I’ve written before about contemplative prayer and its benefits. Some people have real difficulty clearing their minds and quieting their inner voices enough for prayers like the Jesus Prayer. Fortunately, St. Ignatius (1491-1556) gives us another way to connect with the Divine through a contemplative practice, and it’s a method that works better for some people than centering/contemplative prayer.
Ignatian style contemplative prayer is a meditative practice where one reads a scripture multiple times and then imagines oneself in the scene. Our imagination is a wonderful gift from the Ground of All Being and important way for the Holy Spirit to communicate to us. Ignatian prayer taps into this gift and opens us up to receive messages from Her (yes, I prefer She/Her pronouns for the Holy Spirit).
Step 1 The first step for a good Ignatian prayer, is to pick a section of scripture that one is already familiar with, that one sees God active in, and that is a scene with multiple characters. My preference is scenes where people are interacting with Jesus, though plenty of other scripture is open to this style of prayer. If one can imagine being there, one can use scripture for this.
Step 2 Set a timer. Ten to twenty minutes is best for this style of prayer and will get the best experience, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good—if you have five minutes, then you have five minutes.
Step 3 Read through the selected scripture three times. The first time is to remind oneself what the passage is about. Simply read it for the surface meaning of the text. Don’t spend much time or effort on this reading. For the second reading, one should read more slowly and begin to build a sense of what the surrounding looks like, what the speaker sounds like, and any of the people who are in the scene. Finally, one reads through even more slowly, taking the time to imagine any senses that come to mind: what does the area smell like? Are there any backgrounds noises of note? What time of day is it, and how does that impact the mood?
Step 4 Now close your eyes and imagine your way through the scene. Are you one of the main characters in the story? One of the bystanders? What is it like to experience this or watch this happen? Just spend time being open to the Holy Spirit to work upon your imagination. Don’t fight Her, let Her guide your thoughts. There have been times that I’ve had the story play out differently than it happens in the text. Other times I’ve had everything basically the same until the end, when I have powerful experiences of Divine Love. Like all imaginative experiences, this requires an openness and a willingness to play. And, like many things, this gets easier with practice. During this time, if you lose your focus and start thinking of other things, be kind to yourself and gently return to your imagined scene. Anxiety and control smother imagination and play. Try to just experience “the flow of Divine Love“.
Step 5 Once your time is over, reflect on anything you might’ve learned or scene in the scene that you hadn’t noticed before. Some people like to read the scripture again at this point with new eyes, where one might see a deeper, richer scene than the plain text makes clear. Scenes can be returned to multiple times, because we don’t always need to hear the same things from the Holy Spirit. One important point: God is Love. Anything you experience or feel that comes from God should comport with this.
Since we are in Eastertide (for another couple of weeks at least), here is a selection to use for your practice from Matthew 28:1-10:
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
I hope this prayer style helps some of you. Grace and Peace to you all.
Bart Hennigan has a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently in year four of Sewanne's Education for Ministry and is pursuing certification as a spiritual director through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When not reading or discussing philosophy and theology, Bart is a stay-at-home father of three, which has taught him much about patience and the importance of silence.