Imaginative prayer is a great way to “meet” Jesus face-to-face. Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting started, plus 40 Gospel stories to try.
Imagine, for a moment, that some technological genius has invented a time machine, and you are one of a handful of people selected to take it for a spin as part of a promotional campaign. You can go to any time and place in the past, on the condition that you meet a famous historical figure and return to tell the modern world about him or her.
As a Christian, you wonder what it would be like to meet Jesus, face to face…to walk with him along the roads, fields, and seashores of ancient Palestine. You could see him work miracles and hear him preach with your own eyes and ears. You might even approach him…talk to him, ask him questions, maybe even seek his healing touch.
What would that be like? Would you jump at the chance, full of excitement and enthusiasm…or would you hesitate, a little nervous, a little intimidated? We’re talking about the Son of God, after all!
Maybe you would be afraid of being disappointed. Perhaps you would decide to go see Jesus…but from a distance, mingling in the crowds that followed him. Or you could get to know some of his close followers first. Maybe his mother, or Peter, or another apostle, could make an introduction for you.
For better or worse, time machines don’t exist. But there is another way to “meet” Jesus that is actually better than a time machine. This way isn’t powered by plutonium or Artron energy, but by your imagination and the Holy Spirit; appropriately enough, it’s called imaginative prayer.
St. Ignatius and the Power of Imagination
People have used their imaginations in prayer since forever, but the method of imaginative prayer you’re being invited to try in this journal was popularized by a Spanish nobleman named Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola, better known today as St. Ignatius of Loyola.
From his youth, Iñigo was a dreamer. Fueled by popular books of adventure and romance, he imagined the glory he would win for himself with his heroic deeds. Those dreams led him to a soldier’s life, and eventually, to a fateful battle. In the spring of 1521. a French army attacked the fortress town of Pamplona. His comrades proposed surrendering (they were outnumbered 14-to-1), but Iñigo persuaded them to fight on. In the course of the battle, a French cannonball shattered his leg.
He was taken back to the Loyola family castle, where he spent nine months recovering. Bored, he asked for books to read — preferably, ones about romance and adventure. Instead, he was given two popular religious books: The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Varagine (a collection of stories about the saints) and The Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony.
Iñigo at once began bringing these books to life in his imagination, spending long hours daydreaming about the great deeds he could do in service to Christ, just like the saints he was reading about. With the help and encouragement of The Life of Christ, he vividly imagined various scenes from the Gospels, too. He took notes as he read, eventually filling a 300-page notebook.
These daydreams alternated with his typical daydreams about the great things he might do in the royal court or on the battlefield. Gradually, he noticed something about these different types of daydreams. His dreams of winning personal glory left him feeling empty and restless, but his dreams of winning glory for God made him peaceful and content. Gradually he realized that different spiritual forces lay behind these feelings.
Here at the beginning of his new life, Iñigo had discovered a truth that would form the basis of his spirituality: All created things, including human emotions and imagination, have the potential to make us holy — that is, to bring us into a richer, more intimate relationship with God.
Years later, Ignatius and six companions joined together to form a new religious order, the Society of Jesus (popularly known as the Jesuits). Ignatius wrote a sort of “spiritual training manual” for the Jesuits based on notes he had kept during his recovery and the years of prayer and study that followed. He called this manual the Spiritual Exercises. Not surprisingly, imaginative prayer was a key element of the exercises.
This is an excerpt from If You Walked with Jesus: A 40-Day Journey through the Life of Christ Using Ignatian Imaginative Prayer, forthcoming from Gracewatch Media. Sign up for our occasional newsletter to find out when this title becomes available.
Practicing Imaginative Prayer
Let’s look at the actual practice of imaginative prayer — or, as Jesuits call it, contemplative prayer. (Contemplative prayer has a completely different meaning in the rest of the Christian prayer tradition, so we’ll keep using the term imaginative prayer.)
St. Ignatius believed that God created the whole world, including the human imagination, for the purpose of drawing us closer to him. He was well aware that the imagination can just as easily separate us from God, of course. But imaginative prayer is different from idle or directionless daydreaming. It is always anchored in two things:
- Our invitation for the Holy Spirit to use our imagination for real and meaningful communication with God.
- A sacred text, usually the Gospels.
The same Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the Gospels also “inspires” our imaginations in a way that draws us closer to Christ. Prayer is a conversation between God and us; imaginative prayer creates a space for that encounter.
The heart of imaginative prayer, then, is to “meet” God, usually in the person of Jesus, in a personal way. Often when we read or hear a Scripture passage, we do so from a safe distance, just skimming its surface or analyzing it in general terms. Imaginative prayer doesn’t let us off the hook so easily: We stand right alongside Jesus as he encounters the challenges of everyday life — hunger, death, sickness, conflict, exclusion — in a specific time and place. Whether he is calling out the Pharisees for their religious hypocrisy, healing a sick woman, offering the incredulous crowds living bread, or laughingly rescuing Peter from drowning, Jesus catches our eye, asking: And what about you?
With that purpose in mind, let’s go over the basic method of imaginative prayer.
Choose a Scripture passage
First, choose a suitable Scripture text. While imaginative prayer can be used with any sacred text (including the lives of the saints), St. Ignatius recommended contemplating scenes from the Gospels; they are the primary texts in which we encounter the Son of God “in the flesh.”
