Imaginative Contemplation in the Ignatian Tradition

Dr. Douglas Gregg, Christian Formation and Direction Ministries

Imaginative Contemplation in the Ignatian Tradition

Background to St. Ignatius

Ignatius was a 16th century catholic layman, founder of the Jesuits, who organized a series of methods and activities for opening oneself to God’s Spirit and allowing one’s whole being, not just the mind, to be affected. Ignatius had a deep love for Christ and wanted those he guided in prayer to “smell the infinite fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness of the divinity” (#124). He left behind a treasured writing on spirituality that has lasted for 450 years. Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, writes that The Spiritual Exercises is one of the most profound treatments of discipleship to Jesus. He believes that if one makes the necessary adjustments to the content of such a work, one will see that it offers, in substance, “a curriculum, a course of training” for life as a disciple of Jesus (p. 370).

Imaginative Contemplation


Use your imagination to picture a scene or event from scripture, reproducing it in your mind’s eye as though watching a video of the event. Let your senses come into play—sight, hearing, smells, touch, taste. Place yourself in the scene as an onlooker or as a participant in the action, allowing the drama of the story to make its impact upon you. You may want to ask the Lord to show you where you are in the scene, and then go with what happens. Be open to what the Lord wants to show you or say to you. 

Some people are especially adept at such use of the imagination (a right-brain activity) and can see a Biblical story quite clearly, even in vivid colors. We all have this ability, even though it is often undeveloped. Every time you remember an event out of your past or imagine the consequences of a particular action, you are using your imagination, so be patient with this form of prayer and trust the Lord to enlarge your ability to relate to him in this way. Be on guard, at the same time, to reject or put aside any images that come which are a violation of the Bible’s moral code or that violate scripture in any way and are thus not of the Holy Spirit.


  1. Annunciation and Visitation

Objective: Intimate knowledge of Christ, that I might be with him, become like him, and live for him.

Scripture: Luke 1:26-45 (Luke 1:46-56)

First point: Gabriel’s salutation and announcement

Second Point: Mary’s response to Gabriel

Third Point: Elizabeth’s—and her unborn child’s—response to Mary

Ignatius says, “I let myself be totally present to the scene, hearing the nuances of the questions, seeing the expression in the face and eyes, watching the gestures and movements which tell us so much about a person…. I notice how our triune God works—so simply and quietly, so patiently. A world goes on, apparently oblivious to the new creation that has begun. I take in Mary’s complete way of being available and responding to her Lord and God.” (#108)


  • Prepare: Ask for God’s blessing and assistance in this time of prayer.
  • Read and reflect: Using the prayer of Imaginative Contemplation, visualize the points listed above. Carefully go over the Scripture passage. Let it come alive by engaging your senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. (If this feels difficult, relax and ask for God’s help. Remember that every time you recall a favorite vacation experience or picture the face of a friend in your mind’s eye, you are

using the same faculties as those necessary to pray imaginatively.) As you imagine this scene, step into the story and become part of the action. Sense the feelings of Mary and of Elizabeth—their fears, hopes, dreams—and join with them in giving praise to God.

  • Pray along the way: Discuss with God your own fears, hopes and dreams. Take note of your feelings of peace, joy, sadness, confidence, fear or praise and see these as indicators of what the Holy Spirit wants you to notice. Seek to find one impression or insight that you can grasp which leads you to intimate knowledge of God that you might know him, be like him and be for him.
  • Review and record: That one impression or insight—what is God saying to you?
  1. This Amazing Man, Jesus: Feeding the 5000

“Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” (Jesus’ words in Matt 11:28-29, The Message)

I ask for the grace to know Jesus intimately, to love him more intensely, and so to follow him more closely.” (Ignatius, #104)

Objective: In wonder and awe, to contemplate Jesus, whose human life reveals the heart of God. (Intimate knowledge of Christ that I might be with him, become like him, and live for him.)

Scripture: Mark 6:30-44

First point: Jesus takes the disciples for a rest.

Second point: Jesus has compassion on the crowds, teaches them.

Third Point: In response to the disciples’ suggestion, Jesus says, “You feed them.”

Fourth Point: The multitudes are fed.


  • Prepare: Preparatory prayer: “Open your word to me by your Holy Spirit. Strengthen me to know you more intimately, to love you more intensely, to follow you more closely.” Sing Day by Day a few times until you are centered and ready to read.
  • Read and reflect: Using Imaginative Contemplation, visualize the four points above as you read the gospel story, letting all your senses be involved in the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of the event. Step into the story and become part of the action—seeing the pleasure of the disciples in having Jesus’ attention and having him take them to a place of rest, sensing their frustration when the crowds are there to meet them, seeing the look on Jesus’ face as he has compassion on the crowds, noticing the anticipation among the people as they are broken into groups. Sit in one of the circles, watch what is happening as the food is multiplied, taste the bread and comprehend what is happening and what it means! What is the response of the crowds and the disciples? What is your response? If you are in the crowd, then Jesus has compassion on you! Let him look into your eyes as though you were there on that day. Feel the love that he has for you. Where are you captured by the character, words, or actions of Jesus? (attachment insights). Ask yourself, “What in the text moves me to want to attach myself to Jesus? What causes me to love Jesus more?”
  • Pray: Be conscious of any emotions that you may feel during the prayer exercise. Have any of these led to Heart Prayer? Let the Lord deepen these emotions as a prelude to prayers of adoration, especially around any attachment insights. Ask the Lord to multiply your resources in an area of your life that needs his help. Offer him your five loaves and two fish—all that you have—and give yourself in service for Christ. Ask the Lord for a greater desire to become more like him in the ways you are attracted to him.
  • Review and record: What does God want you to take away from this prayer time to remember and to continue to pray about? Journal about that or other things that came up.

During the day/week: Recall regularly that quality in Jesus that has attracted you today. Is there a breath prayer that comes from the passage?