Imaginative Prayer: Switching Up the Prayer Routine

Does your summer bend the rules a bit? In our house, bedtimes become a little fuzzier, trips to the pool cut piano practicing short, and french fries count as a vegetable at cookouts. The ambling summer months feel expansive, and spending time outside on long sunny days gives one plenty of "scope for
imagination," as Anne of Green Gables would say.

Imagination is always available, of course, but sometimes the leisure of summertime reminds us how creative we can be. Slow days ease the rigidity of lock-step schedules, and imaginative play breathes life into our family activities. Suddenly that pile of leftover mulch becomes a human ant hill. A bucket of water becomes a stew, flavored with rock-onions, twig-carrots, and maple-leaf-spices. My brothers and I always pretended the cracks in our driveway were cavities in a giant's tooth, and we (newly appointed dentists) had to clean out all the gravel with sticks before the giant's anesthesia wore off. Ah, summer!

Call me crazy, but one of my favorite summer activities is hanging laundry out on the clothesline. While I do hang out some things in the middle of the Wisconsin winter, I delight most heartily in airing summer laundry. I love cleaning out closets and watching all the freshly washed clothes playing lazily in the wind. Maybe this summer, maybe this very day, our prayer lives could use a similar freshening up.

If we clean out the closet that is our prayer life, we can bring all our prayer habits out into the sun for inspection. Surely we'll find some beautiful memorized prayers we call to mind daily, like the Our Father or the Morning Offering. Many of us also like to pray spontaneously, in our own words, at random moments throughout the day. Maybe some of us like to pray with Scripture, or with music. Some talented people I know pray while creating beautiful things: art, beadwork, furniture, handbags. But how many of us use our imagination to pray?

Imaginative prayer is a creative and intimate way to spend time with God, and even children can learn how to pray with the imagination. St. Ignatius of Loyola was a master of imaginative prayer--so much so that most guides to praying with the imagination are based on Ignatian Contemplation. The Apostleship of Prayer, a ministry of St. Ignatius' Society of Jesus, helps people pray with the imagination. This kind of imaginative prayer engages all the senses and has come to be known as Ignatian Contemplation. At the Apostleship of Prayer, we call it praying with the heart.

This previous post includes a detailed guide for leading (yourself or) children ages twelve and up in imaginative prayer. While many people have found that guide helpful, some parents have followed up by asking whether younger children can try Ignatian Contemplation. Yes! Here's what you need:
  • a Bible (or at least the Gospels)
  • a cozy place to sit
  • a quiet time of day--children have very different metabolisms; not everyone can sit still easily. A general goal for the length of prayer is one minute per year of life. Thus, a six-year-old child might spend about six minutes with you in prayer.
Pretty simple! I like to stick with the Gospels for imaginative prayer--brief stories that invite me to spend time with Jesus himself. Children might especially enjoy praying with the Gospel passage they heard in church on Sunday; even if children are a little squirrely at church, they do hear the Scripture readings in some way, and they often catch at least some of the preaching. Or rather than repeat the Gospel passage from Sunday, some children might like to anticipate the upcoming Sunday's reading. Praying with the Gospel during the days before church will encourage children to look forward to the Scripture readings and tune into the preaching.

Children love to use their imagination; sitting still for a few minutes to pray with the imagination will come naturally for most children, even as young as four years old. The key is to keep asking questions to guide your child through the Gospel story and keep the imagination engaged. Here are some prompts we can use to guide our children through an Ignatian Contemplation of Jesus of Nazareth as a child. As you follow the steps of the prayer, speak softly and slowly, leaving time for some silence (use only as many questions as is helpful for your child).

Let's begin. . .
  • Sit in your cozy spot and breathe quietly--deeply and gently.
  • Make the sign of the cross and remember God is here in this cozy place. God is looking at you and loving you.
Let's tell God what we're doing. . .
  • In your heart (not out loud), tell God you will be praying about Jesus for the next few minutes.
  • Ask God to help you have a good prayer time.
Let's listen. . . 
  • Read the Bible passage about Jesus (in this case, Luke 2:39-40)
  • What is interesting to you? Let's listen to it again.
Let's imagine. . .
  • Explore Jesus' home in Nazareth with your imagination, using all your senses:
    • What can you see? What does Jesus look like? What is he wearing? Where does he play?
    • What can you hear? What music does Jesus enjoy? What do Mary and Joseph say to Jesus? What do you hear Jesus saying to them, and to his playmates?
    • What can you smell? Is Mary baking anything? Is it a hot, sweaty day? Is Joseph working with wood?
    • What can you taste? Is there fish around? Bread?
    • What can you touch? Are Jesus' friends close by? How does Jesus show love to his parents? What items can you touch around the house?
Let's talk with Jesus. . .
  • Now that we're near the end of our prayer time, imagine yourself alone with Jesus, looking at one another.
  • In your heart (not out loud), talk to Jesus as one friend speaks to another.
  • Tell Jesus what you liked about spending time with him these past few minutes.
  • Hear Jesus as he responds to you. How does Jesus feel about spending time with you?
Let's finish up. . .
  • Jesus taught us the “Our Father,” so let's say that with him right now (or choose another favorite prayer).
  • Make the sign of the cross.

Children love learning how to encounter Jesus in the Gospels through their imagination. Sometimes bedtime routines are a little more leisurely during the summer; try a few minutes of contemplation before bed and see what happens! Even if the process is unfamiliar and awkward on day one, try it at least twice more to see if your child might enjoy praying in this way. Christians have a fondness for the Third Day, after all.

The new evangelization is all about encountering Jesus and becoming his disciple; imaginative prayer allows us--adults and children alike--to spend time with Jesus in a deeply personal way. All prayer is a gift from God. And with great love, God always pays attention to our prayers.

Now, therefore, my eyes shall be open and my ears attentive to the prayer of this place.
-2 Chronicles 5:15