Updated: Nov 9, 2022
In Catholic elementary school, we practiced for mass. We learned how to genuflect before entering the pew; when to sit, stand, and kneel; and we sang… a lot. The singing was my favorite part, naturally because I had a talent for it, but also because of Sr. Marita Edward. Aside from the fact that Sister made practice fun with all kinds of jokes and games, she herself was filled with energy and a joy that lit her up from the inside. I wanted that joy for myself, so I watched and listened to every word she said.
In a way, Sr. Marita was my first spiritual director. She often asked us to think about the words of the hymn we were practicing. She provided biblical and historical insights, but also images to hold onto as we sang. Images of being raised up “On Eagles Wings”, God “satisfying the hungry hearts” and how we can “cross the barren desert” without fear.
Those images changed the songs. They were transformed from words, notes, and rhythms to something alive in me. I felt very close to the music, and I felt that those lyrics meant something profound. I had no idea what, but I didn’t really care. I just absorbed the joy Sister was sharing.
I think the happiness came from the unity I felt with the music. I now know it created a channel for my young mind to experience the love of God. Using images in song brought my relationship with God to a new level. No wonder I spent the rest of my youth and adult life pursuing music. I was, and still am, convinced that music is not something close to God - it is God.
Sr. Marita’s gift of imaginative exploration supplies an unending source of nourishment to my spirit. I still find myself being carried away by a song to the point of happy tears. Even when the song is sad, I’m just glad to feel close to God at that moment.
I’ll never forget where I learned to allow myself to be swept up in the flow of the music, the lyrics, and God. I will always be grateful to Sr. Marita, whose joyful, creative spirit has left an indelible mark on mine.
In Spiritual Direction we use our imaginations in several ways. One example is employing the imagination in conjunction with the scriptures. This is called Lectio Divina, which is translated as “Divine Reading”.
In Lectio Divina, we read the scriptures in a way that offers us the opportunity to use our imagination in prayer. First, we read a passage reverently and slowly. We pay attention to any word or phrase that jumps out at us. Then, we look at that word or phrase with curiosity. As always, we invite God to be with us as we ponder. “Why was I struck by that part of the passage? Is there something God wishes me to notice?”
We linger in that curiosity and let ourselves imagine God’s message to us, which can come in the form of words, ideas, feelings, or sensations. Next, we sit in quiet conversation with God about this message. Finally, we sit and rest in the presence of God with no other agenda. We ask for nothing and say nothing, we just rest with God. This final step, albeit a challenging exercise, offers abundant rewards.
My Experience with Lectio Divina
My journal is filled with Lectio reflections. Once such an entry is about my reflection on the Visitation, (Lk, 1:46-55), when the pregnant Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth. The first line of Mary’s magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” jumped out at me. Immediately a question filled me, “Does my soul magnify the Lord?”
At first, I mused about how a magnifying glass brings tiny details and intensity into view. I was then simultaneously happy and daunted at the prospect of my soul magnifying God in such a way. Though I noticed my strong desire to be such an instrument, I could also see my limitations at the front of my mind. I was led to call on Mary to help me be capable.
I sat with this desire and imagined God sitting with me. In time, I noticed a subtle feeling of assurance. I felt assured that my desire is what God will employ, nothing more. My limitations are of little consequence to God. My job is completed with wanting; I am to leave the rest to God. God works, and I do nothing more than let him work through me–that’s the deal.
I continue to contemplate the surrender such a bargain requires. In order for God to work through me, I must surrender my will. This is not easy to do and I struggle to rest with this, as Lectio suggests. While my journal chronicles this encounter in only a few lines, coping with this desire and surrender could fill volumes. I notice this tension with even more clarity as I share it with you now. This is a topic for discussion with my spiritual director.
The journal entry I cited was actually from 2019, but I continue even today to discern God's meaning for me in that one line excerpted from Luke. Discerning God’s message can be difficult, and I am grateful to have a spiritual director who can listen to my story. Her companionship can help me discern God’s message simply because she listens to and reacts to my experiences. In between sessions, I am comforted to know that I have such a spiritual friend. Her friendship enables my deep dive into prayer, because I know that someone is there to help me process what I experience.
My years in spiritual direction have taught me a few things about discerning God’s message to you, the most important being: it’s always about wholeness - the wholeness of yourself, your relationship with God, and even the wholeness of your relationship with others. It is never about tearing you down or separating you from God, yourself, or others. Even if God’s message contains a difficult truth, it is always delivered with a recipe of compassion and love which makes the truth bearable. Indeed, at times, we may notice encouragement accompanying that difficult truth.
Imagination, in conjunction with the scriptures, can be a tool for understanding God’s message, especially when you take the time to invite God into your ponderings. However, this is not to exclude other imaginative endeavors that touched your heart. You may wish to go back to those moments and consider the possibility of God’s presence in them.
Or you may just wish to begin, as Sr. Marita taught me, with energy and joy. Sing some songs, tell some jokes, and carry some beautiful images of God with you as you do. This is a lovely invitation to God, who will quickly and happily rsvp “yes;” as I imagine God enjoys a good time as much as anyone.