Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read chapter 1 of Dancing with God, read it before you read this study guide.
Read pages 1-7
Most of the gospel stories are very short – maybe half a page. We read to the end very quickly and know the outcome and the “lesson” almost immediately. There are numbers of stories in this book which help us to slow down and identify more deeply with characters in the story.
I love this slowing down and identifying because it helps me to meet the real person of Jesus, to imagine what it would have been like to actually meet him, to look into his eyes, to be challenged by his words, or questions.
The Ignatian way is sometimes called composition of place. We are encouraged to use our five senses to ground ourselves in the story. We imagine ourselves present and then notice what we see as that character, what we hear, smell, taste and touch. And also, importantly, what we feel. If I was the rich young ruler challenged to give away all I had, what would I feel like? If I was the Samaritan woman at the well how would I feel being told to go and get my husband, when I did not have a husband? In some stories we might find it hard to identify with the person who is interacting with Jesus.
The story in chapter 1 of my book Dancing with God was a result of my wanting to imagine myself in the story of the woman taken in adultery. I thought I was much too good a Christian to identify with her. So I decided to make up a scenario where I could come to be in her shoes, justifiably facing stoning. My processing went something like this: “Well if I was in an arranged marriage to someone much older than me, or someone I didn’t like…. Well if I had previously fallen in love with someone I longed to be married to who had subsequently disappeared but then returned… Well if each time I met him I thought it was the last time…” And so I was able to make up a story where it could have happened that I committed adultery and was caught in the very act. I started to tell the story in my classes and saw how strongly students identified with this woman. I remember a student in Myanmar quoting back to me, “Just one more time..” It was obvious he identified with the feeling of longing, and then justifying a wrong action.
As I identified with this woman who faced stoning, and knew she deserved to be punished for what she had done, so it was much more powerful for me to imagine myself rescued by Jesus. As I imagined her facing a shameful death, and identified with her acceptance of her deserved punishment, so the grace of Jesus became so much more powerful. As I vicariously experienced the abusive power of the religious leaders, so the non-combative response of Jesus kneeling to write in the dust provoked my amazement and gratitude. As I heard Jesus’ question “Has no-one condemned you?” and then imagined daring to lift my eyes to his, to see and hear his, “Neither do I,” so my own heart leaps in response and my burden of felt guilt and unworthiness is lifted and taken by this man who goes to death in my place.
Many of us have read and heard to gospel stories for years. Many of us have been part of traditions which analysed and “learned the lesson” in an intellectual way. We learned about the characters, rather than experiencing what happened.
Imagining ourselves in the story enables a transformation of our hearts; a sense that “I was there. This happened to me.” And in this meeting with Jesus we indeed meet the ever-alive Messiah who changes our hearts now in the present. And later, as we again face some guilt or shame we are able to go back to this moment of looking into Jesus’ eyes and receiving his pardon, his invitation to a new chapter.
The challenge now is for you to imagine such a story. Take any gospel story, and ask yourself questions about how the main character got to this place.
You may also like to imagine what happened to the person after their encounter with Jesus.
If you do not see yourself as a writer you can think through the story while you draw (or scribble), just allowing the colours to be part of the story you are telling yourself.
Make sure you don’t talk about the person. Rather, be the person. Use the pronoun I, not he or she or they. Identifying in this way brings us much closer to the experience.
It is not that we are pretending we know the truth of what happened. Rather, every time we make up a story we are bringing that hidden part of ourselves into the presence of Jesus, the Living One, asking for transformation and healing. And the Healing Spirit responds to our need, touching and transforming that part of us, that memory, as we consciously bring this part of our being into his presence.