After three years of teaching high school boys, I have developed the habit of trying to make whatever I teach as explicit and as practical as possible. So, let me ground this discussion of Imaginative Prayer in a little thought-experiment. Imagine that you are in a classroom and a little freshman walks in, wholly bewildered, and asks with plaintive eyes, “How do I get to the Dean’s office? I’ve lost my left shoe.” As he extends his sock-clad foot toward you, to emphasize the loss, you need to give directions. What do you consider?
If this is the middle of a class-period, your answer may be pretty simple. The relative calmness of the building enables you to say, simply, “Go through those double doors, down two flights of steps, and the office will be right in front of you.” Heck, if you’re not tremendously busy, you might even escort the kid through the deserted halls, chatting about how one loses his shoe as you walk together. Navigating the path to the office is simple and direct, given the emptiness of the halls. While you could choose from several different routes, one should expect that you will tell, or show, the student the simplest and most direct route.
Now, given that our student is a freshman and such students are seldom prized for their timing, imagine that the kid comes to you just as the bell ending a period rings. The hallway is suddenly flooded with students. As a teacher, I probably need to offer a new answer. Why? Given the hustle and bustle of gym bags and books, students jostling one another and stopping at water fountains and popping into bathrooms, the hallways are now alive with activity. The directions given now must account not only for geography but also the presence of commotion. Above the din, you must give directions to the student that can account for all of the distractions presented by class-exchange. What was, minutes before, a straight-shot to the office has become far more complicated and you must now account for all of the potential distractions and obstacles… this is, after all, a kid who has managed to lose his left shoe.
I start with this image because I think that one way of considering the two schools of prayer in the Christian tradition – the apophatic and the cataphatic – can be thought of using the metaphors of the Calm Hallway and the Flooded Hallway. Let me explain.
The apophatic, or negative, tradition of Christian prayer calls for us to empty ourselves in order to encounter God’s presence in our lives. To a visitor, a school’s hallway during class may appear to be a cold and desolate place. Long corridors, bereft of students, the random poster flapping in the breeze, all point to a type of quiet loneliness. Yet, contrary to the appearance of the hallway, the school is humming with life. Calculus is being taught, and Spanish verbs are being drilled. Physical Education classes are in session and students are trying to make sense of poetry. Belied by the quiet of the halls, there is life and energy in the school. The apophatic tradition, in stripping away everything that gets in the way of coming to know God, emphasizes God’s presence in the stillness, God’s life beneath the hustle-and-bustle; it emphasizes that what is truly essential to our lives is hidden beneath the chaos. Just as the quiet of a hallway conducts us to a classroom, so also does the silence of apophatic prayer lead us toward a God who awaits our approach.
The apophatic way, as I mentioned, is one way of praying. There are, of course, other ways. I would like to share a few thoughts on another way of praying: the cataphatic or positive way. The metaphor of asking for directions during class exchange, to my mind, captures nicely this prayer, but to orient ourselves, let us turn to one of the great masters of Christian prayer. Thus I would like to enlist Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century Spanish mystic and one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, as our guide.
First, some background: Iñigo de Loyola was born in 1491 in the Basque region of Spain. As a young man, he dreamed of a life of great excitement and adventure. His teenage years were spent at court, where he learned the art of being a gentleman, sword fighting, and penmanship. In 1521, Iñigo distinguished himself for his bravery at the Battle of Pamplona. What he had in bravery, however, he lacked in reflexes as he failed to get out of the way of a cannonball that shattered his leg. Carried back to the family castle by the French, Iñigo had to endure a long period of convalescence… and all without the benefit of Facebook or Netflix.
Rather than streaming episodes of The Office, Iñigo spent his days reading two books: The Lives of the Saints and The Life of Christ. He would lie in bed all day long and read these two books. We can imagine the scene: the young man who once spent his idyll moments daydreaming about the adventurous life of a soldier now spent his days reading books about Jesus and the saints. These stories became the bricks and mortar for Iñigo’s daydreams, and with such a long period of recover, dream he did. Yet, unlike the passivity of normal reading, Iñigo did not merely think about the stories; instead, he put himself into the stories. He was not interested in reading about others’ experiences of the Lord; instead, he wanted to experience Jesus Christ for himself.
