Live performance by Oak Ridge Boys, Gaither Studios, Alexandria, Ind., 2021

Welp, I guess I talked myself into a new assignment … trying a brand-new Jesuit prayer exercise (new for me at least, as a mainline Protestant who never had much use for organized religion until fairly recently). It’s called an Ignatian “Colloquy.”

It started when I told my spiritual director I’ve always had a hard time with prayer — I think at least part of that may a lingering reaction to things like a Roane County Commission meeting I covered for The Oak Ridger back in Tennessee, and a local pastor called down “a woe” to smite that deliberative body if it issued a beer license for a local convenience store.

(I’d never heard “woe” used as a noun in quite that way before. And I think the license was finally issued without any visitation of plagues, boils, frogs or locusts in Roane County. Even so, the preacher and his flock delayed the meeting for nearly an hour, and their melodramatics gave me one more reason to lose patience with organized religion.)

But it’s been a long time since I was covering county beer board meetings back in East Tennessee — and high time to put old resentments behind me.

Anyway, a week or two ago I let it slip to my spiritual director that I wanted to “move my prayer life along a little bit.” In the conversation that ensued, I said passing that Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit author whom I like a lot, had mentioned an exercise where you “picture Jesus in front of [you], say, sitting in a chair,” and have a conversation with him. That, I allowed, I might like to try sometime.

The upshot? Now I’m researching the Jesuit exercise I mentioned. It’s called it the Colloquy, and it comes from St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. It sounds formidable, but do-able. And when you get down to its basics, it reminds me of a song by another Tennessee preacher, Cleavant Derricks, He was born in Chattanooga and pastored Baptist churches in Knoxville, Jackson and Dayton, as well as Washington, D.C., but he’s best known for writing “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” The chorus sounds a little bit like a Jesuit Colloquy:

Now let us have a little talk with Jesus
And we’ll tell Him all about our troubles;
He will hear your faintest cry
And He will answer by and by.
Now when you feel a little prayer wheel turning
And you will know a little fire is burning
You will find a little talk with Jesus makes it right.

I’ve been hearing that song all my life, but I’d never really listened to the lyrics before. Maybe I should have, especially now that I’m trying to figure out how to go about having a little talk with Jesus myself.

Nor had I ever heard Rev. Derricks’ version before (it’s now available on YouTube). Like so many African American songwriters, he didn’t make as much money from it as the white artists who covered it, including the Stanley Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys and Elvis Presley, who would have been a gospel singer if he’d had his druthers. I’m pretty sure I first heard it by the Oak Ridge Boys.

So the song not only has a Tennessee connection but an Oak Ridge connection.

The veteran country music and Southern gospel quartet got its start in the 1940s as a Knoxville string band that performed for workers at the World War II atomic bomb project in Oak Ridge. Originally named the “Country Cut-Ups,” they soon took the name Oak Ridge Boys and, with various personnel changes over the years, went on to an entertainment career that is still going strong in 2022.

All of which, in kind of a meandering, roundabout way, gives me a new song to learn. And, possibly, work into my spiritual practice.

In the last few months, I’ve been playing the dulcimer by the fireplace at night and experimenting with playing music as a form of prayer — didn’t St. Augustine say “he who sings prays twice?” (At least the quote is attributed to him in the Catholic catechism.) So I’ve downloaded a page scan of Rev. Derricks’ version from the Hymnary.org website, and I’m learning it on the dulcimer. Whether this qualifies as prayer or not, I think it can be entirely spiritual, and I’ve blogged about it HERE, HERE and HERE. Maybe he who noodles around on a musical instrument by the fireplace prays twice.

And, somehow, learning a Southern gospel song with roots in the African-American church down home makes me want to rethink my animosity toward that preacher when was a county government reporter for The Oak Ridger. Musician and educator Sparky Rucker of Knoxville calls these songs with roots in both the Black and white traditions “Affrilachian,” and I’ve blogged about them, too, HERE and HERE.

To make a long and convoluted story short, all of these things are coming together in unexpected ways, especially now that I’m beginning to realize I may never be able to sing in my church choir as long as the SARS-CoV-2 virus is endemic, and I’m willing to follow these vague stirrings wherever they lead me.

To slightly misquote another song, I guess the Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

But all of these memories and musical stirrings came to me later. First, I had to find out what St. Ignatius meant by a Colloquy and how I might use it to jumpstart my prayer life. So I looked it up in my copy of Fr. Martin’s Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything [parentheses in the original] and several websites on Jesuit spirituality.

It’s a far cry from the Country Cut-Ups singing for workers at Y-12 or the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant during World War II. Fr Martin acknowledges “I’ve always found this a difficult way to pray,” but he adds:

… for Ignatius it was a essential part of the Spiritual Exercises: he wanted you to come to know God, and Jesus. Conversation, or what he calls a “colloquy,” was one way of doing this. … At the end of most meditations in the Exercises, Ignatius recommends that we imagine ourselves speaking to Mary, Jesus, and God the Father.

