Review: Imaginative Prayer

I’ve long held a personal axiom — never judge a book by its cover; judge it by its table of contents. Let this be true especially for Jared Boyd’s Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child’s Spiritual Formation, with a caveat: the table of contents is more than a table of contents. It’s a poem — literally — a “credal poem” that your child is invited not only to memorize with you but to experience through playful and grace-filled encounters with Gød. This, for me, is so much of the genius of the work, beyond being in all respects an extraordinarily practical and in many ways revolutionary resource for parents.

Imaginative Prayer

Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child’s Spiritual Formation delivers exactly what the title and subtitle pairing promises — a week-by-week, step-by-step guide to help create (roughly) a year’s worth of formative, instructive prayer experiences that use the imagination’s power to bring our full array of senses into the scene of prayer, to transform the scene of prayer into a memorable experience, to listen for Jesus’ voice and watch for Gød’s expressiveness, to bring us into the story of the Scriptures so that we can join Gød’s story in our lives — rather than merely read about or be told about it, in ways that remain impersonal and fail to reach the deepest parts of ourselves.

Notice I say, “us” and “we” instead of “our children.” This is for two reasons. First, because each week of the Imaginative Prayer journey contains a section “For the Parent or Mentor” to tie in the prayer and its focus to the adult life or the life of one caring for the child going through the book. The important point being, by design, it’s not only the child that’s meant to be formed through Imaginative Prayer’s itinerary. Relatedly, I say “we” because I absolutely include myself as a childless adult. And here’s what I meant when I cautioned against judging the book by its cover — or its title page. With very little translation required, Imaginative Prayer on its own is an excellent resource for adult imaginative prayer and could very well be adapted to form the lion’s share of an adult catechism.

Jared does not, as I look back, define “imaginative prayer” (though my favorite approximation might be, “We were daydreaming together for the greater glory of God”). But he does show us — from the example of St Ignatius of Loyola, whose life and spiritual practices form the largest inspiration for this book, to the story of a young church kid with ADHD whose experience with Jesus in an imaginative prayer Jared would not have ever thought to engineer, to his own daughters. Which leads me to share just one of the moments in the book at which I began to tear up:

One evening during our bedtime routine that includes a time of connection with each of our four girls, I was trying to explain to one of my daughters, who was then eight years old, that God is present to us whenever we need him, that he sees us and knows us and even though we cannot see him, we can know him. “What do you mean?” she asked. She was curious enough and engaged enough that I knew she wanted to know more; I just didn’t know how to explain it. I couldn’t quite put it into words because I don’t think I fully understood it myself.

I invited her to close her eyes and began to rub her back. How do I explain to an eight-year-old that God is present with her? I started to speak.

“Imagine with me that you are lying in bed and are about to go to sleep. Imagine that Jesus comes into your room and is rubbing your back and singing you a song, just like Daddy does each night. Imagine that right now it is Jesus who is rubbing your back.”

I paused briefly.

“What would you ask Jesus if he were here? What would you say to him?”

I paused again, not even knowing if she was still awake. There was a long enough pause that I assumed that she had fallen asleep. But just as I stopped rubbing her back, and as I stood up to leave the room, she said, “I would ask him to hold me while I sleep.” I knelt beside her bed and quickly said to her in a whisper, “And what do you think he would say back to you?”

“He would say yes.”

Connection

“This book is all about connection,” begins the introduction. For a parent or a mentor to lead a child through these prayers and the journey they form is to connect each of them through a “shared language” of experience so that our private relationships with Gød, even across gaps in age, have a commonality to their uniqueness. How Jesus spoke to us or what we felt on the dusty street as a paralytic or before the treasure chest that contains Gød’s love may be different, but each can now talk about those scenes, those experiences, share them with one another.

Of course, Imaginative Prayer is also and more fundamentally about connection with Gød in ways that are formative and lasting because they’re based in felt experiences rather than eyebrows-up teaching. The way these exercises are meant to form connection between the adult and the child both going through them, how much more the child going through them and the god they go through them with. Because they’re sensory, they’re somatic, bodily, integrated; because they’re affective, emotional, they form implicit and explicit memories that can be called up not just by the higher brain when they remember their childhood but when they’re feeling anxious, remembering what Jesus told them once in prayer when they were anxious.

What if part of how we teach our children that Gød loves them is that we help them experience from Gød how Gød loves them? What if what they learn about Gød is what they experience to be true themselves? How will that change a generation of Christians as they graduate from Sunday schools, encounter new complexities that challenge what we feel able to teach them at this age and enter into adulthood?

Movements of Learning and Formation

Like Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, written as an imaginative prayer manual for spiritual formation in the 16th century, Imaginative Prayer is organized with its own movement, creating a purposeful journey from section theme to section theme. While Spiritual Exercises is traditionally organized into four “weeks,” themes or movements (sin and the mercy of Gød, the life and mission of Jesus, the suffering of Jesus, and the risen Jesus and love of Gød), Imaginative Prayer takes us through:

  • Movement 1: God’s love
  • Movement 2: Loving others
  • Movement 3: Forgiveness
  • Movement 4: Jesus’ kingship
  • Movement 5: The good news of Gød
  • Movement 6: The mission of Gød

Each of these builds on what precedes, and as it does so, under each movement or theme Jared offers a one-sentence proposition to place within the larger framework, a creed that is week-by-week being built not merely by the parent or mentor but by the child’s experience. Cleverly, he offers them in the question-answer-format of an old-school catechism. More, each response then becomes part of a “credal poem” that the child is both memorizing and — we hope — coming to believe for themselves, so that over three weeks worth of prayer, conversation and journaling:

Question: What is the most important part of the story?
Answer: The most important part of the story is that God loves so many things.

Question: Of all the things that God loves, what is the most important to thing, to you?
Answer: That he loves me.

Question: What will God do for you if you get lost?
Answer: When I am lost, he will come looking for me.

becomes:

The most important part of the story is that God loves so many things.
That he loves me.
When I am lost, he will come looking for me.

and so on, so that what is confessed is less rote than it is an expression of belief from how a child has encountered Gød in Scripture and imagination, with plenty of opportunities provided and recommended in which questions can be asked, doubts can be entertained, complexities can be explored.

I don’t doubt for a moment that this book and its magical table of contents can revolutionize how we raise our children in the faith and what it looks like for Christians to own the faith of their childhood as adults, any less than I doubt that such a force of movement would come to Evangelical Protestants by way of a 16th century Catholic radical we’re simply late to the party in learning from.

Bottom line: parents, children’s ministries, aspiring contemplatives alike — get this book.

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