By Nicole T. Walters
November 6, 2019 — “Isn’t it incredible?” my spiritual director asked. I realized she was quietly crying along with me. “Did you ever think Jesus would show up that way for you?” As we discussed my first experience with Imaginative Prayer, I admitted I was stunned by what I discovered.
Growing up in the Protestant church, I was encouraged to dive deeply into studying Scripture and its application in my life. But often, intellectual and emotional study of the Bible didn’t place me inside its pages.
As an adult I became a student of the more contemplative paths of other traditions, learning about the Ignatian Examen, Lectio Divina, and Centering Prayer. However, I struggled to unite my prayer life and my study of the Bible, which felt stiff.
I was describing this to a spiritual director over video, 8000 miles separating us. My whole world was upside down: my dream of living in South Asia was ending and I didn’t know what should come next. That was when she asked me if I had ever heard of the Ignatian practice of Imaginative Prayer.
I had thought it meant imagining biblical scenes like I was a character in them. It seemed like another mental exercise in studying Scripture—and not a prayerful one.
She explained it as not just placing myself inside the story, but as letting the Holy Spirit guide me to wherever God wanted to take me, using the story as a starting point. As she read the story of the blind Bartimaeus several times, she asked me to engage my senses. What do you smell? What does the air feel like? The second time she read, she asked me where I was in relation to Jesus. Are you in the story or observing? Do you talk to him?
She gently asked if I wanted to share what I had experienced. I realized I had been holding my breath, afraid to exhale and lose the feeling of being utterly present with God. When I spoke, it felt like inviting her into the most intimate places of my heart that Jesus had just laid open.
I told her I had seen Jesus and his disciples surrounded by a large crowd—but not in the streets of first-century Israel. I saw them on the street we lived on in a crowded megacity in Bangladesh. I saw Jesus walking down the same cracked sidewalks I navigated daily, surrounded by a throng of people that always covered the dirty streets.
I saw myself as Bartimaeus, sitting by the roadside begging. I wore the face of the woman who thrust her open hand toward me while howling, “Allah, Allah.” I was the blind man who I saw every day walking between the swerving rickshaws, singing and hoping his voice would rise above the noise to get the attention of somebody—anybody.
I couldn’t understand how Jesus could possibly hear me over the racket—the shouts, honks, dogs barking, bicycle bells ringing. But somehow he did and called to me. He asked what no one ever asked me before. He asked me what I wanted from him, cared enough to see my humanity and not assume just a few coins would satisfy me.
She let the silence hang between us for a few moments. “What did you ask Jesus for?” she finally asked.
“The same thing Bartimaeus did,” I responded. “I just said, ‘Jesus, I want to see you.’ He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I’m right here, right in front of you. You want to see me? See me,’ and then my eyes were opened.”
We sat together wiping away the tears for what felt like a few, holy moments. I think she saw Jesus anew too, surprised by the way he showed himself to me right in the reality of my messy daily life.
Honestly, it was months before I practiced Imaginative Prayer again, and I haven’t always had such startling encounters with God. But the images from that day are burned into my memory, and I return to them often. This reminder that he is right in front of me, though I am so often blind to it, is something that I didn’t learn from what the words in Mark implicitly say.
I learned it by letting Scripture be the living and breathing word of God for me: it’s the gift we receive when we engage the Scripture with our whole selves. When I struggle with doubt, unsure where God is in difficult circumstances, I hear him whisper gently, “I’m right here. See me.”
Nicole T. Walters lives somewhere in the tension between wanderlust and rootedness. She makes her home in Georgia with her husband and two children but has lived and left parts of her heart in the Middle East and South Asia. She writes about the intersection of faith and action at nicoletwalters.com. Her work has appeared at places like (In)Courage, Red Letter Christians, Fathom, CT Women, and in Everbloom: Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives (Paraclete Press, 2017).