There is a form of prayer, particularly fostered by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which encourages the exercise of the imagination. Supplicants are encouraged to pray by imagining themselves in the Gospel story. They are invited to step into the story with their minds in order to look, touch, smell, hear, and taste the Gospel. This form of prayer uses the senses to help the seeker be vividly present to the mysteries of faith.
In Advent and through the Feast of Christmas, this form of prayer comes most naturally. History is replete with art that celebrates the annunciation, the incarnation, and the birth of Christ, and feeds the imagination. Almost every church has an Advent festival or a Christmas Nativity pageant where children and adults can physically and with their imaginations enact the story of their faith ‒ a story so beautiful we want to hear, see, touch, and smell it.
Imaginative prayer impacts us in ways we don’t even understand and this is Good. The purpose of this form of prayer is to strengthen our capacity to live within the world of the Gospel reality; as the story saturates our senses it saturates our thinking and, therefore, effects our decision-making and our actions in day-to-day life. This is one way we are transformed by the Gospel: through our imagination.
The great Anglican poet John Donne takes our imagination to a place we go more rarely in our Advent and Christmas contemplations. With one great earth-shattering line in his poem cycle La Corona, Donne takes us into the womb of Mary and makes us linger there in awe. Imaginative exercise may be helpful to deepen our prayers as we follow Donne and contemplate the mystery he articulates in hopes of exercising our capacity to think about being human made in the image of God.
Here is Donne’s great line: “Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.”
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb… let us go all the way to the beginning of this thought. The Very God of Very God is in His mother, mute, with slow growing lips and unhurried, emerging brains cells. These will gradually make the electricity of memory, thought, and language, but for this moment He begins as a molecule, then two, then four; as a tadpole-like creature without ears, without tongue, without eyes; as the deaf, the mute, the blind. Yet, in this state, He exists as fully God because, if Mary conceived and bore one of the All Holy Trinity, then she had God in her womb from the beginning, and God can never be anything but fully God by definition.
The God of all creation gave himself to humanity by being conceived in the womb of a girl. God was not just born fully fleshed with the pinky loveliness of an infant. God did not come to us ready made, he did not give himself only this way. He came to us microscopically, becoming almost nothing so that He might be human. The Very God of Very God existed as a molecule, an embryo, a fetus, an infant, a child, an adult, a tortured bleeding human, a dying human, a dead mortal, and a risen body. What does this state of Godness say about our human states? If God is very God of very God in the womb of Mary, in this state of helpless unthinking dependence, what is it to be human? How does this question us, form us, and transform us?
By indwelling the extremities of being, God in Christ has filled them up. Our permissible definitions of humanity have expanded and narrowed. The essence of humanity cannot be misplaced within intellect or language. God, the infinite and complete, is willing to be human in the form of an embryo, thus this time of possibility is eternally appraised as worthy of his presence. Any derivative states in which the human exists in a latency of thought and language are now also enfolded into the life of God. Part of what the Gospel asks us to contemplate, to pray in, for the life of the world, is this reality of “Immensity cloistered in the womb.” We are the image of this God who submitted to the humble, vulnerable becoming of pregnancy and birth.
How can this imagination impact our capacity to think, to act? In the last years I have been in an intimate encounter with the disease of dementia as it wreaks havoc in one I love. This encounter forces one to ask many questions. One of mine is: are we still “who we are,” are we still our “self” when our human brains don’t function in such a way as to remember our own capacities and our own character? I am not just asking whether we are valuable, I am asking: does the one I love exist in the fullness of his being even if he cannot remember who that person is? Is “the self” in the electrical impulse that is now cut off with dementia, is the essence of my loved one gone, or is it “held” in existence?
In a contemplation of Christ being God, completely God, in a womb, before a brain, without eyes, without limbs, without thought and speech, somehow this question loses its sting. It isn’t directly answered but there is more room for it, more possibility in it. I can be with my loved one and imagine the patience of the Very God of Very God as a molecule waiting to develop, to be known, and to enact salvation. In this perceived smallness there is absolute fullness of being. This fullness cannot be articulated and understood, especially by the mute embryo, but yet it exists and it is earth-shattering.
We are in a time of history where the essence of what it is to be human, and the meaning and value of different states of our human existence, are being called into question in a variety of complicated and nuanced ways. Maybe this is the time to pray with our imaginations and wait through Advent with the “Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.”
Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer is a lay theologian who has served as a pastor and a preacher at St. Margaret’s Parish in Winnipeg. For further Advent contemplations and other thoughts see herfeatherslikegold.wordpress.com, a blog of Kirsten’s work.