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Imaginative Prayer

St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose feast day we celebrate on July 31st, had a remarkable imagination. His imagination played a central role in his conversion. This imaginative prayer style is one of the hallmarks of his spirituality.

As a Spanish soldier prior to his conversion, Ignatius was an avid reader and imagined himself defeating the enemy and saving the damsel in distress. After he was wounded in battle and convalescing, he only could read about the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. He imagined himself a disciple of Christ and had a great desire to be with Christ and to follow him. He grew very close to Saints Dominic and Francis and wanted to be like them. As he thought about his prior life, he became discouraged and discontented. As he thought about his new life with Christ and the saints, he became cheerful and satisfied.

He continued to make liberal use of the imagination, and integrated imaginative prayer into the approach to the spiritual life that he outlined in the Spiritual Exercises . In his hands, the imagination becomes a tool to help us know and love God.

We can use this imaginative method when we pray the Gospels. We become onlooker-participants and give full reign to our imagination. Jesus is speaking to a blind man at the side of the road. We feel the hot Mediterranean sun beating down. We smell the dust kicked up by the passersby. We feel the itchy clothing we’re wearing, the sweat rolling down our brow, a rumble of hunger. We see the desperation in the blind man’s face and hear the wail of hope in his words. We note the irritation of the disciples. Above all we watch Jesus—the way he walks, his gestures, the look in his eyes, the expression on his face. We hear him speak the words that are recorded in the Gospel. We go on to imagine other words he might have spoken and other deeds he might have done.

The best-known example of this use of the imagination is in the Nativity story. Ignatius suggests that we imagine “the labors of the journey to Bethlehem, the struggles of finding a shelter, the poverty, the thirst, the hunger, the cold, and the insults that meet the arrival of God-with-us.” Ignatius chooses scenes of Jesus acting rather than Jesus teaching or telling parables. He wants us to see Jesus interacting with others, Jesus making decisions, Jesus moving about, Jesus ministering. He doesn’t want us to think about Jesus. He wants us to experience him. He wants Jesus to fill our senses. He wants us to meet him.

Following Jesus is the business of our lives as Christians. To follow him we must know him, and we get to know him through our imagination. Imaginative Ignatian prayer teaches us things about Jesus that we would not learn through scripture study or theological reflection. It allows the person of Christ to penetrate into places that the intellect does not touch. It brings Jesus into our hearts. It engages our feelings and enflames us with ideals of generous service.

-Deacon Carl Toomey