It’s been a few weeks now since I looked a practice rooted in scripture reading, so I decided this week to look at one of the other traditions commonly known as lectio divina, or sacred reading. Whereas a few weeks ago I explored devotional reading focused on different ways scripture can speak to us, this week’s practice focuses on using the imagination to place oneself in the story. This kind of scripture contemplation is a practice I’ve had middling experiences with when I’ve encountered it in the past. Sometimes I’ve found it very meaningful, but most of the time it’s felt pretty mundane and obvious. So, while I was looking forward to engaging with it again in a more intentional way this week, I was also a little suspicious of how helpful it would be.
The origins of this kind of sacred reading can be found in the thought of St Ignatius of Loyola, who was also responsible for developing the discernment technique known as the Examen, which I explored the other week. St Ignatius first realized how useful the imagination could be while he was recovering from wounds he suffered in battle as a young man. It seems he had an active imagination and found that he was always daydreaming about one thing or another. If it wasn’t romantic fantasies or swashbuckling adventures, it was repeating the feats of Christ, the disciples, and the saints that would fill his thoughts. He decided he could use this imagination intentionally, to focus his thoughts on stories that inspired him to follow Christ.
One of the ways he did this was to imagine himself within a story from the Gospels, becoming an active participant in the story instead of a passive listener to it. When he later taught this method of contemplation to his followers, he encouraged them to get their senses involved in the story, to get a feeling for what it would have been like to be there in the moment, to be with Jesus in that physical time and place. The goal is to experience Jesus, not just think about him.
What is it?
First, find an appropriate passage from the Gospels. The Old Testament can sometimes work too, if the story is particularly vivid, but paradigmatically, since this practice is about experiencing Jesus, it’s considered best to use the Gospels as your primary resource. Focus particularly on passages where Jesus acting — healing, deciding, moving, interacting — rather than teaching.
Second, still your mind, remembering you are about to enter holy ground and seek God’s presence.
Third, read the passage slowly, twice if you need to, in order to familiarize yourself with it and figure out where you might fit in it.
Then, reconstruct the scene in your imagination. Focus on your senses. What are you smelling? What are you feeling? What are you hearing? Seeing? Look around at other people in the scene. What’s their attitude? Their body language? How are they reacting to what Jesus is doing or saying? What about Jesus? What’s his tone of voice? What is the expression on his face? What is the emotion present in the scene?
When you have finished engaging with the scene, reflect on your experience and what God might have been telling you or calling you to through this encounter. Pray about what you’ve experienced and any of the imagery or feelings that stuck out to you.
After my frustration with last week’s practice, returning to a practice with deep roots in my own tradition was a soothing balm. And, there was a similar feeling of relief in returning to the Gospels in an intentional way. Because I’ve had middling experiences with it in the past, I wasn’t expecting all that much from it, and was expecting that I would encounter difficulties in getting into the practice at least as often as I would find it easy. But thankfully that wasn’t the case. It was simply a joyful and blessed way to begin the day. The only real struggle was in finding an appropriate passage some mornings: a couple of mornings it took a few tries before I settled into a passage with enough action to really engage the practice well.
This practice was a blessing for me this week. I was able to get out my head most days and really enter into the narrative, and on the one day when I wasn’t, even that was instructive: here I was before Jesus while he was doing amazing things and I was too focused on my psychodrama to notice or care. (In my poor mind’s defense, I had overheated in the night and so my mind had been in fever-dream mode upon waking, and I find it often takes a few hours to settle it back down when that happens.) It really was for the most part a wholly immersive experience. I could see and smell and touch and taste what was happening in the story. More than anything, I feel like I encountered Jesus the man in my Gospel contemplation this week. Whereas when I’m reading for study, I’m focused on Jesus’ teaching, this week’s contemplation focused my attention on his body language, his facial expressions, and his tone of voice. Using my imagination in this way helped to incarnate Jesus into the stories in a new way. For example, on Monday morning, seeing the sorrow in Jesus’ eyes when he asked us, his foolish band of disciples, how we hadn’t figured him out yet was far more cutting than the words themselves.
