We’ve begun a new tradition this Advent season of telling the Nativity story on Sunday nights using stuffed animals. Joseph is a tiger. The angel Gabriel is a musical turtle. And the virgin Mary? A hedgehog.
Each telling involves just part of the story. The first night my three year-old loved it. But immediately after the story ended during the second Sundy of Advent, my son burst into hysterical tears. Why? He couldn’t stand it that the story had stopped mid-stream. He was left hanging, wondering what would happen with Zechariah (a lion), pregnant Elizabeth (a rabbit), and Mary and Joseph! He was beside himself, totally frustrated at the idea that he’d have to wait a whole week to see the next part of the story acted out behind the couch.
His tears seemed needless. After all, this was a familiar story. He’d heard it before. He knows what happens next.
But his tears also spoke to me. He was in the story. He was breathing Palestinean air, walking on the dirt, seeing the angel, smelling the smoke in the temple, watching Zechariah attempt sign-language. In that vibrant imagination that’s so natural to children, he had entered into the story and brought it to life in his mind; he didn’t want to leave it. That was why he cried.
This, I realized for the umpteenth time, is how I need to read Scripture. This is how I need to view the stories and accounts in God’s Word. Not mere text on paper or familiar words, but an experience of the senses — an encounter with real people, amazing events, true emotions.
Ignatius of Loyola taught this method of reading gospel accounts, called Contemplative Reading. It is a type of Bible learning that steps outside of a traditional “study” approach and calls us to engage our imagination. Contemplative Reading invites us to live in the story; to be there in the moment.
Here’s a short summary of Ignatius’ approach to contemplative reading (drawn from my book The Busy Mom’s Guide to Spiritual Survival, releasing at the end of January 2007); Consider making this approach to God’s Word a new part of your spiritual life.
Ignatian contemplative reading is done in five steps:
1. Select and read a Gospel passage.
2. Take a moment to pray and prepare your heart for exploring the text.
3. Ask God to help you open your heart and guide your thoughts as you “step inside” the passage.
4. Use your imagination to actively place yourself in the scene, either as an observer or by imagining you are one of the people who interacted with Jesus in the story. Consider what it might have felt like, looked like, sounded like, and smelled like to be there. Imagine the scenery, the weather, or who else may be nearby. Now think through the event or teaching described in the passage—What is Jesus’ tone of voice? What is the impact of his words or actions on those around you? on you? What is it like to be there with Jesus?
5. Respond to Jesus—talk to him and listen to his response in your heart. Ignatius described what he did during this step simply: talking to Jesus “as one friend speaks to another.”