What can the Spiritual Exercises tell us about praying with the imagination

Published on 08 Jul 2018
An olive tree by a stone wall in the Holy Land

Teresa McCaffery reflects on the importance of praying with the imagination, the fruits of such prayer, and difficulties that might be faced. She provides some step-by-step instructions to help a person to pray.

Ignatian prayer relies heavily on the use of the imagination, but while many people take to it easily and value it highly I have heard some say that this system does not work for them. It would be easy to accept that they have some other sort of spirituality, but this type of prayer is powerful, and I would not want people to be without it. Like walking, talking and reading, prayer of imagination is a learned skill. Most of us have forgotten how we learned to walk, talk and read, especially as much of the teaching for these skills is by example, but where accident or disease has damaged some part of the pathway between example and action extra care and understanding are needed to overcome the difficulties.  Likewise, accidents (in the Thomist meaning of the word) of temperament, personal history and cultural background can have an adverse effect on the retreatant’s ability or willingness to follow the instructions Ignatius gives.  I’d like to look at some of the objections and blocks to see how the exercises themselves meet them.

Face-to-face or online

The Ignatian exercises work like a training programme.  The instructions seem quite elaborate and detailed but still need a lot of filling out.  (I came away from my long retreat with a thick folder of extra handouts). When we are on retreat, or attending a week of guided prayer, the director or prayer guide is available to clarify and make more detailed suggestions, but if praying alone with an online retreat, this is not available. The great value in online retreats is that you do not have to travel to meetings, but you still need the extra instructions!

Prayer of imagination or daydreaming?

Some people will argue that building castles in the air or reading novels is a waste of time, others point out that some of those castles get built, and a good novel can bring important realities to light, a third group will simply find it very difficult to ‘get into’ a novel.  The Ignatian text, can, among other things, be understood as a carefully crafted set of steps which takes the retreatant steadily towards true imaginative prayer with less likelihood of confusing it with daydreaming or fantasy.

Desire for what!

At the beginning of each exercise we are expected to pray for the grace we desire.  This includes sorrow for our sins, and sadness at the pain Jesus suffered on our behalf as well as joy at the resurrection.  Is this meaningful, or even honest?  Why should I feel sad when the sun is shining and the birds are singing, or joyful if I have just heard terrible news?  Is this psychologically healthy?  Ignatius tells us that these feelings are graces.  We need to be fully aware of the implications of what we do and don’t do to achieve anything good.  We can only face this when secure in our sense of the love of God.

The First Week

Like all good teachers Ignatius starts the Spiritual Exercises with what is simplest and most accessible. Meditations on sin may not be pleasant, but they make a good starting point. Surely most of us have had the experience of wanting the floor to swallow us up, or of feeling abandoned and unloved. Ignatius helps by telling us to use the faculties of memory, understanding and will to gain access to the material. We are not being asked to make up a fantasy story, rather, we must learn to use the imagination to get a clearer image of what is truly happening, in the world outside and within us. The connection between head and heart must be firmly established if our imaginations are to generate loving behaviour. At every stage in the Exercises Ignatius tells us to pray for the grace to experience an emotion, whether sorrow or joy. Another important feature of the First Week is to recognise negative experiences in our past. Guilt and pain should equally be recognised, accepted and placed where they belong, in the past. We do not want them popping up to confuse us later.

The Second Week

In the Second Week we move from negative themes to more joyful ones. We have been asked to consider, in principle, if we could be doing more for Christ. What does this mean in practice? We are given the image of a King, divinely appointed, who asks us to join in his project – the eradication of the infidel. The person with romantic imagination will conjure up a lively scene of prancing, gaily caparisoned horses, the jingling of harness, the waving of banners, the loyalty of the knights. A more pragmatic pilgrim might be horrified at the thought of a King with divine rights bent on death to the infidel. Either way the heart is engaged. Coming straight from first week we need to remember that man is not perfect, and we will search in vain for the perfect leader with the perfect project. The emotion we seek here is enthusiasm. We need to remember a time when we were completely taken up with the joy of being part of a group, troupe or team with an objective we agreed with then, even if we would have reservations today. This enthusiasm will be the energy source for the next stage of our work. Like children who have learned their letters and are ready to find out how they work together to give us words and sentences, we are now ready to use the imagination creatively to build an image of the Kingdom of God and, most importantly, our contribution to its building.

Starting at the beginning

The meditation on the Incarnation takes us back to first week with its mention of the bad things we do to each other.  The imagination here is greatly helped by the television!  The solution proposed is the birth of a baby.  Intellectually counterintuitive as it is, it provides a magical image for the imagination.  Ignatius’ instructions to meditate on the hidden life of the growing person that is Jesus encourage us to use memories of our own lives to help us to imagine His, whether by similarity or contrast!

