One of the more common distractions in prayer is an unruly, uncontrolled, vivid imagination. When we are young, we are praised for our capacity to imagine a fantasy world that allows us to play and explore the unexplored. We read books that are chalk full of colors, names, locations, sights, sounds and smells that make a small corner in the living room feel like another world.
Then we grow up. Often times our imagination is replaced with a sense of practicality, logic and efficiency that leaves no room for “wanderers.” Then when our ‘down time’ in prayer opens a door for all those images we’ve shunned before (in the name of productivity), we are discouraged and feel like we were unfaithful to our prayer.
St. Ignatius of Loyola didn’t believe the imagination to be contrary to prayer, however. He lived with an incredibly vivid imagination since he was a child, and as an adult it inspired the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises that so many Catholics around the world have participated in these last five hundred years. Before his conversion, St. Ignatius fantasized of becoming an honorable knight who could prove himself both in love and in war, but an injury in battle in May of 1521 had him bedridden for nine months. He asked the nurses in charge of his care for novels (romances, actually) to pass the time more quickly, but the only books they had were a compilation of the lives of the Saints and one on the life of Christ. Reluctantly, he began reading and writing down his reactions to this new genre. Here St. Ignatius discovered that his vivid imagination could bring him closer to Jesus, and the beginnings of his conversion took root.
St. Ignatius came up with two methods of praying with your imagination, and here we will expand on the second method:
“The second method of imagining is to place ourselves fully within a story from the Gospels. We become onlooker-participants and give full rein to our imagination. Jesus is speaking to a blind man at the side of the road. We feel the hot Mediterranean sun beating down. We smell the dust kicked up by the passersby. We feel the itchy clothing we’re wearing, the sweat rolling down our brow, a rumble of hunger. We see the desperation in the blind man’s face and hear the wail of hope in his words. We note the irritation of the disciples. Above all we watch Jesus—the way he walks, his gestures, the look in his eyes, the expression on his face. We hear him speak the words that are recorded in the Gospel. We go on to imagine other words he might have spoken and other deeds he might have done.” -David L. Fleming, SJ
With this in mind, here is a step-by-step guide that may be helpful if this method of prayer is new for you.
Pick a time. As much as possible, we should be intentional about our times of prayer. Some pray best first thing in the morning and others prefer the evening. You know your own schedule and your own body; when are you at your best? Can you give your best time of day to the Lord?
Find a quiet place. If you’re awake and “at your best” but you’re in a noisy place, you’re more likely to get distracted. Whether we recognize it immediately or not, our surroundings can have a big part to play in our prayer time. St. Ignatius also talks about the importance of our posture when we pray because we pray with everything: mind, heart, soul and our body. If sitting in a certain way puts you to sleep, then you should consider adjusting your position/posture in order to be more attentive.
Choose a scripture passage. All of the Bible is rich with imagery and can be brought to prayer, but St. Ignatius recommends you pick a passage from the Gospels. Furthermore, Ignatius “chooses scenes of Jesus acting rather than Jesus teaching or telling parables. He wants us to see Jesus interacting with others, Jesus making decisions, Jesus moving about, Jesus ministering. He doesn’t want us to think about Jesus. He wants us to experience him. He wants Jesus to fill our senses. He wants us to meet him” (David L. Fleming, SJ).
Invoke the Holy Spirit. You can read an invocation, sing one, or listen to one – the most important part, regardless of the method you choose, is asking the Holy Spirit to be present with you in this time of prayer.
Read the passage (a few times). Read it slowly, making note of the things that strike you or details that you think might help you enter into the “scene.”
Add yourself “to the mix.” St. Ignatius recommends that we not place ourselves at the ‘center of attention’ in the scene but maybe as an onlooker that is observing the scene. This is, however, just a recommendation. If you are inspired to be the blind man or the hemorrhaging woman, then follow where the Spirit leads.
Close your eyes and imagine the passage. What is the temperature? Are you comfortable? Who is around you? What does Jesus’ tone of voice sound like to you? Can you feel a slight breeze coming in off of the sea? Do you hear the fishermen on the shore cleaning their nets? Is the ground you stand upon rocky, dusty, cushioned by grass of the plains? Is Jesus within reach? Can you hear what He is saying or are you having trouble fighting through the crowd? What does the miracle mean to you? Are you surprised, bewildered, elated or scared?
Talk to God about what you lived and choose a concrete resolution. After closing the moment of letting your imagination flow, talk to Jesus about what you saw and how it made you feel. Based off of what He revealed to you in that time of prayer (even the most minute of details that struck you), how can you resolve to make that a part of your day, a part of your prayer going forward?
Close with the sign of the Cross. We should keep in mind that our imagination isn’t, at least for most of us, a button that can be turned on and off on command. This method of prayer might take time to ease into, and we should be patient with ourselves. This may not be a method that speaks to you, and that is alright; if we let the Lord lead us, He will show us the way back to Him, always.
Today I will set aside fifteen to thirty minutes to try the Ignatian method of imaginative prayer. After I conclude this moment of prayer, I will write down a few images that stuck out most to me. Throughout the day, I will call to mind these images and ask the Lord to continue to reveal Himself to me if it be His will. If the imaginative prayer with a certain passage was particularly vivid, I will revisit this passage again in the following day(s) to see what the Lord has in store.
— This month’s meditation was written by Sr. Briana Santiago
“Pray With Your Imagination” – article by David Fleming, SJ
The Life and Spirituality of St. Ignatius – The Jesuit Institute