As far as images of God go, I am really not a fan of Our Lord, King of the Universe. The emphasis on God as dominating male conqueror, the ultimate embodiment of power and military might, feels not only inaccessible, but deeply troubling to me. The Biblical roots of this language and its related imagery are deep and extensive, to be sure. In my view, however, never has such a system been truly beneficial for women or for the world. In their book, The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed, however, Catholic theologians Elizabeth Liebert, Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin, and Annemarie Paulin-Campbell acknowledge these valid concerns while offering alternative, meaningful ways to engage with images of Jesus as Lord and King. For Liebert et al., relating to such metaphors might not only be possible, but truly liberating. So on this solemnity, I turn to their expertise to guide us.
Imaginative prayer, or Ignatian contemplation, is a hallmark of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Retreatants are encouraged to use their imaginations, including their senses and emotions, to encounter God, others, and true self. Contemplation calls us not simply to think about God, but to be with God, and to trust God’s work in and through the gift of imagination. “The Call of the King” contemplation reflects Ignatius’ experience as a wealthy, medieval, military man who traded in his romance novels for saints’ biographies. Ignatius first depicts a charismatic King, then draws a parallel to Christ, who is similarly equipped to motivate followers, but to something more lasting: discipleship with Jesus.
Liebert et al. write:
Ignatius assumed that, if a subject has an experience or memory of a good and powerful king to whom she owes loyalty and service, she can transfer that energy and desire to her commitment to the eternal King. Although the image of a king may at best be irrelevant and at worst anathema for many women making the Exercises today, the underlying psychological and spiritual dynamic of transferring desire and energy evoked by an admired human to one whose call and love is so much greater remains a powerfully transformative dynamic that can be entered into in a multitude of ways (156).
For women and others like me who reject militaristic language in spiritual practice, praying with Jesus as “King,” or using language like “Kingdom of God” even, could become obstacles that impede relationship with God rather than help cultivate it. When considering God-language and imagery, Liebert et al. encourage us to ask: “Does this image free us to find God? Could it help us to find God in the future?” (157-158). Just because this particular myth sparked inspiration in Ignatius does not mean we all are called to appropriate the same one. It would be insufficient, however, to dismiss this contemplative exercise entirely without considering it through the lens of our own meaningful metaphors and myths (158).
I cringe at the notion that life in God beckons women into relationships of self-surrender to patriarchal, hierarchical, male authority. I am deeply moved, however, by Liebert et al.’s assertion that “Opening up and out to Someone beyond oneself, yielding in love, can be a contemporary and equally compelling Call of the King” (159). These theologians encourage women to reflect on a person who evokes loyalty and admiration within us, a person passionate about the common good beyond her own personal gain, or a person who has been a prophet in her own life. These examples feel much more likely to move me into deeper relationship with God than a faraway King does. Perhaps they might speak to you too.
Regardless of our personal connection or lack thereof to Jesus as King, today’s Gospel, as well as Libert et al.’s commentary, remind us that Christ is no ordinary royal. As we celebrate this solemnity, I am grateful for a Leader who traded authoritarianism, greed, violence, nationalism, fear, and autonomy for community, abundance, peace, inclusion, trust, and interdependence. Christ’s building of Kin-dom over Kingdom motivates me to do the same.
Work Cited: Liebert, Elizabeth, and Annemarie Paulin-Campbell. The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed: Uncovering Liberating Possibilities for Women. 2nd ed., Paulist Press, New York, 2022.
Katie Davis-Crowder, MDiv, is a Chicago-based teacher, spiritual director, singer, writer, and presenter rooted in the Mercy and Ignatian traditions. She is passionate about spirituality, social justice, and the arts, and loves building home with her partner Kevin and pup Smartie. katiedaviscrowder.com