Finding Greater Focus: How to Add Visualization Exercises to Your Prayer Practice

Are you a bit like me? I sit myself down, ready to spend time in prayer, but within a few moments, my mind has wandered to the teetering pile of ironing, the ever-present weeds that need pulling, or the fascinating TV show I watched last night.

Author, speaker, and contemplative Brennan Manning tells the story of a sick, elderly man who felt he had never learned to pray well. One day, a friend suggested the man place a chair opposite him when he prayed, visualizing Jesus sitting and listening to him – a way to just chat with Jesus. To the puzzlement of his family, when the man finally died, he was found with his head resting on a chair.

As a result of hearing this story, I’ve been using visualization to harness my attention when I’m praying, both during my prayer times and also at impromptu moments when I just want to shoot up a quick prayer of thanks in the middle of the day. I hope these suggestions will help you too.

Use your imagination

Have you ever been so deeply enthralled when reading a novel that it’s a jolt when you pause and come back to the “real world”? Like getting lost in a fantastical world, using your imagination can be a powerful way to enhance our perception of God’s presence. For example, if I’m praying for a sick friend, I try to imagine Jesus sitting next to them and comforting them, or see them well again and walking around. If I’m praying for someone facing a difficult situation, I try to visualize Jesus in that situation with them, much like the Old Testament story of God standing in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Use real objects

Rather like Brennan Manning’s Empty Chair, sometimes I use real objects to help focus my prayers. One Holy Week, I taped a large nail to my refrigerator door. Every time I opened the fridge, I remembered to thank Jesus for his sacrifice on the Cross. Sometimes I’ll wear a prayer shawl to help me remember that I’m protected under God’s wing. If you’re praying for your spouse or your marriage, you could hold your wedding ring as you pray.

I often focus on real objects when I’m outside too. Watching birds soaring over my backyard reminds me that those who trust in the Lord will rise up on wings like eagles, and I thank him for his strength. A view from a high hill reminds me that although the mountains may be shaken, God’s love is eternal.

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Use music

I often begin my prayer time by listening to music. Traditional hymns like All Creatures of Our God and King” are a wonderful way to begin praising God for the glories of creation. If you prefer a contemporary style, try Chris Tomlin’s “Indescribable.”

When I listen to the Sanctus from Bach’s “Mass in B Minor,” it’s easy to visualize the majesty of God on his throne, with trumpets blowing and angels circling around him. I have a whole playlist that helps me imagine approaching God’s throne and worshiping him.

Use photos

Photos are a great way of praying for your family and friends. I have a sketchbook with a photo pasted on each page. Leafing through this when I’m praying acts as a reminder of who to pray for and also helps me to think about what’s happening in their lives and pray accordingly. Every Christmas, my son gives me a photo calendar filled with fabulous images of my grandchildren. When I see it during the day, I’m reminded to send up a quick prayer for them and thank God for the delight they bring to my life.

I also have an app on my phone that sends me a NASA photo each day. It’s a source of great prayer inspiration when I see how wonderful the universe is and remember that God made it.

Use fine art

Holman Hunt’s famous painting “Light of the World” depicts Jesus holding a lantern and knocking on a door — a reference to the verse in Revelation 3:20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” This image helps me to be more open to God when I’m praying. Salvador Dali’s image of “Christ of St. John of the Cross,” an image of Christ hung on the cross and held not by nails but by love, reminds me how much God loves me. And Jacqui Parkinson’s superb series of textile panels “Threads Through Revelation” truly brings the Book of Revelation alive. Each panel focuses on a chapter of Revelation, depicting the events in a glorious mix of colors and textures, helping me to visualize things more clearly.

Some people also find traditional icons helpful. Rublev’s “Icon of the Trinity” has a wealth of symbolism that can help to focus your prayers. Scholars believe that it originally contained a mirror to help viewers visualize themselves being drawn into the Trinity.

Over time, I’ve found that using visualization helps me to focus more fully and keep my mind from wandering when I’m praying. It’s also added depth to my prayer life, helping me to consider different aspects of God’s character and his love for me. So, why not give visualization a try? It could open up a whole new world when you’re praying.