The Ignatian Method
We often think of imagination as child’s play, something to be forgotten upon reaching adulthood. We watch children fondly as they become completely immersed in faraway worlds. Yet perhaps we can learn something from children. They have a knack for putting themselves inside stories, a skill that adults often lack. Yet why is the imagination something we must leave behind with childhood? God gave it to us as much as he gave us logic, reason, and practicality. The Ignatian method of Scripture engagement gives us the opportunity to engage our imaginations by placing ourselves in the stories of Scripture in an attempt to better empathize with the people of the Bible and understand the stories in a more experiential way.
St. Ignatius created a daily devotional called the “Spiritual Exercises” to help people grow closer to God. It was a short guidebook on prayer based on Ignatius’ most profound spiritual experiences. The most common use for his book was as a guide for someone leading an intensive 30-day long retreat. This time would be spent meditating on the life of Christ, specifically his birth, public ministry, death, and resurrection, using the Ignatian method.
The Ignatian method of Scripture engagement allows us to connect with Scripture personally. The idea is to place yourself in the biblical story, becoming a person in the crowd, a disciple or the boy with the loaves and fish. Imagine the sights, sounds, smells, feels, and tastes of this ancient world. You step into the story and let it enter your mind, not just a series of facts, but as a story with actual characters who felt and experienced life. This method is especially helpful for those who tend to connect to Scripture on a purely cognitive level. It involves our emotions, enveloping our whole person. With the Ignatian method, you are no longer just reading a book, you are living a story. God has given us the biblical stories so we can connect with them on all levels so we can know who he is and what he cares about.
A word of caution is needed here (some of you may have already had concerns spring up in your mind about this Scripture engagement practice). Some would argue that our imagination is fallen and that we should not come to Scripture using our imagination at all, only our intellect. It is true that our imagination is fallen and that it can lead us into sin and deception. Who has not experienced a deceitful imagination? But the truth is that our intellect is also fallen and that it also can lead us into sin and deception. We must be careful with all aspects of our lives (thoughts, feelings, imagination, actions, relationships), measuring all against God’s Word.
Though the Ignatian method can be deeply engaging and helpful, we must be discerning during the practice to not let our imaginations run ahead of us, supposing that everything we can imagine is what a passage actually means. Christianity is a faith rooted in history, and we should be on guard against inventing biblical meanings for ourselves. The Ignatian method is not a good tool to understand the meaning of a passage. To understand the meaning of a passage, we must study it inductively following the rules of interpretation (see the article on Scripture Engagement Compared to Bible Study for more details). Instead, our hope is that we will use the Ignatian method to penetrate a passage more holistically. We do not want to turn the Bible into a subjective, individualistic experience for which it was never intended. The Ignatian method is a way to better empathize with the people of the Bible and understand it in a more experiential way and is especially helpful with biblical stories we are very familiar with.
The Ignatian method, when done with a proper emphasis upon what the text actually says, can be very powerful in helping us develop a heart for God. The Holy Spirit works in amazing ways when we humble ourselves and come to the Bible ready to learn and be changed. The Ignatian method requires us, in some ways, to come like children, awakening our imaginations to help us engage with God’s Word. Remember, the goal of Scripture engagement is always to let the truth of Scripture marinate into our lives so that we can enjoy meaningful spiritual growth and fellowship with God.