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broadening and deepening prayer
United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

Imaginative contemplation

Mark Argent
4 August 2018

One 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 imagine 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, and entering into an imaginary conversation with one or more characters at the end. It’s equally helpful if the imagination simply fleshes out the details of the story, or 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 it is 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 things of the unconscious that are involved in imagination, drawing on the fact that the unconscious is a powerful place of religious experience.

Some people find that the core of this approach is to be taken up in the story, and where the imagination goes.

Some find an extra layer in talking with one or more of the characters, allowing themself to become more deeply part of the story. That can include the shift from a gospel story as a story about Jesis to being an encounter with Jesus in the story.

Some find that the art is to enter the story, and then let it slip away into stillness. In a way that is to make it the entry point to stillness, but if the last thing someone has actively chosen to think about before settling into stillness is a Bible story, the odds are that it will still be around somewhere. 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 if sight.

Imaginative contemplation doesn’t give the only understanding of a story, any more than a sermon gives the only possible exegesis of a text, but there is a richness in letting it be the nourishment for today, with the possibility that it may seem different, and nourish differently, tomorrow. In the context of a retreat or quiet day, there’s an added richness if there is scope for people to talk about what they have found in the same story, helping people see what they might have missed.

Although it’s a little outside what is normally called Imaginative Contemplation, all scripture had a process of being passed on, usually as oral tradition, before it was written down. The assumption is that God was in the passing-on of the stories, as well as the text passed on: Imaginative Contemplation also offers a way to deepen the sense of scripture as living story passed on.