Over the past few generations, the visual and imaginative aspects of the Catholic faith have been noticeably neglected in the West. Could this have something to do with the influence of evangelical Protestantism? Perhaps. Either way, it is not a sign of progress in worship.
A good Protestant church in the Calvinist tradition is generally spare in its decor, an empty vessel uncluttered by physical things, leaving the mind free for the pure and pious contemplation of realities that are not of this world. To the Puritan, especially, the products of the imagination are always suspect, grotesque, bizarre, unrealistic, leading the soul away from the literal truths revealed in Scripture.
The Catholic faith is not like that. Our spirituality is focused on the incarnate Christ, on the body and the blood, on the gross physical manifestations of sublime spiritual realities.
Instead of putting the sensory world aside in order to attain the spiritual, we revel in the sacramentality of a physical world that was reconciled in Christ and which will be resurrected at the consummation of the world.
This means, necessarily, that the imagination plays an important role in Catholic spirituality. The imagination is that faculty by which sensory information is invested with supersensory meaning, by which physical facts become spiritual symbols. It allows us to “see through” the banal and the mundane, to picture the spiritual and archetypal realities that undergird ordinary life.
St. Ignatius of Loyola recognized the importance of the imagination. In his Spiritual Exercises, he does not call for a simple, abstract meditation on the truths of the Gospel, but on an imaginative exercise whereby the Christian mysteries are made real. For example, in his Meditation on Hell, he prescribes that one “see with the sight of the imagination the length, breadth and depth of hell.” He exhorts the imagination to conjure up not only the sights but also the sounds, smells, tastes and sensations of the eternal abyss.
When you pray with the imagination, you are not merely thinking about the Nativity or the Crucifixion; you feel that you are there. The more the imagination is developed and exercised, the more real the imaginary experience can become. Instead of a vague, fluffy image of the Virgin and some shepherds, the entire scene in Bethlehem comes to life — the scent of the hay, the chill in the night air, the crystal clarity of the stars in their fixed horizons, the tiny pink and unbelievably weak body of the Lord God of Heaven and Earth.
The rational mind is not left out. When the imagination illuminates the Scriptures, the mind is able to see and apprehend details that are merely suggested by the text. New insights and realizations come out of the pseudo-sensory experience of being in that place, at that time, when those events were happening.
It is not merely the events of the past that have a role to play in the prayer of the imagination. The imagination can also be used in order to make decisions and prepare for the realities of present life.
If, for example, you are thinking of marrying a particular woman, imagine life with that person. Imagine being together in sickness, in poverty, for worse — and decide whether you would still be willing to keep your marriage vows under those conditions. Or, if you are afraid of being persecuted and martyred for the love of Christ, prepare for this mentally so that, when it comes, you can face it with joy.
One thing that should emerge from such meditations is a sense of your own weaknesses and limitations. You may see that the real obstacle to marriage does not lie in your prospective partner, but in you. Or, if you expect to be waterboarded for your pro-life work, you might start by learning to cheerfully endure a bad night’s sleep.
The idea is not to be pessimistic but to be realistic. Left to its own devices, the imagination easily falls prey to disordered passions — to fear, to overenthusiasm, to hatred, to lust and so forth. You might be overwhelmed by phantasms of future disaster, or you might drift off into a rosy La La Land and court inevitable disappointment.
If the imagination is weak, it will tend to gravitate toward simplistic fantasies. These may be sexual or vindictive, self-justifying or merely maudlin. The soul flees into a world of superficial pleasures.
Meanwhile, holy fantasy places the imagination under the guidance of reason and prudence. It creates a realistic simulation in place of an overwrought phantasmagoria.
When the imagination is strengthened and tempered by virtue, it recoils from escapist fantasies. The will intervenes and replaces the internal brothels and coliseums with interior palaces, walled gardens and holy fortresses.
The wilderness of the untamed imagination becomes a cultivated acre in the vineyard of the Lord.
Next time, we’ll look at the Christian imagination and its role in the arts.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer