I blame my dad for my enjoyment of classical music. When I turned 11, he gave me a record player (Hi-Fi Stereo at that!) With this remarkable piece of equipment, I received 2 records: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s 6th Symphony.
Symphony No. 6 is also called the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony because of the imagery of a village, shepherds, streams, storms, and country celebrations that inspired its creation. Dad shared this with me and, when we listened to this record together for the first time, he pointed out the various movements and where in this piece I could ‘see’ the beautiful scenes of German pastoral life. I tell you, the music came alive for me. To this day I still prefer music that is based on a drama, a picture, or a work of literature.
‘Seeing’ makes all the difference. This is perhaps why our church songwriters have drawn upon their imaginations extensively, using phraseology that opens up for us vistas of glory we otherwise may have never visited. And this is simply a continuation of the Hebrew psalmist, whose pictures of God as a hiding place, a shelter, a strong tower.
Greg Boyd in his enlightening book Seeing is Believing writes about the power of the imagination particularly in our relationship with Jesus. He encourages us to picture in our minds not only what or who we are praying about, but the scene in which we are meeting with God (Jesus)–it may be a quiet forest, a seashore, or a mountainside. In doing this, we follow the examples of the mystics of old and those who followed in their wake.
Origen, who argued that we are transformed according to that on which we fix our minds.
St Theresa of Avila who saw it fitting that we should envision Jesus in his humanity in order to anchor our prayers in reality.
St Frances de Sales who wrote how our minds do not focus well on abstractions, but need concrete images of what and who we are praying.
And the list goes on: John of Damascus, Gregory of Nyssa, St Ignatius, Charles Finney, Alexander Whyte, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and A.W. Tozer to name a few.
This is called cataphatic prayer and its essence is this: we become what we see.
And this isn’t something that is best left to our prayer life alone, but energises our worship, our Bible reading and our meditation. Boyd writes about an experience he calls ‘resting in Christ’ which is a form of prayer that is centered in imaginative stillness. In explaining this, he quotes Morton Kelsey:
‘Several times a week I simply stop and wait before Him [Christ], sometimes picturing Him at the time of resurrection, rising victorious from the tomb, or perhaps knocking at the door of my soul. . . . Of all the processes of imagination which have helped me, none has offered half as much value as this approach to Christ. . . . It is out of these encounters that most of my growth in understanding and personality have come. . . . Out of this sense of sharing as well as being cared for, I find encouragement to keep on trying to grow and become what he wants me to become.’ (p.103)
I haven’t the time or space to go into details (I recommend you read the book), but Boyd shares his experience of ‘resting in Christ’ (his term for this type of meditation) as having four key elements:
- It elevetaes Being over Doing. We experience worth not because we are doing something for God, but simply in being who we are, and realising God’s acceptance of our being.
- It is not the time for work. In fact it is doing nothing before God.
- It requires that we cease from pretense and be totally honest with ourselves and God.
- Lastly, it requires faith in God’s grace. In believing in his total forgiveness, love and acceptance of us-wherever we may now happen to be in our journey–we are empowered and motivated to overcome our failures and sins.
I have used this kind of imaginative prayer and find it is truly energising and empowering. It adds to my spiritual journey a sense of reality and groundedness. Perhaps this is because I am ‘wired’ to enjoy the use of imagination and need to use mental pictures to focus and grow. Perhaps the ancients are on the right track and we all need to see with the ‘eyes of our understanding,’ and in doing so may experience Jesus in fresh, new ways.