In terms of personal insights, each day had something special to offer, normally by putting a spotlight on something uncomfortable in my reaction to Jesus or other characters in the story. For example, on Sunday, I read Mark 1.40ff, where Jesus heals a leper. When I read this story, I felt myself as the leper, and I noticed in myself equal parts excitement and anxiety, faith and fear, hope and anticipatory disappointment. And when I reflected on the experience, I recognized a lot of that in myself; even when I approach God, trusting in God’s goodness and faithfulness to me, I am already steeling myself for disappointment, already trying to reframe the situation positively on an unspoken assumption, born from years of disappointment, that the answer to my prayer is ‘no.’ And so that brought me to reflection and prayer about that: what was positive and helpful about that reaction, what was negative and harmful about it, how might I approach God differently, and so on. Each day had something unique to offer and I was very grateful for each one of those gifts.
Ultimately these imaginative practices are a way of offering our very imaginations to God; that in itself is a good thing. To this point, some people refer to this practice not as Gospel contemplation but as “Sacred Imagination.” I think this is beautiful and it touches on a surprising side-benefit I experienced this week. While I was researching the practice’s origins, I was struck by St Ignatius’ story, and how he first got the idea for Gospel contemplation by reflecting on his fantasies and daydreams. As someone whose imagination is not only very active but also has a life of its own, this stood out to me as something to pay attention to. So as a sort of secondary practice this week, I started to reflect on my daydreams. If it was a story I was consciously telling myself, I asked myself why I was telling that story, and which of my values it was emphasizing or needs was it addressing. If it was a daydream I had little control over, I started asking myself what my mind was trying to say to me by telling this particular story. It helped me to accept these stories, even the unhappy ones, as something of a gift from my subconscious, rather than as the frustrations I usually treat them as.
In saying all this, I also recognize that in many quarters using the imagination in Christian spiritual practice is very controversial. I remember vividly one Eastern Orthodox writer being quite disgusted when she heard of this practice, saying something to the effect of “the last thing I want to do when I approach God is to play make-believe.” And this is not an atypical objection to the use of one’s imagination in sacred practice. There is a great fear — not unwarranted — in many circles about placing too much emphasis on the person’s subjective experience: We are all prone to delusion and illusion, to self-congratulation or to self-rejection. So who are we to trust what comes from our minds and hearts? It is better, therefore, these Christians would argue, to entrust oneself and one’s soul to the safety of the collective experience of the Church than to one’s personal experiences. There is a lot of wisdom in this argument, and I think it needs to be heard loudly and clearly, particularly in our highly personalized, individualized, spiritual environment (One writer referred to it as “Sheila-ism” — every Tom, Dick, Harry, and Sheila with their own religion). It needs to be said and said often: I am not the measure of all things, least of all of all things divine.
And yet, I do think these kinds of practices have value. I think the key is to be intentional and mindful about them: to be clear about what is coming from the Scripture and what is coming from me, to acknowledge that these practices are intended as an aid to adoration and spiritual insight and growth, and to pray through any messages I may glean from them with an open hand: with great care and discernment. These are stirrings of the heart, not “Thus Sayeth the LORD.”
In conclusion, I was very blessed by this practice this week. I think as long as we keep Scripture and interpretation separate in our minds, a practice of sacred imagination can be helpful and insightful, and can promote genuine spiritual growth. That said, I don’t think I’d want to do it every day. With the focus on scenes where Jesus is acting, there are many parts of the Gospels that aren’t well-suited to it, and I’d hate to miss out on them. I also think there could be a law of diminishing returns for it if I were to keep at it daily beyond a few weeks. I’m reminded of the idea of keeping a fallow field: we can’t keep insisting the same ground provide the same abundant fruit for us all the time. Sometimes fields need to rest in order to be fruitful. For me, at least, I think it would be better to have Gospel contemplation as a beautiful part of my sacred reading tool-kit, but not as something I try to apply every day.
What about you? Have you tried this Ignatian practice of Gospel contemplation? What were your experiences? What do you think the role of imagination should be in our spiritual lives?