Is your group interested in trying imaginative prayer? Here’s a guide to doing imaginative prayer with a group using the book Imagine You Walked with Jesus.
Imaginative prayer, also known as Ignatian contemplation, is a way of praying by prayerfully imagining oneself inside a scene from a sacred text (typically from one of the Gospels): helping Mary care for the baby Jesus, for example, or walking with Jesus and his disciples along the road outside Jericho as he encounters a blind man. (You can find a full introduction to imaginative prayer here.)
As a form of interior prayer, most people practice this way of praying individually. But there are good reasons for wanting to try imaginative prayer as part of a larger group. You might want to introduce the practice to a group—your children, a Bible study group, or students in a religious education program, for example. Or you may want to use the experience of imaginative prayer as a departure point for deeper sharing and prayer with a group of friends.
Whatever your reasons for wanting to try imaginative prayer with a group, this article aims to get you started with session outlines, reading plans, bulletin announcements, and more.
While this article is primarily written for readers of Imagine You Walked with Jesus: A Guide to Ignatian Contemplative Prayer, you don’t need the book to try imaginative prayer with your group.
Gathering a Group
The first step is to gather your group. Who can participate in a “Walking with Jesus” prayer group? Imagine You Walked with Jesus is geared toward older teens and adults who are comfortable with their faith and generally familiar with the Bible. It is written primarily for a Catholic audience, although Christians of any denomination should feel comfortable with the material. (See below for ways to adapt your group session for those who might not fit this target audience.)
With these guidelines in mind, your group might take one of several forms:
- gathering a group of trusted friends to start a small prayer group focused on imaginative prayer
- starting a “Walking with Jesus” prayer group at your parish
- introducing imaginative prayer to your older children
- introducing imaginative prayer to teens in a youth group or classroom setting
If you will be reaching out to others to invite them to your group, you might use the following as a starting point for your message:
Would you like to get to know Jesus on a deeper, more personal level? What if you could hop in a time machine and walk with Jesus and his friends in first-century Palestine?
With imaginative prayer, you can. Imaginative prayer is a method of meditative prayer popularized by St. Ignatius of Loyola. In imaginative prayer, you let the Holy Spirit guide your imagination as you enter a scene from the Gospels. In imaginative prayer, you don’t just read and analyze the Gospel; you live it, directly participating in the story and interacting with the characters. St. Ignatius encouraged the practice of imaginative prayer as a powerful way to grow in faith in Jesus Christ.
If imaginative prayer sounds interesting to you, join our “Walking with Jesus” prayer group. We’ll be using Imagine You Walked with Jesus: A Guide to Ignatian Contemplative Prayer to guide our prayer and to help us share our prayer experience with one another.
(Include details about the meeting time and sign-up information.)
This message can be placed in your parish bulletin, on flyers, your parish e-mail newsletter, and social media.
Ideally, your group will include four to seven people. You want enough people in the group to get several different perspectives on the reading, but if the group gets too large, it could become unwieldy to share one another’s stories in any depth. If you have more than seven people, consider splitting into subgroups that meet at the same time.
Before the first meeting, group participants should read the introduction to this book for an overview of the purpose and method of imaginative prayer. Or allow time at the first meeting to present this information to the group in your own words.
The forty readings provided in Imagine You Walked with Jesus will keep a small prayer group busy for about nine months, if it meets weekly. Alternatively, your group can plan to meet for a shorter period of time—during a special liturgical season, for example, or to accompany a Bible study focused on a particular Gospel. See the list of reading plans for imaginative prayer here.
A rich experience of imaginative prayer requires time: time to get settled, time to welcome the Holy Spirit, and time to let the imagination “play” in the story.
So, how much time should you allow for your group session? That will depend in part on how quiet or talkative your group is, but a good rule of thumb would be to allow sixty to ninety minutes for adults and forty-five to sixty minutes for youth. See below for ways to adapt this session for quiet groups and for doing imaginative prayer with children.
- Prepare a prayerful environment for the session. Make sure you have comfortable seating, good lighting, tissues, and writing materials for people who want to write their prayer experience. (Or suggest that people purchase a notebook or journal for this purpose.) Ideally, there will be room for participants to spread out (or move to separate areas) during the individual prayer time. Optionally, you can also provide snacks, candles, and (non-distracting) background music to play while people pray.
- Welcome people as they arrive and give them time to get settled. If you like, you can use this time to recruit individuals to lead prayer or read the Gospel story.
- Begin with prayer. You can use the prayer provided with the Gospel story or supply your own. Allow a period of silence as you welcome the Holy Spirit into your hearts.
- Read the Gospel story once. Ask your designated reader to read the story aloud for the group.
- Discuss the background information and prompt questions. After reading this information, spend no more than five minutes “setting the scene” as a group. What physical and sensory details might enliven this story? Which characters might offer interesting points of view? Keep the discussion short and focused on a concrete encounter with the Gospel story. You can have a longer conversation about its meaning later.
- Read the story again. This time, read it more slowly, savoring each sentence.
- Invite everyone to reflect on the story individually. Allow twenty to thirty minutes for this step. Play music or white noise in the background if you find it helpful. After the first few sessions, you may need to adjust the amount of time you spend on this step to fit the personality of your group.
- Gather again to share your stories. When the group has gathered again, invite people to share their prayer experience with the group. Those who journaled their experience may want to read what they wrote; others might be more comfortable sharing bits and pieces of their experience. Of course, anyone who is uncomfortable sharing with the group should be allowed to pass. If most or all of your group is uncomfortable sharing their prayer with one another, see the adaptation below.
- Optionally, discuss the reflection questions. If you have time and are so inclined, extend your conversation by discussing the questions provided at the end of each chapter.
