Sense Experience in Prayer

alert German Shepherd - photo by K Zoltan on Pexels

My dog is watchful at the window a good part of the day. He is a mix of German Shepherd and Catahoula Leopard Dog, and from what I understand, it is in both of his breeds to guard, shepherd, and be on the lookout for other animals. He is passionate about all of these activities, whether we are out on a walk or he is resting at home not too far from a window where he can hope for rabbits to come by or to protect us from the “dreaded” package deliverer. His guarding attitude is not all that there is to his watchfulness, though; he genuinely enjoys taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells around him. In nice weather, an open window or sliding door allows him to take in how everything around him smells, even when he is indoors.

When we pray with our imaginations in an Ignatian contemplation, one of the methods that St. Ignatius recommends is the application of the senses. As we imagine a scene from Scripture, for example, we might try to see what the people in the scene do, listen to what they are saying, and let the entire scene unfold at the level of our senses. We can, much as my dog does, watchfully awaken our sense experience to the contemplation. Ignatius suggests this especially after a repetition of a prayer that we have previously prayed. In this way, we can let ourselves become more fully absorbed in the scene at hand.

What might that look like? Many years ago when I undertook the 19th annotation’s version of the Spiritual Exercises, I was praying with a scene from the Garden of Eden well before Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree. I imagined a lush garden, one that included many small clover flowers growing in the grass. A rabbit sat in the grass, and I offered the rabbit a carrot, which he happily accepted. I sat in the grass and looked at many beautiful trees around me. Eventually I realized that I was Eve in the story, and Adam came over to sit with me, but at the beginning I experienced it as a deep communion with the natural world.

This prayer brought me feelings of the more Eden-like elements of being a child. The grass filled with clover brought me back to a happy feeling from childhood, as the lawn at my parents’ rural country home had many of these flowers. When I was a little girl, my mother used to call me Bunny as a nickname sometimes.

The prayer also connected to my adult experiences of enjoying being absorbed in the beauty of nature; I am especially fond of beautiful trees. But it also helped me to understand a dimension of the Biblical story. I felt that God was showing me how in the original creation, human beings were meant to live in a deep communion with the natural world and that this was part of what was lost by sin—and that God wants to restore to us. God used elements of my own life to help me connect more deeply to the story.

It can be a worthwhile practice to imagine a scene from the Gospels, maybe one from a Sunday Mass or one that seems to resonate with what is happening in your own life right now. Let the scene unfold. Enjoy the sense experience. And pay attention to the little ways that God connects you, personally, to God’s story, which is, after all, also one to which you belong.

Photo by K Zoltan on Pexels.

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Marina Berzins McCoy
Marina Berzins McCoy is a professor at Boston College, where she teaches philosophy and in the BC PULSE service-learning program. She is the author of The Ignatian Guide to Forgiveness and Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Philosophy. She and her husband are the parents to two young adults and live in the Boston area.


  1. Marina,
    I so enjoy and receive inspiration from your insight-filled parables – especially about your dog. 🙂 I have the gift of a ‘rescue’ as you do, although I debate with myself who is rescuing who.

    Part Australian shepherd, part great Pyraneese, and part St. Bernard, ‘Howdy’, a name given by his true rescuer, is more of a ‘Gunther’ who experiences the world through his acute senses of smell and hearing and his quiet demeanor. His patience and desire to be shown affection by strangers and friends alike endear him to all he meets. On his brown and white fur is a large, perfectly shaped – heart, a constant reminder of the abundant gifts from God that surround us – if only we ‘look’ and ‘contemplate’ with our senses and not just our eyes.
    Thank you.

  2. Thanks Marina. Indeed the ‘application of the senses’ is a meaningful exercise. It is a convenient way to raise our minds, our hearts, and our senses in praising and glorifying the Creator and His Creation. It is a lasting legacy left behind by the indomitable Inigo.

  3. Ah, Caren: speaking for myself, I find that going out into nature helps immensely with stress and anxiety. Yes of course recalling our experiences of nature into our imagination in prayer is a wonderful exercise. And nature may become an entryway into deeper meanings in prayer, as Marina describes. Still, walk out into the real thing can be wonderful in their own right. Nature is a tremendous consolation for me. Paul encouraged us to fill our minds with good thoughts. I never tire of recalling my days backpacking into wilderness. What a blessing!

  4. Thanks Marina – lovely ideas. It’s been a while since I’ve done the Ignatian contemplation on the senses. Spring is the perfect time to do this. It’s been a stressful year and this reminder is so appropriate for me. Thanks for the suggestion!


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