What would it be like to encounter Jesus face to face?
To witness the moment of his birth?
To hear his voice as he calls Peter?
To feel the joy of Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection?
Ignatian contemplation is a method of prayer that involves using our imagination to bring scripture to life. St. Ignatius promotes and instructs retreatants how to engage in this form of prayer in his Spiritual Exercises. You may have seen the term “contemplation” used in a variety of different ways, but in the Ignatian tradition, it specifically refers to this method of imaginative prayer. Ignatian contemplation allows us to see stories that we may have heard countless times with new eyes. We might notice different details, ask new questions, and find ways that God is speaking directly to us.
I’ve always had an active imagination, so this form of prayer was right up my alley when it was first introduced to me. I had pictured scenes from scripture before, as I’m sure many of us have, but it was rarely the focal point of my prayer experiences. Ignatian contemplation puts the action front and center. I fell in love with this form of prayer during my own experience of the 30-day version of the Spiritual Exercises. Now when I reflect on certain stories in scripture, I have very specific memories of them, almost as if I have witnessed them for myself. The greatest gift is the opportunity to grow closer to Jesus. Through imaginative prayer, you have the opportunity to notice how Jesus treats those that he ministers to, how he interacts with his family and friends, and ultimately, to speak with him yourself.
Imaginative Prayer in Catholic Tradition
St. Ignatius didn’t invent imaginative prayer, though you could say that he reinvigorated the practice and popularized it through the Spiritual Exercises. Before Ignatius, St. Bonaventure’s Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ led to a promotion of imaginative prayer by the Franciscans in the fourteenth century. In this work, Bonaventure promotes engaging with scripture through the imagination and presents several meditations from his own imagination for others to pray with.
In one of his meditations, Bonaventure has the reader pray with an extended account of the return of the Holy Family from Egypt, a story that occupies only a few lines in the Bible. The reader is invited to join the Holy Family on their journey and attend to the child Jesus. “Take then the child Jesus…and in your imagination place him devoutly on the ass, conduct him carefully, and when he is inclined to dismount, receive him joyfully in your arms, and tenderly cherish him.” 1 Although this is a simple story, through imaginative prayer a person can take into consideration the hardships of this journey and actually spend time with the child Jesus.
Carthusian Ludolf of Saxony similarly produced a work of imaginative reflections on the life of Christ, which is most likely the version that Ignatius read at Castle Loyola during his recovery and conversion. A major difference between Ignatius and these writers is that they would provide the imaginative experience for prayer, but Ignatius preferred to set the stage and leave the imaginative work to God and the retreatant. This was so important to Ignatius that he gives special instructions in the Exercises for the retreat director to give appropriate instruction, but not to interfere: “leave the Creator to act immediately with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord.” 2 Experiences of Ignatian contemplation are truly unique to the person in prayer and God can use them to speak directly to the individual.
Contemplation in the Spiritual Exercises
Ignatius gives instructions for contemplations at the beginning of the second “week” of the Spiritual Exercises, which focuses on the life of Jesus Christ. Ignatian contemplation could work well with any scriptural narrative, but Ignatius primarily focuses the practice on the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus found in the gospels. The first exercises that Ignatius labels as contemplations are on the Incarnation and the Nativity. William Peters, S.J., who wrote a commentary on the Spiritual Exercises, proposes that these represent two different ways of making a contemplation. 3
Observing a scene – Contemplation on the Incarnation
The contemplation on the Incarnation has the retreatant imagine the Trinity looking down upon the earth and seeing all of humanity, ultimately deciding that the Second Person will become Incarnate for the sake of the salvation of the human race. The Trinity then sends Gabriel to Mary and the retreatant watches her response to the Annunciation. This first contemplation is massive in scale and the retreatant is meant to observe and soak it all in. What suffering does God see? How does God react? The goal is to try to gain some insight into the mind and heart of God while also paying attention to your own reactions to what you see.
Entering the Story – Contemplation on the Nativity
The second contemplation in the Spiritual Exercises focuses on the Nativity of Jesus Christ. This type of contemplation narrows the scale to a single event so that we can observe every minute detail. We are to picture the road, the journey, the cave/stable, and the stark reality of the environment in which Jesus is born. Ignatius also includes instructions to insert oneself into the story as a person serving Mary and Joseph. When we enter a scene through contemplation, we have the opportunity to see things from our own point of view, interact with the characters, and observe the small details that aren’t available in scripture. This helps to “incarnate” the scenes for us so that we may enter more fully into the mystery. What would it be like to hold the baby Jesus?
