Sacred Listening by James L. Wakefield

Sacred Listening is an effort to update Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises for the modern reader. Ignatius was a Roman Catholic monk who was heavily involved in the Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century. In this regard, he is known today primarily for two things: the founding of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, and his Spiritual Exercises. The Spiritual Exercises was a method of contemplative meditations using the lectio divina, and were designed as a means of training the Jesuits in the Christian faith.

As such the Exercises are decidedly Roman Catholic. Wakefield’s project, as outlined in this book, is to introduce and train Protestants in their use.

Lectio divina is a method of reading the Scriptures through “imaginatively contemplating scenes [primarily] in the four Gospels” (p. 18) (See “Think on These Things”, Volume 13, Issue 5, “Mystical Youth Ministry” for more on lectio divina). The Exercises start with reading a passage of Scripture slowly, followed by sitting for several minutes in silence. Next, the text is considered using imagination, attempting to imagine what the original scene might have been like. These things are then discussed with the Lord and periodically with a “listener” (cf. pp. 22-23). The bulk of Sacred Listening is an adaptation and guide for the use of Ignatius’ Exercises.

Read uncritically, Sacred Listening is little more than a program for spiritual discipline combined with devotional study of Scripture. Unfortunately, it is much more than that. Besides its evident danger in regard to mystical practices, which opens the door to even more contemplative concerns (see my book This Little Church Stayed Home), there is a subtle but obvious error. Throughout the book Scripture is used in an imaginative way. That is, a passage is read not to gain understanding but to engage the text with imagination. The goal is not cognitive knowledge but emotional involvement. This in itself is troublesome, but to add insult to God’s Word we are offered an alternative—the “resources” of Ignatius (pp. 177-182). These resources include Ignatian “Rules for Discernment,” as well as Ignatian “Principles and Foundation” (“Kingdom Exercises,” “The Two Standards,” “Three Classes of People,” “Three Kinds of Humility,” and a prayer called “Take, Lord”). These resources form the instructional (cognitive) material which is used to guide the participant into “holiness.” The Scriptures are a mere by-product, utilized to engage the imagination. It is Ignatius’ teachings that actually became the foundational material for the adherents of the Exercises. Ignatius’ word, therefore, supersedes God’s Word. We should take seriously the words of Jesus in Matthew 15:9. “But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”

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