Last month, the New England Confection Company, otherwise known as NECCO, announced it would be closing unless it has a buyer by May. For years, NECCO wafers nourished children’s imaginations when they “played Mass.” It was common that Catholic children pretended to be nuns, priests and missionaries. Sacramentals were also prevalent, and this supported their imagination as well. In a time of smartphones and CGI, is imagination important to the Catholic faith?
Imagination is important — indeed, crucial for devotionals such as the Rosary and St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. The Rosary is more than simple repetition of “Our Father”, “Hail Mary” and the “Glory Be”, but recalling Scriptural events such as the Annunciation, the Wedding at Cana, the Crucifixion, and the Ascension. Especially regarding the mysteries of the Assumption and Coronation of Our Lady, the Rosary requires imagination beyond “Scripture alone.” And in praying through the Mass, listening to Scripture and experiencing the Passion of Christ, a lively imagination is necessary. In a technologically advanced time where one can wear virtual reality headsets, these devotions require the use of the mind.
When children “played Mass” with NECCO wafers, it was on account of the beauty and the mystery of the liturgy, and the evident respect that religion and its rituals held in the culture. The Mass was a time for contemplation, surrounded by dazzling artwork. In older churches, the artistry is compelling. At St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Portland, Oregon, there is a brilliant reproduction of Raphael’s Transfiguration in the dome. The viewer is drawn upward. At St. Stanislaus in Nashua, New Hampshire, the Black Madonna of Our Lady of Czestochowa is in the dome, surrounded by Eastern European saints. The old Mass appealed to the senses- with the incense, the vestments, the gestures, the beauty of the polyphony and Gregorian chant. Even the silences were pregnant. The mystery of the Mass appealed to the imagination, because it was veiled in a special language.
Imagination seeks out the distinctive. The current culture is flat, with sameness being embraced far beyond same-sex “marriage.” As much as diversity is exalted, it is in name only. But the Catholic imagination has traditionally sought out differences, finding good in them. St. Margaret Mary’s vision of the Sacred Heart differs from St. Faustina’s Divine Mercy, but they are compatible and complimentary with each other. The stewards found wine where water was supposed to be at Cana, and St. Juan Diego found roses blossoming in winter. It was in difference that these saints found the divine.
In the first generation of the Apostles, finding a compatible way from Judaic tradition to Christianity was a leap of moral imagination inspired by the Holy Spirit. While St. Peter was hesitant in eating non-kosher animals (Acts 10:13-15), it would be St. Paul who would boldly go from a Pharisee to the Apostle to the Gentiles, addressing his first epistle to the Romans. St. Paul, the learned Jew, joyfully and powerfully engaged Gentile philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). He empathized with their desire to know the truth with their shrine built to an “Unknown God.” Using his inspired imagination, he was able to speak to them in their philosophical language.
In the present culture, the commercialization of everything has led to a lack of imagination. An example of this is the glut of superhero movies. The recent “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Captain America: Civil War” (that pitted him against Iron Man) differed in name only. Another example is the recent remake of “A Wrinkle in Time.” It was stripped of its spiritual elements, opting instead for spectacular special effects, so bland that even the “spiritual, but not religious” and spiritual “nones” found it unappealing.
This lack of imagination leads to a flatness, a monotonous uniformity. Imagination has been limited by political correctness; a free imagination transcends secular boundaries. Look at the recent polls that show a falling away of young people, and we see the Church responding with that same lack of imagination. The instinctive solution, we’re told, is a program. Programs in themselves are neither right nor wrong, but they are concerning when they become a crutch. When they are treated as the sole remedy, by a Church that asserts the power of its Mass as the “source and summit” of the Faith, where has recourse to the Mass gone? Hasn’t Almighty God given us the Divine Mysteries as the perfect ‘program’?
In Scripture, Jesus deals with the human lack of imagination. After cleansing the Temple, the people assume Jesus is proclaiming He will destroy and rebuild it in three days, when He’s referring to His Body (John 2:18-22). Jesus is appalled that the Temple has become commercialized, saying (John 2:16), “Take these things away; you shall not make My Father’s house a house of trade.” In the garden at Capernaum, Nicodemus assumes being born again means return to his mother’s womb (John 3:4). Jesus explains how Nicodemus can be born again (John 3:5-8). Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ lack of imagination are the words (John 3:12), “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
The impoverished secular imagination brings death, like the recent euthanasia of Alfie Evans, and the legalization of assisted suicide in Hawaii, while a religious imagination is creative. It creates life: forms, patterns, textures, sound, smells, colors, and language. And these creations materially communicate the immaterial content of the faith, specifically the Mass. Perhaps it is time we return our attention to the ‘source and summit’ and lavish our imagination, skill, and intellect, to the central and most powerful program: the Mass.
Conversion in Christ involves not only the intellect, but also the imagination, liberated and inspired by the Holy Spirit. As the Lord tells the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 55:8-9), “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Without God, the imagination fails. Only through Him can the imagination be uplifted and enlightened.