Resist and restore: The prayer of imagination

What if you want to use Lent to get out of your head and into your heart? What if you want to explore the depths of your life: mind, heart, soul, strength and have a meaningful life that resists the forces that try to consume it? Last Saturday during our retreat, one of the answers was: learn to pray — and learn to use your imagination. Life in Christ is bigger than such an “answer” of course. But developing a spiritual life is the key to meaning, key to surviving. Morton Kelsey offered a checklist for venturing inward. It is a good one, since it does not skip to “what I can do on my own,” but attends to our context and community, which are so crucial: 1) attend to the regular disciplines of your community (cell, Sunday meeting, team), 2) keep a spiritual journal, 3) talk about your inner life, 4) receive spiritual direction (could be formal or friendship), 5) learn to become quiet, 6) unleash your imagination.

peering into the inner life

Prayer takes many forms. In every form it is communing with God, relating Spirit to spirit. We intercede and move God. We worship and praise God. We confess and reconcile with God. We have conversations that are full of complaining and questioning. But until we learn to be quiet and find out what is on the other side of silence, our prayer is a bit superficial and missing the deep experiences of connection we crave. The core prayer we need to learn might be summed up with the word contemplation: the basic yearning of our hearts turned to seeking, our innate spiritual capacity stepping toward connection.

There are two intertwining roads in contemplative prayer; one is often emphasized more by one group than another. First, there is the via negativa, the apophatic way, (the word means “other than speaking,” denial). This way stresses how God is best known by negation, elimination, forgetting, unknowing, without images and symbols, and in darkness. God is other than humanity. God is “not this, not that.” All images, thoughts, symbols, etc. must be eliminated, because, as St. John of the Cross points out, “all the being of creatures compared with the infinite being of God is nothing. Nothing which could possibly be imagined or comprehended in this life can be a proximate means of union with God.” We enter this nothingness to meet God. Learning to be quiet needs to travel on this way, since we need to turn away from our self-controlled, world-controlled existence to meet God. In prayer, we need to deal with the distractions that inhibit our solitude.

The other road is the via affirmativa, the kataphatic way, (the word means “much speaking,” affirmation). This way underscores how we can find God in all people, in all experiences, in all things. It emphasizes a definite similarity between God and creatures. We are made in God’s image, male and female. The world is an expression of God’s character. As Paul taught the Athenians:  “In God we live and move and have our being.” God can be reached by creatures, images, and symbols, because the Lord is manifested in creation and salvation history. The incarnation of God in Christ forces us take our own experiences as relevant, symbolic and part of an ongoing story of salvation. We are God’s workmanship and Jesus not only symbolizes this blessing, He remains with us to bring about its fullness.

All humans are made to seek. We are lonely for God. So very few are spirituality-free. In most Hindu and Buddhist practices, people are taught that the universe is, ultimately, impersonal mind (as in “may the force be with you”). Jesus-followers see the universe as lover. God is so interested in the created world that s/he became incarnate, so interested in humans that Jesus died for us. God enables us to be companions and fellow workers by meeting us Spirit to spirit. The context of our meeting is love; the ultimate goal of meditation is love, even when it is apophatic.

Our communion with God in prayer is, in itself, resistance to the forces that attempt to usurp God’s proper place in the world and on our lives. If you are alone in solitude with God, that relationship has an impact, even if you don’t take much action as a result. But our contemplation regularly gives us our direction and stokes our courage to act. Contemplation allows us to fight evil that arises in us and outside us. We each do this in our own way, but in similar fashion. One’s experience of the world of the Spirit depends on their psychology, which can be understood and developed, and on their world view, which can change. So contemplation is unique to each one who practices, but is unified in the One who meets each of us where we are beginning today.

On Saturday, we offered two suggestions for praying in a more “kataphatic” way, making full use of symbols, dreams and the art of imagination.  One way to experience inner meaning is meditating on your inner experiences: coming to silence, going back into the images of your dreams and fantasies, first consciously, then allowing them to go as they will. We noted that most of our spiritual guidance comes from our conscious experience, which is the tip of the iceberg of us. We were trying to learn more about how to receive direction from our inner experience of what is normally unconscious. Many people avoid this territory because it seems vast and dark. But we are not to be absorbed into it, we are to encounter love in it. We have a basic direction for our contemplation – Jesus describes God as the loving father of a returning prodigal. It is clear who is the object of our prayer and who we are.

God's character

So our conscious minds can lead us and our unconscious, our dreams can lead us. When people describe the unconscious experience it is as varied as they are. But it starts with two simple things: 1) one must be convinced that thinking and feeling in images is important, 2) one must spend enough time to break away from the concerns of the waking realm. We explored this path in two ways last Saturday. I thought you might like some of the teaching to encourage your journey through Lent.

Ignatius and the Bible. 

Try Ignatius of Loyola‘s approach to praying the Bible through imagination and entering into a deeper connection with God as a result.

Matthew 19:13-15 – Jesus and the children

Allow twenty to thirty minutes for the exercise.

  1. As the passage is read for the first time, try to hear it as if it is fresh and new—as if you are hearing it for the first time. Read Mt. 19:13-15 slowly
  2. As the passage is read for the second time, enter in to the event Place yourself as a child in the scene as it is read. Read passage again in a slow, meditative manner
  3. Answer the following questions: How do you feel as you walked through the crowd? Are you warm? Do you feel a breeze? Can you feel the hand of your parent or adult as you walk toward Jesus? What do you hear? Birds? Animal sounds? The voice of Jesus? The disciples trying to send you away? What do you smell? Is it a dusty day? Can you smell the animals? The body odor of the crowd? What do you see? Can you see the legs of the people in front of you? Can you see Jesus? The other children?
  4. Go to Jesus and hear him tell the disciples that he wants to be with you
  5. Climb up in the lap of Jesus or sit beside him and let him embrace you
  6. Experience the deep love that is offered to you a. Let it wash over you and rest in the places that you are experiencing some type of emotional pain Let it be a balm to the rejection or abandonment that you have experienced Let it be to you the love that you desire, yet have never experienced to this extreme. Rest in that love for a while
  7. If you want to talk with Jesus, you may
  8. Otherwise, just sit and let Jesus embrace you.

Morton Kelsey and Dreams

Try Morton’s Kelsey’s explanation of imaging prayer.

In The Other Side of Silence (and elsewhere), Morton Kelsey pointed out that when we are still, images will appear naturally, as they do in our dreams. There is a vast, mostly unexplored territory in our unconscious, that impacts us deeply and where God is much needed and very available. We can follow the revelations in our literal dreams or our waking dreams, listen to them, and find meaning in what they reveal about our deep places where God is relating to us Spirit to spirit. On the way to being quiet, we will need to dismiss many distractions. But we can recognize deeper images that arise from a place where we are communing with God.

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

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