The grace we are asking of God: a deeply felt awareness of how God in all of history and most powerfully in the Word made flesh draws us into the unfolding of the mystery of his love which always is extravagant and which is always seeking to save us. We desire that in doing this we enter into a process of healing that we might love Jesus and follow him more intentionally, completely, and wholeheartedly.
Horizons of the Heart is inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.
Offer your prayer to God, desiring that in every way it will give him glory. I pour myself out in worship. You could use a few lines from the following Psalms if this helps you enter into prayer:
Ask of God what you think you need. (It could be later that God will show what you truly need and what you should be asking for, but begin now where you are.)
The flight into Egypt
Over several periods of prayer, linger imaginatively over the events narrated in Matthew 2:13-18.
The Holy Family were settled in a house (we know this because the Gospel says the Magi found Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus in a house). Since everyone of the tribe and lineage of Judah had returned to Bethlehem for the census, both Mary and Joseph may have found relatives there that they could stay with in the weeks directly after Jesus birth.
One night, Joseph is awoken by a dream. An angel prods him awake, telling him to leave right then and there and flee to Egypt. He had to run, waste no time, if he was to save the Child’s life.
One could imagine Mary and Joseph’s hopes to take Jesus back to Nazareth. After all, their home was there, a home totally prepared for Jesus’ arrival. Family and friends would have been a comfort. Joseph’s workshop and tools and unfinished jobs were in Nazareth.
But no, God’s plans were otherwise.
“Get up, now, take the Child and flee in the middle of the night through the desert to another country and wait there until you are told it is safe to return.”
Joseph could have thought of at least a couple reasons why this might not be such a good idea. It was night. It was dangerous. They had never been there before. He didn’t have his tools and had no way of making a living. It would be hard. The child was just born.
We don’t know exactly how old Jesus would have been when Joseph shook Mary awake and urged her to gather everything quickly and come with him. Together they left the house of their guest and vanished into the night.
Imagining Yourself Present
Over several days, imagine yourself present to this story of intrique, faith, and sorrow.
In Gospel contemplation you attempt to grasp something of Jesus’ human existence and as you do this, the Spirit begins to grasp you in your existence. This prayer gives us contact with Jesus, the risen Lord, who is present now, influencing my life now. The historical events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, his healing and his preaching, transcend time and place. The THEN of Jesus’ life becomes NOW. It is important to allow oneself to become part of the story-event.
I found myself drawn to be the woman who had hosted the Holy Family in her house.
I watched them as they gathered their things to leave. “We need to leave now,” Joseph was saying quickly as he looked around for anything they had left behind. Something about a message of angels and keeping Jesus safe.
Quietly I watched them leave. Wondering. A couple hours later I was awakened again. Thundering horses. Yelling. Screaming. The banging of doors. Torches illuminating the streets. Babies crying. I ran to the window and my heart froze. There, banging on my door, was my daughter with her lifeless son in her arms.
“We need to leave now,” Joseph was saying. Something about a message of angels and keeping Jesus safe.
Not knowing how to find the Christ Child, King Herod gave the disastrous order to kill all the children that were in Bethlehem and its surroundings from two years old and under. This type of cruelty was typical of Herod who eliminated any who opposed him, including his wife and two sons.
Herod hoped that among these children would be killed the child who was the Messiah. How many children were killed? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “The Greek Liturgy asserts that Herod killed 14,000 boys (ton hagion id chiliadon Nepion), the Syrians speak of 64,000, [and] many medieval authors of 144,000.” Since the population of Bethlehem would have been about 300 people, that would put the number of children two years old or younger at about six or seven. However, the number of people who had travelled to Bethlehem for the census could have meant that the population at that time had grown much larger.
Jesus’ earthly life was bracketed by the maneuvering of two power-players to keep their grip on positions of power—King Herod and Pontius Pilate, the vacillating governor.
I spent a lot of time in prayer, as this woman who had hosted Joseph and Mary who had escaped the murder of their son through God’s intervention and who know rocked her own daughter who wailed in agony over the loss of her own baby boy.
This passage from the Gospel of Matthew is about faith all the way around. The faith and sacrifice of Joseph, the trust and willing cooperation of Mary, the struggle of every member of Bethlehem as they watched the Roman soldiers kill their youngest boys.
Imagining the Gospel events in the present
Over time, allow these stories in the gospel of Matthew to become current as if Mary and Joseph were fleeing with the Child Jesus to escape death. Sit with the many mothers mourning the loss of their children…. So many mourning broken dreams, a future without promise, a present in which they cannot flourish because of situations outside their control.
Sit beside fathers and mothers trying to bring their families to safety. Pray with those who are struggling to understand what God is asking of them in difficult situations.
In Gospel Contemplation, Ignatius takes advantage of the way in which spiritual growth, like so many other aspects of maturing that we experience, takes place primarily when our affectivity is engaged. It is the shift in one’s deeper emotions and feelings that leads to a change in one’s behavior. We reach these deeper levels through metaphor, image, and symbol—the work of the imagination.
Observing attractions and resistance
Notice any interior reactions that you experience: comfort, discomfort, being lifted up, struggle, joy, sadness….
Observe the actions, words, emotions, sensitivities, attitudes of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus and to which of them you feel more attracted. Which of them arouse more negative feelings or resistance? Return to aspects of these meditations that seem more personally meaningful.
This story raises more questions than it answers, immerses us into pain and sorrow and vulnerability. We stand in awe of God himself made to flee before the pompous vanity of one of his creatures. Yet even this seems to be unable to destroy God’s plan of unfolding love and mercy.
Entering the Mystery of the story
As you begin to enter the mystery of the story more deeply, you will begin to see or hear or touch, the pain, the mystery of your own life. You will enter into the event and interact more deeply. Flee with Joseph and try to let him teach you why he left without a word, why he trusts even what he can’t understand. Sit beside Mary as she longs for home even as her little one begins to grow up in Egypt. Watch them as they face fear, danger, suffering, struggle, loneliness. Little by little you will become more present to the mystery and the mystery will be present to you.
As you become more and more involved in the event of Jesus’ mystery that you are contemplating, your life and your choices are affected. You find yourself changing and desiring to change.
Conversing as with a friend
Continue in quiet—or even silent—intimate conversation with Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Ask them what is the grace that you should be praying for. Beg this grace of the Father. Then beg this grace of the Son, your Savior and Shepherd. Finally, beg for this grace from the Holy Spirit who is the source of all holiness.
If you wholly lived this grace that you are begging for, what would your life look like? Your relationships? Your prayer? The way you work? The way you love? The way you serve? What about you would make you the most happy?
Ask Mary, Joseph and Jesus to show you one specific gift they wish to give you. Receive it and remain in stillness and quietly relaxed presence under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Reviewing the graces of prayer
When you finish praying, write down the main gifts and discoveries from this time of intimate contemplation. What is one concrete thing you can do to solidify these gifts in your life?
Image credit: The Flight into Egypt (1647-1650) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo via Wikimedia