The ideal text will be a story about Jesus rather than one of his discourses or parables. Yes, you could meditate on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5–7), imagining yourself among the crowds listening to Jesus. However, your focus would likely be on the content and meaning of Jesus’ words. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s just a different type of prayer than what we’re pursuing here.
Invite the Holy Spirit
Once you have chosen your passage, say a simple prayer expressing the purpose of your time (to grow closer to God) and inviting the Holy Spirit to work in you. Spend some time in silence, opening yourself to the Spirit.
It is important to let the Holy Spirit lead you throughout the prayer.
Read the story
When the Spirit prompts you to continue, take up the text and read it. You may want to read it as many as four or five times, pausing between each reading and closing your eyes (or looking up from the text) as you absorb the story and its details. With each reading, you will notice new details and immerse yourself more completely in the story.
Enter the story
Next, set aside the text and enter the story. Relax into the scene, becoming a part of it. You may find yourself identifying with one of the principle characters or someone who is not explicitly named (an anonymous onlooker or passerby).
Allow your imagination to supply details about the setting of the story so that you can enter it more fully:
- What time of day is it? What is the weather like?
- Who is present? What do they look like, and what are they doing?
- What sounds do you hear in the background? The distant murmur of a marketplace? Seagulls and crashing waves?
- How does your body feel? Hot? Hungry? Tired?
- What do you smell? Olive oil? Perfume? Animal dung or cooking fires?
Let the action of the story unfold by itself, under the direction of the Holy Spirit; do not actively direct or force the actions of the main characters. Your role is to participate in the action of the story in whatever way seems natural. You might offer to help Martha at the cooking fire, for example, or you might lead the colt for Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem. You might find yourself replying to other characters’ questions or engaging in conversation with them. You might even find yourself interacting directly with Jesus.
Reflect on the story
When the Holy Spirit nudges you to finish, spend some time reflecting on and praying about your experience, especially your encounter with Jesus. St. Ignatius would be especially interested in what emotions or feelings you experienced; these are signposts that reveal something about your spiritual life. Were you afraid of Jesus? If so, you can explore why that might be, and pray to the Holy Spirit to help you address the root cause of that fear. Did you feel deep gratitude, love, or joy? Share those things in prayer with Jesus.
Some people ask: How do I know that my prayer experience comes from the Holy Spirit, and not something of my own making? Prayer is always a dialogue, of course, so you are responsible for part of the experience. However, St. Ignatius would encourage you to ask: Did this prayer experience lead me closer to God, or farther away? Did it leave me feeling consoled, or desolate? The answer to these questions is a good measure of whether the Holy Spirit — or some other spirit — was at work in us.
Return to the story
You may wish to revisit the story later, especially if it feels unresolved. Because the Holy Spirit directs imaginative prayer, the story is never really “finished.” You might return to the story over the course of several days, or you may come back to it in a year or two to see how it unfolds in your new life circumstances.
A List of Scripture Passages for Imaginative Prayer
Ready to get started? Here’s a list of Gospel stories that are perfect for trying imaginative prayer. Remember, you can revisit these stories several times to see how your experience changes.
- Visitation of Mary (Luke 01:39–56)
- The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-20)
- Following the Star of the Messiah (Matthew 2:1–12)
- The Finding of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 02:41–51)
- John Baptizes Jesus in the River Jordan (Matthew 3:1-6, 13–17)
- The Call of the Disciples (John 1:35-51)
- The Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
- A Busy Day in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-39)
- Jesus Heals a Paralyzed Man at Capernaum (Mark 2:1–12)
- Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant (Matthew 8:5–13)
- Jesus Calms the Stormy Sea (Mark 4:35-41)
- Jesus Calls Matthew and Eats with Sinners (Matthew 9:9–13)
- The Daughter of Jairus and the Woman with a Hemorrhage (Mark 5:21–43)
- Jesus Heals a Man on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1–6)
- Jesus Heals the Bent Woman (Luke 13:10-17)
- The Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4:4-26)
- Jesus Feeds the People (John 6:1-15)
- Jesus Calls Peter to Walk on Water (Matthew 14:22–33)
- Jesus Heals a Blind Man (Mark 10:46–52)
- The Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1–13)
- The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8:2-11)
- Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42)
- Peter and Jesus Pay the Temple Tax (Matthew 17:24–27)
- Jesus and the Little Children (Matthew 18:1–7 and 19:13–15)
- Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2-28)
- The Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44)
- Jesus Enters Jerusalem in Triumph (Luke 19:28-44)
- Jesus Cleanses the Temple (Matthew 21:12–17)
- The Anointing of Jesus (Mark 14:3-9)
- The Last Supper (Matthew 26:17–35)
- Agony in the Garden (Matthew 26:36–46)
- Betrayal and Arrest (Mark 14:43-52)
- Peter Denies Jesus (Luke 22:54-65)
- The Trial of Jesus (Mark 15:1-20)
- The Way of the Cross (Luke 23:26-32)
- The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus (Luke 23:33-56)
- The Resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:1–10. 16-20)
- Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18)
- Jesus Forgives Peter (John 21:1-19)
- On the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)