In the audio for this sermon, we’ve retained the pauses during which the congregation tried out the techniques Br. David Vryhof describes. We hope you’ll follow along and try them too.
This evening we begin a five-part preaching series entitled “Living Prayer.” Each Tuesday night during Lent, one of the brothers will speak about a particular approach to prayer. Our goal is teach these traditional ways of prayer, not only by explaining them but also by demonstrating them. We hope, each week, to offer a short exercise that will engage you with one of these forms of prayer.
▪ Tonight, we will be praying with the imagination.
▪ Next week, Br James will teach us to pray with icons and other images.
▪ In week three, Br Geoffrey will teach us to pray in the present moment.
▪ In week four, Br Curtis will give us guidance on how to pray with signs and symbols.
▪ And in the fifth and final week, Br Mark will be showing us how to pray with sacred texts.
It’s good to remember at the outset that prayer is not primarily about methods and that we need not become enslaved to them. Methods of prayer are helpful when they allow us to engage the spiritual dimension of our lives and to experience God. The goal of prayer is greater intimacy with God. Prayer is about relationship, not duty. So take these methods and use them if they are helpful, if they open a way for you to be present to God and open to the action of God’s Spirit in your life. If they’re not helpful, try something else – but don’t give up on them too quickly; they sometimes take a while to learn.
The method of prayer we will be using tonight is often referred to as “Ignatian Prayer,” not because St Ignatius invented it but because he employed it in his Spiritual Exercises as a way of helping others to enter experientially into the life and ministry of Jesus. Using the imagination, Ignatius’ retreatants pictured themselves in various settings with Jesus, observing his words and actions and sensing their effect not only on the other characters in the story, but on the retreatants themselves. As we pray in this way, the events and interactions described in the gospels become real for us, and we find ourselves engaging with Jesus and others as if we were present with them. We watch the scene unfold before us, and notice the feelings and thoughts that are awakened in us.
I’d like to suggest a short text from Luke’s gospel as the focus of our meditation tonight. In Luke 9, verses 18-20, we read:
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist, but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”
Our first task is to envision ourselves among those disciples, praying in a lonely place with Jesus. I’d like to invite you to close your eyes and imagine that scene. If Jesus had asked you, ‘Is there a quiet place where we could go apart to pray?’ where might you have led him? Picture yourself with him and a few of his disciples in that place now… Sense the peacefulness of the setting, the peacefulness of being in silence and in prayer in the company of Jesus and his friends… Are there smells and sounds that you associate with this place? Notice them… Quiet your heart now, slow your breathing, open yourself to God’s presence in this place you have imagined…
Observe Jesus at prayer. What posture does he assume? What is the expression on his face? Notice his slow and steady breathing, his eyes lifted up to the heavens and then gently closed, as he communes with the One he calls “Father”. Feel your oneness with him in the presence of the One in whom we all live and move and have our being… What do you suppose he is feeling and thinking? What are you feeling and thinking?
Jesus now rises slowly from his place and comes closer to where you and the others are seated. He sits with you, and all of you turn your gaze towards him. He is still, quietly contemplating his next words. You also are completely still, waiting in expectation and hope. Finally he lifts his head and gazes into your eyes. He asks you a question: “What do the people in America think about me? Who do they say that I am?”
You ponder your response, and then you speak. Give him your answer now…
A minute passes in silence. He seems to be taking in your response, turning it over in his mind, weighing it and considering its implications. You sit in silence with him, wondering if what you said was true, if it was fair, if it was helpful…
Now he lifts his head and once again fixes his eyes on you. “And you,” he says, looking steadily into your eyes, “Who do you say that I am?” You take in this question, wanting to answer as clearly and as honestly as you can. And then you speak…
What did you say? Was your answer clear and full of conviction, or did you express your uncertainty and confusion? Were you able to be completely honest, or did you have the feeling that you should say something that would please him…
Imagine him looking at you now, completely without judgment. He has a gentle smile on his face, and is gazing at you in the way that lovers gaze at each other. He has received your answer and has taken pleasure in it. He understands your answer and the reasons behind it better than you do. And you can tell by his expression that it is alright. You need not be anything that you are not – right now, in this moment, he accepts you fully. And he loves you…
Jesus. You are the one to whom all hearts are open. You see and know us as we are, in our beauty and in our confusion. Accept our attempts to love you. Receive our beliefs and our doubts, the true expression of our hearts. Be patient with us and love us, now and forever. Amen.
Just as God has given us minds to reason and hearts to love, so God has given us the ability to imagine, a gift that helps us to experience life more richly and fully. Just as God can speak to us through our minds, so God can speak to us through our hearts. Imagination opens the way to the heart.
If there is a road before you that leads to God, follow it. Don’t be afraid to use your imagination to open a pathway to God. Draw on the imagery of gospel stories and enter into the scenes they portray, looking to see and know God in new and profound ways, and allowing the Spirit to touch you through your imagination and reveal to you the truths that lie beyond your rational mind, in the hidden depths of your soul.