Contemplative Prayer (St. Ignatius) and Active Imagination (Jung)

There is gold to be mined from the unconscious. Contemplative prayer and active imagination enlist the senses and feelings by intentionally going within to tap into one’s imagination.

In the 16th century, a Spanish soldier, Ignatius of Loyola was injured in battle. During convalescence, he created spiritual exercises (Examen of Consciousness). He became a Jesuit priest and was sainted. St. Ignatius emphasized the need for discernment and mindfulness and created the concept of contemplative prayer. Imaginative prayer is a form of contemplative prayer specific to the ideas of St. Ignatius wherein one immerses oneself in a biblical scene using the imagination. It is similar to visualization and Zen sesshins. Catholics of the Jesuit and Benedictine orders continue to offer workshops on centering and contemplative prayer. In addition, some individuals experience infused contemplation (considered a gift of the Holy Spirit by charismatic Catholics) that can result in a kundalini-like energies, itches and twitches and mystical experiences. The praying individual is “raised up and absorbed into God.” Others who have had interest in contemplative prayer include St. John of the Cross, John Cassian, John Main and Hindu monk, Suvami Satyananda. These methods sometimes include meditation.

The content of such exercises are sometimes considered suspect. Was the result of God or of the Devil? Were the ‘utterances’ psychological or spiritual? According to some critics, the process opens one to the demonic. The chaotic nature of the exercises can bring up frightening images. The praying person can decompensate (psychological term for “nervous breakdown”) and require crisis intervention.

One of the trademarks of the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, was active imagination. The analysand amplifies, interprets and integrates contents/figures from dreams and artistic contents, usually in writing. This technique allows the recovery of rejected opposites and defends and argues with the point of view character. For example, I dream I am a CPS worker of a girl neglected by her father, who denies that he has rejected his daughter. The girl’s brother intervenes and offers help. I would then write from the viewpoint of each character, expanding their perspectives via the use of my imagination. Jung’s Red Book, which has been published fairly recently, is his private journal wherein he writes of his own active imagination and conversations with inner figures such as Philemon. The large book illustrates beautifully in prose/poem and art the best of his own soul’s active imagination. Parts of the book feel out of control to some readers, but when one considers Jung’s written collection of scholarly contributions to the field of psychology before, during and after the experiences contained in the book, one has to admire him for being so responsive to his inner process.

I learned contemplative prayer at a workshop at the Centacle Retreat Center from Sister Mary Dennison. The following is my second experience with Imaginative Prayer.