Sitting in the backyard with my Sadie, my youngest grandchild, we notice that one toy, a school bus, that has been in the family since the first grandchild, has a missing piece, a bear for the back seat. Where could it be? I was satisfied to say that it had been gone a long time, and probably had been swept away with old dead leaves and branches. But Sadie was not content. She began to spin out all the possibilities: maybe it was underneath something? behind something? taken by a bird up in the sky? or MAYBE tall cousin Dalton had loved it so much he took it back to Florida with him! But in any case we should keep looking for it, even if we had to shout, “Come out! Come out! wherever you are!” Her imagination of hope challenges me to remember where and when I had last used the imagination that I had promised in my vows of ordination: “Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”
I also recalled that not too long ago I had invited a group that was discerning about a direction a course of action to follow a template set out by Dr. Elizabeth Liebert in her book The Way of Discernment, that included imagination. But when it comes to discerning a resolution for my own faithful following of the Holy, I hear myself say, all too often, “I just can’t imagine…” Too often I can’t imagine that the lost can be found, the broken can be healed, the ruptured can be restored, or that there is a way where I don’t see a way. My imagination fails to open the windows of my heart and mind to “what eyes have not seen, nor ears heard what God has prepared for those who love God” (I Cor. 2:9).
My imagination needs feeding and exercise. The practice of Ignatius of Loyola of imagining one’s self inside a story from Scripture has been life-changing for me over and over again. To imagine Jesus’ voice asking me, “What do you want me to do for you?” or to tune into my body when Jesus says to me, “Take up your bed and walk,” or to see myself as Hannah presenting myself before the Holy One: each one has been a moment of transformation for me as I have allowed the sacred story become my own story at critical junctures in my life. I would love to be like Sadie, allowing my mind and heart to soar with possibility as I am the woman at the well, Peter on the roof top, Jacob wrestling for his life. Sadie reminds me to do that.
When I don’t know how to begin in prayer, especially a prayer of questioning where I should go next, I have found that drawing or making a collage frees me to hear and to express the hidden parts of my longing and need. Dr. Liebert gave me an extraordinary gift when I was trying to finish an important academic project when in answer to my despair over being stuck, she handed me magic markers with the instructions to draw. To this artistically-wounded survivor of a demanding school teacher, it was a direction that could only be met with disbelief, as if she had asked me to fly without wings! Yet, prayerfully I picked a red marker, followed by blue, enhanced by green and yellow, and suddenly the Spirit laid out for me the scope and shape of the project, and I was on my way.
Imagination in prayer is a gift of God. Sadie reminds me of that as she waves her hands and as her voice lilts over the garden. What could happen if I brought imagination into my prayer for the places in me and in the world where I feel at an impasse?
- what story can I imagine about bringing food and health to women in Africa who have so few resources in themselves or the systems in which they live?
- how is my imagination sparked when I listen to the conflict and despair of our widely divided country?
- where can i imagine myself traveling to find a faith community in which I might fit?
- why is my prayer limited to only those things I can see and “know for sure.” when I follow the One with whom all things are possible?
God be in my prayer and in my imagination!
Patheos blogger Elizabeth Nordquist muses on the use of sacred imagination in prayer.