A swing and a miss, and then a clean base hit (imho) with Ignatian contemplation …

Ruins of Roman temple and grotto of Pan at Caesarea Philippi (Wikimedia Commons).

What you’re about to read is an experiment. Or, to use another metaphor, a test drive. Call it a test-drive in that time-traveling DeLorean made famous (at least to my generation) in the Back to the Future movies. Metaphors aside, I’m trying out a Jesuit meditation technique that involves using your imagination to place yourself in a scene from scripture and — basically — seeing what happens.

I’m trying it out this time on one of the most crucial — and, in some ways, strangest — passages in the New Testament: St. Peter’s confession, when he says Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus says in return Peter is the rock on which he will build his church, and goes on to predict his death and resurrection. Basic stuff. What’s strange about it is the setting. It takes place not in Galilee but in a Greco-Roman city called Caesarea Philippi, the capital of a neighboring Roman province and the site of a shrine dedicated to the Greek fertility god Pan.

So there’s a lot to unpack here. But first, the method.

It’s variously known as called Ignatian contemplation (after St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the order), or creative prayer. (I’ve tried it several times since I’ve been taking spiritual direction, with varying degrees of success, and I’ve blogged about it several times under the heading “creative prayer.”) It’s a lot like lectio divina, the classic spiritual discipline of meditating on scripture, but it’s almost like plotting a movie scenario. Fr. James Martin SJ, who is probably the author whose work I follow most avidly, explained it like this in an interview with America magazine, of which he’s editor-at-large:

Well, I’ll use contemplation in the broadest sense. So first, just try imagining yourself in God’s presence. Or sitting beside Jesus. And enjoy it. Then see what happens. What kind of emotions, feelings, memories, desires, insights arise? What might be God trying to tell you with these experiences? Or perhaps God just wants you to enjoy being in the divine presence. Or if you’re a more imaginative person, why not try Ignatian contemplation? Try to imaginatively “place” yourself in a scene from the Gospels. Ask yourself, “What do I see? What do I hear? What do I feel, taste and smell?” And again, see what comes up. …

So, with this in mind and taking the strangeness of the setting into account, I tried it on Jesus’ encounter with Peter at Caesarea Philippi, since it’s the pericope for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (in the Lutheran way of numbering the weeks). It went like this:

Take 1 — Jesus speaks of the cross and the Kingdom

P. The Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew the 16th Chapter.
C. Glory to you, O Lord.
After Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16), Jesus reveals the ultimate purpose of his ministry. These words prove hard to accept, even for a disciple
whom Jesus has called a “rock.”
From that time on, [after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah,] Jesus began to show
his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter
took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen
to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block
to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose
it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain
the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will
repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who
will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
P. The gospel of the Lord.
C. Praise to you, O Christ.

So, picking up where I left off the last time, I’m a nephew or cousin of Peter’s and Andrew’s, tagging along with Jesus and the disciples.

After walking all day up from Bethsaida, we reach the Roman outpost at Caesarea Philippi, with its temple dedicated to the Roman emperor and a grotto where the Greek goat-god Pan hangs out. Jesus and Peter get into a conversation, and Jesus tells Peter he’s the rock — petra in Greek — on which he will build his church. The story continues in my voice as a 15-year-old from Capernaum:

Church? I’m not sure what this church business is all about. The word he’s using is ekklesia, and I know the word. We all know a little Greek. If we didn’t, we couldn’t sell our catch to the merchants from Sepphoris and Tiberias. It’s like a group, an assembly. But we’ve already got an assembly at the synagogue in Capernaum, and the Romans assemble at the garrison. So I don’t know what Jesus means by it here. He’s pointing to that Roman temple over there by the cliff. So maybe we’re going to kick the Romans out of lower Galilee and set up a new ekklesia. We could sure use one …

But now he’s talking about hard times coming, and going down to Jerusalem and losing our lives in order to … OK, I can see how that could happen, if we’re going to get rid of the Romans … and now, Peter’s talking to him. Oh, no, God forbid! he’s saying. You’re not gonna get killed, he’s saying. And Jesus gets right back in his face … says it’s Satan talking, not Peter, get with the program, buddy, so Peter kind of wilts and Jesus goes on talking — he’s raising his voice now — and he’s telling us we’re gonna go down to Jerusalem and take up a cross … ouch! I don’t like the sound of that at all … and we’re gonna lose our life in order to save it, and

And what’s this?

The son of man is going to come down with his angels in glory. That’s the Messiah, isn’t it? And — yes, there’s going to be a new government … and, yes again, it’s going to be the kingdom that the Messiah brings in … and it’s, it’s going to be in our lifetime. Well, this sure isn’t what I signed up for, but … isn’t this is what John the Baptist was talking about when cousin Andrew went off with him that time? And …

OK, I can see it. Sometimes you just have to take a risk. Fishing’s a gamble, too. You go out there, and a storm might blow up at any time, but you still go out … and sometimes it’s just like Peter and Andrew say, in bad weather when nobody else is going out, that’s when you get the best price at the fish market in Tiberias. Lose your life, at least risk it, to save it …

But if I’m in my persona, this 15-year-old fisherman from Bethsaida, I’m missing something important about Jesus. In fact, I’m missing the most important thing of all about Jesus. Let’s try again, with a new epigraph, and take it from the top.

