Imaginative Prayer
Imaginative Prayer

What is Imagination?

Our English word imagination has its roots in the old French word imaginacion and the Latin word imaginationem. These words do mean pictorial image, but can also mean a representation or concept.

We have not lost this meaning in English. The Oxford English Dictionary defines imagination as:

The faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses

So when we imagine something, we present a representation of it to our mind. This representation may be an image (visual imagination), but it could also be a sound (auditory imagination), feelings and sensations (kinaesthetic imagination), or a concept (intellectual imagination).

Visual imagination

Artists paint from their visual imagination. Most people are familiar with Michelangelo's painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In it, we see God in the sky reaching down to Adam with their index fingers almost touching. This painting is just one of nine scenes from the book of Genesis painted on the ceiling. All of these biblical scenes had to be present in Michelangelo's imagination before he gave life to them with paint.

Auditory imagination

Mozart's auditory imagination allowed him to hear many instruments playing music together so much so, that he could compose a symphony in his mind.

Kinaesthetic imagination

Authors and poets can express their kinaesthetic imagination. They take us on a character's inner journey painting a vivid picture of their emotions and feelings. Their writing enables us to use our kinaesthetic imagination to feel what the character is feeling. For example, we enter their pain and cry with them as we witness them lose a child.

Intellectual imagination

In 1687 Sir Isaac Newton published "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica" (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), which lay the foundations of classical mechanics which describes the workings of the Universe with the laws of motion and gravitation. Newton's ideas dominated thinking for almost three centuries until a Jewish Patent Clerk named Albert Einstein developed his special theory of relativity (1902–1909), and later his theory of general relativity (1916). Both Newton and Einstein were using their intellectual imagination.

I can easily hold visual images in my mind, but my intellectual imagination is also strong. My mind holds abstract concepts (that have no visual form) that suddenly join up to paint a bigger picture. I instantly know how everything fits together, and sometimes know something new.

Paul tells the Ephesians they can 'see' with their understanding.

the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, — Ephesians 1:18 (NKJV)

Many Bible versions use the word understanding, some use perception while others use heart. A footnote in the NASB gives the literal translation as being. Whatever your translation, there is a sense of the intellect or mind gaining insight, clarity or revelation in the imagination.

When Julian of Norwich wrote her Revelations of Divine Love, we see both visual and intellectual imagination at work.

And he showed me more, a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, ‘What is this?’ And the answer came, ‘It is all that is made’. I marvelled that it continued to exist and did not suddenly disintegrate it was so small. And again my mind supplied the answer, ‘It exists, both now and forever, because God loves it. In short, everything owes its existence to the love of God.’ — Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love.

In the above quote from The Revelations of Divine Love, Julian sees something that resembles a ball the size of a hazelnut, and the revelation of what this ball represents appears in her mind.

Application of the senses

Imagination allows us to function in the world. It can look forwards to imagine possible outcomes, and backwards as memory. Take for example decision making. Should I meet with Jim for coffee tomorrow? I bring to mind the last three times I met with Jim for coffee and recall how bad it was. Jim constantly moans, and last time we met, he was vulgar and insulted me. But I also remember that his wife was sick, and that could account for his insulting behaviour. Will he be the same if I meet him tomorrow? I picture (imagine) the scene. I imagine Jim not being as rude because his wife is now well, but I know he is always grumpy. I play out the different ways the meeting could go, and I decide to ...

We have all done this. But notice, in the hypothetical situation of having coffee with Jim, I can bring the past and the future into the present. When I bring back to memory my last meeting with Jim, I relive it. I see the same scene, smell the coffee again, hear Jim's words and the hum in the coffee shop, and I feel the same feelings I felt. I have applied all my senses to the scene. The same thing happens when I imagine how the next meeting will go. Through our imagination, we bring the past and (a possible) future into the present.

We can pray with bible stories the same way, using our imagination to bring a past biblical scene into our present. We then apply all our senses to the biblical setting to become part of it and live it. In the Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius calls this the application of the senses.

Vita Chrsti

Many people attribute the method of Christian imaginative prayer to St Ignatius of Loyola. However, it is likely that Ignatius learnt the method from the book Vita Christi (the life of Christ) which he read during his convalescence after a cannonball severely wounded his legs during a battle with the French in Pamplona, northern Spain.

Vita Christi was first printed in the 1470s and written by the fourteenth-century Carthusian monk Ludolph of Saxony. This book was instrumental in developing the Christian prayer method of imaginatively putting ourselves in a biblical scene to savour it. In the book Ludolph writes:

If you want to draw fruit from these mysteries, you must offer yourself as present to what was said and done through our Lord Jesus Christ with the whole affective power of your mind, with loving care, with lingering delight, thus laying aside all other worries and care.

Hear and see these things being narrated, as though you were hearing with your own ears and seeing with your own eyes, for these things are most sweet to those who think on them with desire, and even more so to those who taste them.

And although many of these things are narrated as past events, you must meditate them all as though they were happening in the present moment, because in this way you will certainly taste a greater sweetness. Read then of what has been done as though they were happening now. Bring before your eyes past actions as though they were present. Then you will feel how full of wisdom and delight they are.

Ludolph asks us to take part in the narrative as though we are present, "hearing with your own ears and seeing with your own eyes". He invites us to move from thinking to tasting, and to feel "how full of wisdom and delight they are". The invitation is to enter an experience.

The method of imaginative prayer

Biblical stories are actual events that took place. Using your imagination, you can bring these events into your present and live them alongside Jesus and the other characters in the story. A method for doing this is below.

  • Choose a story. Choose a scene with people and activity. A scene you can enter and 'live' during your prayer period. The Gospels are a rich source of such stories.
  • Read the story. Read the story then wait for thirty-seconds for it to settle in. Then reread it. On the second reading, you will notice details that did not present themselves on the first reading. Again, wait for thirty-seconds and read the story a third time. Repeat this several times until you feel the story's details have full presented themselves to you.
  • Live the story. When you're ready, put down the Bible and enter the scene in your imagination. Do not control or direct the scene; simply interact with it spontaneously as it unfolds. Do not watch it like a movie; take part in the scene and live it. Experience the sights, sounds and smells. It is vital that you resist the temptation to analyse and try to understand what God may be communicating to you during the prayer. You will do this later.

As you interact with the scene, the story may change as you are now an integral part of it. For example, when Jesus calls Peter to walk on water, you may find it is you that climbs out of the boat. You may not sink as Peter did, or maybe you do.

You may want to enter the scene as one of the existing characters. You can do this multiple times changing character each time. For example, Luke 2:41-52 tells the story of Mary and Joseph losing the young Jesus on their way back home from Jerusalem. On returning to Jerusalem, they find him in the temple listening to the teachers and asking them questions. In this story, you could be Mary, Joseph, a relative, acquaintance, a teacher, or Jesus himself.

My personal preference is to 'try on' many characters and also be myself. Doing this gives me a more detailed picture of how God is drawing me in the prayer.