Using imaginative prayer has been a treasured tradition in Christian prayer for centuries. It inspired Francis of Assisi in the 12th century to encourage people to create nativity scenes at Christmas to
imagine the events and people. Aspects of its method can also be found in the 12th century writings of Anselm and Aelred Rievaulx, and it was a favoured method of prayer with Teresa of Avila. In the 16th century, Ignatius Loyola used imaginative prayer as the foundation of his well-known life-transforming spiritual prayer exercises still in popular use today.
In our Western world, we tend to live in a rational, left-brain way, yet our human soul is fired by colour and imagination. Our minds are storehouses of images and memories through which God can work in our hearts.
Imaginative contemplation involves imaginatively putting oneself into a narrative from scripture, particularly the Gospel stories with Jesus, where we become a part of the story as the events unfold. We use all our senses to touch, see, hear, taste, smell and feel our way into the scene. It is not about analysing the texts, but imagining them in a way that they become alive for us, perhaps for the first time. We place ourselves directly into the scene, interacting with the characters and allowing the story to unfold with us actively involved.
As we enter the scene with our senses and our feelings, as well as our minds, the imagination projects into our conscious mind thoughts, memories and feelings which, although hidden from us in our subconscious, are, in fact, influencing our perception, thinking and acting. The scene thus takes on a life of its own, and that life is the life of the person praying. Feelings are given the freedom to emerge, offering the person praying deep insights both about their self and their relationship with God. This process of revealing inner feelings and reactions is vital if our prayer is to open and grow. For, if we are not aware of them, or not ready
to acknowledge them, we are only able to meet God with part of ourselves. For more reflections on this please see my article on The Spiritual Life & Our Shadow.
In the quote boxes are two real-life examples illustrating how praying with the imagination has helped people gain these vital insights.
This method is similar to the psychoanalyst Carl Jung's method of 'active imagination,' where he encouraged clients to write down, reflect upon and paint their dreams. This was
based on the premise that it would bring about a healthy interaction between the conscious individual and his or her unconscious. Jung
understood this to lead to an enlargement of the conscious by allowing feelings and ideas from our unconscious to emerge.
Many people are sadly taught to distrust their feelings in prayer. This may, in part, be related to negative understandings of the place of our emotional life in our faith journey. For more reflections on this, please see my article 'The Spiritual Life and Our Emotions.' However, the way of imaginative prayer recognises within our feelings a rich treasure that can bring the person praying to deepening self-knowledge and knowledge of God.
Guidelines on Using Imaginative Prayer*:
• Begin by taking a minute or two to focus and settle into the living presence of God
• Offer the intended time of prayer to God, together with all your faculties, especially your imagination
• When you feel ready, open your Bible to the given reading and read it through just once
• Then close your Bible and put it to one side
• Now, enter into the scene described in the passage – imagine yourself in the visual image you have just read: ‘Walk into the scene’ in your mind’s eye. If you find this difficult, it may help to talk yourself into it, saying, for example, ‘I am sitting by the roadside. It’s dusty and lined with low shrubs… Now I can hear the crowd approaching’ etc. Don't observe the scene from the outside but rather participate in it.
• Once you find yourself in the scene, let the events unfold more or less as described in the passage you just read, but this time interact with God or Jesus yourself – not in a character but just be you. E.g. approach the burning bush and hear God calling you by your own name, or walk over to Jesus and ask him for whatever it is you need at this moment of your life. Don’t worry if you only have a partial image of Him or can’t see his face. What matters is that you have a sense of his presence close by you. Then see how he responds… Watch & listen very carefully to whatever you see him do or say, and respond naturally.
• God may speak to you by putting a thought in your mind.
• Typically, the imaginative encounter may take only a few minutes of your prayer time. You can spend the remainder of our time reflecting on its significance for you and talking to God about it, or move into a time of just sitting quietly in his presence.
• Occasionally, we might feel bored or restless. There may be a number of reasons for this but don’t allow yourself to be discouraged by it; we all have occasional ‘dry’ prayer times. Whatever your experience, just accept it and know that God will always make good use - at some level of our being - of whatever time we have given him.
• At the end of your prayer time, thank God for whatever experience you had. You may like to do a written reflection/review of your prayer time and talk through your experience with a trusted friend or spiritual director.
For more contemplative ways of prayer please see my Prayer Life Series.
* Drawn from Anita Woodwell's 'On Holy Ground' and Anthony de Mello's 'Sadhana.'
Gerard Hughes: 'God of Surprises' and 'God in all Things.'
Peter Sheldrake: 'Imagination and Prayer.'
Anita Woodwell: 'On Holy Ground: Guided Prayer - a Handbook and Practical Companion.'
Anthony de Mello: 'Sadhana: A Way to God.'