One night many years ago when I was struggling with my spiritual journey -- still a Catholic priest but not at all certain I would remain one -- I realized that I had grown weary of the dryness of conventional prayer. Following that approach, I usually did all the talking but felt little sense of genuine communion. There must be a better way, I thought, and then I just let go and sat still.
Soon I felt a stirring within me, as if someone or something were trying to get my attention. Although I did not recognize it then, I now realize that it was the voice of God who dwells within us all. I did not "hear" a voice somewhere actually speaking, but I distinctly sensed a directive to take up paper and pen and be prepared to write down whatever came to me.
Visions of Jesus
As I did, I was filled with a peace and serenity that at times was so profound that I broke down and sobbed. I began to see visions of Jesus teaching, healing, and speaking to various individuals in the course of his ministry. As the mental visions continued, I began to imagine the responses of those around Jesus at the time. In a sense, I began to get "inside" these people, some of whom are mentioned in the Gospels, some not, and to feel what might have been going through their minds and hearts as they encountered the powerful spiritual forces emanating from the man called Jesus of Nazareth.
Over time, these visions and the accompanying imagined monologues turned into written meditations on Jesus as seen through the eyes of his contemporaries -- from his disciples Peter, John, Thomas, and Mary Magdalene, to figures whose lives he touched, such as the Canaanite woman and the man healed at the pool of Bethesda.
Some of the characters whose personalities I invoked do not appear in the Gospels at all, but are ordinary people of the sort who might have made up the population of Judea at that time -- a cross maker, a merchant, a Jewish nobleman, a Roman silversmith, a paralytic, an innkeeper, a shepherd, and so on. I even included meditations on several people who had powerfully negative responses to Jesus, such as Pontius Pilate, Annas, and Caiphas, and certain Roman and Jewish contemporaries who were puzzled or even infuriated by his message of love and forgiveness.
I often wrote from nine at night until three in the morning, imagining how people I had never met would talk about Jesus. What bound all the characters whose thoughts flowed through my mind was the sense that Jesus had healed not only the blind and the deaf, the lame and the leprous, but that in some fashion he had healed just about everyone with whom he spoke or interacted. During these meditations, I became aware of my own desire for inner healing into wholeness. I realized my need to change my belief system from negative to positive; to be free; to celebrate life; and above all, to heal the doubt, fear, and anxiety that were plaguing me.
By allowing myself to experience the fears and anxieties, and the conflicted feelings of self-incrimination and regret that these characters may have felt, I was able to bring my own negative feelings into the light and begin healing them. Moreover, these acts of what I would call "creative spiritual imagination" started me believing that I could influence others through my writing. I didn't levitate, bilocate, or literally see visions and hear voices, but I did open myself up to the possibility of letting God's healing love flow within me.
I did nothing with these writings for 15 years, but in 1986 I decided to compile the meditations into a slim, self-published volume of just a few hundred copies, upon which this book is based, and which ultimately led to my writing two full-length books on prayer and healing. My original idea for the historical figures such as the apostle Peter, John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene was to take them off the pedestal and place them at floor level, so that when ordinary people read the meditations they might more easily see themselves reflected in these characters.
The moment we put the title "Saint" in front of people's names, we elevate them to a level above ourselves, a level to which we can no longer relate. That can be fine if we're striving to emulate their prayer life, but it can impede our ability to identify with them as human beings. The truth is that all the characters Jesus encountered in the Gospels were flawed in some way, yet he accepted them and forgave them their faults. I wanted my readers to see that the same acceptance and forgiveness that Jesus showered on those flawed characters -- both the biblical and fictional ones-was available to them.
In my books The Healing Path of Prayer: A Modern Mystic's Guide to Spiritual Power and Prayer and the Five Stages of Healing, I've tried to make the point that the most important stage of healing we reach is the awareness that we are one with God and are loved by God. That awareness lifts our self-esteem and empowers us to do great things. It may sound simple, and yet my experience is that most people do not feel deeply that they are loved by God.
The purpose of the meditations in my book is to facilitate that awareness by allowing the reader to identify with the doubt, fear, guilt, and shame that certain biblical characters experienced. We forget, for instance, that when things got dicey, Peter, the leader of the disciples and the purported founder of the Christian church, denied that he ever knew Jesus! We forget that Thomas had no faith in Christ's ability to transcend death, or that Mary Magdalene, a woman with a past that included demonic possession, was one of the most prominent figures of the early church until her historical role was buried along with the Gnostic Gospels. Instead, we give them all the Hollywood treatment by polishing their images and making them larger than life.