If you have ever watched a little kid play, you will know something of how amazing a child’s imagination is. My niece Emma has a marvelous imagination: she no longer is content to watch Dora the Explorer. Oh no, she now wants to be Dora. So what does she do? She unleashes the power of her imagination and enters into the scene. She packs her bookbag, finds my brother’s hat, and goes on adventures. The stairs at my parents’ house are now a mountain; Murphy the docile dog transforms into a wild beast; my nephew becomes an annoying monkey – Swiper, I think – who tries to steal the PB&J and pudding from her bookbag. Emma, like the young Iñigo, uses her imagination to enter into the experiences and to model herself after her hero.
I use Emma as an example of how we can use our imaginations to enter into prayer. The more free and creative Emma’s imagination, the more vivid will be her play. By knowing the world of Dora and knowing the characters in the story, Emma can actually make herself a part of the story. Dora’s adventures become her adventures; Dora’s fears become her fears; Dora’s interests become Emma’s interests. For Emma, her play will only ever get richer and more exciting the more she has experiences and the more she brings those experiences to bear on her play.
I mention this because cataphatic, or positive, prayer is very much like what a small child does naturally. This stands to reason, doesn’t it? Aren’t all of us something like toddlers when it comes to prayer? Aren’t we all growing and maturing into our relationships with our Creator, stumbling and stuttering to know the Holy One better?
As Iñigo lie in bed for those many months, he became something of a child again. He permitted himself to daydream and, rather than fighting dragons or going on adventures worthy of knighthood, he put himself next to the Lord. He would try to imagine what they wore, how the various people looked, what the smells and sounds were, and how people sounded. Iñigo’s prayer was not an effort to escape his senses but, rather, to use his senses to be totally present to Jesus Christ in the Gospels. Iñigo’s imaginative prayer used what was available to him in his bedroom – his imagination and his experiences – to come to know Jesus Christ.
Let’s remember for a moment the metaphor that opened this essay, that of a student asking for directions in the midst of a class-exchange. What complicates the act of getting to the student’s desired destination is the congestion of the hallway. Are our spiritual lives so different? Are they any less congested? Whether we live in rural Pennsylvania or in Manhattan, Los Angeles or Mobile, our day-to-day lives are busy. Texting, Facebook, 24-hour news, cell phones, internet: we are bombarded at all times by different sensations. Our lives are so busy, so chaotic, that it might seem impossible to get away from these distractions. We are on sensory overload and this can be inordinately frustrating because, in the end, most of us do want to pray… if only we could get rid of these distractions.
Jesus’ disciples once asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus didn’t answer with a theory. He prayed, and in so doing gave them a prayer. It is not enough to learn about prayer… it is something that we have to do.
To be practical, I have found a great prayer resource in the British website Pray-As-You-Go. Instead of telling you how to pray, it accompanies you as you actually pray, guiding you into the heart of imaginative prayer. I suggest this because it would be foolish of me to tell you about prayer without giving you some suggestion of how and where to do it yourself. After all, as my grandma used to say, “the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.” Before you download the tracks from iTunes, however, let me offer you a few words of advice.
Later in his life, Iñigo (who eventually took the name Ignatius), collected his insights into a guidebook called The Spiritual Exercises.1 To my mind, one of the great insights Ignatius had is that God works directly with each person who is bold enough to look for God. That is to say that when we pray, we can only start from where we are at that moment. God uses our experiences, our gifts and talents, and speaks to us through them. God, for Ignatius, can be found in “all things” and this includes the stories of our lives. We may not like where we are or what we have done, but there’s no changing the past: we can only face up to it and move forward into prayer.
