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The Value and Use of Imagination

August 29, 2012


In past blogs I have referred to Ignatius as a key person in helping us understand the nature of spiritual formation. Let’s take a closer look at another Ignatian theme: He believed that a primary pathway into the biblical texts and experiential encounter with Christ, was through the use of imagination. He discovered the value of this when he lay wounded in Loyola. While previously he had imagined exploits in service of an earthly king of queen, he now found himself using these powers in the discovery and service of Christ. This active use of his imagination became fully developed as a tool to encounter Jesus.

Ignatius taught the use of this approach by training spiritual directors to assign certain gospel stories and texts to the directee, ones that seemed suited to their spiritual life and needs at the time. During the daily reflections of the retreat, the individual spent extended time moving into the story with the intention of having face-to-face encounters with Christ. The participants were encouraged to enter into text experientially – to touch, taste, smell, see and hear the event as if they were actually there. The goal was to encounter Christ in the salvation story rather than just to know it.

The centrality of this imaginative component leads to a definition of Ignatian spirituality as kataphatic in nature. While other mystics believed that God was encountered through the letting go of conscious thought (referred to as apophatic), the kataphatic approach invites us into the active use of our mind. The directee is invited to listen to conversations, notice facial responses and enter into the feelings of each person, especially Christ. While the imagination is often seen as a place of departure from sound doctrine and practice, in Ignatian spirituality it is actually a place where Christology shines.

This is the genius of the Ignatian Exercises, an amazing balance between experiential encounter and the objective use of the scriptures as the basis for any such encounter. It was through the imagination that the individual could release all constraints and enter the biblical story. In doing so they discover Christ in a way that brings healing to the distorted views we have held in our understanding. We encounter Jesus as someone who treats us like a friend and brother.

Ignatius taught that transformational change occurred at a feeling level involving much more than a cognitive response. His goal was the use of imaginative power around the objective truth of God’s word to lead the individual into a direct encounter with Christ. Regarding the use of imagination, Tad Dunne writes, “Although most people today find it strange at first to enter into historical scenes through their imagination, the majority of those who try it find the practice surprisingly full of real assents.”

After becoming aware of the Exercises I have pursued the practice of imagination around particular gospel stories and have found this to be a profound experience. Entering into the story truly does lead to processing with Christ in personal ways, opening windows of transformation. (I recommend an online website offered by Ignatian leaders in England who often use of imagination to enter scriptural stories.)

Somehow, somewhere along the way the church became suspicious of imagination as a valuable pathway to encountering Christ. It was as if imagination was off limits – it fell into the category of Gnostic practices that might lead the person away from objective truth. However, if believers could rediscover the value of imagining the historical texts of Christ’s life, they would simply be living into the scriptures at an experiential level. Ignatius encouraged this. It was his firm belief that truth needed to touch the emotions.

Recovering the use of imagination is difficult for adults who have learned to live in a rational world where anything imaginative is categorized as unproductive… even childish. In our results-driven culture we have lost the art of imagining ourselves in the story. It will take effort to recover our child-like capacity for imagination. The starting place is simply to follow Ignatius’ directives: Choose a narrative from the life of Christ and dwell in it until you are watching, touching, eating, and breathing in all that goes on. Become part of the story. Discover the power of being there!

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  1. kevinimills permalink

    Reblogged this on kimmblog and commented:
    I really believe we should study and exercise our imagination.

  2. This is wonderful Morris, well done. One way I am using the imagination is writing blog posts of some of the narrative healing stories of Jesus. I place myself as the one encountering Jesus. I read the story, use Lectio Divina, read commentators then invite Spirit to guide my imagination. Its fun and brings new perspectives out. Thanks once again

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