St Ignatius presents us with a particular way of praying in the Spiritual Exercises, called ‘imaginative contemplation’. The basic outline is that the pray-er uses the faculty of imagination to enter into the world of the prayer text. The purpose of this is to fully immerse oneself and interact with the characters so that hopefully some sort of relationship or meaning may be made between the person at prayer and God. Ignatius instructs us to imagine the scenery, the noises, the scents, the time of day, etc of the scenario in an effort to engage the whole self in the contemplation.
Intrinsic to this is a dialogue or conversation, which can often be a time of surprise and grace.
Consider the following prayer text in imaginative contemplation, a picture by Michael Belk, entitled The Second Mile.
Note: A clearer copy of the image may be found here.
• What feelings or responses rise in you as you look at the picture?
• Which parts grab your attention?
• Does it move you or confront you or console you or challenge you in any way?
• Enter as far in to the scene as possible. Talk to Christ and share your responses with him. Also wait for him to reply.
I recently did the above exercise myself. When I first encountered it, I was met with surprise, a sense of humor. Jesus is walking along, strolling really, with the soldier and Jesus lovingly questions the man and his motives… Hey man, where are you going with that rucksack and rifle? You look weighed down by that, here let me carry that for ya… (Jesus has a cool and collected drawl) and the soldier surrenders his things to Jesus in a state of speechlessness.
Soon this humor progressed to an understanding or insight into the faithful companionship of Jesus and how he still walks with us, still cares for us and still calls us to conversion, no matter how foolish or destructuve our choices may be. That led to peace and to joy and by the end of the contemplation period, I was really consoled.
Interestingly however, there is another part of Ignatian prayer called ‘repetition.’ This is whereby you revisit the scene however not as you were previously, for the simple fact that you can’t recreate feelings or responses. This is to see if there are any more graces to be received.
My experience of the tragedy at Boston
When I revisited the scene a second time, I found myself in a space that was almost at odds with the peace and humor I experienced the first time. This was because I had just learnt of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Images of war, death and disaster now filled the scene. I had actually seen video footage of a live-action account from one of the runners’ camera.
Immediately the tone of my prayer with the above image changed. Things were different now from when I first entered the scene before. My prayer took me right into the heart of the events. I imagined the marathon runners on that same road. Is Jesus there with them? I imagined those responsible for the bombings. How is Jesus with them now? I imagined myself in the place of Jesus, how might I be if walking along someone who did terrible things?
I contemplated what the invitation might have been, noting the weight or mood in this prayer space. Perhaps I was being called into forgiveness, into solidarity with the suffering of the world and of simply staying with Christ.
Of course Boston is only one example of the reality of such carnage and brutality that plagues our world. Nevertheless images like The Second Mile beg us to go deeper into ourselves and into the mystery and identity of God and imaginative contemplation facilitates that aim.
Where did your prayer take you today? On the road to Emmaus? Boylston Street, Boston? Or as in other news, perhaps a dirt road in Afghanistan?
The possibilities are endless. And the fruits of prayer abundant. We just have to let ourselves enter into the story.