Encountering God Through Imaginative Prayer
The greatest gift is the opportunity for greater friendship and to grow closer to Jesus. Through Ignatian contemplation, otherwise known as imaginative prayer, we use our imagination to bring scripture to life. There is a unique opportunity to notice how Jesus treats those that he ministers to and how he interacts with his family and friends. We can gain the experience of speaking with God. Even if you do not believe that you have an active imagination, try to see what stands out to you in prayer. You may not always be able to see parts of a biblical story in your imagination. Stick with what you can imagine and reflect on what those elements may be telling you; your relationship with God has become more intimate and has gone one step deeper.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola,
founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits)
Imaginative prayer was popularized 500 years ago by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He incorporated imaginative prayer into a spiritual training manual for his new religious order's members. Saint Ignatius believed that God intended His gift of human imagination to be used as a means of contemplation -- to draw us closer to Him and see, with new eyes, scriptural stories that we may have heard countless times.
Rather than be an act of our own will, imaginative prayer is guided by the Holy Spirit, who breathes into us and inspires us so that our imagination draws us closer to Christ and finds ways that God is speaking directly to us. Ignatian contemplation experiences are unique to the person in prayer, and God can use those experiences to communicate with the individual.
While imaginative prayer may work with any scriptural narrative, the most significant purpose of this form of prayer is to focus on the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as found in the four Gospels and the Book of Acts.
Steps To Imaginative Prayer
While the experience of Ignatian contemplation is between the person praying and God, Saint Ignatius gives us a method by which to enter into prayer.
Preparations For Prayer
Choose any sacred text where we may encounter the Son of God, one that has a story context that includes Jesus in the flesh (in his humanity). Then, find a quiet and comfortable place to pray and take a few moments to settle in, rest, and be "centered" in God's loving presence.
Entering Into Prayer:
Rather than delving immediately into the text, Saint Ignatius suggests praying an opening prayer that we may love and serve him in all that we do and all we are. We pray for guidance as we give ourselves over to God's loving presence, and we surrender to Him our thoughts, words, and actions that God will direct all. In this prayer, we go beyond our thoughts as we are reminded to seek greater knowledge and closeness to God.
Review The Narrative:
Slowly read the scriptural passage once or twice to remember the events. Afterward, set the text aside while remaining in your imagination. The goal is to gain some insight into the mind and heart of God while also paying attention to our reactions and how we are experiencing a specific scripture passage.
Composition of Place:
In your imagination, take some time to set the stage and picture the environment where the story takes place. Immerse yourself in the scene and ask God for the grace that you hope to receive from this time of prayer and for the grace to know Jesus intimately, to love him more intensely, and to follow him more closely. When we enter a scene with our imaginations, we can see things from our point of view, interact with the characters, and enter further into the mystery, where minute details are not given to us by the text.
Pray Through the Story:
You have already set the stage, so let the narrative begin to play out. Imagine the people, their words, and their actions. Especially pay attention to where Jesus is in this story, what He's doing, and other details to appreciate the story.
Conversation With Jesus:
Toward the end of the prayer experience, Saint Ignatius encourages us to spend time in conversation with Jesus "as one friend to another." We may also feel drawn to a conversation with someone else in the text. Picture them in your presence and ask them questions or say whatever you wish to say to them. Then, take some time to listen for their response. Even if no words are spoken, take some time to be in their presence.
Application of Senses:
The application of the senses can be the most immersive of the imaginative experiences, as well as the most creative since sensory details are lacking in scriptural accounts. As the name suggests, this is when we imaginatively use our senses to explore and go deeper into a scene from scripture and allow our senses to interact with the scene, the environment, and the people. This might involve paying more attention to details such as what people look like and even the sound of Jesus' voice. We are encouraged to ask, "What do you see, hear, taste, smell, and touch?"
If you are having trouble with how your senses are interacting with the scene, here are some questions that might help you engage imaginatively with the passage:
What do the people look like?
What are they wearing?
What kinds of sounds would you expect to hear in this environment?
How does Jesus talk to and treat those he encounters?
How do people react to Jesus' words and actions?
Do you recognize any of the people, places, or objects?
Are you in this scene, and if so, where and what are you doing?
Review of Your Prayer Time:
Take time after your prayer/conversation to reflect on what stood out to you the most from your time in prayer:
How did you feel during this time of prayer?
What struck you the most?
What were the most consoling and the most challenging moments of your prayer?
When did you feel closest to God?