Sacred Imagination

A few months ago I finally listened to several coworkers who know me well and tried the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text”. Although I have since stopped for a variety of reasons, my favorite part of the podcast was the sacred practice portion.
 
The hosts would, for several podcasts in a row, engage in a sacred practice for a major world religion. Many of the first season’s episodes use Lectio Divina, a Christian practice I was intellectually familiar with before the podcast, but had never engaged in. Another Christian practice they use is Sacred Imagination, in which a person imagines what it would be like to be in a biblical scene with the goal of better knowing and loving God. St. Ignatius wrote the first instructions for this practice after imagining himself in the manger scene at Christ’s birth and becoming deeply moved by this experience.

I wasn’t familiar with this practice, and looked forward to its use in the podcast because I enjoyed employing my imagination to try to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and other senses as I’m placing myself in the position of a character. And, I learned a lot from the podcast’s hosts using this method, then talking through what they imagined and how it shaped their reading and understanding of the chosen passage of Harry Potter.

Last week, I took out an old Bible to read Psalm 118, the psalm being studied in the Chapter-A-Day project undertaken by my church. This Bible is an NIV Women of Faith Study Bible, meaning it includes profiles of women in the Bible and features short commentary excerpts on every page based on a passage or verse on that page. It’s also an easily understood translation and was given to me by my uncle upon my graduation from high school. It’s the only Bible I really used during college and is full of my underlining, notes, questions, and occasionally a date if a passage particularly resonated with my life or feelings that day.
 
Now I use an ESV Bible that I don’t write in, so even though I keep my beloved college Bible close, it’s not the one I usually read from. But I was curious what I might have written in college about the middle chapter in the Bible, so I fished it out of the stack of books on my bedside table.
 
I read the psalm through once, noting how my past self had divided the psalm into chunks of 3-5 verses (often with the help of the typesetter, who left a little space between stanzas).
 
When I got to the end, I found a note in pen that said “Sung at the Last Supper” and, at the very top of that page, “Remember the power in these pages.”

I knew my past self might be wrong (it’s impossible to know exactly which psalm Christ sang that night, though Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 both record the singing, and Jewish tradition tells us that Psalms 113-118 were sung during the Passover week), but I decided to assume my college self was right.

Rereading the passage again one stanza at a time, I used the Sacred Imagination practice. I imagined myself in the upper room of the Last Supper. The Passover meal is eaten, the plates and scraps still on the table. Judas has left to betray Christ. The eleven apostles are pleasantly full and sleepy but excited, anticipating that Jesus will soon overthrow the Romans and rule as the reinstated king in David’s line. For each stanza, I imagined myself as Christ, keeping in mind what Jesus knew was coming, how he must have felt about the disciples around him. Next, I imagined myself as the disciples, recalling their heritage and hopes. I let the lessons I uncovered sit with me, then I read the next stanza.

I’ve picked two stanzas from the psalm to do this with so you can get an idea of what I mean and why the experience was so important to me. If you want to participate in sacred imagination along with me, read the passage several times, out loud of possible, and try to imagine yourself as one of the disciples around the table. What are you seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling as you sit in this room? What do you know? What do you think is about to happen? What do you want? What do these verses remind you of?

When hard pressed, I cried to the LORD; he brought me into a spacious place.
The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?
The LORD is with me; he is my helper. I look in triumph on my enemies.
(vv. 5-7)

Let’s consider Christ’s perspective first.

I thought of Christ being tempted in the desert and cared for by angels sent by God at the end of the 40 days, a “spacious place” after being “hard pressed.” I thought of the torture and crucifixion to come. Though “mere mortals” can kill Jesus, he has power over the grave and will be resurrected by God. This is all part of God’s plans to redeem mankind, as well. The mortals may kill him, but it’s all part of God’s plan. And the LORD will be with Christ. The Spirit will help him. He will, Easter morning, triumph over God’s enemies. Right now, he’s full. He’s been laughing with his friends and leading them in a ritual dinner to remember events that only he still has personal knowledge of. Of those alive on earth, only he was there when the angel of death passed over the Hebrews’ homes in Egypt. Only he is aware of every single household that participated in this feast from that evening to this one.

Now let’s consider what this stanza might mean to the disciples.

They are the chosen handful of disciples. They have learned to preach and cast out demons and heal and do other miracles at Christ’s instructions and by God’s power. They have been saved from storms; Peter’s been saved from drowning. They’ve helped baptize and feed and restore. All because of Jesus. Jesus is God incarnate, and he is with them. In the flesh. He picked them to be here with him. They have nothing to be afraid of! What can “mere mortals” do to them? They are going to be part of the new regime. They went from fishing and tax collecting and farming and normal, boring lives to leaders in God’s service and soon they will be rulers. Everyone who was ever mean to them will be “pea green with envy” (as said by Scarlett O’Hara).

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.
(vv. 22-24)

Christ knows this is referring to himself. The disciples around him don’t know it yet. They don’t realize, even if they should. He’ll be dead and resurrected before they realize all the ways that he is the cornerstone. All these plates full of broken bread must remind him of the breaking his body will soon endure. The lamb they ate is totally gone, but the smell lingers. It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, he may think, looking around at these eleven men he loves so thoroughly. God will redeem you all, this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.

The disciples are singing of the promised Messiah, just as their parents did and their grandparents—all their ancestors—but they are the only ones that have been with the Messiah. Maybe they look at Jesus, tears in his eyes, looking around at them. Maybe they are wondering if there’s any wine left in their neighbor’s cup. (Minds can wander in worship, even if the Messiah is with them.) God has done a lot of marvelous things, and they must feel proud that they’ll get to be there for all the marvelous things to comes. Jesus has done amazing things today, even. They can be glad about that. And maybe next year they’ll sing this hymn in the palace.

What stood out to you? What did you imagine differently from me? I hope sacred imagination can be a meaningful practice for you in the future.