If I ask you to read a newspaper article, I am asking you to engage your intellect. If I ask you to look at a picture of a bird, I am asking you to use your faculty of sight. If I ask you to listen to my favorite David Bowie song (today it’s “Heroes” but that might change tomorrow), I am asking you to use your sense of hearing. 

But if I ask you to imagine a chef preparing your favorite meal, in an instant all of your senses are engaged. You might see all the colorful ingredients in front of you: the green lettuce, the yellow peppers, the fresh tortillas, the marbled steak. You might hear the chopping of cilantro or the sizzling of butter in a pan. You might smell the aroma of onions or the flowery fragrance of cumin. You might feel the heat of the oven. And you might taste the sharp bite of a Spanish cheese you love. All of this can cause you to salivate. 

What happens in the end is that a series of imagined sensory events becomes a unique and creative physical experience. Think about that. Just imagining something can actually lead to biological change in your body. 

St. Ignatius knew a thing or two about the imagination. The 17th-century mystic and founder of the Jesuits came to realize through his spiritual journey that we could engage our thoughts and senses and transform the events of Jesus’s life in the Bible into deeply personal, physical, and emotional experiences. Doing so, he believed, ultimately brought us closer to understanding Christ and the joys and sorrows he experienced in his lifetime. This way of engaging with God used in the Spiritual Exercises, a collection of meditations to help people discern the will of God, came to be known as imaginative prayer.

As David Fleming explains in his terrific introduction to St. Ignatius and the Exercises, “What Is Ignatian Spirituality?”: “To follow Jesus we must know him, and we get to know him through our imagination. Imaginative Ignatian prayer teaches us things about Jesus that we would not learn through scripture study or theological reflection. . . . It brings Jesus into our hearts.”

Praying with the heart

Over the years, I’ve used imaginative prayer to help me enter more deeply into the life of Christ, especially during Lent and Easter. One of the most effective and eye-opening journeys through the Stations has been the process of composing a scene in my mind and engaging in it with my heart — meaning my feelings and emotions — as if it were real. Let’s try it together. Read these lines:

Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:20–23)

Imagine the scene you’ve just read. What does the crowd look like? How many people are in the crowd — 30 or 300? What do all these people sound like? Describe the expressions on their faces, the colors of their clothing. What time of day is it? How does Jesus react when he looks out at the people around him? Is he sad? Disappointed? Unmoved? Brave? Is there a smile on his face? Just stay with the images you’ve created for a few moments. 

Then ask yourself how you would feel if that were you on display like that. If you knew you only had hours to live and you were being judged and mocked by a crowd of your peers. Maybe imagine yourself as one of the people shouting for crucifixion. Or maybe imagine that you are a voice crying out for mercy. Stay with that response a moment and then let it go.

How do you feel? I know when I’ve done this exercise, I’ve felt overwhelmed and sometimes moved to tears. I often imagine it’s a warm day, the sun is out, bleaching the surrounding buildings. The crowd is frenzied. In my imagination, Jesus is a bit horrified. As he looks out to see how everyone has turned against him, his heart feels like it’s going to collapse. His throat goes dry. As I imagine this scene, I feel Jesus’ fear and this experience, in a grace-filled sort of way, helps me to deal and put into perspective my own daily fears.

In defense of imagination

Often times when we think of the imagination we think fantasy, and we are quick to dismiss the experience as unreal. But just because something is imagined doesn’t mean it is unimportant. C. S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” is an imagined book, but it gives us some of the greatest insight into sin ever written. “The Lord of the Rings” is pure fantasy but demonstrates great truths about good, evil, heroism, and honor. Sylvester Stallone’s character Rocky has inspired millions to never give up, whether in sports, at work, or when dealing with illness.

Even Disney’s popular movie “Frozen,” based on a classic fairy tale, has inspired countless children and young people to be strong and compassionate in their daily lives. This is to say very little about all the buildings, works of art, musical compositions, and even medical advancements because someone dared to imagine something new and different. Just because something is imagined doesn’t mean it’s not real and powerful.

As we edge closer to Lent this year, it would do us all good to take some time out from the realities of day to day living and engage Jesus through imaginative prayer. Maybe imagine that you are Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. Imagine how you would pray to God. Jesus would use the word abba, or “daddy,” when he spoke to his father. This term of endearment shows an intimacy that Jesus had with God. Imagine you have that same intimate relationship with God. 

If you were Jesus, what would you pray for? How would you react if you knew you were going to endure great sorrow? How does God respond? What feelings bubble up inside you as you imagine the response? Pay attention to your thoughts, your feelings, and even your body. Then speak to God from the heart, knowing that you have tapped into a very special gift — the gift of co-creation, the gift of imagined reality.

After all, didn’t God the Father dare greatly and imagine the world into existence?

Gary Jansen is the author of “Station to Station: An Ignatian Journey through the Stations of the Cross” and “Microshifts: Transforming Your Life One Step at a Time.”

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