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Learning to Feel with God

May 01, 2018

Every year, Resurrection hosts a nine-month course called the Transformation Intensive which is based on the spiritual exercises of a 16th century saint, Ignatius of Loyola. The course engages participants in a rigorous practice of individual and corporate prayer designed to help them be transformed by Christ as they encounter him in the Gospel narratives.
Our Youth Pastor Will Chester took part in the 2015-2016 Transformation Intensive class and offers the following thoughts on how the course lived up to its name of being truly transformational.


I have feelings. Not a very profound statement, but it's been profound to me during my time in the Transformation Intensive. Let me explain.

My emotional life is even keel--infrequent highs, infrequent lows, steady. So it was with some trepidation that I learned that the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises upon which the Transformation Intensive (TI) is based rely heavily on the emotional life of the participant as a way of connecting to God. I'd considered my emotional stability to be a strength for many years. Certainly it had never gotten in my way while during page after page of historical-grammatical exegesis in seminary. But the Spiritual Exercises were asking me to be less of a scientist, more of an artist, when it came to reading God's Word. If my emotions were to be some of my primary tools, I was going to have to do some digging to see what I could find.

Early on, our TI materials instructed us to do something called "Immanuel Journaling" where we'd take a God's-eye-view of ourselves and write what He sees looking down at us. It was an uncomfortable practice at first--none of us want to put words in God's mouth--but we were assured that the point was simply to listen for what God might be saying over our situation. Thinking about my emotional world from the first-person perspective had resulted in quick dead-ends in the past. Taking a third-person perspective was a bit more removed, and because of that--especially for an emotional newbie like myself--more productive. Far from my fears that I would somehow put words in God's mouth, I found myself doing the very work of theology that I had been trained to do during seminary--thinking God's thoughts after him--only the subject was myself.

Slowly, through the weeks, I began to understand that my emotional steadiness was as much a wound as it was a strength. I'd been taught to mask my emotions in order to keep the peace. There's goodness in that, sometimes, but it stunted me. I could relate to the God of the Epistles; the God of the Psalms and Prophets was more perplexing. I'd never had the boldness to speak to him with the emotional range of the Psalmists, not because of my strong faith, but because of my fear that he might leave me if I did. I didn't know that about myself before TI. I do now.

Through this process, I felt myself becoming more... human. Instead of feeling like an even-keel emotional robot, I began noticing what was happening under the surface: anxiety... fear... loneliness... frustration. I found that as my emotional vulnerability became a path to intimacy with God, it also became one for my closest relationships.

The Gospels took on new light. For years I'd practiced a particular method of reading the bible, asking questions of language choice by the authors and rehearsing the historical setting in which the texts were set and later received. In TI we looked at the same texts differently. Our method was contemplative, placing ourselves in the story as a disciple, sick person, or onlooker. I didn't leave my theological training at the door--my understanding of what the biblical author intended served as imaginative guard rails--but instead of solely engaging my mind to look for the principle, theology, or narrative arc, I used my emotions to engage with the characters in the story. I imagined myself experiencing miraculous healings as if I were right there. I spent time with Mary on the sidewalk of my imagination where Gabriel first appeared to her and then later in the manger as she held Jesus for the first time. Mary became more than just an article of the creed--she became a person with her own fears, her own faith--and the more I understood her flesh and blood humanity by imagining her emotions, the more I understood Jesus' flesh and blood too, as one born of a woman--just like me. The more human Jesus became, the more moved I felt by his acts of mercy, the more I valued his friendship to me.

I've always believed that prayer and scripture reading are central to the Christian life and that they should be transformative exercises, not simply rote practices or mere intellectual endeavor. What TI showed me was that I had tools for these exercises that I wasn't engaging. Learning to feel--and to feel with God--has refreshed my life in new and wonderful ways.

Will Chester
Youth Pastor
will@churchrez.org

A Couple's Transformation Testimony

June 12, 2017

Paul and Judy Sather took part in the Transformation Intensive this past year, and shared their testimonies in the final group gathering this spring. I asked them to write their stories out so that everyone could hear both a male and female perspective on the Ignatian exercises.

Judy writes:

