Imaginative Prayer: An Essay

Emma Shane
Emma Shane*

Maddie Vonk, WTS MDiv student and Peterson Center Research Assistant

“The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’”

When Karis was a little girl, her mother taught her how to pray. She would close her eyes and listen to her mother’s series of questions, beginning with, “Imagine yourself in a place where you feel safe.” Karis often envisioned herself in a princess bed or in a meadow. The meadow was adorned with thick, green trees lining the rim and grass that grazed her knee caps. Her mother would ask, “Where is Jesus?” Sometimes, in Karis’ imagination, Jesus was standing nearby, sometimes far off, sometimes sitting close to her. “Do you have anything you want to say to Jesus?” Karis would look at Jesus, sense his presence and attention, and explain what she was feeling without inhibitions. She could hug Jesus, kiss his face, dance around with him, or even express that she didn’t want to do those things with him at this moment. Then, “Does Jesus have anything to say to you?” Karis often noticed Jesus’s actions more clearly than his words; he would hand her a gift, direct her to look somewhere, draw her against his breast. To conclude, Karis’s mother would ask, “What do you think is the Lord’s invitation to you from this prayer?” Karis would then debrief with her mother what she thought God was asking of her or speaking to her through the prayer picture.

From a young age, Karis never questioned whether or not God was speaking to her on any given day or in any given situation. Through the practice of imaginative prayer, she learned how to attune her heart to God in all things. She learned to see, notice, and experience the love of God in a close, intimate way that many don’t know how to engage. The question was not if God was speaking. The question was always simply about how to discern God’s already present and speaking voice. 

I’ve spent the past semester listening to and transcribing the prayers of Eugene Peterson from worship services at Christ Our King in Bel Air, Maryland. One word has continued to surprise me, a word that threads together Peterson’s prayers spanning the 1980’s to the early 2000’s. Peterson teaches his congregation to experience largeness–the largeness of their lives, of their God, of their callings. Before a sermon on “the woman at the well,” Peterson prays one Sunday morning, 

We enter this place feeling inadequate. Small by ourselves. And we walk into this large place, this place of praise and vision. We find our lives expand into the wholeness of the gospel. We thank you for the largeness, for the expansiveness of your word. We don’t want to live cramped, constricted lives, Lord, but free, open, large lives. 

One way I have seen God’s largeness expand in my life is in hearing stories of and personally engaging in imaginative prayer. Prayer can take many forms. Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and writer, defines prayer simply as “a conscious conversation with God.” By exploring Ignatian prayer practices as well as sharing the stories of two women’s encounters with imaginative prayer specifically, I want to share how prayer rooted in our imagination invites us to new sight. This new sight becomes a larger, expansive intimacy with God. The invitations I want to offer for prayer are as follows: honor your embodiment, trust your longings, and dare to be inaccurate. 

Martin explains Ignatian contemplation as “using your imagination to place yourself in a scene from scripture, or with Jesus.” St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises present a series of movements of prayer for an individual. These movements include expressing love for Christ, seeking to be made one with Christ, contemplating Christ’s suffering love, and accepting Christ’s gracious love. Imaginative prayer teaches us that Christ is deeply integrated into our everyday lives, inviting us to honor our embodiment. God wants to care for our bodies; in Jesus Christ, God reaches out to touch our skin and kiss our places of pain. Sometimes prayer requires us to empty ourselves, to clear our mind, to meditate without distraction. Other times, during times of prayer, one might also find it meaningful to visualize during a prayer. For example, during a church service, one might let the prayer on the pastor’s lips take up a life of embodiment and movement in their mind. If we’re praying for so-and-so, bring that person to mind, imagine placing your hands on them to usher in healing. 

Emma Shane, an artist currently studying painting at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy, engages imaginative prayer through her art. She explains that her paintings of God often begin as embodied prayers. When she has an image or a prayer, she can feel the emotion of the prayer first and foremost in her body, and from that, she forms a picture. “I’m very connected to my body and so a lot of my paintings tend to be about kinesthetic things like touch and feeling.” She asks herself before painting her prayers, “what does God look like interacting with me in this moment? What does God look like in this problem that I have?” Perhaps we’ve mostly understood prayer as an out-of-body experience, as if we must connect to God who is “up there” instead of in our immediate presence, as if we’re just speaking into space, hoping something will land on God’s ear. Father James Martin writes, “Remember [Christ is] risen and alive and is present to us through the Spirit, who works through prayer.” So when you’re praying, imagining Christ’s presence, “you’re truly encountering Christ.” 