Take 2 — Back to the future in Caesarea Philippi

John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, xxx-xxxi. The earthly Jesus was … a Jewish peasant with an attitude, and he claimed that his attitude was that of the Jewish God. But it was, he said, in his life and in ones like it that the kingdom of God was revealed, that the Jewish God of justice and righteousness was incarnated in a world of injustice and unrighteousness. The kingdom of God was never just about words and ideas, aphorisms and parables, sayings and dialogues. It was about a way of life. And that means it was about a body of flesh and blood. Justice is always about bodies and lives, not just about words and ideas. Resurrection does not mean, simply, that the spirit or soul of Jesus lives on in the world. And neither does it mean, simply, that the companions or followers of Jesus live on in the world. It must be the embodied life that remains powerfully efficacious in this world. … There are not two Jesuses — one pre-Easter and one post-Easter, one earthly and one heavenly, one with a physical and another with a spiritual body. There is only one Jesus, the historical Jesus who incarnated the Jewish God of justice for a believing community committed to continuing such incarnation ever afterward. (Italics in the original.)

So, what’s it like if I go back to Caesarea Philippi with my 21st-century sensibilities intact? Not to mention with a sense of dramatic irony, since I know the rest of the story.

Well, this time I hop in a time-traveling DeLorean like in Back to the Future, or — better yet — click a magic TV remote to a 1950s sitcom like Pleasantville but it changes channels on me and I’m transported instead to a PBS documentary on the life of Christ, and I wind up in Caesarea Philippi. But I’m going to set the dial back a bit so we can take it from the top and I see the whole exchange between Jesus and St. Peter.

At the edge of town, I hop out of the DeLorean and notice Jesus of Nazareth, whom I recognize from a Popular Mechanics article reconstructing what he must have looked like. I walk over to the group he’s with, hoping I’m not too conspicuous in my Chicago Cubs zipfront hoodie. To my relief, no one really notices me. Or if they do, they don’t show any reaction. I stand back a little, but still within earshot.

Jesus is standing in front of a little group of men and a couple of women I take to be his disciples. It’s quite a scene with these Jewish peasants standing there looking up into Caesarea Phillipi, with its white marble temple and local folks milling around even though it’s not the sabbath.

“Who do people say that I am,” Jesus is asking them. John the Baptist, they reply, even though John is dead by now. The prophet Elijah, Jeremiah. Well and good. “But who do you say I am?” They look at their feet, for a l-o-o-o-o-n-g minute, maybe two. Then a burly fellow steps up. Commanding presence. Must be St. Peter. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

So Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon ben Jonah!” He says he’s blessed because his faith comes from God. So Jesus says he’s Peter and on this rock — petra, there’s that pun again — on this rock I will build my church. Jesus kind of looks over toward the Roman temple under that rocky cliff. It’s subtle, but if you know what’s coming, you can’t miss his meaning. And you can see, already, why the Romans are going to swat him down. But does he know this little group is going to grow into a new church? Hard to tell. But he’s talking revolution, that much is quite clear.

“If you want to be my followers, deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.” OK, I’m thinking, this is when they know they’re going to Jerusalem. This is the inflection point. But Peter protests, and Jesus gets angry with him. Peter backs down, and Jesus goes on talking about self-denial and bringing in the kingdom of heaven. But frankly, I’m still more interested in what went before. And what’s going to come a long time after. I hate to admit it, but my mind wanders a little.

When Jesus is finished speaking, my training as a 20th-century reporter (and early 21st-century journalism teacher) kicks in. I step up to him and ask I can have a word with him? I’ve got a couple of questions. He smiles and says sure. (He’s got the kind of smile that can light up a room.) So we step off the side, and …

And my mind goes blank.

I’ve got so many questions! Like, hey, were you born in Bethlehem or Nazareth? Exactly what did you mean by the parable of the talents? Did you really walk on water, or was it just an optical illusion? Does the Holy Spirit proceed from you and the Father, or just from the Father like the Greek Orthodox say? Instead, I hem and haw and ask why just he asked Peter that question, who do you say I am?

So Jesus flashes that incandescent smile again. “That’s a good question,” he says. I’m not sure which question he means, but then he says, “Do you mind if I answer it with a question?” So he’s like every good teacher I’ve ever had, he’s drawing me in. “Who do you say I am?” he asks me. “Would you follow me?”

This isn’t going the way I thought it would … with part of my mind I’m thinking, that’s interesting, he’s using the Socratic method, this guy flat knows how to teach. And the rest of my mind is going, OK, who do I think he is? Would I follow this dude to Jerusalem — and Calvary? I pat the magic TV remote in my pocket and mumble, “in for a dime, in for a dollar.”

Jesus gives me a blank look. I realize if he’s truly incarnate as a first-century Jewish peasant, he isn’t going to know what a dime is or a dollar is.

“In for a shekel, in for a drachma,” I say, and he beams at me. Drawing me in again.

So I mumble something about the kingdom of heaven. That’s interesting, he says. But what do you mean? What about the kingdom? I mumble something about the kingdom of justice and righteousness that Isaiah and Jeremiah preached. Thinking, man, we still have a problem with that 21 centuries later. And Jesus all the while is giving me an encouraging look I well remember from my own teaching days, half smiling and endlessly patient, drawing me out. I’m feeling like a C+ student in his Justice and Righteousness 101 class. ….

And I realize, as I do the meditation, that looking at Jesus is like looking into a mirror.

At least it is for me. St. Athanasius famously said, “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” Well, I have no aspirations to do that. It’s way above my pay grade. But I do think Jesus — God incarnate — took on flesh in order to call me (among about 8 billion others) to be the best human being I can (with some help along the way from the Holy Spirit). And, if I were in Caesarea Philippi shortly before Jesus’ death and resurrection, being willing to go down to Jerusalem with him would be part of the deal.

Or I’d like to hope it would.

[Rev. Sept. 18, 2020]

One thought on “Back to the future (and the righteousness of the God of Israel) with a Jesuit spiritual exercise for Pentecost XIII

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