Using your imagination to meditate.
Hey, if your mind’s gonna wander, harness it.
When I was a kid there was a Japanese
The kids, and their robot in the red galero, have a not-at-all-awkward conversation with a buck-naked pre-genitalia Adam and Eve. Aníme Óyako Gekíjo episode 1, “Adamu to Eba Monogatari”
Well in the first series they did. In the second series, Pasókon Toráberu Tántei-dan/“Computer Travel Detective Team”—also called Superbook in the States—the kids totally ignored the bible characters ’cause they were trying to rescue a missing dog. Which is best, I suppose: Less chance they’d accidentally change history, and whoops!—now we’re all worshiping Zeus, and Biff Tannen is emperor.
Obviously we haven’t invented time travel, and it’s not possible to have any Superbook-style adventures. But a whole lot of us would love to see the events of bible times, or interact with some of that stuff. It’s why Christians go to bible-times theme parks, like the Ark Encounter or the Holy Land Experience. Or, for about the same price, real-life Israel.
But when time travel or pilgrimage are out of the question (at least for today), it is possible to meditate on a story from the scriptures, by imagining ourselves there as it happened, watching it as it took place.
Some Christians call this practice
The idea is to stop thinking of these events as merely stories, but as real-life history. Stuff that truly happened. Stuff the prophets and apostles truly experienced. Stuff where God came near and interacted with humanity—same as he does now. Stop looking at them from the outside, and visualize yourself in the inside, in the bible, fully immersed in the story, just as you’re fully a part of God’s salvation history.
Try this with the passages you’re reading now. Put yourself there, in your mind. See what new insights come out of it.
It’s not sorcery. Just common sense.
First time I talked about Ignatius-style meditation with a certain Christian, she freaked out and thought I was talking about astral projection. “No no,” I said, “nobody leaves their body. We’re imagining we’re elsewhere. We know we haven’t actually left the room.”
“You know you haven’t,” she objected, “but they might actually try to leave, and project themselves elsewhere, and that’s witchcraft.” She’d have none of it. She’s one of those people who think we can accidentally fall into spiritism, which is why there’s no room in her life for even the Holy Spirit.
But I digress. I seriously doubt we can project ourselves anywhere, since once the spirit leaves the body you’re dead.
Okay, if you’re the fearful sort, I’m not gonna force you to try something you’re leery about. (I’m not sure how I could force you, anyway.) You’re not ready for this. Get rid of your fears first.
For everyone else, here’s how it works.
The mental images are entirely your creation. You’re the one imagining it. They’re based on your knowledge of the scriptures. You’re taking what you know, and using them to paint this picture.
Fr’instance, remember the story of Jesus stopping the weather? No? I’ll tell it again.
Mark 4.35-41 KWL
- 35 Once that day became evening, Jesus told them, “We can cross to the far side.”
- 36 He dismissed the crowd, and they took him in the boat, as-is. Other boats came along.
- 37 A great windstorm came along, and the waves rocked the boat and quickly filled it.
- 38 Jesus was aft, sleeping on a cushion. They woke him and told him,
- “Teacher, don’t you care we’re dying?”
- 39 Getting up, Jesus told off the wind, and told the sea, “Quiet! Shut up!”
- The wind stopped. It became very still.
- 40 “What are you, cowards?” Jesus told them. “Haven’t you any faith?”
- 41 They were greatly afraid, and told one another, “Both the wind and the sea listen to him!
- So what sort of person is he?”
Okay, let’s start meditating. Picture yourself in Jesus’s boat with him.
- What’s the lake look like during a storm? How dark does it get? How big do the waves get?
- How big’s the boat? (Do you know how big these boats are?) How crowded? How nervous are these kids? How many of them are swimmers? How many of ’em, even if they are swimmers, think they can outswim this storm?
- How do you imagine Jesus looked as he got up and told the sea to stop bugging him? Annoyed? Angry? Groggy ’cause he’d just been sleeping? Frustrated at his students’ small faith?
Thing is, are annoyance, anger, and frustration part of Jesus’s character? Or ours?
Ours. Jesus’s character reflects the fruit of the Spirit. You know the verse: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
- How do you imagine Jesus looked as he got up and told the sea to stop bugging him? Still groggy. But kind. Patient. Peaceful. Certainly more peaceful than his kids were.
You see how this works? We create the mental image, then concentrate on what we know about the scriptures—and use the scriptures to continually tweak our image. Refine it, improve it, and fix it. Fill in the blanks with scripture and historically-accurate information. When you learn something new, go back and include the new stuff in your mental picture.
As opposed to filling in the blanks with us.
The most obvious drawback to this method: Some of us don’t know any scripture.
Simple solution: Read your bible. Read it a bunch of times. Get familiar with all the parts you’re not as familiar with. Start putting two and two together: What’s the Law have to say about the practices Jesus saw in his day? What did the Prophets have to say about how people weren’t following the Law? And so on.
