Centering Prayer and the Mystical Imagination: Complementary Approaches to Intimacy with God

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On Saturday, October 29, 2022, I will be leading an online day of reflection on Centering Prayer and the Mystical Imagination. If you’d like to explore how to integrate silent prayer with imaginative prayer, this program may be for you. To learn more and to register, please click here: Centering Prayer and the Mystical Imagination.

A few years ago, a popular contemporary Christian rock band called Mercy Me had a hit song called “I Can Only Imagine.” The band’s lead singer wrote the song for his father, who was dying at the time; the song tells of imagining what eternal life is like: imagining the beauty of heaven, the joy to be found in the presence of Christ. For Mercy Me, the imagination is a doorway into a beautiful experience of intimacy with God through Christ.

The song works because, after all, the human imagination is powerful. It’s fun to imagine what it must be like to be reunited with family and loved ones in heaven. Here on earth, children love to imagine a world of wonders, shaped by generous “imaginary beings” like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. And while us adults sometimes seem to lose sight of the imagination thanks to our busy, oh-so-practical lives, the ongoing popularity of fantasy stories like the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Marvel Comics are reminders that even for grown-ups, the human imagination is truly a source of entertainment — and also wisdom and insight.

How does the imagination relate to prayer? As someone who finds great joy and spiritual nourishment in the practice of Centering Prayer, I know that this particular way of praying is not about the imagination at all! In fact, in Centering Prayer, any interior ideas, daydreams or imaginings are viewed simply as “thoughts” that we learn to let go of during prayer, gently returning to a simply Sacred Word that empowers us to rest in the wordless beauty of silence in the present moment.

The great Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton once gave a lecture where he had some interesting things to say about the human imagination. “Imagination is your interior sense,” he remarked. Recognizing that for many people imagination is just another word for fantasy or make-believe, Merton when on to say “imagination is not fantasy, imagination is creative.” In this particular talk Merton was speaking about poetry, but he might have said this about any type of artistic endeavor. To be an artist is to a person who imagines.

Merton is famous as a poet and a writer, so it only makes sense that he would value the imagination as a doorway to creativity. But Merton is also renowned for his wisdom as a  Christian contemplative and mystic — and is widely credited as inspiring the monks who started the Centering Prayer movement in the 1970s. Centering Prayer is famous for its emphasis on silence and stillness as important ways to consent to God’s presence and action in our hearts and lives. How does this square with the “creative” quality of the imagination?

I’d like to suggest that silence and the imagination go together in the spiritual life, just like a diamond goes together with its setting in a beautiful gold ring. Without the ring, a diamond could get lost, but without a diamond, even a gold ring’s beauty is diminished. For spiritual seekers, silence and meditation and contemplation are like a sparkling diamond, while the imagination — and the stories and teachings of faith that inspire the imagination — are like the shiny gold ring with its prongs that hold the diamond in place.

The diamond is not the gold, and vice versa. Silence and imagination have different roles to play in the spiritual life. But just because they are different does not mean only one is necessary, or that one is better or more important than the other. Human beings need silence, and we also need the creative spark that we discover in our imagination. A well balanced spirituality encompasses both.

Someone who truly understood this was Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus and the creator of the 30-day program of Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius emphasized using the imagination in prayer, whether that means reviewing the ups and downs of daily life in the Prayer of Examen, or using creative visualization to imagine interacting with Christ as a kind of interactive/imaginative way of praying. The Spiritual Exercises can help you feel closer to Jesus by imagining a more intimate relationship with him. It’s not the same thing as Centering Prayer, and it’s a good idea to try to understand the difference between prayer that is centered in silence, and meditations that are structured around the imagination. Like gold and the diamond, these very different styles of prayer can compliment each other beautifully.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” — Albert Einstein, On Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms

Albert Einstein is famous for saying “imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s a pretty bold claim, coming from a scientist of his stature. But it also reminds me of a slightly different, yet no less powerful, statement from a medieval mystic — the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, whose wisdom inspired the Centering Prayer movement. The author of The Cloud insisted that the way to know God is through love, for God “is incomprehensible”  to the ordinary human mind. “Nobody’s mind is powerful enough to grasp who God is. We can only know God by experiencing God’s love.” The author goes on to say “Knowledge hinders, not helps you in contemplation.”

Neither of these quotations should be interpreted to mean that knowledge is unimportant! They are not criticisms of knowledge but rather are ringing affirmations of imagination — and love. The heart’s capacity to love and cherish, like our mental capacity to visualize and imagine, provide us with powerful ways to learn, to grow, and — spiritually speaking — to draw closer to God.

God’s grace restores our souls and teaches us how to comprehend him through love. He is incomprehensible to the intellect. Even angels know him by loving him. Nobody’s mind is powerful enough to grasp who God is. We can only know him by experiencing his love. — The Cloud of Unknowing

I like to think of the imagination, silence and love as a kind of three-legged stool that can help anyone to grow closer to God. Some people might naturally prefer silence, while others might find that they feel more at home while praying with their imagination This is not about what’s “right” or “wrong.” Think of Centering Prayer and the imagination as complementary approaches to spiritual living. Some people will naturally feel more drawn to one than the other, and that’s okay. But then there are some folks who might feel equally drawn to both. Wherever you may fall on that particular spectrum, I encourage you to think of ways to integrate silence and the imagination in your day-to-day spiritual life. You just might find that the cooperate in helping you to feel more close and connected to the God who loves you.

On Saturday, October 29, 2022, I will be leading an online day of reflection on Centering Prayer and the Mystical Imagination. If you’d like to explore how to integrate silent prayer with imaginative prayer, this program may be for you. To learn more and to register, please click here: Centering Prayer and the Mystical Imagination.

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Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

By Carl McColman

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