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I don’t think I ever really prayed,” a college friend of mine once told me. “I never believed it. I just bowed my head and pretended.” Luc was French and Irish and a cultural Catholic. He played the organ in his small-town church outside Toulouse. These days, he sings in a Latin Mass choir in Paris. But he doesn't believe he's ever really prayed.

When we pray in public at church, we would like those around us to suppose our acts are sincere, or at least sincere attempts. “But when you pray,” Jesus also tells us, “go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret” (Matt. 6:6). Behind closed doors, the doubts and cynicism set in. Am I even doing this right? Is this all just a show? Have I struck the right balance between speaking and listening? Is God saying anything in reply? How can I even know?

Five years ago or so I was invited to a church retreat on Ignatian meditation. Most of us, the deacon and priest leading the retreat said, will not have a “Saul on the road to Damascus” moment, or be pierced in the heart by a spear (see Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa). But we can, they argued, access God through our imaginations. Vis-a-vis Ignatian meditation, for instance, we can train the mind to inhabit passages in the Gospels. 

To do this, you must breathe slowly and empty your mind, read the Gospel passage, and then imagine you are there. You may then ask God any questions you have about the passage, or share any of your responses to the text, and listen for God’s answer in prayerful silence. 

My first instinct, as we all sat in the retreat and breathed deeply, listening to Bible passages and sacred music, was to laugh it off. But ideas tend to burrow under your skin like ticks; even though you can’t feel it in the moment, you’ve been bitten.

A few weeks before Christmas, I was at Mass on a weekday morning. In his homily, the pastor talked about the shepherds visited by an angel who told them of Jesus’s birth. “Shepherds, at the time,” the priest said, “were lowly people. They were poor, and a manger was a dirty place. Particularly for a Jew, what was essentially a barn would have been considered unclean.” Jesus was born in a dirty place and visited by people who were probably also pretty dirty, and poor. 

The image of shepherds, for whatever reason, compelled me to turn to the Bible. I looked up the verse in the Gospel of Luke: “Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flocks. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear” (2:8). 

Without consciously adopting the methods of Ignatian contemplation, my mind gnawed on the image of the shepherds. I recalled a memory; in high school, I did an exchange program with a host family in a beach city on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. I would sit on a terrace on the second floor of the house to read in the afternoons. One day, around dusk, I heard the clanging of a bell. I knew it wasn’t the church bell from the village because the sound was quieter, hollower. Then I heard the bleating of sheep. 

The bleating and bells drew closer until, over a hill, I saw a flock of sheep. A shepherd was bringing his sheep into the village after a day of grazing. I never saw the shepherd; I only ever saw the sheep. They disappeared into the night and the town.

In my imagination, however, the shepherd’s path continued; he led me, through time and space, to Christ in the manger. He led me to the rosaries intoned after the congregants had left chapel; he led me to the simple midwestern priest, Fr. Greg, who wore the same ill-fitting jeans and dryer-shrunken collared shirt and heard my first Confession.

Our journey ended in a small side chapel, at eucharistic adoration. The red sanctuary lamp flickering, the monstrance displaying the Eucharist—these were foreign sights to me, a WASP Protestant by birth. Sitting in front of the Eucharist, at a time you are not meant to consume it, you are confronted with the strangeness of transubstantiation. God is there? God is there, in the Eucharist encased in the glass that flickers and reflects the light of the sanctuary lamp. 

As I tried to ignore the hum of traffic from outside, I recalled Cardinal Sarah’s words in his book The Power of Silence: “In killing silence, man assassinates God. But who will help man to be quiet? His mobile phone is continually ringing; his fingers and his mind are always busy sending messages. . . . Developing a taste for prayer is probably the first and foremost battle of our age.”

Here, in the silence, I prayed that I may listen and receive the Word of God. I prayed for my faith and for Luc. I prayed for those who believe only nothingness awaits us—whether their eyes beam with the atheist’s vainglory or writhe in the existential angst and saturnine vigilance of fighting death to the last gasp. And the aperture of my mind’s eye opened, filled with the light of religious imagination.

Kurt Hofer is contributing editor at the European Conservative.

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