"Listen to me" - reflection on a week of guided prayer


Christ and the woman taken in adultery Pieter Breugel, Courtauld Institute

Before embarking on the retreat in daily life, I was feeling more and more like my Christian faith was trapped in my private mind, only popping out briefly for discussions and at Sunday Mass. This was very ironic because, as a student of Theology, I was constantly being reminded by great thinkers that Christianity is not a private experience or about a weekly fix of grace. It was an insight that my prayer guide, David (David Stewart SJ), would later sum up with the phrase, “the sacrament of the present moment.” Truth is not known in a cold and detached way, it should change us, and the Holy Spirit cannot be locked away in a box labelled ‘open on Sundays’. The worry that all this sat passively in my head, without influencing my daily life, was the motivation to join the other retreatants.

At the start of the retreat, we were all led together in prayer- Lectio Divina or Divine Reading. A passage from Isaiah was repeated and we were asked to focus on a theme or word that kept jumping out at us. For me this was the phrase “listen to me!” It related a lot to my frustration (as a wannabe intellectual) at learning about big ideas and struggling to explain them to others or putting them into practice. But as the reading was repeated, it was clear that this cry of “listen to me” was from God. The phrase was gradually transformed- no longer an affirmation of my selfish frustration but an invitation to listen out for God in the silence and in others.

Ignatian spirituality seems to deeply appreciate the benefit brought by this sort of repetition in prayer, a way of praying developed by the monasteries long before Ignatius.  We need to allow God to keep gently interrupting our busy lives in new and unexpected ways by revisiting his word to us. In the Gospels, it is not the case that the moment Christ comes out of the tomb all is well.  He has to keep coming back in different scenarios - on the shore of Lake Galilee or on the road to Emmaus.

The daily meetings with my guide tended to focus on what had grabbed me in the several workshops throughout the week.  The themes of these were ways of praying, discernment and images of God. The insight that I really needed to hear was that we should ‘pray how we can, not how we can’t.’ The Ignatian imaginative contemplations really worked. The scenario from scripture that we were imagining ourselves into was Jesus’ healing of the blind man, Bartimaeus. Failing to conjure up an image of a middle-eastern town, I settled for the hustle and bustle of my hometown and tried to be quiet and still. It was a blind-drunk heckler, being shushed by the crowd, that Jesus healed - a homeless down-and-out. I admitted this to David and he was very interested and encouraged. As for my fidgetiness, he told me, with a calm smile, to simply “notice.” He also said not to be afraid to acknowledge this as possibly the disruptive work of “the bad spirit,” as Ignatius would have called it.

My biggest challenge, however, was to approach Jesus myself in the imagined scenario. In the healing of Bartimaeus, Jesus asks the crucial question, “What do you want me to do for you?” and this is what David suggested I try to answer during prayer. The point was not to achieve ‘what I really want’ but simply to try to name it and hand it over to God.  I found this difficult- it’s a continuing project. A retreat is only the beginning of this project, but, to paraphrase Woody Allen, eighty percent of success is just showing up...
The image I keep returning to is Jesus sitting on the ground, writing in the dust and then looking up at the adulterous woman to see that the Pharisees have not condemned her. I think going on retreat is an invitation to sit with them for a while, rather than faff around with the Pharisees! 

Francis Stewart is studying theology at Durham University and took part in a Week of Guided Prayer recently