I used the metaphor of Hollywood image-makers for a reason. Some years after my self-published book came out, I happened to read a story by actor Ernest Borgnine that bore a fascinating parallel to my own experience with these meditations. Borgnine, who won an Oscar for his role in Marty in 1955, felt that the movie role that most changed his life was not in that film but in the wonderful 1976 film Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, an eight-hour miniseries that is still shown on television every year around Easter time. Jesus was played by the fine British actor Robert Powell; Olivia Hussey portrayed Mary, his mother; Anne Bancroft was Mary Magdalene; and Borgnine had a small but crucial role as the centurion whose servant Jesus healed and who was later present at the crucifixion. As Borgnine tells it:
When it came time for my scene during the crucifixion, the weather was chill and gray. The camera was to be focused on me at the foot of the cross, and so it was not necessary for Robert Powell, the actor who portrayed Jesus, to be there. Instead, Zeffirelli put a chalk mark on a piece of scenery beside the cameraman. "I want you to look up at that mark," he told me, "as if you were looking at Jesus."
I hesitated. Somehow I wasn't ready. I was uneasy.
"Do you think it would be possible for somebody to read from the Bible the words Jesus said as He hung on the cross?" I asked.
I knew the words well from the days of my childhood in an Italian-American family in Connecticut, and I'd read them in preparation for the film. Even so, I wanted to hear them now.
"I will do it myself," Zeffirelli said. He found a Bible, opened it to the Book of Luke, and signaled for the camera to start rolling.
As Zeffirelli began reading Christ's words aloud, I stared up at that chalk mark, thinking what might have gone through the centurion's mind.
That poor Man up there, I thought. I met Him when He healed my servant who is like a son to me. Jesus says He is the Son of God, an unfortunate claim during these perilous times. But I know he is innocent of any crime.
"Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." The voice was Zeffirelli's, but the words burned into me -- the words of Jesus. (Luke 23:34-46)
Forgive me, Father, for even being here, was the centurion's prayer that formed in my thoughts. I am so ashamed, so ashamed.
"Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise," said Jesus to the thief hanging next to Him.
If Jesus can forgive that criminal, then He will forgive me, I thought. I will lay down my sword and retire to my little farm outside of Rome.
Then it happened.
As I stared upward, instead of the chalk mark, I suddenly saw the face of Jesus Christ, lifelike and clear. It was not the face of Robert Powell I was used to seeing, but the most beautiful, gentle visage I have ever known. Pain-seared, sweat-stained, with blood flowing down from thorns pressed deep, His face was still filled with compassion. He looked down at me through tragic, sorrowful eyes with an expression of love beyond description.
Then His cry rose against the desert wind. Not the voice of Zeffirelli, reading from the Bible, but the voice of Jesus Himself: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."
In awe I watched Jesus' head slump to one side. I knew He was dead. A terrible grief welled within me, and completely oblivious of the camera, I started sobbing uncontrollably.
"Cut!" yelled Zeffirelli. Olivia Hussey and Anne Bancroft were crying, too. I wiped my eyes and looked up again to where I had seen Jesus. He was gone.
Whether I saw a vision of Jesus that windswept day or whether it was only something in my mind, I do not know. It doesn't matter. For I do know that it was a profound spiritual experience and that I have not been quite the same person since. I believe that I take my faith more seriously. I like to think that I'm more forgiving than I used to be. As that centurion learned two thousand years ago, I too have found that you simply cannot come close to Jesus without being changed.*
* The Borgnine quote in the above article is from |
Snowflakes in September: Stories about God's Mysterious Ways,
by Corrie Ten Boom and Ernest Borgnine, published by Dimensions for Living.
I Want to See Jesus in a New Light,
by Ron Roth.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Hay House Inc. ©2000. www.hayhouse.com.
About The Author
Ron Roth, Ph.D., was an internationally known teacher, spiritual healer, and modern-day mystic. He is the author of several books, including the bestseller The Healing Path of Prayer, and the audiocassette Healing Prayers. He served in the Roman Catholic priesthood for more than 25 years and is the founder of Celebrating Life Institutes in Peru, Illinois. Ron passed away on June 1, 2009. You can learn more about Ron and his works through his website: www.ronroth.com
Watch a video: The Power of Love and How to Use it to Improve Your Life (Carol Dean interview with Ron Roth) (includes a cameo appearance by Deepak Chopra)