Arts & Faith: Lent—Ash Wednesday Imaginative Prayer Exercise

Ash Wednesday by Carl Spitzweg

Each week of Lent, we’ll provide an Ignatian prayer for you, inspired by a video from Arts & Faith: Lent. The video and prayer for Ash Wednesday are based on Matthew 6:1–6, 16–18. The art is Carl Spitzweg’s “Ash Wednesday.”

“See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

—2 Corinthians 6:2

Preparation

The union in openness of body and mind and heart that is prayer begins with attention to each.

First your body: Sit upright, legs crossed or not, feet on the floor or not, lower back pressed against the chair. Or not. Breathe.

Now the mind: As you are able, let these words spill through the mind and down your spine into the earth. Let your thoughts puff away with each breath. As new ones come—tethered as they are to joy or pain—hold them like wounded birds. Then set them aside to heal. Breathe.

And the heart: Vulnerability means able to be wounded. Of course there is resistance. Notice it. With your breath and with energy, pull back the vines and push open your heartgate. Breathe.

Tilt your chin up to the heavens and, with eyes open or closed, look back at the One who looks at you with great affection.

Breathe.

Clown or Visitor?

Possibly the strangest and most impactful of Ignatian insights is this: trust in your holy desires. The imagination is sign language for our inarticulate desires. Our imaginations are raised Braille texts for our blind desires to finger.

As we begin to pray with the image, we trust our imaginations and our desires and ask: Where do you find yourself as you contemplate the scene? Which role are you drawn into? What happens?

Perhaps, for example, you are the clown, alone in your cell this Ash Wednesday, basking in the light. Trust your imagination. Let a story unfold.

  • How does the light feel on your knees and hands? Are there birds singing outside or people on the street? Do swaying branches scrape the stone?
  • How did you get here? What happened the night before?
  • Were you cast into this isolation by another, or did you come of your own accord? How do you feel?
  • Are your arms crossed, back arched, head bowed as in the painting? What might you be protecting? What are you resisting? What do you want?
  • Has anyone come to see you? Who would you want to be there?
  • What might you say? What do you want to say? What do you want?
  • Who might you ask to stay with you in your inner room?
  • How does the visitor respond—in words or feelings or images or memories?

It is only by basking in the light that we store up courage to face the darkness.

But perhaps you are the visitor.

  • How did you enter the room? How did the door feel against your hands? The bars as you lean against them from above?
  • How does the room feel—warm and sad, contrite and quiet, cool and hopeful?
  • Does the man turn to look at you as you enter? Are you expected? Welcomed?
  • Do you walk toward and sit beside him? Stand before him and embrace him? Stand some paces apart in quiet company?
  • Are words needed? What do you do want to say? What does he need to hear?
  • Do your words, your distance, your embraces have an impact? How does he respond? Was it what you were hoping for?
  • How do you feel?

We are not strong enough. Even when our love is not received we face the darkness together—from love, trusting in love, walking toward love.

Speak with the Lord about the story you and he have painted with your imagination. Speak as one friend speaks to another.

Concluding Prayer

Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.
Amen.

About Paddy Gilger, SJ 11 Articles
Fr. Paddy Gilger, SJ, is a pastor and teacher of sociology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the editor-at-large of The Jesuit Post and editor of the The Jesuit Post book. He lives in hope of the Milwaukee Brewers being known for something other than the sausage races.

8 Comments on Arts & Faith: Lent—Ash Wednesday Imaginative Prayer Exercise

  1. Daniella,
    Thank you for opening the door to imaginative prayer for me. I have listened to your brilliant interpretations of paintings for some time now. You have such a gift. Thank you for sharing.
    Paddy, thank you for framing Daniella’s interpretation in the context of our Lenten journey. So very helpful.
    Rob

  2. Always love the arts & faith section where the painting is explained with questions. Another way to invite the mind to see ourselves in a different perspective. Very deep and enlightening
    Thank you

  3. I really enjoyed this art, explanation of the art and the exercise. I like to use art, imagery and dialogue for reflection and insight. It’s so nice to discover this on Ash Wednesday with the whole season of lent ahead of us. Thank you, I am always hungry for this kind of nourishment. 🙏🏻

  4. Am going to venture into this Lenten walk with you

    Thank you query below

    Wondering about the juxtaposition of water jug with handle and the block or table with handle it is sitting on

    It has to have meaning?

    Will be pondering. Your take on it would be appreciated

    • Hi Mary, if I may add my two cents on this. The jug must be symbolising the fast perhaps on water only. I didn’t notice the handle of the table till you mentioned it! This one quizzes me …

  5. Thank you for your insight into Lent. I have recently been made redundant from my position as a Pastoral Associate and this redundancy has meant that I have lost my worshipping community. so I thank you for the opportunity to experience Ash Wednesday differently as I have not been able to experience it liturgically. I look forward to other Lenten experiences. Thank you and bless you.
    Marie

  6. I am beginning my Lenten journey with you this morning. Unfortunately, the video wouldn’t load, but I’ll try again later.
    Thanks for exercise! I especially liked the comparison of our imagination to Braille and the reminder to trust both our imagination and our holy desires. I have always been a believer in them although the world has challenged that belief as well as using love as my guide.
    I look forward to this journey through art.

  7. thank you for this great doorway into Lent. The image, the reflection on the image, and the prayer all worked together to open me up to a new season of life–a season of introspection, evaluation, and awareness of a new kind of wisdom emerging.

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