remarked previously that the language of the Exercises is arcane enough as to have persuaded me to find help in the form of Joseph Tetlow’s notes.
There is much more to this Contemplation, but Tetlow begins his direction thusly:
I begin by asking the Lord God to let me become aware of myself in the divine presence, and I offer myself to God. Then I use my fantasy. I imagine that I am standing before the throne of God, and all around me I see saints and martyrs, angels and powers and dominions. They all smile at me and seem to recommend me to God the Lord.
Fantasy, as a form of prayer, is fundamental to the Exercises. I have found that I am particularly well suited to this form of prayer because I have a great deal of experience with fantasy in general. Unfortunately, my practice of fantasy throughout my life has mainly be used for bad things. Nevertheless, the skill is well-developed and when Ignatius instructed me to use fantasy in prayer, I knew exactly how to pull it off. Such prayer has been exceedingly fruitful. By exercising my imagination, I can put myself right into a scene, a story. I become a part of it. Just as importantly, it becomes a part of me.
In my prayer last night, I followed Joseph Tetlow’s instruction “to imagine I am standing before the throne of God.” My contemplation was vivid and words will likely fail me, but I will attempt to write down what happened. You will be able to read my account in a few minutes (or seconds!), but the whole affair occupied me for about an hour because I took the time to savor the moments as they occurred.
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I am in a well lit tunnel underneath the seating in a large stadium. At the end of the tunnel is a door that leads out onto the field. I have a strong sense at this time that I am the subject of interest, the main attraction, the central focus, and a small entourage of people is helping me because I don’t know what to do. One of them signals, silently, that it is time. They move me toward the end of the tunnel. Someone ahead of me opens the door and bright sunlight pours in. I walk out between two sections of seating. Looking up and around, I note that the stands are filled to capacity with 100,000 people, or more. I look back just as the door behind me shuts. Those who were with me in the tunnel have remained behind. I feel alone. Twenty feet ahead, a crowd of people, men and women, all dressed in black, some with hoods, blocks my progress out onto the field. I perceive that the crowd in front of me fills the entire field. As I approach, the crowd begins to part, making a path just wider than my shoulders. All I know at this point is that I am supposed to walk forward. The stadium is silent. I hear no talking or even whispering. No shuffling about. No wind. No distractions from what I am sensing in the moment. The scene about me is intimidating because everyone is watching me and they are silent. I cannot gauge the crowd: is it hostile? friendly? Are they judging me? supporting me? As the crowd gives way, I continue to move forward. I can see at the other end of the field a raised platform or stage on which a throne sits. “There is One seated on the throne, suffused in gem hues of amber and flame, with a nimbus of emerald.” The throne seems to be my destination. As I move forward, the crowd continues to give way. If I slow down, the parting slows; if I speed up, the parting keeps pace. I pay close attention to the ground for fear of tripping on unfamiliar terrain. The movement of my feet is the only sound in the stadium. In my peripheral vision, I detect a man smiling at me. I look at him and a woman next to him is nodding. Others close to me are conveying similar messages with their body language. Another woman covers her mouth with both hands with a look of astonishment. I am overwhelmed by a deep sense of acceptance but I know that I am getting closer to the throne and my trepidation continues to build, more rapidly the closer I get to the end of my journey.
Finally, the sea of bodies opens up and I am in front of the throne. I am frightened and my knees give out. I fall to the ground, on my knees, supporting myself with my hands, waiting anxiously for whatever will befall me next. A voice from the throne says, “Draw near.” It is not spoken as a command; it is an invitation. Still on my hands and knees, I look up, a signal that some of my fear is beginning to melt as I detect in the tone of voice a sincere welcoming. He repeats, “Draw near,” while motioning with His hand. There is a smile on His face. I make eye contact and He says, “Yes, come here. Come on,” in a way that someone would coax a small child. Smiling. Motioning. Welcoming. Though I pay careful attention, I cannot detect even a hint of judgment or any sense that I will be called to account for anything. I rise slowly and walk toward Him, my eyes fixed on Him. When I am a foot away, His arm encircles my shoulders and He gently pulls me closer. And closer. There is a clap from someone in the crowd about 30 feet to my right. Then another. And another off to my left. Soon the whole stadium is clapping. The sound is thunderous. He pulls me even closer, and I begin to become one with Him. The noise from the crowd is fading. I feel myself being enveloped by His being, disappearing into Him. He is making love to me, not in a sexual way, but in a way that is intensely intimate. Safe. Loved. Oned.
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Had I attempted this contemplation prior to doing the Spiritual Exercises, the outcome would have been entirely different. The judgment that I anticipated while walking across the stadium field would not have dissipated. The dread would have deepened. I would not have been able to stand up after having fallen to my knees. I would not have heard Him say, “Yes, come here. Come on.” But, this time, I did hear it. I felt loved during this prayer. I was loved during this prayer. I wept.
I am loved. He knows me, but He loves me anyway. It was not me who wanted to approach that throne. He was the one who wanted to see me, to have me. He sought me. He drew me. He loved me. He oned me. I cannot love until I know that He loves me. I cannot love until I know how He loves me. That is why there is a contemplation for learning to love like God.