Using your imagination as the primary means of interpreting Scripture doesn’t sound like rigorous Bible study. Yet, for nearly 500 years, the highly self-disciplined Society of the Jesuits have regularly engaged in the practice of using our God-given senses as a way to encounter Scripture. Credited to Ignatius of Loyola, Ignatian Contemplation or Ignatian Prayer is a powerful and meaningful way of being formed by praying with Scripture.
Eager to learn methods of unlocking the meaning of Scripture, it is not uncommon that my students are a bit doubtful, reluctant, or even a bit disappointed to discover that they already possess what they need for this sort of study. However, I remind them, the reality is we use our imaginations to interpret Scripture whenever we host a Christmas pageant, attend a Passion play, or even conduct an Easter sunrise service in the church garden or in a local cemetery. To do this with and for a congregation, we draw on our sensory experiences of the world to help create the scene and tell a story. Whether a production is simple or sophisticated, the costumes, setting, lighting, music, and smells are always limited by physical resources at hand. But when we pray with our imaginations, the only limitations are the time we devote to it and the imaginative insights made available to us through the Holy Spirit.
Praying with our imagination takes seriously the notion that our senses are God-given creativity to use or draw on our experiences of the world. Historical accuracy is not the intent. Neither is authorial intent or even readerly intent. In Ignatian imagination, divine intent is sought.
Ignatian imagination trusts that God is with us when we encounter Scripture. Ignatian prayer teaches us when God is with us, prompting our sense and affirming insights we glean, we know consolation. We may, however, let our imaginations run away from us. We can be taught to recognize these instances by feelings of desolation, or God’s absence from us.
Entering Ignatian prayer simply requires a story from Scripture and time set aside to study it. The Gospels, of course, provide opportunities to encounter Jesus, but action-packed narratives from the Old Testament or stories of the apostles have merit to experience God as well. Lighting a candle to symbolize God’s presence isn’t strictly necessary. But doing so provides an opportunity to intentionally ask the Holy Spirit to work. Inasmuch as prayer is conversation with God, these are preparatory, centering moments of asking God that prayerful conversation be directed through the unfolding of the Scripture as you read through it several times.
In the first reading, notice how the scene is set. Look for the big, broad strokes indicating where, when, and what is happening, along with who is there. Is the scene set in a city or a village? A house? Out in the open or near water? What time of day is it? Morning? Evening or the dead of night? Is it particularly hot or cold? Who is there? What are they doing? What noises or smells do you notice? What mood or atmosphere do you pick up? Does it change as the story is read through? Take several minutes as you finish reading to consider what you’ve noticed. Remember, the isn’t about historical accuracy—but your encounter with God. So, it is perfectly possible that any noises or other sensory perceptions that filter through in your location can be considered for their congruence or disturbance.
When the scene is set, read through the Scripture a second time. Now, imagine yourself in story. Where are you? Who are you? A major player? An onlooker? An inanimate object that has a unique perspective on what is happening? What do you hear? What textures to you feel? What kinds of things do you especially notice? Take some time to consider details that come with careful observation—the smell of ripe fruit, the roughness of wood or pottery, or what bystanders are making of the main action.
Now that the details are in place, take time to experience the story in your third reading. What do you feel? What do you notice? What do you say? When the scene is complete, what happens? Do you stay there? Do you leave with others? Who do you talk to? What do you share?
Take some time to consider the meaning of story now that you have experienced it with God. Were you content? Carried along by the action? When did you feel consoled? Desolate? Pay attention to what God might be telling you. You might want to journal for a bit, taking note of things that stood out to you or questions that linger.
Like most prayer, Ignatian prayer can be entered into individually or in a corporate setting. Regardless of how it is entered into, trust the Spirit, not just during prayer, but in what happens when you return to the demands of everyday life and Scripture leaves its indelible marks, forming you for the life you are called to live.