At one point, according to Fr. Martin, Ignatius suggests we imagine “speaking to Jesus on the cross.” I’m not quite ready for that yet. So I looked online for beginner’s guides to the Colloquy, as it is usually known.

One that seems especially helpful to this beginner is by Andy Otto, a married lay minister of Atlanta, who has a website and blog on Jesuit spirituality called God in All Things. (What a good name for a Jesuit website! That’s what Fr. Martin’s Guide is teaching me to do. Even, no doubt, in memories of overly dramatic small-town preachers.) Andy Otto includes a simplified explanation of the colloquy.

“A colloquy,” he says, “is simply an intimate conversation with Jesus or God the Father, Mary, or one of the saints. Ignatius often places this at the end of a prayer mediation but it can happen at any time.” In the fifth week of a multimedia intro to Ignatian spirituality I intend to come back to, he suggests:

  • Use your imagination by placing yourself in a gospel scene or another place that works for you. Then imagine Jesus there. Talk to him.
  • Speak to Jesus like a friend: express your fears or hopes, ask for healing, ask for advice.
  • Remember to listen. How does Jesus respond to me? Trust God to use your imagination. 

Otto’s website, by the way, looks to be valuable overall. On his “About” page, he says it:

[…] seeks to be a resource for those looking to deepen their spiritual life. With posts, podcasts, and audio meditations rooted in the Ignatian tradition, this blog tries to tackle everyday questions about God, discernment, and decision-making. Such an endeavour begins by first being attentive to how God permeates the moments of our exciting and mundane life.

All of this seems eminently practical, which is one of the things I like most about Jesuit spirituality.

***

Another indispensable website is IgnatianSpirituality.com, an online service of Loyola Press of Chicago. In an introductory essay titled “Colloquy: Conversing with God,” Vinita Hampton Wright, who serves as managing editor of the trade books department of Loyola Press, says:

Colloquy can be intimidating for someone whose only prayer has been expressed in traditional prayers memorized and recited. There’s nothing wrong with traditional prayers—they are foundational to the ongoing human conversation with the Divine. They give us words when we’re not sure what to say—remember when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray? That’s when he gave them what we have come to call the Our Father. Jesus knew that God loves us tenderly as a father loves his children. And children can speak freely to a loving father. Jesus wanted his disciples to internalize this wonderful truth about God’s love.

All of this can be daunting, says Wright. And “yup,” I agree. How do I know what to say? “The first few prayers,” Wright suggests, “might be little more than, ‘Lord, I don’t know where to begin. What should I say to you?’” It gets better with practice, she adds, linking to an extended excerpt from the introduction to Fr. William Barry’s  A Friendship Like No Other: Experiencing God’s Amazing Embrace:

[…] just as we get better at talking with people as the relationships grow, after a while, we will be talking with God as with a friend. We speak to a friend with love, affection, respect, and honesty. Sometimes we speak with humor or frustration. It’s all okay. God knows every detail of what we are trying to express through our faltering words.

I’m already working through Fr. Barry’s book on spiritual direction, and it looks like I’ll have to add another to my list.

***

As continued my Google search on keywords “Jesuit spirituality” and “colloquy,” I even found a website that might point me in the direction of the more meditative and rigorous forms of prayer that Fr. Martin mentions and I shied away from at first reading. In an introductory discussion titled “Ignatius and Me: The Triple Colloquy,” spiritual director and workshop leader Becky Eldridge says:

St. Ignatius offers us another way to notice and name the real center
of life, and it is called the colloquy. In this prayer, we are invited to
imagine ourselves at the foot of Jesus’ cross and to pray with three
questions:
1. What have I done for Christ?
2. What am I doing for Christ?
3. What ought I do for Christ?

When I prayed with these three questions during my time of making
the Spiritual Exercises, I was able to see what choices and things I had
done for Christ and what things I had done out of another motivation—
maybe my own ego, my desire to be a people pleaser, or my
fear of conflict. It allowed me to name the areas of my life that were
already being lived out of my relationship with Christ, and I began
to get clear on what specific task Christ was calling me to do.

Thee’s more. It’s called the Triple Colloquy because it involves conversations with Jesus, Mary and God the Father. And Eldridge follows her brief introduction (an excerpt from her book Busy Lives & Restless Souls) with a deeper explanation by her friend and ministry colleague, Stephanie Coualtre Davis. This is all still way above my pay grade theologically, but it’s something I could see myself working up to eventually.

In the meantime, I like the three questions Eldridge cites — well, they’re really St. Ignatius’ questions — and when I start praying the Colloquy myself, I want to work them in. Even if I’m imagining Jesus sitting in a chair across the room from me instead of on the cross.

[Published Feb. 23, 2022]

2 thoughts on “‘Just a little talk with Jesus’: Getting up to speed on a Jesuit prayer exercise — with an assist from the Oak Ridge Boys

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