Gospel Contemplation: The Shepherd and the Sheepfold
Gospel Contemplation is a way of praying that St. Ignatius proposes quite frequently in his Spiritual Exercises. You are invited to use your imagination to enter the scene, to take part, to let the scene unfold. As Ignatius suggests, notice the people, listen to them, watch what they do [SE, 106, 107, 108]. Perhaps you may sense an invitation to be one of the individuals in the scene and engage in a conversation with one of them. You can do this on your own, or use the text below as a guide.
If this way of praying is new – simply relax and try to become engaged in the scene. Try not to worry about what you are “supposed to” be doing. If you find yourself distracted during your prayer, very gently bring yourself back to the scripture text or your imaginative contemplation.
If at any point during the guided contemplation your imagination comes to life in such a way that God invites to you stay with a particular moment, follow the invitation that you sense, rather than move on to where the written contemplation is going. In that case you might want to stop reading and continue on your own.
Background to the text
In this gospel passage, Jesus presents the image of a sheepfold – a place where, in the warmer months, the sheep are gathered in for safety from predators. Sheep are often described as not too bright, but they are able to recognize voices and faces – of other sheep and of their familiar caretakers. The shepherd gathers them in the sheepfold for the night and then takes them out into the pastures during the day. They know the shepherd and follow willingly.
Quiet your body and mind
- Choose a position where you can be relaxed but alert.
- Breathe deeply several times and let your body relax
- Breathe out any worries or stressful thoughts and put them in God’s hands
- Become aware of God’s presence here with you now, looking at you with love.
Ask for a grace
- Ask God for the grace to recognize Jesus’ voice – in your prayer and in your daily life.
Read the scripture passage
Read the passage slowly, savoring the words and beginning to imagine the scene. Read it twice if that helps you to visualize it.
Jesus said: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
imagine yourself at a gathering. It should be at a place that is warm, safe, and welcoming, and with people you know who are also warm, safe, and welcoming. Perhaps they are family, friends, co-workers – people you want to be with, with no need for social distancing. You’ve come together to take shelter in each other, perhaps to celebrate, perhaps to mourn, perhaps because you just want to be together. What kind of gathering is it?
And where are you? What is this place that is familiar to you, where you and the people you care about are taken care of, comfortable, and safe? See it well in your imagination and place yourself there. What are your surroundings like? Are you indoors or out? What can you see? What do your loved ones look like? What is the temperature like?
What do you hear? Is there a buzz of conversation? Sounds of eating and drinking? Perhaps there are children playing, people laughing, music playing or maybe the TV.
What smells are in the air? From nature, from a kitchen, perfume, smoke?
Spend a bit of time in this place, paying attention to how you feel.
At some point, you notice that a stranger has entered the gathering. You don’t know how this person got in, certainly not through the entry way. No one seems to know this person or why they are there. The stranger is approaching others, with some sort of invitation, but people seem wary, though the invitation itself is intriguing. Notice how you react to the presence of this person.
Finally, the stranger is escorted out and the gathering resumes its comfortable and safe atmosphere. You are with the people you care about, and who care about you.
A short time later, Jesus arrives. He comes through the entryway. The people at the gathering are welcoming him. Before you even see his face, you hear his voice! What is your felt response to that familiar voice? How do you know that it’s Jesus?
Watch as Jesus moves through the people gathered. He stops and greets each one. He knows each person by name – and they know him. What feeling does this evoke in you?
Like the stranger before him, Jesus comes with an invitation – and invitation to follow him. It might mean leaving the safety and comfort of this place, though you wouldn’t be going alone. And his invitation includes a promise of life, and life more abundantly, here and now. What does this promise evoke in you?
How do you know you can trust him? In what ways in your life has Jesus already shown up for you, shown you his love and care for you?
Jesus continues to move through the gathering and now approaches you. He greets you by name – he knows you and you know him. Take a few moments to talk with Jesus, as you talk with a friend, about what has been going through your mind and heart during these past few moments.
When you are ready, close with a favorite prayer.
Review of Prayer
St. Ignatius recommends that we review our prayer. A written review has many advantages. It enables us to look back on our prayer experience, and to notice what happened. It allows us to be fully present to our experience of prayer. We do not write while we are praying. The review of prayer enables us not to judge ourselves or look for how well we are doing. It helps us to become more sensitive to how God is speaking to us in the here and now. It is also a precious record of our journey with God, which nourishes wholeness and integration.
Some questions to assist with your review:
What happened in your prayer?
What feelings did you experience?
During the prayer period, when did you feel encouraged?
When did you feel discouraged?
Did you receive the grace you asked for?
What did you receive?