One of the most unique parts of Ignatian spirituality is Ignatian contemplation, an approach to prayer that engages one’s imagination and senses. Ignatius came to understand the value of his imagination when he was daydreaming in bed while convalescing from a battle would. As he read the stories of Christ and of the saints, he imagined what it would be like to imitate the saints. He pictured being a pilgrim heading to Jerusalem eating nothing but herbs and walking barefoot. In the Spiritual Exercises he even invites one to imagine the sacred places in the Holy Land, where Jesus and his disciples walked, “embracing and kissing the place where the persons stand or are seated.” Ignatius uses vivid language, for example, encouraging a retreatant to imagine the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. “Consider its length, its breadth; whether level, or through valleys and over hills. Observe also the place or cave where Christ is born; whether big or little; whether high or low; and how it is arranged.”
I Don’t Have an Imagination!
Many struggle with this kind of prayer, expressing that they don’t have much of an imagination. They cannot visualise a gospel scene or the face of Jesus or what the characters in the story are doing. But the imagination is not just visual. Ignatius invites us to engage three faculties of the imagination: “seeing the persons” (visual), “what the persons are saying” (auditory), and “what they are doing” (kinaesthetic – which also encompasses feelings). Don’t assume all of these may be engaged. I may find that one faculty is more predominant. It may be easier for me to imagine hearing a conversation with Jesus than seeing his face. I may feel the emotions of the scene more than I can visualise it.
An Ancient Form of Prayer
Why does Ignatius take this imaginative approach to praying with the gospels? Because it makes present what is not present. This kind of prayer was not an innovation of Ignatius. Monks who could not read had a passage read to them multiple times, letting it saturate their imaginations, and they would return to their cells and pray with it, allowing it to unfold in their minds. Ignatius was likely inspired by a book on the life of Christ he read during convalescence by Ludolph of Saxony. In it, the author assumes use of the imagination and senses:
If you want to draw fruit from these scenes (of the mysteries of Christ’s life), you must offer yourself as present to what was said or done through our Lord Jesus Christ with the whole affective power of your mind…
Hear and see these things being narrated, as though you were hearing with your own ears and seeing with your own eyes…
And though many of these are narrated as past events, you must meditate them all as though they were happening in the present moment…
Read then of what has been done as though they were happening now. Bring before your eyes past actions as though they were present.
This form of contemplation takes the then of Jesus’ story and makes it now, present and relevant to us. We meet Jesus in a very real way. David Fleming, SJ says, “[Ignatius] 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.”
The Imagination Engages the Real
The reality is, there are few times we do not engage our imaginations. Whenever we read a book or article we are engaging our imaginations. Even when we read a food recipe we might walk through the steps in our minds (we’ve made a whole meal in our minds before we’ve actually done it!). We even engage our imaginations when we worry or hope about the future. There are narratives in our heads, our internal dialogue. This is all the realm of the imagination. We’re making present to us something that is not present.
Imagination is not the same as imaginary, or “not real”. Rather, we are praying with something very real re-presenting it. Consider even praying with the memories of the day during an Examen. I am recalling in my imagination the events, conversations, feelings, and happenings of my day, bringing them again to the here and now so I can examine them more closely.
I invite you to pray with this Memory Recollection audio meditation. Notice how it can be easy to recall your own memory in your imagination.
Trust Your Imagination
When we pray with a gospel passage, rather than with our own lived experience, it may be harder for us to engage. There is a worry that I’m “making up” the content of my prayer or putting words into Jesus’ mouth. Yet, when we pray with a text more analytically, we worry less. We don’t trust our imaginations. But any form prayer with scripture engages the imagination! When I meditate on the words of a passage certain ideas or thoughts may come to mind. I may wonder about the details of the scene or where Jesus went next or what the emotion might be in the room. All of these “intellectual” ponderings are the imagination engaged. The most important question for whatever comes up in prayer is: Is it good, life-giving, and drawing me closer to God? Or is my prayer moving me toward the ego, away from God?
Whether we pray with our lives, in the context of an Examen, or Jesus’ life in the gospels, we are praying with stories. Stories are meant to be mulled over in our imaginations. Just as reading a book or watching a movie, our imaginations bring the story to the present. And since the stories we pray with are stories of God’s involvement in the life of humanity, our imaginations facilitate an encounter with the living God.
>> Our Imaginative Prayer Audio Guide can walk you through praying with a gospel passage.
- Dreams & Imagination
- How can I trust that I’m not ‘making up’ my prayer experience?
- Everyday Imagination
- Ignatian Spirituality and Memory
Listen to the podcast version of this post on the episode page, especially if the player below doesn’t work.