What Is Imaginative Prayer? A Guide for Beginners

Imaginative prayer is a great way to “meet” Jesus face-to-face. Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting started.

This article is abridged from the introduction of Imagine You Walked with Jesus: A Guide to Ignatian Contemplative Prayer.

Imagine, for a moment, that some technological genius has invented a time machine, and you are selected to take it for a test ride. 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 all 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 his miracles and hear his parables. You might even approach him…talk to him, ask him questions, seek his healing touch.

Time machines do not exist, of course. But there is another way to “meet” Jesus that is actually better than a time machine: imaginative prayer.

What is Imaginative Prayer?

St. Ignatius of Loyola. Image: Wikipedia

People have always used their imaginations in prayer, but the method of imaginative prayer outlined here was popularized five hundred years ago by a Spanish nobleman named Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola, better known today as St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius and some companions founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1540. A former soldier, he developed a spiritual “training manual” for the members of this new religious order. It was in this manual, the Spiritual Exercises, that St. Ignatius outlined his approach to imaginative prayer. He called this approach contemplative prayer, but because this term has a different meaning in the rest of the Christian tradition, here we will continue to call it imaginative prayer.

St. Ignatius believed that God intended for the human imagination to draw 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 daydreaming in two ways:

  1. It is powered not just by our imagination, but by the Holy Spirit working through our imagination.
  2. It is rooted in a sacred text, usually the Gospels.

In imaginative prayer, the same Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the Gospels also “inspires” (literally “breathes into”) our imaginations in a way that draws us closer to Christ. Prayer is a conversation with God; 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.

With all this in mind, let’s go over the basic method of imaginative prayer.

1. Choose a Scripture passage

First, choose a suitable Scripture text. While imaginative prayer can be used with any sacred text (including stories from 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.” You can find a list of good readings for imaginative prayer in the book Imagine You Walked with Jesus, or at gracewatch.org/imagine.

2. Prepare with prayer

Rather than diving right into the Scripture or other sacred reading, St. Ignatius suggests we first prepare ourselves. Find a quiet and comfortable place to pray and take a few moments to settle in. Then, take a few moments to pray along these lines:

  1. Begin by becoming aware that God is already here waiting for you. Rest in his loving presence.
  2. Then, respond to God’s loving presence by giving yourself over to him. Pray that you might love and serve him in all your thoughts, words, and actions.

Prayer is fundamentally an expression of our relationship with God. When we begin by acknowledging God’s availability to us, and by making ourselves available to God in return, we situate everything that happens next within that relationship.

3. Read the scripture

Next, read the Scripture passage at least once.

You may wish to ask the Holy Spirit to help you to read the text prayerfully. Given the amount of reading most of us do online, you may be in the habit of skimming the text rather than ruminating on the words. Try to slow down; the Gospels were written slowly and intentionally. Each word and phrase, and each omission, was chosen for a reason. Stay with the words and see what they serve up.

4. Set the scene

After you have read the story at least once, use your imagination to set the scene. Be as specific about the details as possible, engaging all your senses: touch, smell, sound, sight…even taste, if the opportunity arises. Make the Gospel story come vividly to life, almost as if you were directing a movie. The Son of God chose to save us not merely with a word from heaven, but by becoming the Word-made-flesh at a specific time and place in human history. In imagining the Gospel in its physical setting, we honor the reality of Jesus’ incarnation, and set the stage for encountering him “in the flesh” ourselves.

Here are some things to consider as you set the stage for your imaginative prayer experience:

  • Who are you in this story?
  • What time of day is it? What is the weather like?
  • What do you see around you?
  • Who is present? What do they look like, and what are they doing?
  • What ambient sounds do you hear?
  • How do you feel? Hot? Hungry? Tired?
  • What do you smell?
  • Above all, be sure to pay attention to Jesus. What does he do? What does he look and sound like?

5. Walk with Jesus

Once you have “composed” the setting of the story, put aside the text and let yourself enter into it. This is the body of your imaginative prayer, so take as much time here as you need.

Before stepping into the Gospel, St. Ignatius advises that you pray for what you most desire from this encounter with Jesus.

Next, enter the Gospel, letting 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.

Finally, as you step out of the Gospel story, speak to God directly. St. Ignatius refers to this as a “colloquy,” or a spiritual conversation. He invites us to share our thoughts, feelings, and desires with God much as one friend would speak to another.

St. Ignatius advises that we close our time of prayer with the Lord’s Prayer; you might substitute another formal prayer that you like, such as the Glory Be or a simple Sign of the Cross. The point is to punctuate the end of this special time with Jesus.

6. Reflect on the Journey

After you are finished praying, spend some time reflecting on your encounter with Jesus. You can do this immediately after your prayer, or as you go about the rest of your day. You might record your reflection in a journal or notebook, or share and discuss your experience with your prayer group or a spiritual director.

Get started with these imaginative prayer resources

Ready to get started? Here’s a list of helpful resources:

Imagine You Waled with Jesus: A Guide to Ignatian Imaginative Prayer
This book is a great way for individuals or prayer groups to begin the practice of imaginative prayer. It includes an in-depth step-by-step guide, historical background to enrich your prayer practice, and forty guided readings from the Gospels.

List of Scripture Readings for Imaginative Prayer
70 Scripture readings for imaginative prayer.

Journaling Imaginative Prayer: Five Examples
Journal your imaginative prayer! Here are five examples from five different writers.

Reading Plans for Imaginative Prayer
If you’re going to try imaginative prayer for a season, or start a prayer group, here are 12 themed reading plans.

Extra Reading Guides
Go beyond the book with extra reading guides for imaginative prayer.

Imaginative Prayer Group Kit
Everything you need to do imaginative prayer with your group, including reading plans, session outlines, and more.

An Introduction to Imaginative Prayer (PDF download)
Get a printable version of this article for parish, school, or small group distribution.

You can find an unabridged version of this article as well as reading guides for imaginative prayer in Imagine You Walked with Jesus: A Guide to Ignatian Contemplative Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021). Additional resources can be found at gracewatch.org/imagine.

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