On Contemplation

My story highlights the power of one’s imagination in encountering Jesus in the gospels…

I am a student of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I learned his methods of prayer when I was invited to pray his Spiritual Exercises, a 10-month discipline of daily prayer that moves one from a deep experience of God’s love and mercy to a profound experience of putting on the mind and heart of Christ. It was during this time I learned to pray with my imagination. Fr. Kevin Obrien SJ tells us that Ignatius was convinced that God can speak to us as surely through our imagination as through our thoughts and memories and experiences. 

In the Ignatian tradition, praying with the imagination is called contemplation. It is an active way of praying that engages the mind and heart and stirs up thoughts and emotions and is especially suited to the gospels as we walk with Jesus through his life. This contemplative method allows us to be with Jesus in a present way, rather than historical way, and to allow the Holy Spirit to reveal to us that which we are to know.

We are encouraged to apply all our senses as we enter the gospel scene. Ignatius explains that we first just watch and listen, but he tells us “Don’t get too abstracted: hug the tree the people in the Gospel story stood under or sit where they were sitting. Or feel the yearning that the Rich Young Man felt? Or consider, did Thomas pull his hand back when Jesus put it in his side? Did you? It helps to see the Gospel scene as a movie looking around to see the entire scene. Then, become part of the scene. You might take a role or just notice where you are standing in relation to Jesus. What are the smells, the sounds, what do you see and feel on your skin, is there a taste. This allows one to truly enter in and encounter Jesus. When you take your place in the story, it is no longer a story of others encounter but yours uniquely.

I was in my early 30’s and joined a small group at my church to pray with some scriptures that I now know were part of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. At that time, I was just learning how to reflect on the scriptures and experience the Spirit moving within me in order to know what God wanted me to know. I learned to trust the words, the phrases, the felt sense of being in the gospel scene as the prompt of the Holy Spirit. I was being taught the Ignatian contemplation.

For most of the group time, I had no trouble putting myself in the scene. Then the story of the raising of Lazarus was the assigned Scripture. The instructions were that I was to be Lazarus. So, I read the Scripture, first watched what was happening, then read the scripture again and put myself in the scene and I took Lazarus’ place. I laid in the tomb. I felt the bindings that were wrapped around me, the inability to move. The tomb was surprisingly comfortable, not hot, not cold but the smell was damp. I could hear nothing outside. I was suspended in time. I knew I was dead, but I was still aware I was ME. Interestingly I was not afraid… I truly felt quite safe. And then as the Scripture progressed, I heard deep from within me Jesus say, “Come Out”. But it was impossible for me to move. I had no desire or ability to be released from the tomb I was in. I felt safe and protected there. It was too frightening to respond to Jesus’ command. I could go no further in my prayer at that time, so I dropped out of the group. At some level, I knew this was where the Spirit had revealed to me that I wanted to hide.

There was much going on in my life at that time – three children, my oldest child with a chronic illness and learning disability, some relationship challenges, a full-time stressful job. One day I became intensely angry and the intensity of my anger scared me. I was so afraid of this encounter with my anger and its intensity that I found a therapist. That helped immensely in understanding my early formation.

At 42, I became very sick with cancer and facing my mortality and possible death, I entered spiritual direction. Looking back, it doesn’t surprise me that I got sick. I had made a decision to stay in the tomb and my body was just responding to my decision to be sick and die. I was afraid of dying, not sure that all I had been taught about God, God’s love, forgiveness, salvation was true. It was a time of spiritual crisis as well as physical crisis.

It wasn’t long before I told my spiritual director about the time I prayed with the Lazarus Scripture. This began a many years’ journey for me to begin to pray and explore why I chose to stay in the tomb rather than come out. I was suppressing all emotion but the thought of feeling or expressing it in any way was terrifying to me. My therapy had helped me to understand but not to live in the present moment of thought, feeling and sensation. It felt like I would literally die to face what I had buried.

Every year I prayed with this scripture. I learned that I had been formed to suppress my feelings. I learned that as a child, and a woman, I had been taught to stifle my voice and to not reveal my true self. I presented to the world an image of a wife, mother and successful executive. Through spiritual direction, I began to learn that only through vulnerability, bringing all that I was feeling and experiencing into the light, was there any chance to be whole, happy and alive. Th gospel of John chapter one, verses 4 and 5 reads, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” I went into the darkness with Jesus, and I learned to allow all my feelings, welcome them for the visitors they were and pray with them. I began to wake up.

I was in my early 50′ s praying this Lazarus scripture once again. I had been resurrected in so many ways. Each coming out was a new phase of recognizing the broken and unhealed places in my life. But I still had a visceral sense that I was still bound. The difference now is I wanted the bindings off. I had another lesson to learn.

The truth of my journey was still being revealed in the Lazarus story. I kept asking Jesus to unbind me. I asked to know what the bindings were. But no answer came. Then one day with this scripture I heard Jesus say to the people that had followed him to the grave site “Unbind him.” And for the first time, I knew Jesus had not done the unbinding. He relied on the community to do the unbinding. What an awakening that was. The direction was to accept the community’s action on my behalf. So how was I to do that. let the community unbind me?

I recognized how isolated I was and how deeply I believed that I was to do this interior work by myself. I had seen a therapist, still seeing my spiritual director and that was all so supportive. But out in my life, I was alone. There was a deep-felt sense of aloneness that I felt to the core of my being. I wanted to be connected, to be known, to be fully accepted for myself, but I knew that would require more than the face I put on each day that said, “I am fine.”

It was at that time I began to be truthful with others about what I thought and felt. I became vulnerable enough to share my feelings with my husband and a best friend that I felt safe with. I have belonged to a circle of women for 15 years and it was there I opened up to tell the truth of my experience and trust their care. I stopped being with anyone who needed me to be “fine.” I learned to trust that those who loved me could hold space for all of me and not need me to be a certain way for them to feel all right. These safe folks respond in the way that tells me they hear and accept me right where I am. If ever there was a confessional for me it is my husband, my best friend and this circle of women that walk with me.

Isn’t this the great grace of all the ways we experience the sacrament of reconciliation… big S and little s; this graced process of saying who we truly are, a vulnerable, broken, God-needing people who stand on the promise of Jesus who assures us that He is the resurrection and the life each moment. In Jesus is life, and his life is the light of my life. His light shines in my darkness, and my darkness has not overcome his life in me.

Cindy Neely Cindy Neely, BSN MS

Associate Spiritual Director

Chapel Hill,North Carolina


Cindy is a Christian laywoman, married, mother, grandmother, and retired nurse leader and healthcare administrator. Cindy received her BSN from WVU in 1972 and her MS in Child Development and Family Resources in 1978. She taught as an instructor for the WVU School of Nursing with a specialty in mental health. She then served as the Vice President of Women and Children’s Hospital and the Chief Quality Officer for Charleston Area Medical Center until her retirement.

Cindy now devotes herself to the ministry of spiritual direction. She defines her spiritual direction practice as accompanying those seeking healing and integration of body, mind, and spirit in order to live from their authentic self the full gospel of their life. Cindy is a cancer survivor. Cindy feels particularly called to accompany those who are survivors of trauma, suffering from physical and mental illness, and those seeking to maintain faithful relationships, including parents of LGBTQ+ children who are struggling with coming to terms with their children’s sexual identity/orientation.

Cindy offers individual and group spiritual direction (in person, FaceTime, Zoom), Ignatian silent-directed retreats, and the 19th Annotation Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life. Cindy also serves as faculty for WVIS and the North Carolina Institute for Spiritual Direction and Formation.