Imaginative contemplation

Mark Argent

ImaginativeOne of the more flexible ways of praying with scripture is imaginative contemplation. The essence is to take a bible story, read it a few times so that it becomes familiar, then settle oneself to pray, perhaps breathing slowly and deeply to clear the mind, and then slowly imagining oneself into the story.

Often the easiest way is to begin by picturing the scene, imagining the weather and what people are wearing, and slowly let the story unfold, perhaps being one of the characters in the story, perhaps being a bystander. Helpful additions can be to repeat the exercise as different characters entering into an imaginary conversation with one or more other characters...

It’s equally helpful for reflection and exploration if the imagination simply fleshes out the details of the story, or even goes off in a different direction from the biblical narrative.

This can sound as if it has too much scope for projection to be meaningful as prayer. But the point is not that what one imagines is what actually happened, but rather to enter more deeply into the story. At one level it is to invite God to be present in the imagination and then to allow what follows to become an experience of God. At another level, it’s to engage the unconscious as a powerful place of religious experience, an insight which is covered extensively in the articles of these pages.

Some find that the art is to enter the story, and then let it slip away into stillness. Surprisingly, often the stray thoughts that come along either on coming out of stillness, or in the next few minutes, seem to have a link back to the story, as if it has been doing its work out of sight! Again, the unconscious shows its value.

Imaginative contemplation doesn’t give the only understanding of a story any more than a sermon gives the only possible understanding of a Bible text, but there is a richness in letting it be a source of nourishment which can give way to different results each time it is practiced. In the context of a retreat or quiet day, there is an added richness of having people there to share the experience and talk about what they have found through the experience.

Although it’s a little outside what is normally called Imaginative Contemplation, all Scripture has a history of being passed on, usually as oral tradition, before it was written down. The assumption is that God was in the passing-on of these stories, as well as the text passed on. Imaginative Contemplation offers a way to deepen this sense of Scripture as living story, which we too must pass on.