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St. Ignatius Shows Us How to Use Our Senses to Pray

Meditation inspires creativity. Yet we don’t tend to think of meditation and imagination together — the former requires focus and the latter exploration.

St. Ignatius of Loyola teaches us that our imagination can actually help us pray when we purposefully engage our senses. Meditation within the spirituality of St. Ignatius is not about freeing our minds; it’s about drawing us into the Good News of the Gospel through storytelling and sensation.

The practice of imaginative prayer comes from two important theological concepts:

God made our imaginations. The same God who acted in the Bible story made the whole world and our imaginations. Therefore, it is right to use this God-given gift, the imagination, to better understand and personalize God’s supreme gift, Jesus Christ.

God became man in the Incarnation. This means God chose to communicate with us through the things of this world. God reveals himself through the tangible. So, imagining the physical and sensory aspects of the Gospel is an authentically Catholic form of prayer.

In his book The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius outlines four weeks of daily spiritual practices. Originally written in Spanish, the book is a guide for contemplative prayer. It’s designed to be read in parts — not skimmed or read consecutively — to allow for meditation, reflection and practice. St. Ignatius explains the joy of meditative prayer: “For it is not knowing much, but realising and relishing things interiorly, that contents and satisfies the soul.”

See through God’s eyes

Imaginative prayer first appears in the second week of The Spiritual Exercises, when St. Ignatius presents a meditation about the Incarnation — when the Son of God took on human form in the person of Jesus. St. Ignatius encourages us to imagine how God sees and feels, now and throughout salvation history. Imagining how God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit views the world is intended to help us better “follow and imitate Our Lord.”

St. Ignatius gives us three ways to imagine God’s view of the world, as well as those of Mary and the angels. We should begin with a prayer of petition, to receive “interior knowledge of the Lord.” These exercises force us outside the limits of our mind and our humanity into the divine.

“For it is not knowing much, but realising and relishing things interiorly, that contents and satisfies the soul.”

  1. Picture God’s view of the world, seeing all people and places.

“See the various persons: and first those on the surface of the earth, in such variety, in dress as in actions: some white and others black; some in peace and others in war; some weeping and others laughing; some well, others ill; some being born and others dying, etc.”

  1. Listen to hear what people are saying, and how God responds.

“Hear what the persons on the face of the earth are saying, that is, how they are talking with one another, how they swear and blaspheme, etc.”

  1. Observe the actions of humanity, good and bad, and how God reacts.

“Look then at what the persons on the face of the earth are doing, as, for instance, killing, going to Hell etc.; likewise what the Divine Persons are doing, namely, working out the most holy Incarnation, etc.”

Through each of these views, we experience who God is and how the workings of the world affect him. This perspective prepares us to expand our imagination further to picture our own role in the story of the Gospel.

Enter the Gospel story

Imaginative prayer continues into a meditation about the Nativity. This time, St. Ignatius asks us to place ourselves inside the Gospel story. Who would you have been? What emotions would you have felt? What was the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem like? This places us in the divine narrative of the Gospel, so we can experience it as our own narrative. It lets us meet Christ through the story of his life and death.

As you start this meditation, engage all your senses for total immersion in the story. Visualize the people, environment and emotions, the long journey from Nazareth to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. St. Ignatius offers guidance for activating each of our five senses.

Sight: “See the persons with the sight of the imagination, meditating and contemplating in particular the details about them.”

Hearing: “Hear … what they are, or might be, talking about.”

Smell and taste: “Smell and … taste the infinite fragrance and sweetness of the Divinity, of the soul, and of its virtues, and of all, according to the person who is being contemplated.”

Touch: “Touch … as for instance, to embrace and kiss the places where such persons put their feet and sit.”

St. Ignatius shares that entering into God’s vision and the Gospel stories leads to “reflecting on oneself and drawing profit from it.” We become able to contemplate faith mysteries with less intellectual critique and more emotional attunement. We can apply the same sensory exploration and imaginative prayer to all of Scripture. This Ignatian contemplation opens us up to let the Holy Spirit work in, through and around us.