Imaginative contemplation is all about getting to know Jesus. It is a method of prayer in which you imagine yourself as present in a Gospel scene, stepping into the story and encountering Jesus there. It was St Ignatius' firm belief that God can speak to you just as clearly in your imagination as through your thoughts. This way of praying will help you to see more clearly, love more dearly, and follow more nearly the person of Jesus Christ.
The idea that God can speak to people through their imagination can seem a bit strange. Isn’t this just making things up in your head? On the contrary, the imagination is foremost a gift from God in the same way that a person’s intellect or memory is a gift from God. Christianity is clear that God speaks to people through the scriptures and the sacraments, through daily experiences and their emotions. If God can do all of these things, He can speak through the imagination too.
Imaginative contemplation is a way of praying that engages your full person: your imagination, your senses, and your heart. St Ignatius believes that this is essential for bringing about interior transformation, by going beyond the intellect, moving from the head to the heart, and meeting Jesus there.
In imagining Jesus and contemplating how He acts in the Gospels, you will also be challenged. The first step is to come to know Jesus Christ, the second is to love Him more, the third is to follow Him and imitate His example of radical love, living it out in your own life.
‘Imagining Christ Our Lord before me on the cross… asking how it came about that the Creator made Himself man, and from eternal life came to temporal death, and thus to die for my sins. Then, turning to myself I shall ask, what have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ?’ St Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises
The first step in an Imaginative Contemplation exercise is setting the scene. So, what is the location? What does it look like? What details do you see? Getting into the details here will help. For example, here is how St Ignatius writes about beginning a contemplation on the Nativity:
‘Composition, seeing the place. Here it will be to see with the eyes of the imagination the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, considering the length and breadth of it, whether it is a flat road or goes through valleys or over hills; and similarly to look at the place or grotto of the Nativity, to see how big or small it was, how low or high, and what was in it.’ St Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises
Imaginative contemplation goes beyond just what you can see, it requires you to engage all of your senses. In doing this, you can fully immerse yourself into the story; this means exploring what you smell, hear, taste and touch. Once you have filled out your sensory experience of the place, you can move into the ‘action’ of the scene, having finished ‘composing the place’ fully.
This is to let the story unfold and to allow yourself to be drawn into what has captured your imagination. Sometimes people are not drawn to the main action of the story but towards other things. When this happens, it is best not to judge that but to allow yourself to follow what you are naturally being drawn to.
It is important to understand that, at this stage, you are not just watching the scene play out as though it is a scene from a movie and you are a viewer. Instead, see yourself as a character inside the story. For example, this is how St Ignatius writes about experiencing the Nativity scene:
‘This is to see the people, i.e. Our Lady, and Joseph, and the servant girl, and the child Jesus after his birth. Making myself into a poor and unworthy little servant, I watch them, and contemplate them, and serve them in their needs as if I were present, with all possible submission and reverence’. St Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises
Conclude with a conversation in your imagination between Jesus and yourself, as one friend speaks with another. Express what is in your mind and heart and let Jesus express His responses too.
After the contemplation has finished, it is very important to take some time to reflect on what you noticed. Look back at your prayer and honestly ask yourself:
- What did I find myself thinking and feeling? What moved me?
- What struck me (especially the unusual or unexpected) and why did I react the way I did?
- Did anything in the contemplation change the way I see God, myself, or others?
- How did Jesus’ words or actions in the contemplation make me feel?
The result of this reflection should be an insight into ourselves, our relationship with God, and our relationships with others.
Imaginative contemplation is best suited to what we read in the Gospels. These reflections are all accounts of Jesus ministering to people. Let the events of Jesus’ life described in these reflections be present to you right now. At some point, place yourself in the scene and meet Jesus there.