Application of the Senses
Another method of engaging in contemplation in the Spiritual Exercises is called the “application of the senses.” As the name suggests, this is when we imaginatively use our senses to explore a scene from scripture. This could involve paying more attention to details such as what people look like, the sound of the voice of Jesus, the feel of the wood of the manger or cross, the smell of the air off the Sea of Galilee and the taste of the bread at the Last Supper. The exercise is formally introduced as a way of repeating the contemplations of the Incarnation and the Nativity, so that one might continue to go deeper into a particular scene. The application of the senses has the potential to be the most immersive of the imaginative experiences, as well as the most creative since sensory details are largely lacking in scriptural accounts. This can also be a great way to engage with a story that has otherwise been difficult to pray with.
Steps to Ignatian Contemplation
While the experience of Ignatian contemplation is ultimately between the person praying and God, Ignatius does give some helpful steps to enter into the prayer. Here are some of those steps with some of my own tips as well.
- Preparations for prayer: Spend a little time in advance (perhaps the night before) deciding when and where you will pray, as well as what passage you want to focus on. That way you don’t spend your prayer time trying to decide.
- Entering into prayer:
- Pray for guidance: Pray that all of your thoughts and actions be directed by God. This experience is more than a thought experiment and this prayer helps to remind us that we are seeking greater knowledge and closeness to God.
- Review the narrative: Slowly read the passage once or twice so that you can remember the events that take place. Afterward, you might put the text away so that you can stay in your imagination.
- Composition of place: Take some time to set the stage and picture the environment in which the story takes place. Immerse yourself in the scene and look around for a moment.
- Ask for the grace you hope to receive: What do you hope to gain from this time of prayer? Ask God for that grace. A grace that Ignatius suggests in the second week of the Exercises could be helpful in most prayer periods: “I ask for the grace to know Jesus intimately, to love him more intensely, and so to follow him more closely.” 4
- Pray through the story: You have already set the stage, so let the narrative begin to play out. Imagine the people and their words and actions. Pay attention to the details as they are helpful for appreciating the story.
- Application of senses: Although this could be a prayer experience in itself, use your senses to interact with the scene, the environment, and the people. What do you see, hear, taste, smell and touch?
- If you feel stuck at all, here are some questions that might help you engage imaginatively with the passage:
- What do the people look like? What are they wearing?
- What kinds of sounds would you expect to hear in this environment?
- How does Jesus talk to and treat those he encounters?
- How do people react to Jesus’ words and actions?
- Do you recognize any of the people, places, or objects?
- Are you in this scene? Where are you? What are you doing?
- Colloquy: Toward the end of the prayer experience, Ignatius encourages the person to spend some time in conversation with Jesus “as one friend speaks to another.” 5 You might also feel called to have a conversation with someone else from your time of prayer, such as Mary. Picture them present before you, ask them questions or say whatever you need to say to them, then take some time to listen for their response. Even if they don’t say a thing, just take some time to be in their presence.
- Review of prayer: Time sometime after your prayer to reflect on what stood out to you the most from your prayer.
- How did you feel during this time of prayer?
- What struck you the most?
- What was the most consoling moment of your prayer? The most challenging?
- When did I feel closest to God?
Even if you don’t think you have a very active imagination, I encourage you to give it a try and see what stands out to you in prayer. You may not always be able to clearly see all of the parts of a story in your imagination. Just stick with what you are able to imagine and reflect on what those elements can tell you about God.
When praying over the Call of Simon in the Gospel of Luke, which includes the catch of the multitude of fish, one woman told me that she had a lot of trouble picturing the scene, but there was one detail that she remembered vividly. As Simon and the other fishermen dropped their nets into the deep because of Jesus’ instructions, she saw that Jesus had a smirk on his face. She said it was because he knew what was about to happen. While that is a small detail, it is a special moment that she noticed that added to the story and her own relationship with Jesus. That moment will now be with her every time she reads or hears that passage.
Through Ignatian contemplation, we all have the opportunity to have these small moments with Jesus and other people from scripture. Like a good friend, you will share a smirk with Jesus, you’ll learn the sound of his laughter, and the feeling of his arms embracing you when you need it the most. These are the small moments that loving relationships are built upon. That is the ultimate goal and gift of Ignatian contemplation: greater friendship with Jesus Christ.
If you’d like some help entering into Ignatian contemplation, I’ve developed a podcast through America Media called Imagine: A Guide to Jesuit Prayer. Episodes help to guide you through stories from scripture using prompts and questions to focus your imagination. Listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
- St. Bonaventure, Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, pg. 93 ↩
- Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius #15 ↩
- William A. M. Peters, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Exposition and Interpretation, pg. 85 ↩
- Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius #104 as translated by David Fleming, S.J. ↩
- Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius #54 ↩