There can be an initial reluctance to praying. I guess this is like the countless numbers of people who buy P90X from the infomercial and say, after doing it the first time, “Boy, that was hard. I think I’ll lose weight and try to do this later.” Ignatius knew that none of us showed up to the Spiritual Exercises, or to prayer, in perfect shape. All we can do is to face the music, dive in, and accept that we have often fallen short of our goals and that we need a guide. Ignatius does not expect us to get rid of our baggage before praying. Instead, he expects us to look into that baggage and make use of what it is that we have been carrying around with us. We don’t have to pray away our past. We have to pray through it.
As you enter into any attempt to pray with your imagination, try to relax into the scene. Do not stifle your imagination – allow yourself to be as creative and as imaginative as a little child. This can take some work, and let me encourage you not to be frustrated. If you have no idea what a particular character looks like: fine. Imagine him or her however you wish. In your prayer-eye, look down to see yourself: what are you wearing? What kind of shoes? Any jewelry? Who is standing around you? Is it sunny or cloudy? What does it sound like? What does it smell like? What does Jesus look like? How does Jesus look at him, how does he walk? What does his voice sound like?
It can be a temptation to think, “Oh, this is crazy. I’m just making this up.” Remember, though, God can only work with you where you are. Trust, then, that God is at work in your imagination and that you are coming to know Jesus as you need to come to know him. Don’t worry if you begin at the outer-edge of the crowd: Jesus knows that you are there and he will permit you to come forward toward him.
The imagination, to my mind, is a graced site of encounter where we can come to know the Lord intimately and vividly. The work of the imagination, of composing the scene in the mind, prepares us for the encounter with the Lord. Our opening up and stretching out with our imagination becomes, in a sense, the act of hospitality through which we set the scene for our Lord’s arrival. We prepare for Christ’s coming so that we might rest with him in the long look of love; we play the role of both Martha and Mary. How counter-cultural is this form of prayer, where our imaginations do not assert control – pornography, for instance – and where they create a welcoming space where I can be who I am and I can meet the Lord who loves me.
At the start of the essay, I used two different images: the quiet hallway of a school and the same hallways during the midst of class exchange. In both, I asked you to imagine giving directions to the Dean’s office. When we pray, whether we walk the Negative Way or the Positive Way, we are aiming at the same destination: to enter into the center office of our hearts, where our God awaits us. Regardless of when or the style of our prayer, the end is always the same: to come to know and to love and to serve the Lord better. The Negative Way draws us into the silence of God by inviting us to strip away our sensations, to walk the quiet hallways of the heart. The Positive Way draws us into God’s silence by inviting us through our sensations using our imaginations. The cataphatic Tradition frees us to be embrace our histories, to use the raw material of our lives and our imaginations, to approach the Lord. In entering into cataphatic prayer, I encourage and challenge you to let your imaginations run free, to surrender your inhibitions and to pray as a child, and to give yourself over to the story of the One who waits for you and wants to make His story your story, who wants to write with you the story of God’s love in and through your life.
God speaks to each of us through our daily lives. When we come to know the Lord in prayer, we do so against the backdrop of our histories. Real prayer is a deep conversation – sometimes using words, sometimes just resting with God – where we come to learn what we truly desire in and for our lives. In the style of prayer we experienced tonight, we bring our total selves to prayer and meet Jesus just as we are. What He will say and where He will call us is hard to say. What can be said, however, it is all of you that he loves and all of you that he calls… not just the good or the clean you. Take courage in knowing that you are beloved of God and that you can pray your life by entering into the Gospels to find the Lord who awaits you every minute of your life.
Editor’s Note: this essay was modified from a talk given at by Ryan Duns at Saint Anne’s Church on Mackinac Island on February 17, 2012.
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- Editor’s Note: we’re starting to realize that all these references to the Spiritual Exercises with no context might be a little confusing – especially given how frequently we’ve talked about the Exercises here at TJP. We’re going to attempt to rectify this fault starting on the 21st of March, when The Jesuit Post will begin publishing excerpts of Fr. Kevin O’Brien’s recent book The Ignatian Adventure. These excerpts will explain what the Exercises are, why they’re important, and give Fr. O’Brien’s contemporary reading of a few of the most important prayers in the Exercises. ↩