Perhaps we’ve mostly understood prayer as an out-of-body experience, as if we must connect to God who is “up there” instead of in our immediate presence, as if we’re just speaking into space, hoping something will land on God’s ear.

Maddie Vonk

One specific way a person can engage imaginative prayer is through placing oneself in a scriptural story. Lectio Divina is a spiritual practice of getting into a story, much like the prayer Karis’ mom led for her daughters. A story is read aloud multiple times, each time with a different question in mind for the reader or listener.

Karis’ family practices Lectio Divina together, sometimes having each person pay attention to a particular sensation, such as touch, noise, sound and smell as the text is read. With each person’s imagination involved, they could piece together a new, full revelation of what the text was speaking to them individually and corporately that day.

Other ways to imaginatively pray with scripture is to place yourself in the shoes of a particular character and see what might enfold in your own feelings and actions or to insert yourself into the story as a new character, seeing what you might have to say, or do, or how Jesus might interact with you.

Considering praying in this kind of way can feel dangerous. What if we get something wrong? What if we don’t know what to do with what we’re hearing or seeing? What if we’re perceiving inaccurately? What if too many of our own thoughts and motivations are misconstruing the story? 

A key piece to practicing imaginative prayer well is to dare to be inaccurate. Dare to try something. Dare to trust the image before you. We get paralyzed worrying about if we heard God perfectly right and if we know how we’re supposed to act on God’s words. Imaginative prayer isn’t about the “right” or “wrong” way of seeing. As Ellen Davis, an American theologian and Old Testament scholar, writes, the religious imagination “resists simple decoding and invites us instead to ponder, puzzle, draw connections, and push beyond what we thought before… to say something startlingly new.” Let God hold all of the caution. Let God guide your discernment from the prayer picture. You might write down a prayer picture you engaged in, not knowing exactly what it means, then return to it later having a clearer idea of God’s message due to a new experience or connection made. Scripture is alive. God’s Word is active, and imaginative prayer is one way to treat it as such, and the real fear of being “wrong” is something we have to set aside in order to have clear vision. A clouded view of God can indeed affect our prayer life and the wellness of our soul, so we must keep our prayer images rooted in conversation with God and with others. Our discernment and imaginations flourish when done in community. 

When I asked Karis what was most meaningful to her about engaging imaginative prayer, she said this practice of prayer developed within her a deep longing for the embodied presence of God. It creates a holy yearning. After meeting Jesus so often in her prayers, she said, “I would give anything for Jesus to just sit next to me and talk to me.” Jesus’ companionship becomes essential. Imaginative prayer isn’t just about creating secret worlds in our minds that we flee to in order to escape our present reality. Instead, imaginative prayer awakens within us a real, present ache for intimacy with God in our everyday lives. Imaginative prayer invites us to ask ourselves, “What am I truly longing for?” In Christ’s presence, we might cry out about an unrequited love, an unfulfilled longing, the death of a dream, the hope of a nearly impossible future. We discover that God not only knows what we long for, but God wants to be in relationship with us and our longings. God wants us to see what God is doing and wants us to know what God is thinking about when it comes to our longings. The artist Emily Scott Robinson sings, “What if desire is a gift and not a sin?” What if, at our core, our longings point to something God longs for us too, even if it is not to come to pass in our lifetime? 

In Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson writes, “Artists, poets, musicians, and architects… rescue us from a life in which the wonder has leaked out.” Perhaps one of God’s most gracious questions, like the one God asked Jeremiah at the beginning of his prophetic ministry, is this: What do you see? Many church traditions have often valued intellectual approaches to scripture over experiential. I have wondered what it might look like to offer pastoral care by guiding people through imaginative prayer, through a more embodied, personal encounter with scripture and Christ’s presence. In the spaces of our lives where the wonder has leaked out, perhaps in the church pew, the anxious dinner table at home, or the countless hours we find ourselves lost behind screens, Christ’s embodied presence, Emmanuel, breaks in asking, What do you see? Jeremiah answered, of all things, “an almond tree,” a symbol that, according to numerous commentaries, unfolds and unfolds further with each pondering. God invites us to have creative agency in our prayers, to see something new, to experience curiosity and surprise again where the wonder had once leaked out.

*The watercolor image pictured above is a prayer painting done by Emma Shane, an artist studying at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. This painting serves as a reminder that time with God doesn’t have to look a certain way. When we feel stuck, like we’ve lost God’s face, all we need to do is be with God. The first sin was forgetting our belovedness. This picture is an invitation to remember our first love and to simply allow ourselves to rest in God’s presence. 

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