By: Rev. Jonathan Rice
Having been raised in an Assemblies of God church since birth, having an encounter with God through prayer was nothing new. Sunday nights were spent around the church altar interceding for God’s presence in my daily life. Weekends once a month our local youth groups would gather for worship, and my summers were spent at Youth Camp where we would join nightly for extended times of prayer. I was weaned on the spiritual gifts and the moving of the Holy Spirit. Years later I was ordained as a minister in the Assemblies of God and started working in full time College Ministry. It wasn’t until I came to work at Georgetown 6 years ago, however, that I heard anything about St. Ignatius or Ignatian Spirituality.
During my first year on campus I quickly realized I was behind the curve on this core component of the campus culture. After a quick Google search, I downloaded “A Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” by Fr. James Martin, S.J. on my kindle and began my journey. What started out as an academic attempt to speak the vernacular of the campus, led me on a path which deepened my relationship with God and brought me back to those extended times around the altar as a child.
It wasn’t until I received an email from Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J. a few years later that reignited the embers of my desire for Ignatian prayer that lay dormant. I was being invited to participate in a variation of the Exercises that St. Ignatius developed called the 19th annotation. Instead of 30 days away, this prayer retreat was lived out in daily life, and over the course of 10 months. Annually at Georgetown, around 13 Faculty and Staff participate in this retreat together, and that year I was privileged to be one of them.
Instead of discovering a different approach to God, I learned familiar exercises that built upon the foundation of my faith and helped me to become a better Pentecostal. I didn’t abandon my childhood faith, but rather through the Exercises of St. Ignatius I discovered it anew. As I prayed over passages I had heard since Sunday School Lessons I discovered new depth to familiar scriptures.
During the first section of prayer, referred to as the First Week, I reflected on the unconditional love of God and my own sinful nature. When faced with the prospect of praying year by year through my life and remembering my own mistakes, I prepared to be depressed. Surprisingly, instead of feeling regret and condemnation for my sin, I felt completely safe. I felt fully known, yet fully loved. For the first time in my life, I was even able to look back on some of the darkest days of my youth and see the hand of God at work.
As I continued into the Second Week, I prayed through the life of Christ and walked with Him alongside the disciples hearing Him teach, watching Him heal, and being amazed at this miracle worker. I’ll never forget what it was like to feel present at the feeding of the 5,000. I was shocked that I didn’t find myself standing with Jesus and the disciples but rather in the midst of the crowd. I felt this overwhelming desire to be noticed and to get closer to the companions of Jesus. It was as if I thought I was being overlooked or forgotten about. The moment that thought came to my mind, I knew that it was how I was truly feeling about my life and my relationship with God. One of the easy traps to fall into when working in full time ministry is the feeling that I work for God’s approval. This had unintentionally crept into my thinking over the years, until this profound moment in prayer. It was as if Jesus looked directly at me and said “I’ve never once forgotten you”.
I was dreading praying over Christ’s death in the Third Week.What struck me most was not his excruciating pain, but afterwards, visualizing his lifeless body. The desperation of Holy Saturday was a completely new experience for me. It’s far too easy to jump ahead to Sunday morning, but as I lingered in the hopeless day the disciples couldn’t skip, I learned something powerful about pain. I learned that the reason placating statements provide so little comfort to those in the midst of suffering is that pain can’t be sped up; it has to be experienced.
Serving as a Campus Pastor at Virginia Tech during one of the worst school shootings in our nations history on April 16, 2007, I saw firsthand the catastrophic effects of pain and suffering. Students didn’t heal on a timetable, and there were no easy answers that helped them move forward. Their heartache was messy and impacted different students in different ways. I couldn’t help but return to those memories when I prayed through the empty cross and occupied tomb. I thought that new normal would never end, but over time, somehow I did see the dark knight of their souls break forth into dawn.
Spending close to a year praying for the same amount of time each day, in the same spot, in a similar way makes you keenly aware of small differences. I distinctly remember sitting my kitchen chair, where I prayed every morning and visualized Jesus sitting across from me. It wasn’t until I had been praying through the Fourth Week for a few days that I noticed something different. In my mind I saw Jesus lean forward and put his arms on the table, and for the first time ever, I saw healed scars in the center of His wrist.
I didn’t know why this detail meant so much. It’s not as though I’d never thought about his nail scars, I had just never thought about how He is still scarred. I always knew Jesus had become a man in the incarnation, but I’d never realized that in His own resurrected way, He still has a body. He has been forever changed by this experience as a human. In this beautiful way, Jesus’ decision not to shed His mortal coil seems an even bigger sacrifice than even laying down His life.
As a Pentecostal, I kept waiting for a mention of the Holy Spirit that never quite came. It wasn’t until my spiritual director shared with me Ignatius’ run in with the Inquisition that I fully understood his careful omission. In a hypersensitive culture, Ignatius made the painful decision to not emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit for fear of persecution from his own church.
It wasn’t until the first (of two) mentions of prayer to Mary that I felt uncomfortable. I was excited about the new terms and the refreshing way to encounter scripture, but as a Pentecostal this was something I didn’t think I could do with complete integrity. As he did so many times when meeting with my spiritual director, I was reassured that I was still walking the right path. He said, “Ignatius was practical, if it wasn’t working for someone, he would adapt. How about this, Jon, anytime it says Mary, just pray to the Holy Spirit”. I knew then he was speaking my language.
What fascinates me now is the prospect of applying these principles to more passages. Specifically, the beautiful narrative of the book of Acts is ripe for Ignatian Contemplation. Imagine the descending of the Holy Spirit, the stoning of Stephen, or Saul on the road to Damascus. Such rich stories would make the time of the early church come alive. It’s often hard to relate to disciples who could physically see Jesus, but a young church that is reliant upon an invisible Holy Spirit sounds much more like my daily prayer life.
What started at an altar as a young man has been developed by spiritual direction, and the incomparable Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. As I pray through Acts personally and hope to put something together to share with others, I can sense the direction of the Holy Spirit and am excited for where He leads me next.
Rev. Jonathan Rice is Director of Residential Ministry at Georgetown University are serves as Assistant Pastor at HTC.us.