- Offer a closing prayer of thanksgiving. Close the session with a short prayer of thanksgiving. Incorporate the highlights of the group’s shared experience and lift up any intentions that may have emerged from the group discussion. For example: “Lord, thanks for inviting us to walk with you in (the setting of the Gospel story) today. Thanks for showing us (whatever insights the group gleaned from its discussion). We lift up in a special way (any intentions related to the group discussion, such as someone’s need for spiritual or physical healing). We ask all this in your holy name. Amen.”
As always, encourage the practice of good group etiquette, ensuring that each person has ample time to speak and that no one dominates the conversation. Affirm the contributions of each person and discourage criticism of another person’s personal prayer experience.
In particular, avoid the temptation to delve into doctrinal or theological discussions of the validity of someone’s prayer experience—especially not in the group setting. Such discussions may be interesting and even important, but if they come to dominate the discussion, you are going to end up with a very different type of group. Worse, group members may spend more time “editing” their prayer than letting the Holy Spirit lead them.
However, if someone suggests a scenario that you feel absolutely must be addressed in the group setting, address the issue succinctly, re-affirm the positive aspects of what the person shared, and move on.
Adaptations for “Quiet” Groups
Many people are reluctant to share their personal prayer experiences with others, especially in a group setting. That is not surprising; our spiritual lives touch the very heart of our identity, and imaginative prayer is a deeply personal encounter with Christ.
Sharing at that level of vulnerability requires confidence in oneself, as well as trust in others. You might find yourself with a “quiet” group if it includes:
- young people
- people who did not actively choose the experience (e.g., students in a classroom setting)
- people who are new to the faith
- people who do not feel confident in their prayer life
- people who are naturally shy
If you expect to be introducing imaginative prayer to people who may be uncomfortable with sharing their experience, adapt the session outline above to meet them where they are. Here are some suggestions:
- Give permission to not share. Mention up front—in announcements for the group and at the first session—that while sharing is encouraged, no one will be forced to share.
- Build group trust. As noted above, trust is key to helping people feel comfortable sharing in a group. For this reason, if you want to introduce imaginative prayer to a group that has gathered for a different purpose (a religious education program, for example, or a weekend retreat), it may be prudent to schedule the imaginative prayer experience for later in the program. If you have time, you can also have the group do various icebreakers and trust-building exercises before tackling the imaginative prayer experience.
- Model sharing. Instead of skipping the sharing step altogether, share your own prayer experience in order to provide a living example of what imaginative prayer might look like, at least for you. If possible, find a collaborator—some brave individual willing to share his experience with the group. (Approach the person ahead of the session—you do not want to put anyone on the spot.) Ideally, your collaborator will have a different approach to imaginative prayer than you do, demonstrating that there is no one “right” way to enter the Gospel in imaginative prayer.
- Use concrete questions to create opportunities for “safe” sharing. You might also try leading the group through the prompt questions associated with each Gospel story. Ask group members, for instance, about the sensory details they imagined: What did they see, hear, and smell? What kind of clothes were people wearing? What was the weather like? What facial expressions did they see on different characters at critical moments in the story? And so on. Asking simple, concrete questions will make it easier for group members to share and will build trust. As the group becomes more comfortable with sharing over the course of several sessions, ask deeper questions (including the reflection questions at the end of each chapter).
- Omit the discussion of the reflection questions in step 9. Until group members feel comfortable sharing with one another, skip the reflection questions at the end of each chapter, or replace them with a discussion of the prompt questions as described above.
Above all, meet people in your group wherever they happen to be in their spiritual life…just as Jesus did.
Doing Imaginative Prayer with Children
While Imagine You Walked with Jesus is primarily intended for adults and older teens, you can definitely do imaginative prayer with young people, including children. A full introduction to using imaginative prayer with children would require another book (although see the resources below). However, here are some tips if you want to try it with your own children.
- Use a kid-friendly Bible translation with older kids. Both the Contemporary English Version and the Good News Translation may be easier for middle-grade readers to comprehend. Both are available at the Bible Gateway website. The Catholic Children’s Bible from Saint Mary’s Press uses the Good News Translation and includes added features to help children understand key stories.
- Use a book of Bible stories with younger children. For younger children, use a book of Bible stories; the Catholic Book of Bible Stories by Laurie Lazzaro Knowlton (Zonderkidz) or The Catholic Bible for Children by Karine-Marie Amiot, Francois Carmagnac, and Christophe Raimbault (Ignatius Press) are both good options.
- Pray alongside older children, then share your experiences. Introduce older children to imaginative prayer by praying alongside them to model the experience. Modify the session outline for group prayer (above), shortening the amount of time allowed for prayerful meditation to fit the attention span of your children. Share your experience with one another…you may be surprised at how the Holy Spirit works in your children!
- Try collaborative storytelling with younger children. With younger children, or older kids not used to meditative prayer, try collaborative imaginative prayer. Read the Gospel story aloud to your children, then draw on the “Imagining the Story” background information and prompt questions to help your children imagine themselves in the story. For example: “If you could be in this story, who would you like to be—Mary or Martha? Or would you be a kid in the room? What do you think Jesus looks like in this story? If you were there, what would you say?” And so on.
To learn more about teaching children meditative and contemplative prayer, including imaginative prayer, look into the many resources available from the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd religious education program. Also, the Catholic Diocese of Townsville (Australia) regularly teaches meditation and contemplation to children and youth (see their website, cominghome.org.au, for ideas and resources). And for a more in-depth introduction to using imaginative prayer with children, see Jared Patrick Boyd’s Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child’s Spiritual Formation (IVP Books).
Get the free imaginative prayer group kit from the Gracewatch store.