Imagination prayer is shared experience with Jesus that is based on stories of Jesus from the Gospels and that draws on our use of empathy and visualization.
Imagination prayer is designed to help us experience being with Jesus. The fears and joys Jesus’ contemporaries felt were true responses to his personality, his work, and his words (Matt 28:8). Walking with him allowed them to know his presence with intimacy and certainty (Luke 24:32). Ignatius of Loyola began his journey looking for that same encounter with Christ.
Christened Iñigo López (c. 1491–1556), Ignatius was born into a noble family in Basque, on the Spanish side of the border. As a younger son, his career options were limited. Another brother took the church job, so Iñigo entered the military. In 1521, during a French invasion of the city he was defending, a cannonball shattered his leg. His injury healed incorrectly and required surgery to re-break and set the bone and to shave the resulting bulge.
During his long confinement, Iñigo could not find any of the chivalry books he preferred, so he read the only works at hand, a life of Christ and a legends of the saints. Unable to pursue the usual diversions of a military man, he pondered his encounter with death and considered his lifestyle in light of these saints. By the time his leg was healed, he had committed himself to a saint’s path (1 Cor 1:2).
He confessed his sins, donated his fine clothes to the poor, and took vows of poverty and chastity. Keeping vigil one night in a chapel, he dedicated even his weapons and his knightly skills to the service of God. For a year, he lived in a Dominican priory as a monk and practiced a severe asceticism, but none of this seemed to minister Jesus’ presence to him. Despair and suicide often tempted him instead.
Still, he persevered. Following the saintly life further, he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, pledging to remain in Jerusalem as a missionary. However, the mission society that was already there forbade his work, so he began a long trek back to Spain to study. On the way, Iñigo received a vision of the Messiah. This experience comforted him more than any of his previous attempts at obedience. For the rest of his life, he sought to see and hear Jesus during meditation as a source of reassurance.
Iñigo folded all these experiences into his Spiritual Exercises, a book that deeply influenced the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The exercises drew on disciplines of meditation, contemplation, prayer, and supervision. They functioned as a tool for conquering selfishness, examining conscience, realigning habits, and making decisions. Initially he offered the exercises to the serfs and the sick to whom he preached on the streets.
This informal preaching and spiritual direction roused Inquisition suspicions, and he was jailed by both of the first two universities that he attended. Eventually, he entered the University of Paris, where future Protestant Reformer John Calvin was also studying. Now known by his Latin name, Ignatius earned a master of arts in theology and practiced his spiritual disciplines with a small group of close friends. These seven men took vows together to obey the Pope in whatever missionary endeavor he might command, and in 1540 they obtained his permission to establish the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.
The following method of prayer derives from the Spiritual Exercises, “Week two,” which summons us to meditate on gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth. Ignatius writes, “it is helpful to pass the five senses of the imagination through . . . contemplation, in the following way: The first point is to see the persons with the sight of the imagination, meditating and contemplating in particular the details about them. . . . The second, to hear with the hearing what they are, or might be, talking about. . . . The third [and fourth], to smell and to taste. . . . The [fifth], to touch with the touch, as for instance, . . . the places where such persons put their feet and sit, always seeing to my drawing profit from [this exercise].”1
Like Iñigo, we may long to know Jesus intimately, but prefer action—even good works—or escape to medicate the inner chaos. We would rather do battle for Jesus, than risk being sucked under by uncomfortable emotions that might arise if we sit still with Jesus. Imagination prayer provides a structured foray into the heart (Ps 33:20–21). It engages our social awareness, minimizing emotion for emotion’s sake. Instead of losing ourselves in busyness or fantasy, we employ our imaginations to identify with a character from the gospels who knew Jesus and through that empathy discover our own conversations with the Lord (John 16:12–13).
On the other hand, we may find ourselves trapped in our heads or blocked by the hurt of previous human relationships. We gather information as a retreat into the mind’s storeroom of ideas. Perhaps we read or ask questions in order to avoid the space in our own hearts designed for people. Instead this Ignatian prayer uses our imaginations to skirt this dominance of the analytical mind. It cracks the parlor door for a gentle Savior, whom we can trust to handle us with care and to fill the emptiness with warmth (Matt 9:36; Rev 3:20). And as we maintain this engagement with him, we add depth and scope to how we share him with those around us.
1“The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola” (trans. Elder Mullan; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005), 32. Cited 1 Aug 2006. Online: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ignatius/exercises.titlepage.html.