Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, April 19, 2018

hinkley_halfThe feast day of Saint Ignatius of Loyola on July 31 is the perfect occasion to reflect on the "prayer of imagination," a prayer form often associated with Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.

 

The prayer of the imagination entails the quiet and prayerful use of your imagination to picture a specific scene. Sometimes Saint Ignatius recommends consideration of a specific scriptural passage, and other times he encourages the Christian to entertain some other religious scene. A special characteristic of Ignatian prayer is imagining yourself in the scene. "Where are you in this scene? Are you taking part in the action or are you more of a spectator?"

While many spiritual writers have commented on the prayer of imagination, many Christians are unfamiliar with this form of prayer. There are several ways to make the prayer more accessible and less intimidating.

Before you enter your time of prayer, prepare yourself and your prayer topic. It is helpful to have a clear intention for your prayer time. What specific grace do you desire from this experience of prayer? Do you seek encouragement and strength during a difficult time in your family life? One facing the painful loss of a loved one may turn to the Lord for comfort and hope. The naming of a grace helps you enter prayer with a clarity that can reduce distractions during the formal time of prayer. A prayer intention does not have to be complicated. It can be as simple as a desire to spend time with Christ.

It is also helpful to read the Scriptures or choose a prayer topic a day ahead of time. This gives your imagination time to appreciate the twists and turns in the Scripture story. By the time you sit down for your prayer time, the prayer topic will already have a place in your memory. It will already be part of you and it will more fully engage your imagination.

The account of the rich young man in the Gospels can be a wonderful topic for the prayer of imagination. The first thing we notice about the various synoptic accounts of the rich young man is that they all entail three engaging scenes that employ our imagination and can raise questions within our prayer.

Although not explicitly recorded with detail in the Scriptures, the scene begins with the young man’s approaching Jesus. An active imagination can raise several thoughts: Being wealthy, does he approach Jesus and the disciples atop a mule or on foot, alone or with servants? Does his clothing reflect the affluence of his father’s house? Does the crowd around Jesus make way for the young man’s approach or does he have to push his way through them? Allow your imagination to fill the story out and, in time, the Lord will speak to you in these rich details.

The second scene we can imagine entails the young man’s body language and manner as he addresses Jesus: "Good Teacher, what must I do to share in everlasting life?" (Mk 10:17) Does he look into Jesus’ eyes or is he too nervous to do so? If it were you standing before Jesus, how would you feel? What would you say? You can already appreciate how the prayer of imagination invites us to a very personal encounter with Christ through the Scripture narrative. Let yourself go in your prayer and allow the scene to carry you.

The final scene is the young man’s sad departure and Jesus’ address to his disciples. The young man’s "face fell" (Mk 10:22). Watching the disappointment in the rich young man, Jesus continues to love him and warns the disciples of the dangers of materialism. What do you think Jesus is feeling at this point in the story? The Scripture tells us that even as the young man walks away, Jesus continues to watch him with love.

It is important to state that the prayer of imagination is not intended to be anything other than a vehicle to develop a greater love of God within the Christian’s heart and, in turn, to bring true glory to God. There could be a danger for some to understand this prayer form to be an overly subjective experience that cuts the Christian off from an open and authentic experience of Christ and his Church. However, properly employed, the prayer of imagination exercised regularly over a period of time can be a very enriching and fruitful experience of faith.

As with all sincere prayer, the prayer of imagination should lead us to a greater appreciation of God’s revelation of love. Moreover, in its truest expression, the prayer of imagination invites the Holy Spirit in as an active participant in the Christian experience of prayer. Here, prayer isn’t just a wellspring of peaceful feelings and quiet; this dynamic experience enriches the disciple through an assimilation of the Divine Life. The prayerful person engages the Scriptures and finds the beautiful and unconditional love of an almighty and all-merciful God. Thus, the prayer of imagination leads the faithful person of prayer to imitate this experience of God’s love by loving others. In turn, God’s kingdom of love is built up through faithful prayer, and greater glory is rendered to God.

Saint Ignatius’ prayer of imagination is a wonderful way for a Christian to grow closer to Christ, experience the working of the Holy Spirit and, in turn, bring greater glory to God by better holding true to his will. While much can be said about the world and the Church today, Saint Ignatius provides us with a way to ensure that we grow and make daily decisions in step with God’s plan for us.

Father Michael Hinkley is Pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church and School in Waterbury.