What is imaginative contemplation?
The most frequent method of prayer that Saint Ignatius uses in his Spiritual Exercises is that of imagining ourselves in a Gospel scene, taking up a character, being with Jesus and being aware of what’s going on, and how we are feeling.
With a little practice most people can read a Gospel story then imagine themselves in the scene. God can touch us very deeply in such prayer.
Imaginative contemplation does not attempt to fill out the Gospel stories or try to understand what the people who met Jesus in Galilee or Jerusalem really thought and felt. Rather, I let myself, having taken on a character I feel comfortable with (whether that be disciple, Pharisee, or anonymous bystander), interact with Jesus and the others in the Gospel story. Letting the imagination flow freely, it is good not to worry if the story develops differently from the Gospel passage or if it takes place in modern day and apostles are friends or work colleagues. There is no need to worry if things are said or done that I would be embarrassed to talk about; the spirit is guiding my prayer; trust God!
Much of the fruit of such prayer comes after the time of contemplation. After a period of prayer lasting from 15 minutes to an hour it is good to briefly look back at the prayer and note what struck me, especially the unusual or unexpected and ask why did I react the way I did? Does it show me anything of the way I see God, myself or others? Did what Jesus said or did in the contemplation make sense?
Sometimes people are suspicious of the imagination and of being ‘carried away’. There is no need to be fearful, we can always test the results of the prayer to see whether it is from God. Prayer that is from God will bring us consolation, build us up and encourage us to trust that God will support us, no need to rely on self alone. If our prayer encourages us to feel loved, to be sorry for having hurt or not respected our self or others; if it inspires us to have confidence in ourselves, to want to help others, to be more Christian; to be more in touch with our true self – the person behind the respectable, self-confident mask we often put on – or to see Jesus as more truly human then it is from God. If, on the other hand, we feel depressed and worthless with a sense of ‘why bother’, then God is not at work.
Find a quiet time and place, read a story, then imagine the events with yourself taking part. Talk in your own words. Reflect a little after the prayer to see what God might be saying. For those who have the opportunity, it is good to go over the prayer with someone you trust especially if that person has some experience in guiding prayer.
For those who are able to imagine Gospel scenes, the most surprising discoveries are those to be made.
David Birchall SJ (originally published in Jesuits and Friends)