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Listening to God in Prayer: Imagining yourself in a Bible story

Thursday January 25 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Imagining yourself in a Bible story

In Ignatian Bible contemplation, we place ourselves in a Biblical scene and try to become a part of it by using our imagination. We might picture ourselves as one of the main characters in a Bible story, maybe Peter or John in one of the Gospel stories. Or we might imagine ourselves as a bystander in a crowd around Jesus as he heals the leper or talks with the woman who had been bleeding for many years.

Ignatian Bible contemplation is another discipline in which prayer and Bible study merge together in a helpful and insightful way. In fact, some might consider Ignatian prayer to be more focused on Bible study than on prayer.

Ignatius of Loyola, who lived in the sixteenth century and founded the Jesuit movement, was the great proponent of this method of prayer. It is important to note, however, that this method stands in the long Jewish and Christian tradition of remembering the significance of God’s acts in history. The great Jewish holidays, Passover, Hannukah, Purim, the Festival of Booths, are all firmly rooted in historical events in which God acted. Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter likewise help us remember what God has done. When we engage in Ignatian prayer, we are affirming God’s acts in history and we are remembering and honoring them.

Ignatius suggests that as we place ourselves in a Biblical story, we try to imagine what we might see, smell, feel, and hear, and what the other persons in the scene might be doing. Always, Ignatius says, at each point in this contemplative exercise, we must “try to draw some practical fruit from the reflection for our own life today." [1] We need to ask ourselves what difference it makes in our everyday lives that we have encountered God through this Scripture passage. One way to do this is to focus on the words of Jesus and consider the ways our lives would be changed if we heard Jesus say those words to us.

I have returned over and over to the story of the woman at the well in John 4, using Ignatian prayer. I imagine myself as a girl of 8 or 10, playing hide and seek with my brother. I’m hiding in the bushes near the well when Jesus comes to talk with the woman. I listen carefully to his words, and as I grow into my teens, his words continue to come back to me. I feel called to grow in worshipping God in spirit and in truth, as Jesus talked about. I am in awe that Jesus knew all about that woman without her telling him, and I ponder what it’s like to be known so thoroughly by Jesus. There is something special about that man talking to that woman beside the well, and I ponder in my heart his person and his wisdom.

You can read a passage like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and imagine yourself as the person who was attacked, as the person walking by on the other side, and then also as the Good Samaritan. As you imagine yourself as each person, what would you feel, see, taste, touch, smell? What would God want to teach you through your connection with each of these characters?

You can imagine yourself as the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50). Why are you weeping? How did you become convinced that Jesus would offer you mercy? Imagine your reaction when you hear him say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Perhaps you would like to imagine yourself as one of the other people at the table, watching these events happening.

You can imagine yourself as a shepherd who visits the manger or as a person in the crowd on Palm Sunday or at the crucifixion. All of these exercises help us remember who God is and his faithfulness to us, and help us hear his voice through the stories and words of the Bible.

This is the 11th post in a series on growing in listening to God in prayer. The previous posts are:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture
          

(Next week: Praying the Psalms. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is excerpted from my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

Lent begins on Valentine’s Day this year. If you’d like a devotional for Lent, check out the one I wrote a couple of years ago with reflection questions on a psalm for each day of Lent. I've had good feedback from people who have used it on their own and also from others who used it in a small group. My husband Dave’s beautiful paintings provide illustrations for it. Available here.

[1] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 11.



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