Meeting the risen Christ

The rich young man of the Gospel could not follow Jesus because his imaginative powers were fully occupied with awareness of all the goods he possessed and the need to care for them; the poor can possess the kingdom of heaven because their imagination is free to create a better future which can also become material reality. The young man called Jesus who walked the roads of his country telling all who would listen about the love of God is long gone, along with those who heard him. The Person I need to meet is the risen Christ. He is made present in the words of the Gospels written to make us all aware of His true nature. The stories told, all true, all grouped together for impact, like the infancy narratives and the things we learned about the hidden life, are archetypal. There are many different encounters between Jesus and others. They may involve healing, invitation or challenge, all ending in action. One or more must ‘speak to my condition’ (to borrow a Quaker phrase).

Truly present

Now, when Ignatius tells me to imagine the scene it must be one in which I can be truly present. I may not be able honestly to identify with the main characters in the story suggested, I may not be able to imagine the situation because I’ve never been to the Holy Land, and I have seen images today that do not fit the Gospel descriptions. Told to apply all my senses I may not know what things may smell and taste like if I never encountered them. The helpful stratagem is to imagine the scene happening in your own time and country, but how can I be sure that the transposition is true to the original story? Maybe it does not need to be. We are interested in gesture, not detail. The stories in the Gospels take place in every type of environment, town, country, market place and synagogue. These all have their equivalent in my time.  Weather is a good indication of mood. The weather patterns where you live will be different from those of Palestine 2000 years ago but we all know when the weather helps us to feel cheerful or makes us drag our feet, so what is the weather like in your meditation?  

Death and resurrection

I shelter from the rain in a doorway, and Someone else has the same idea.  I attend a pop concert and one of the performers sings a song that blows my mind, I insist on meeting Him.  I feel sick and helpless and my friends take me to hospital where the Doctor fixes the problem and tells me to get up and do something useful.  If I can only find a realistic way of putting myself in the Gospel scene I will meet the Risen Christ as surely as iron filings meet the magnet.  The crucifixion reminds me of all the ways in which my resistance to the love of God makes these meetings seem impossible.  I must accept the reality of these difficulties and press on in determination to find a way round them.

Step by step

Here are some practical tips to praying with the imagination.

God is with you

Do you enjoy His company? Has He annoyed you by letting something bad happen? Is there something that you would rather He did not know about? Remember that God loves you even if you know nothing else about Him.

Ask God to inspire your imagination

But you think you do not have imagination? God has endowed us all with imagination, but just as we can look at a beautiful flower or scene and fail to see God present in it, so we may not understand the way God communicates through our imagination. God has His own way of encouraging us, called consolation. Make inroads into this way of prayer and all sorts of good things will happen.

Read the passage

But did you read it carefully? A lot of the Bible is in the form of familiar stories that may have become distorted in the memory. As you read carefully questions may come to mind; how much is a talent worth, or a groat? What was the life of a shepherd like? What was the power structure in Israel at the time? You may be able to look the answers up, or you may decide that some aspect of modern society is probably similar.

Identify with a character

This is where it is easy to get lost. The passage is about reality and you must get real when doing the meditation. Sometimes you can’t ‘get into it’ because you feel you don’t belong. I think that most people can find someone in the Gospels that they can identify with, but we are given lots of passages, and some of them just do not seem to fit.

Remember that there are all sorts of people in the Gospels that do not get a mention because their presence is taken for granted. Women, children, passers by and onlookers, stall holders and shoppers, soldiers and workmen would be good candidates for someone to identify with who does not feel all that important.

Be willing to go to places you would normally avoid. Asked to imagine myself at Herod’s feast, the one where Salome dances and demands the head of John the Baptist. I knew I would not go near the place as an adult, but I thought that if I were a hungry child I might creep in to eat the scraps thrown on the floor.

Set the scene, fill in the details

You do not have to see what is going on (the application of the senses is given as a separate exercise). Your meditation can take a narrative form, just like the Gospel, but with the real you present. If you have read the passage carefully and looked up the answers to your questions you will be able to put flesh on your story, I’ve mentioned all the extra people, you may be able to feel the heat and dust, you may have pictures of the terrain. As your narrative unfolds you will start to act as the character you have chosen. How do you react to what is going on? Do you cry out, or run away? Do you feel happy or energised?

Talk to Jesus about what came up

Some people who find Ignatian prayer difficult are still perfectly capable of talking with God! So, this bit of the exercise might work well at both ends. You can start by talking about why you find it difficult and end up thanking God for what you have learned.

Finish with a prayer

Again, a Hail Mary at the beginning might help you get started and a Glory Be and Our Father at the end give thanks and a sense of ongoing purpose.



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