Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ, as in lectio divina or the rosary. This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him. (CCC ¶2708)
St. Ignatius loved imaginative prayer. When he was recuperating from a cannonball injury, he would read stories from the life of Christ and imagine the scene in great detail. Later as part of his Ignatian Retreats he taught others to do the same thing.
The Catechism reminds us that our imagination is also part of prayer. It is especially useful on stories of the life of Christ where there is movement and action. You take the sparse Biblical account and use your imagination to “bring good things to life.” It’s like taking a dry two-dimensional story and making it three-dimesional.
A few things to keep in mind. First, imagination is not fantasy; it’s not about building castles in the air. It stays rooted in reality because it uses your real-life experience and real-life Bible stories. Second, it stays rooted in the ancient teachings of the Church. All that we need to know for salvation has already been revealed; you can read about it in the Catechism. If you uncover a fourth person of the Trinity we already know that’s just your imagination. Thirdly, and most importantly, it should be guided by a desire to encounter Jesus more deeply.
I want to stress this last point. I have talked about Lectio Divina and Relational Prayer. Sometimes we can get stuck in learning stuff: What does this word in the Bible mean? How do I solve my problem? What did Bible times look like? Those are not bad things to think about and imagine. But real prayer, as the Catechism says, looks for knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus and towards union with him. All these prayer forms are meant to move us to an encounter with Jesus. Let’s try it briefly with a favorite scene from the Bible, perhaps the multiplication of loaves and fishes:
10 On their return the apostles told him what they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a city called Beth-sa′ida. 11 When the crowds learned it, they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day began to wear away; and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away, to go into the villages and country round about, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a lonely place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in companies, about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and made them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And all ate and were satisfied. And they took up what was left over, twelve baskets of broken pieces. (Luke 9:10-17)
- You start by setting the scene:
- What does “a lonely place” look like to you?
- “The day began to wear on” – what time of day was it?
- What was the weather like?
- Look around at the crowds being welcomed by Jesus. What is in their hearts?
- Now where are you — are you one of the disciples or part of the crowd?
- After you have set the scene you start to let it unfold in your mind.
- Pay attention to what you are thinking and feeling.
- Where is Jesus?
- How do you react when Jesus says, “You give them something to eat”?
- Watch Jesus bless and break the bread.
- Notice what is moving in your heart as the crowd is eating.
- What about you – are you satisfied?
Once the scene is over, St. Ignatius encourages us to find Jesus and have a conversation with him. So with 12 baskets full of broken pieces behind you, what do you have to say to Jesus? Listen to how He responds to you, and how He looks at you. You might be surprised by what you see.
Some might object that the Jesus you find will be nothing more than a figment of your imagination. It is true that each of us encounters Jesus in our own way, because we are each unique. But the Living Jesus is active in our prayer. As you genuinely seek to meet Him, you find that prayer takes unexpected twists and turns. The most unexpected part of the prayer is how the imagination uncovers things in our hearts that we had forgotten were there. We learn a lot about ourselves in good prayer. And that is part of the point of prayer: as we learn who Jesus is, Jesus teaches us who we are. The fruits are even better than we imagined.
(image credit: Lost and Found by Greg Olsen)