The retreat center is located on a hill overlooking a valley tucked between two ridges and encompasses over 250 acres of verdant fields, numerous trees, and a variety of walking paths with shrines and benches on which to sit, read, meditate, pray, sleep or however the Spirit leads. Each day of the retreat I met with a spiritual director who gave me a series of instructions based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a regimen the founder of the Jesuits created to develop the spiritual life of the priests in the order. For many people this setting would have been idyllic, but for me it began to feel confining.
Several years ago I began practicing what I have come to call engaged spirituality . The focus of engaged spirituality is not to withdraw from normal life to meet God, but instead to immerse oneself in it. As I wrote in July 2010 I came to realize that “God was not far off only to be experienced in some mystical transcendence, God was among us to be touched and experienced in the busyness of life.” So I decided to take my retreat off campus and into the city of Reading (pronounced “Redding”) ten miles away.
On that morning, Bruce, my spiritual director, instructed me to use a particular approach to reading Scripture developed by Ignatius in the 16th century in which the reader, using imagination, places him/herself in the Biblical story and seeks to see the story from the inside. As James Martin says in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything the purpose is to “[imagine] yourself in a scene in the Bible…and then take part in it” (p. 145). All four of the passages involved events in the early life of Jesus, and so were quite familiar to me. I drove to the Reading visitor’s center, got a map of the city and then parked my car on South 10th St. near the South Reading Middle School, and began walking around the largely Mexican neighborhood. My adventure with Ignatius-style engaged spirituality began.
For the next four hours I followed a simple pattern. I would stop on the steps of a building and slowly read and think about the assigned passage. Then I would get up and walk for 20 minutes or so, taking in the sights, sounds, smells and feel of the neighborhood and then stop and write down my reflections and observations in a spiral notebook. Often I would sit and simply watch and listen to what was going on around me. In the spirit of the silent retreat, I did not speak to anyone unless they spoke to me. For instance I had a few panhandlers approach me and a couple times folks said something to me as they passed by. Other than that I simply observed and reflected what I saw.
I stopped on the steps of a church to read my first assigned Scripture of the day, which was the story of the birth Jesus in Luke 2. This is where the 4th century Christian philosopher Augustine showed up. Augustine, like Ignatius, developed a unique way of Bible reading. Augustine’s approach was to have the reader recast the story into his/her contemporary context. So as I read the first passage which was Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, I put myself in Mary and Joseph's shoes, but then I imagined what would this birth have looked like had it occurred in this Reading neighborhood. In this neighborhood, where would one go if there "was no room" for a stranger to stay? Where would Mary and Joseph gone to give birth to their son? Would it be an alley somewhere or an abandoned house or the back of the car? I imagined that Mary and Joseph would have felt out of place in this strange town where the folks had a distinctly different accent from the folks in Nazareth. As I reflected on these insights, this passage came alive to me in a new ways. I saw the vulnerability Mary and Joseph must have felt for their baby. I imagined myself holding this newborn child in this strange and vulnerable setting, and wondering, would he survive? What chance did he have? The idea that Jesus "shared our weakness" became very real as I imagined holding the Christ child on that Reading street.
As I walked the streets, I saw young mothers and fathers on the street with their little children. I thought of what it must have been like for Jesus. Perhaps some of these parents were undocumented in ways similar Mary, Joseph and Jesus, not fully accepted, yet struggling to survive. The young parents appeared to love their children, but also knew their futures were difficult. The kids were happy and playful, as were their parents, but if they were like Joseph, Mary and Jesus, underneath there probably was a great deal of confusion, fear and uncertainty.
I continued walking and paused on the steps of an old Methodist Church, a Spanish language Pentecostal church and a Habitat for Humanity project, I repeated the exercise with the other assigned Scriptures. I thought of Jesus at age 12 years (Luke 2. 41-50) in a church somewhere talking to elders while his folks frantically searched all over Reading for three days looking for their missing child, who when he was found seemed non-plussed and unconcerned with his mother's question - "Why did you do this to us?" What confusion and terror the parents must have felt, wondering what was becoming of this boy, who seemed so sure of himself. As a parent I wondered about the elders who were talking to Jesus? Didn’t they wonder where the boy’s parents were? Where did Jesus eat and sleep the four days he was "missing?" Looking all over Reading only to find him a church? How frantic they must have been.
At another point I imagined John the Baptist baptizing Jesus (Matthew 3) by opening a fire hydrant on the street. As the water shot out in a long wide spray flooding the street, I could see in my mind’s eye children dancing and screeching with delight in the spray, while firefighters tried to close it off and shoo the people away. There in the midst of this chaos I saw Jesus come up to John and say “Let’s do this,” as John poured water on his head. And then “boom” everything stopped as a voice said “This is my Son, listen to him.”
The last Scripture of the day was the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert by Satan (Matthew 4). When Satan offered Jesus the power to turn stones into bread, I pondered what would the "stones" in Reading be like. It came to me that Jesus might recognize that some of the homeless folks, the addicts, the unemployed, and the lonely elderly I passed as I walked might feel as listless and useless as stones, and not like bread that could nourish others. Wouldn't Jesus instantly be tempted to give them meaning and a sense of their own value? But Jesus would know they were not stones,that in fact they were "bread" - they were people with purpose, inherent worth, meaning and power; they had simply forgotten, or perhaps never known, they had that kind of value. Jesus would not have to "change them " but rather would want to help them see their own beauty and inner strength, to see that they were not "stones" but nourishing "bread" for others. The second temptation - jumping off a high place - was easy to imagine and I could see Jesus scaling one of the many church spires while a crowd gathered on the street wondering if he would jump. In that neighborhood such a spectacle could have easily been something to talk about; but Jesus resisted the urge to be such a spectacle.
The third and final temptation (where Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world) required that I get in my car and drive up a large hill above the city overlooking the entire region for 20-30 miles. I imagined Satan offering Jesus power over all that he could see in exchange for paying homage to him instead of God. From on top of that hill I felt the emptiness of power corrupted by greed and self-centeredness, things we see nearly every day in corporate and political realms. I realized if Jesus had gone with Satan's ploy, his "power" would have been instantly corrupted and therefore made destructive. Imagining myself in the place of Jesus, I could sense that domination power would not significantly tempt him, a power that was "high and lifted up" designed to control people. Instead, I imagined Jesus would want to be back on the street and in the neighborhood with folks, sharing their struggles, hearing their stories, and being with them in their lives; leading by serving rather than by dominating, exercising his ability to help people see their inherent beauty and God-given power. In the end the Jesus I saw in Reading was not a typical power broker, but one who came to "dwell among us" as the gospel writer John so clearly reminds us.
As I drove back to the retreat center late that afternoon, I was spiritually energized in a way I had not been in a long time. By taking the Bible reading approaches of Ignatius and Augustine with me into the city, I saw Jesus among the good folks of Reading in a fresh and renewing way. I left the city that day with a deep sense of connection to the people there and the presence of Jesus among them. On that day through silent observation and active imagination I saw,heard and felt the presence of Jesus in a Reading neighborhood in and around South 10th St.