The Illuminated Imagination

How to Pray the Contemplative Way

The Illuminated Imagination

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When I was a Jesuit novice, I was introduced to a wonderful method of contemplative prayer. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that I was introduced to contemplative prayer—period.

For outside of Mass and the occasional grace at mealtime, I had never done any sort of praying other than reciting traditional Catholic prayers and asking Saint Jude for favors from time to time. It never dawned on me that prayer could be anything more. Or anything else, for that matter.

The prayer I learned, based on techniques popularized by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, goes by a number of names: “imaginative prayer,” “Ignatian contemplation,” and “composition of place.” Though Jesuits proudly like to claim it as their own, this approach had been around in various forms before Ignatius used it in his classic sixteenth-century text, The Spiritual Exercises.

Essentially, in imaginative prayer you attempt to place yourself in a biblical scene by using your imagination. Then you reflect on what God has revealed to you through your prayer.

Let’s Try It Out. Here is an easy way to begin. Start by choosing a favorite gospel passage to reflect on, say, Mark’s account of the healing of the paralyzed man (Mark 2:1-12). In this marvelous story, the man’s friends cut a hole in the roof of a house in which Jesus is preaching. Then they lower their friend down, in the hope that Jesus will heal him.

As in any prayer, you first ask for God to be with you, remembering that any grace you receive in prayer is in itself a gift from God. Next, you read the passage and use your imagination to slowly set the scene; as St. Ignatius would say, you “compose the place” in your mind.

So you ask yourself: Who am I in this gospel story? Are you part of the excited crowd that has gathered to see Jesus? Are you the owner of the house, who is annoyed that his roof is being torn apart? Are you one of the man’s friends, who have climbed onto the roof and are worried about losing their footing? Or are you the paralyzed man himself, desperately hoping for healing, but at the same time wondering what this carpenter from Nazareth can possibly do?

Next: What do I see? You might imagine what the house looks like, along with the expression on Jesus’ face, or the looks of the people in the crowd.

Then: What do I hear? The gospel says that there were plenty of people squeezed into the house: As they listen to Jesus, are they loudly enthusiastic or reverently silent? Are there sounds from the courtyard outside? What do you imagine Jesus’ voice sounding like?

Finally: What do I smell? So many people packed together might mean a fairly unpleasant odor! What about other smells—from the outdoor oven or the family goat?

Roll It! In these ways you use your imagination and your senses to place yourself within the scene. Then you let the gospel story unfold, almost like a movie playing out.

And here’s the most important part: As the scene unfolds in your imagination, pay attention to any emotional reactions or insights that occur to you. For example, you might find yourself watching the paralyzed man and feeling a deep longing or intense jealousy, thinking, “I need some healing in my life!” Or you may be happy at the miracles that Jesus did in his time, and continues to do in your own life.

You may also have an insight—not so much an emotional reaction as an intellectual one. Not long ago, I was praying with this passage and realized that the paralyzed man could not have been healed without the help of his friends. How often it is the community who carries us to God, who brings us to the place where we can be healed. The touching story is a way of looking at our friends, at our family, at our community, and at the church.

Living the Gospels. Imaginative prayer involves trusting that God is at work through your imagination and through whatever emotions or insights you may experience. At first this was hard for me to accept. Praying like this seemed silly, as I told my spiritual director in the novitiate.

“Isn’t it all in my head?” I asked. “Aren’t I just making it up?” His wise answer me freed me from my doubts. “You believe that God can work through all sorts of things in life—your mind, your heart, your soul. Right?” “Yes,” I said tentatively. “So why can’t God work through your imagination?”

Of course, not every experience of imaginative prayer will feel satisfying or produce earth-shattering results. Sometimes it will be dry, or hard to do. Nothing will seem to be happening. But even in these seemingly dry prayer periods, you are spending time with Jesus in the world of the gospels. Spiritual transformation is taking place at a deep level, even if you can’t see it. Spending time with God always changes us.

Other times, though, this kind of prayer plunges you right into your favorite gospel passage. There you are in the middle of it, noticing things that you never noticed before—about Jesus, about the apostles, about the people he touched, about first-century Palestine, and about yourself. And once that happens, you may never again hear that gospel story in the same way.

Fr. James Martin is a Jesuit priest and the author of numerous books, including Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperCollins) My Life with the Saints (Loyola),The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and Between Heaven and Mirth (both HarperOne).