One year, a close friend of mine went to the Holy Land around Eastertide. He went with a group tour, and before he left, he asked his friends to pray for him on his journey. The travelers were visiting sacred sites from Jesus’ life, following in his footsteps, tracing Jesus’ journeys through countryside, around the Sea of Galilee, visiting the Jordan river, and other locations in Palestine and Israel. The final leg of their journey took them to Jerusalem.
During their trip, every day, I did pray for them. Every place they visited was linked to a Gospel passage or story. And as I prayed along with their journey, I started to feel that I was there, too. I was grateful that my friend had asked for prayer companions on his trip. I tried to see the landscape through their eyes. It was a kind of virtual prayer journey via the imagination. Prayer became a form of accompaniment, and I really felt the truth of the expression: “I’ll be with you in spirit.”
Praying with the imagination is something biblical people did all the time. Prophets were especially good at it, as they imagined a future for their people, and the coming of the kingdom. Their inner vision had been fed with stories and songs, poems and rituals, that increased their capacity to imagine a different future. Because they could dream, their future opened into rich possibility. They were not limited by lack of imagination. The beautiful language of the scriptures have fed the imaginations of artists, musicians, and poets for three thousand years. What would western literature be without the biblical imagination?
The writers of the psalms use their imaginations in prayer, seeing God’s care for them in rich and wonderful language. We’ve seen many examples of that interior richness in the psalms this Lent, as each psalm has focused on God’s steadfast love in a variety of expression.
The Gospel writers show Jesus as a master-storyteller, too, who engaged the imaginations of his hearers with parables and poetic discourses, with prayer, preaching and teaching that drew on their lived experience. Jesus asked his listeners to look closely at the world around them, at the beauties of nature, at the antics of birds and foxes, at the faces of their neighbors. He told stories of people they could understand, like a father longing for his son to come home, or a woman looking for a lost coin, or a shepherd seeking a lost lamb.
Praying with these amazing texts of Lent, slowing things down, ruminating over words, taking time to let the langague sink in, all this feeds our faith, feeds our religious imagination, feeds our capacity to recieve the treasures of the scriptures. We hear the language anew. Our ancestors in the faith wrote these things down for us to feed us, to shape us, to form us as disciples. But most important of all: God’s Word creates faith in us.
This Sunday, we’ll hear a story from Luke about a dinner party during the last week before Jesus enters Jerusalem. It has everything to engage our religious imaginations: sight, scent, hearing, touch, taste–all our senses are involved in the account of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus. Powerful storytellers know how to do that.
The liturgies of Holy Week are a powerful form of story-telling. They include rituals, words, and music that help us become the story-tellers. Jesus’ story becomes our story; the dramas of the entrance into Jerusalem, the trial, the long hours in Gethsemane. Their power enjoins our full participation. From Palm Sunday’s procession all the way through Easter morning’s joy, we’ll have many opportunities to pray through this story. We’ll hear and do the living story together. As we walk the final leg of our journey, pray with these stories, put yourself in them, see yourself there with Jesus and his disicples, in a boat fishing, following in a crowd, or sitting in on an intimate dinner with friends.
And when Holy Week comes, enter it with all of yourself, as a true friend of Christ. Invite your friends to come, too. Give them a chance to hear the great story as you have heard it, to let it claim them, as it has claimed you.