CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #28
IMAGINATION – WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
Whatever else we say about imagination, it has something to do with our remarkable ability to form and be formed by images. And this interaction with images opens us to the trans-rational. Because we are able to engage reality through our imaginations – for example, through symbols, stories, rituals etc – we are able to grasp the true and the real far more effectively than pure intellect could ever do.
But Aristotle reminds us that "the soul never thinks without an image". The trans-rational – for better or worse – is always in tandem with the rational. If the truth be told, we are probably more likely to understand a matter and be moved to appropriate action if the imagination is alive and well. We are also less likely to be seduced by abstractions. There is an old Latin proverb: "Fortis imaginatio generat causam" which, literally translated, says, "A strong imagination generates the cause". In other words, imagination has the power to set us in motion towards some end – it causes things to happen, for better or worse.
The American Jesuit writer, William Lynch, suggests an even more subtle and powerful role for imagination. He believes it is the basis of hope – without imagination we tend to despair:
One of the permanent meanings of imagination has been that it is the gift that envisions what cannot yet be seen, the gift that constantly proposes to itself that the boundaries of the possible are wider than they seem. Imagination, if it is in prison and has tried every exit, does not panic or move into apathy but sits down to try and envision another way out. It is always slow to admit that all the facts are in, that all the doors have been tried, and that it is defeated. It is not so much that it has vision as that it is able to wait, to wait for a moment of vision which is not yet there, for a door that is not yet locked. It is not overcome by the absoluteness of the present moment. (William Lynch, Images of Hope, Notre Dame University, 1974, 35.)
IMAGINATION AND THE GOSPEL
Jesus taught the people primarily through actions and stories. We try to teach primarily through rational propositions. We have largely forgotten the art and power of story and poetry and metaphor. We been so seduced by rationalism that we have largely lost the use of imagination. This loss of imagination makes us vulnerable to despair and in our despair we may do very silly things. Besides, loss of imagination is a door shut against the wonderful surprises that lurk in the shadows of our ordinary days.
A STORY: "THE MAN FROM THE PARK" [Best read out loud, with appropriate emphases.]
"That concludes our guided tour of the cathedral, ladies and gentlemen. You should feel free to stay and look more closely, perhaps say some prayers. Thank you." At this point, the guided tours generally drifted into a moment or two of informality before the people dispersed and the tour guide prepared for the next group. That would certainly have happened this time too, if it was not for Christine – or Chrissy, as her parents called her. She was eight years old, Downe Syndrome and much loved by her family – you could tell that by the confident and quiet way she smiled and spoke. Everyone listened: "Tell us about the gosht", Christine said. "The ghost?" asked the guide, bending down towards the chubby girl. "What ghost?" "You know," she said, leaning into her father’s stomach and taking his hand in both of hers.
"Well, as a matter of fact, there is a story," the guide said, straightening up. The group was keen to hear, fixing their eyes on the guide; he was now committed to telling the story. He quickly warmed to his task, and people lurking around the edges of the group moved closer.
"In the park opposite there are a number of men; they live there," said the guide. "And nobody loves dhem," chimed in Christine, entwining her father’s fingers in her own. "I don’t know about that," said the guide. "But I love dhem," she continued, with the confidence of one who has an important part in the story. "Anyway," continued the guide, "it was the night of the bishop’s installation. Inside the cathedral all was ready; every seat was taken with the guests. There was an air of expectation in the crowd waiting outside. Then the bishop approached in his large, white stretch limousine. The moment had come; a murmuring swept through the crowd; like children at a performance, they all struggled to get closer and see, maybe touch him. It was wonderful; so much pomp and circumstance, as befits the installation of a bishop of the Church.
"Now, it happened that a young woman had been down at St Joseph’s Hospice, a few blocks from the cathedral, visiting her dear friend. He would die, the doctors said, in a week or two. You see, he was suffering from AIDS. As she walked along the street, by the park, opposite the cathedral, she noticed a few of the men of the park looking across towards the cathedral. One of them, she said, walked out from the trees – perhaps a man in his early thirties, tall, wirey, straight back, long hair and beard. He walked towards her, said nothing, but stopped and caught her eye, as if he knew her. She said he had the most extraordinary face; she says she will never forget the eyes – so powerful yet so gentle, as if, in that glance he said, ‘I understand. Everything is okay.’ The young woman said he then began to cross the road as the bishop’s limousine approached, seeming to pay no attention at all to the traffic. He walked right into the path of the oncoming limousine, turned and held up his hand, in a gentle sort of way, as if he thought the occupants of that car would recognize him and stop. They didn’t. The bishop’s limousine knocked him to the road and drove on, apparently unaware of what had just happened. And the strangest thing of all was that there was no sign of the man anywhere after the limousine moved on.
"Several men in the park say they too saw it all happen. Occasionally people say they see a young man, fitting his description, walking around the cathedral, as if he is trying to get inside but can’t find the entrance. And the young woman? She doesn’t want to talk about it. She just looks at you, smiles and shakes her head. Her friend who was dying of AIDS is in remission, she says. He lives somewhere in the suburbs with another man; she keeps in touch."
The guide stopped. He appeared just a little awkward, because the group kept looking to him for more information about this strange event – as if the story had just begun, rather than just finished. Slowly they all moved off in silence. Christine followed her parents out, crossed the road and began walking through the park a few paces behind them. They all seemed strangely distracted. It was some minutes before her parents realized that Christine was not with them. Her father turned and began to run back, but stopped almost before he’d begun. Christine was sitting on the grass, talking and laughing with a group of the men. One of them, in particular, seemed to enjoy her company – he was a young man in his early thirties, tall, wirey, straight back, long hair and beard.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
What is it like when you use your imagination?
In what way might we imagine "for better or worse"?
When was the last time you heard a good story? What effect did it have on you and others?
Do you agree that the faith has largely been presented in "rational propositions"? Reflect.
What was your gut reaction to the story of "The Man from the Park"?
What ideas or insights came to you as a result of that story?
Apart from story-telling, how else might we use our imagination?
Do you agree with William Lynch that imagination is necessary for hope?
Do you think it is possible that we, as a culture, lack imagination?
Is it possible that the aboriginal people of this land might teach us how to recover imagination?
Catalyst Suggestion Sheets are written by Michael Whelan SM and published by Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated in conjunction with the Catalyst journal, The Mix. For further information please contact: Catalyst for Renewal Incorporated, PO Box 139, Gladesville, NSW 1675, Australia. Tel/Fax: +61 2 9998 7003.