from the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Reflections magazine
by the Rev. Beth Knowlton
I was raised a Quaker. As a child in silent meeting for worship, I would often feel impatient, as if the time would not go quickly enough. I was an active and extroverted child, and so this was not a “natural fit.” In hindsight though, it was deeply formative. It grew within me the desire for silence, listening, and imagination. While I eventually became an Episcopalian, I took many gifts from the Quaker tradition.
In my 20s I started going to a retreat center in Scott, Georgia, for silent retreats. My spiritual director there was trained by the Jesuits, and so I began the Ignatian practice of praying with Scripture. I would meet with my director, tell her what was going on in my life, and then she’d assign me various passages to pray with.
This was a new way to encounter Scripture. Using my imagination I could start to see myself as part of a much larger story. Scripture came alive for me in new ways I had never thought possible. It became deeply important, and I no longer heard it in worship as a distant historical account, but as a living word. The story of God’s people was my story. I was part of it, and the people of the Bible became my family. Our histories were shared and interwoven in ways that are deeply comforting.
When I was 40, I took a 30-day silent retreat so I could walk through the full Spiritual Exercises designed by Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century. During the exercises you immerse yourself in the story of Jesus. There were many gifts of that time. Like most undertakings, I came to this time with mixed motives: pride, a genuine desire to grow closer to God, and hopes for a better understanding of myself. It turns out this really didn’t matter because God was going to use all of these. My consent to be on the journey was the most important.
I discovered as these stories became even more deeply embedded in my prayer that I had to consent more than once during my time. I became deeply grateful as I sensed the prayers of those who walked alongside of me. It was as if all the resources of creation were straining to encourage me. Whether it was signs in nature or kind glances from housemates, I felt supported at every turn. The comfort of walking the journey with the Hebrew children in our daily celebration of the Eucharist made my own wandering feel part of a larger story. When they ask, looking at the provision of manna, “What is it?” I felt the echo of my own questioning.
I saw dark places in myself I wish had not been there. But there was a deep grace in learning that these places had only been hidden to me. The more deeply I encountered them, the more I realized God’s love was beyond my scorecard. There were days that were harder than I could have imagined. It was humbling to realize that even my ability to make it through 30 days was a grace and not a matter of my will.
As I yielded to the rhythm of the Spiritual Exercises, I found a gradual but profound lightening of my burdens. I began to breathe more easily as I encountered the stable foundation of truth. I began to realize that God was offering me a different way of being. I was not required to carry all the weight of my life. I discovered that I had mistaken obedience with obligation. Rather than wanting my grudging assent, God wanted me to be free to joyfully choose obedience. This was not because God needed my obedience, but because it would lead me into a greater place of freedom and peace.
Much of what happened during that time of deeply meditating with Scripture was the shift from what I knew in my head to a felt knowledge deep within. I found a deeper peace and trust in God’s love at my core — for which I continue to be profoundly grateful almost a decade after.
I experienced the Passion of Christ with very different eyes. I had a deep sense of Christ’s love for me and all of us each step of the way. Fully knowing we would run away and desert him, he spent his time teaching and loving us. At the time of the Resurrection, he came offering peace and an invitation to live without fear. There are no recriminations but an invitation to abandonment and joy.
I cannot imagine my own journey without engaging the Scriptures in this way, and I am thankful.
The Rev. Beth Knowlton is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio TX. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org