Many of us, when we think about praying or prayer, generally mean “talking to God.” Whether the prayer is a memorized prayer such as the Our Father, a spontaneous “Thank you God” whisper, reading prayers out of a prayer book, or asking for something, prayer seems to be vocal. We are talking to God. We either talk to God in our thoughts, we talk out loud or we sing. We believe that prayer is a way to contact God and have a conversation. But is that the only form prayer takes?
Praying can also be meditative. Thinking about God is a form of prayer. Reading passages from scripture then thinking about the passage and what it means, is also a form of prayer. (In Catholicism it is called Lectio Divina.) Sitting quietly, attempting to reach your inner core, listening and feeling your breathing, sensing every part of your body, is a form of prayer.
Imagination is a form of prayer. In Catholicism, it is perhaps best known by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius or the Rosary. Praying the Rosary allows the prayer to sink into an imaginative journey through the life of Jesus. The Gospels are alive with images and scenes. For the person who is not gifted with an active imagination, recalling scenes from movies that bring Jesus and his story alive can also be used. After all, movies are just another person’s imagination of the way things were.
The Gospels have many gaps in information that the writers did not feel necessary to include, possibly assuming a common knowledge. Twenty-first century imaginative prayers may find it frustrating contending with the lack of information about culture and customs of the time and may feel a need to seek information elsewhere to fill in these gaps.
Take, for example, the story of the annunciation in the Gospel of Luke. In your imagination, place yourself in the scene. The first problem you will have is in establishing the setting for the encounter between Mary and the Angel Gabriel. What kind of a house did Mary live in? Was it made of brick, stone or mud? How many rooms did it have? How many floors? Were Mary’s parents rich or poor? What kind of furniture did they have? Was the kitchen inside the house or in a lean to outside?
Did Mary’s mother keep a goat or goats for its milk and coat? Did they have a donkey for travel? If so, where were they kept: In a basement room or tethered outdoors? Did the family have a small vegetable garden, fruit trees or other shrubs? Did they have a grape vine for making their own wine? In a hot dry climate with no running water, a woman went to the town well every day to fetch water for the family’s needs whether it was for cooking, watering the livestock, washing, or watering the plants. To get a feel for the interaction between Mary and Gabriel, imagine the scene. Create the setting.
Israel has a climate similar to that of Southern California. It has two seasons: dry and rain. Most months are dry. What kind of a day was it when Gabriel visited Mary? Dry or rain? Was it overcast or bright? Was it during the heat of the day or the cool of the morning or evening?
You have now created the scene in which the Annunciation takes place. Now imagine yourself as being present during the interaction between the Angel Gabriel and Mary. Remember that Mary is a young girl. Scholars speculate that she cannot have been over the age of 15 at the time. What was she doing at the precise moment Gabriel appeared? What did Gabriel look like? Did he just appear in a flash of light? Was he very tall? Did he look like a human person? Was he dressed all in white robes with a shining light around him? Create your image of Gabriel.
Depending upon what you think Gabriel looked like and how he first appeared to Mary, how does Mary react? Is she startled to see a strange man in her house? Is she startled by seeing an ethereal person? Was she frightened or did she recognize him for what he was – a messenger from God. Did she hide her face in her hands and kneel down or did she stand and look Gabriel in the face? Do you see Mary as a brave little girl or as a self-confident young woman?
Take your time thinking about their interaction. Go over every possible nuance in the conversation. Listen in awe as this momentous conversation takes place.
Gabriel leaves or just disappears. How does Mary feel now? What are her thoughts and feelings? What does she do? Does she just go back to what she was doing? Does she take some time to think about what had just happened? Does she immediately begin to wonder about the implications of her decision?
You may end your imaginative meditation here or you can go on with the rest of the story and fill in the gaps between the Annunciation and when Mary set off on her journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Luke has not filled in these gaps for you so you must imagine what must have happened.
Using imaginative prayer allows you to feel a personal closeness or kinship with the characters in the Gospel story. You may identify with whichever character appeals to you most or change your identification each time you enter this scene. You become personally involved in their lives as you try to experience what they might have experienced.
Use imaginative prayer in conjunction with the seasons too. During Advent and Christmas time, imagine all that happened prior to, after and at the birth of Jesus. Try to live the events. Holy week is a time for Palm Sunday and the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, Jesus trial and torture before he carries his cross to his death. Placing yourself in imagination in all these events sparks a deep and personal involvement in Jesus passion and resurrection. If you don’t remember the story, go back to your Bible and re-read those passages. Then sit back and relax and let your mind drift into the scene you want to concentrate on.
During Ordinary Time the Church concentrates on Jesus ministry. You can take the daily readings from that day’s Mass for your imaginative prayer.
For some people, saying the Rosary fulfills their need for imaginative prayer as each decade of the Rosary focuses on some part of the life and death of Jesus. The prayer can concentrate on only one scene for all five decades or try to live each decade separately.
Imaginative prayer offers a way to become personally involved in the life of Jesus as a participant or as an observer. Either way, you will grow in love and appreciation for the characters depicted in the stories.
If you have never tried imaginative prayer, try it once or twice to see if it meets your spiritual needs. This form of prayer takes time, it is not a quickie rush job. It takes silence; the TV cannot be blaring. It takes concentration. You will find it is best to do alone or in a group of others who are praying too. Others have found it a very valuable means of prayer. You may find it meaningful too.
Spiritual exorcices http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ignatius/exercises.html
Gospel of Luke 1:26-38 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%201:26-38&version=NASB
Gospel of Luke 2:41-51 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%202:41-51&version=NASB