Having just gone through the Transformation Intensive, I can honestly say that it was just that.  Transforming.  And intense.  I am beyond grateful that our church offers this opportunity!
Having grown up in the church, I’ve been involved in and even led many groups… youth groups, couple’s groups, women’s groups, just to name a few.  But this group, this was different.  My husband and I took this class at the same time, and in looking back, we have both found this to be the most impactful and growth-producing group that we’ve ever been in.  And like other life-changing events (marriage, raising a child, etc.), it’s difficult to describe.  It’s a unique experience for each person.  Nonetheless, let me share a few thoughts from my experience.  
 I came to the group with a hopeful heart.  I was looking for an infusion of energy and depth in my relationship with God.  Hungry for more.  But having been a “student” of spiritual formation through various personal spiritual disciplines and over 10 years of spiritual direction, I was also not sure if there was anything new to be offered.  And, as an introvert at heart, I was also wary about the small group portion of the experience.  
8 months later I can say that God used each element of the class to bring about transformation.
So how have I changed?  Most prominently I see changes in two major areas – my prayer life, and my relationship to Jesus, specifically in relation to his humanity.  
 Prayer, for me, has taken on a new boldness.  A new courage.  I found myself, early in the class, asking Jesus to let me accompany him very closely on his earthly journey.  I wanted to be right by his side the whole time.  To experience what he experienced. To experience, as closely as possible, what it was like for him. To let myself be changed, in whatever shape or form that may take.  What a wild ride I found that to be! 
One of our early large group prayer exercises involved an imaginative prayer exercise.  We were to close our eyes and see ourselves scuba diving deep into water and finding a treasure chest. We were asked to open the treasure box and look inside.  At this point in the exercise the high-expectation and self-critical part of my brain said “Oh great – now I’m supposed to find some amazing item. The pressure’s on.” I started giving up right then and there, deciding that maybe this whole imaginative prayer thing is NOT going to work for me.  But as soon as I gave up and let go of the experience, my imagination turned back to the opened treasure chest; this time there was something there. Two human hands, reaching out to me.  I knew who they belonged to. I gazed at them for a while, then reached out. I put my hands in those hands.  And as I did, the hands of Jesus gently pulled me right into the treasure chest, and all the way through it to other side. I came out the other side into the aqua blue water, and I was surrounded by light.  This was the beginning of a very personal experience accompanying Jesus through his journey on this earth. Joining him from birth, to his hidden growing-up years, to his ministry, to the passion and resurrection.  And those hands came to symbolize, for me, my deepening relationship to Jesus.
There were many memorable moments along the way. At Jesus’ birth, I imaginatively entered the scene and kneeled by Mary as she went through the pains of childbirth. I wiped her forehead as I was ministered to her by her incredibly deep faith through this difficult and exhilarating time.  It was as though I was even able to minister to her a bit, as I comforted her through the contractions.  
 Weeks later in the journey, I remember Jesus climbing a mountain to teach his disciples.  There again were his hands, reaching down to mine as he asked me to join him. To come close and hear this sermon from the mount.  “Learn from me,” he said. “This is for you.”
And later, at Gethsemane, I had to let go of those hands as he told me that he had to pray alone with his father God.  My part?  Watch and Pray.  It was a foreshadowing for me of what was to come, as I would have to release of those hands to his death.  Those hands that I had grown so accustomed to touching and holding were eventually lifeless.  At this point in our TI journey, our large group time included a “visio divina” prayer experience in which we meditated on, and placed ourselves into, the scene of a painting of the passion.  I instinctively found myself reaching down to touch those hands that had been reaching to the very depths of me, only to find them lifeless with blood on them.  My blood.  Our blood.
But then, the resurrection! There I was, with the disciples, in a darkened room.  Feeling their confusion about what was next.  It was all playing out so differently than ever imagined.  And then Jesus himself came right through the wall – and stood in front of me.  That look! Any doubts I had just melted away.  He showed me those hands and said I could touch them.  Suddenly I didn’t need that physical touch of our hands.  It had become SO much more.  We started laughing with joy and embraced. 
Those hands, all along the way, drew me in.  Into the humanity of Jesus.  Into the cross.  Into the divinity of our triune God.  It’s a centeredness and a unity that is grace upon grace upon grace.        

Paul writes:

 My experience with the Transformation Intensive also began with a mixture of skepticism and hope. I had also grown up in the church and had been in many Bible studies, couples groups, men’s groups, Promise Keepers, etc. having led a number of them. Having read the Bible through cover to cover numerous times I felt very familiar with Scripture and its teaching and application. And having gone to church for as long as I have, being in the somewhat older crowd, I felt that I had more than enough teaching on various passages, so that there wasn't much that would be new.  In short, I was cynical, self-sufficient, and proud. Yet in spite of those obstacles I maintained a sense of hope and expectation that God would somehow connect with me in a deep way. Well, as Ephesians states, he did immeasurably more than all I could ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us. His power was clearly at work in us, individually and corporately. The group experiences were as essential as the individual hours of prayer.
I'm sure there is no way that I could have predicted how powerful the Transformation Intensive experience would be for me. I think it would be best described with a metaphor. At the end of the Intensive, we were asked to choose a particular object that symbolized our experience. I chose a particular egg.  Here is a picture:
 
 
As you can see it looks like an ordinary egg carved out of wood. This symbolized my expectations in a nutshell, (or in an eggshell).  I expected it to be nothing out of the ordinary, nothing uncommon, nothing that you wouldn't find in your own refrigerator, for instance. That was how I approached the experience.  
However, this particular egg is not what it seems; it is a kaleidoscope!  So, if you bring it close and look deeply into it, what you see is simply amazing.  It is essential that you point it toward the light, and when you do, you see an amazing design.  If you turn it, it changes into something equally as beautiful and unexpected. You never know what beautiful design is coming next. 
Another very important aspect of the kaleidoscope is that it is actually made up of brokenness. It is essentially broken pieces of glass combined with light and shaped with prisms to create something beautiful that is constantly unfolding.
That was my experience of the Transformation Intensive. it was not at all what it seemed on the surface, a journey through the exercises of St. Ignatius over a period of months.  In the hours of prayer and journaling that I spent in the presence of God, I found a clearer deeper sense of my own brokenness and even more clear and deep sense of God’s grace and mercy embodied in the choice of sending Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins, for my sin.
Using imaginative contemplation to walk through the birth, life, and death of Jesus brought me to a place of understanding and experience of Christ in his humanness.  What an unexpected and amazing design!   I felt an understanding of his connection with me in a fuller deeper way, in both his humanity and in his divinity. Watching his interaction with the Father and the Spirit also transformed my understanding and connection with the other two persons of the Trinity.  
An essential part of that process was the large group and small group experiences. Listening to my other group members, I found a richness of experience and a deeper understanding of each passage of Scripture we were working with.  Alongside of that were the probing questions of our spiritual director and other group members that drew us together, closer to one another and closer to God.
The whole thing was nothing I had expected.  It really is difficult to put it into words, the effect that it has had on me. I was truly deeply transformed.  I would recommend it to anyone.