There’s also the fact people don’t know squat about biblical history. True of bible scholars as well. We might know our bibles backwards and forwards. But daily life in ancient Israel? How people wore their clothes, laced their sandals, shaded their eyes, picked their teeth? How they built their homes, started their fires, cooked their food, cut their meat? Well, that stuff isn’t in the bible. Nor necessarily in the ancient literature of the day.
For daily life, we’ve gotta turn to archeologists. Read up on what they’ve discovered. Some of ’em have found answers to these questions. Some haven’t. There are all sorts of little cultural differences like this we’d never even think about, unless we’ve traveled to other countries and seen people do odd little things instead of the behaviors we take for granted. Like cook on a stove with their bare hands, not a spatula nor tongs. Like oil themselves instead of bathing. Like shake their head when they mean yes.
See, when we don’t know these details, we automatically fill in the blanks with our own culture. Just as Christian art and movies do, which is why it’s notoriously inaccurate. It’s why Jesus is always white, always has a British accent, always wears a toga. It’s why the birth of Jesus is always depicted in a barn, not a cave; attended by European and African kings, not Persian astrologers who weren’t even there for another two years yet.
An ark is a treasure box, as we know from replicas of the Ark of the Covenant. But every replica of the ark Noah built, whether in movies or theme parks or murals in the children’s church area, turns it into a boat, with an unbiblical bow and stern. Seriously: God’s instructions in Genesis 6 were to make a three-level box with the dimensions of
Art, movies, and other popular-culture representations regularly worm their way into our mental images. And this is as true in our day as it was in Ignatius’s. When he pictured Mary before Jesus’s birth in the Spiritual Exercises, he naturally imagined her nine months pregnant, riding from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a donkey. Second contemplation After all, that’s the way 16th-century Christian art depicted her (and still does). Never mind the fact Joseph had more sense than to put a woman so pregnant in a saddle of all things; he’d have used a cart. Nor the fact they likely went to Bethlehem way before she was due, probably for one of the thrice-a-year temple festivals.
So when we try to visualize bible times, it means we gotta do our homework. We can read books or watch videos about daily life in ancient Israel. We can go there and see these buildings, cities, and distances for ourselves. True, many centuries later, but we can still learn plenty of details.
But don’t fool yourself: There are always gonna be gaps in our knowledge. So our imagination is never gonna get it 100 percent accurate. Good enough to get some insights, to realize some things we wouldn’t if all we did was read. Still, humans make mistakes. So let’s not assume our insights are infallible.
And no, it’s not revelation.
The other reason I point this out is because I’ve known Christians who meditated on a bible story, Ignatius-style… then start teaching things based on the things they imagined. Growing up, one of my Sunday school teachers used to tell us what Abraham and Samson and David looked like. These ideas were all based on her imagination, all based on how she’d meditate on these bible characters. She assumed she was right, ’cause she assumed the Holy Spirit was guiding her imagination. She shouldn’t have.
See, some Christians claim this type of visualization is prophetic. That whenever we imagine ourselves elsewhere, the Holy Spirit takes control of the images we see, and reveals incredible mysteries and truths to us.
No he doesn’t. This is all us.
Yes, if you’re talking to the Spirit during your meditation time (as you should), he can always reveal stuff to us that we’d never ordinarily know. And when he does, go confirm that stuff with other Christians. Don’t assume every idea in your imagination is the Spirit. Double-check.
Yet I’ve heard Christians actually claim this is how visions work: The instant you have an idea, assume it’s from God, and start visualizing it. If “God” tells you, “Sword of the Spirit,”
No you’re not. You’re daydreaming, and interpreting your daydreams as if they’re revelatory visions. They are not. These are your mental images. Not God’s. We’re not presumptively, arrogantly ascribing any of this stuff to God. We’re not blaming him for it either, ’cause nothing’s gonna come of the stuff which doesn’t originate from God. “Sword of the Spirit” comes from the bible, but everything beyond that? All you.
Is there a significant difference between carving an imaginary god out of wood, and mentally picturing a god with your mind? Nope. Both are imaginary. And the purpose of this exercise is not to invent imaginary gods, then prophesy in their name. It’s to process information in a different way—to paint a picture with scripture, and put things into it so we can understand it better. Not to imagine a bible scene, and pull things out based on missing data.
Yet I’ve seen plenty of examples of Christians—Catholic and Protestant alike—who improperly use Ignatius’s method to invent all kinds of ungodly “visions” which go entirely against God’s character.
In the case of real visions, they’re not gonna be under our control. (Nor, I find, will they take place at times it’s convenient for us, like during meditation time.) They happen when God decides they happen. They’ll take weeks in prayer, trying to figure out what God meant by ’em. Real visions look nothing like meditative visions. Don’t mix ’em up.
That said, don’t let the mistakes and abuses scare you away from trying this type of meditation. Just remember what it is and isn’t. It’s to understand the scriptures better.