Gradualness: Lessons from Gregory

Others often ask me to name the single greatest need in parish life today. Without hesitation, I tell them, “accompaniment.” Then I need to explain myself, because they can easily get the wrong impression.

“Accompaniment” and “gradualness” have become divisive buzzwords in the tumultuous era of Pope Francis. On the liberal side, there are some who employ the words as code for avoiding any conversation about objective truth and goodness, especially in the context of marriage and sexuality and gender. On the conservative side, there are some who have an intense visceral reaction against any talk of accompaniment or gradualness. It means you are “one of those” and therefore an enemy of the cause of truth and goodness and right.

This is all too tragic, because both accompaniment and gradualness are incredibly important, and both sides seem to be missing the point. We are called to abide in love and truth. You cannot have one without the other. Both are essential as we walk the path of ongoing conversion. If we fudge the truth in the name of love, we will reach a roadblock in our conversion. But we may never begin the journey if we are blasted immediately with the harder truths – before interiorly receiving the first truth that we are definitively loved. Jesus and the saints understood both points quite clearly. They loved the person in front of them and then accompanied them step by step on the formidable path of conversion.

What do authentic gradualness and accompaniment look like? Many of the saints offer us outstanding examples. I plan to draw from their wisdom in the weeks ahead.

Gradualness (or “gradualism” or “graduality”) means what it suggests – that growth in holiness comes gradually, step by step. It is a long journey of patient and persistent progress.

One of the most memorable examples of gradualness comes from Gregory the Great. He is perhaps my favorite pope of all time – and not just because he once preached about poop. He was a truly wise and loving shepherd during tumultuous decades that were shockingly similar to our own. By the time he was pope (590-604), there was no turning back the clock on the decline and fall of Roman civilization. It was a done deal. Much that was good and true and beautiful was collapsing, never to return. But Gregory refused to become discouraged or demoralized. Even in the twilight of Roman greatness, God worked through Gregory to begin planting the seeds of long-term renewal. He patiently and persistently established monasteries. These became islands of civilization and hubs of missionary activity. Eventually, every barbarian tribe that had run roughshod over Europe came to know Jesus Christ and his saving message. Learning was preserved and the foundations of modern civilization laid down. So much of what is good and true and beautiful in our own American heritage did not happen by accident. It was the fruit of ten centuries of steady monastic influence.

Thankfully, not all of Gregory’s efforts took a millennium to bear fruit. One of the earliest and most enduring evangelizing successes was in England, in the kingdoms of Kent and Northumbria. From Rome, from the monastery formerly known as his family’s suburban villa, Gregory sent out his abbot to travel to faraway England and evangelize the Angles. That reluctant missionary went on to become Saint Augustine of Canterbury. It warms my heart to think of it. I have been in that Roman monastery up on the Caelian Hill. It overlooks the Circus Maximus, an ancient racetrack and site of entertainment. There the pagan Romans had chased after fleeting pleasures and killed so many of the early Christians. That blood of the martyrs, sown with such great love and in such great abundance, truly bore fruit in the mission field in faraway England. By the time Bede the Venerable rolled around (672-735), Northumbria was so thriving in the Faith that it was sending out many missionaries of its own. Today, as we behold things dear to us falling apart, it is good to remember that much can be built up in just a couple of generations – especially when one learns to be patient and proceed step by step.

That was the lesson that Gregory taught in his famous instructions to Augustine and his fellow missionaries in a letter to the Abbot Mellitus dated July 18, 601. One of the greatest pastoral challenges Augustine was facing was how to handle the pagan shrines. One might expect a seventh-century pope to counsel the destruction of those temples, but Gregory’s response was much more nuanced: “Tell him what I have decided after thinking to myself for a long time about the case of the Angles, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation should by no means be destroyed, but that the idols themselves that are in them should be destroyed. Have holy water prepared and sprinkled in these temples; have altars constructed and relics placed in them.”

Gregory proceeds to address the Angles’ celebrations that involve sacrificing cattle to their gods (or as he puts it, to demons). He urges the missionaries to adapt these celebrations into Christian feasts. Let the people keep on collecting tree branches and erecting their ritual huts. But make sure that their rituals are centered around the newly Christianized shrines. Let them slaughter and eat their cattle (what kind of fool would take away their feasting on steak?). But teach them to do so with prayers of thanksgiving to God, rather than prayers of idolatry. Allow them to enjoy their outward practices, says Gregory – but teach them to transition into the more interior joys of Christian faith.

Gregory then explains the law of gradualness. You cannot root out everything all at once from hard heads or stubborn minds. And you cannot climb a mountain by one great leap, but only step by step.

Notice that Gregory does not suggest that all these practices on the part of the pagans are holy or helpful. He suggests instead that many further conversations will need to be conducted. He is just giving a sense of where to start. After much prayer and discernment, he figures out the first steps that can be taken that will allow conversion to catch fire and accelerate.

Neither of Gregory’s decisions is a permanent solution, but rather a provisional measure developed by a wise and loving shepherd to address a unique pastoral circumstance. Gregory does not want to drive away new converts or potential converts by imposing too many rules too quickly. So he focuses on the most important things. He identifies two objective moral evils: pagan idols and pagan sacrificial prayers. These are direct violations of God’s commandments and have to stop. But he seeks to be as lenient as possible towards other attitudes and practices: attachment to a particular building, use of ritual branches and huts, and the killing and eating of animals. Yes, these attitudes and practices arise from hard heads and stubborn minds who have much to learn. More changes will be needed over time. One step at a time.

In short, Gregory’s view is one of “tolerance” –  but a totally different sort of tolerance than the one promoted today. Gregory’s tolerance is pastoral patience that is willing to walk with people step by step on the long journey of conversion.

His overarching goal is that we will all one day arrive at the peak of the mountain. We will never do that if we permanently settle on a plateau!

In every age the evangelist faces similar challenges. Where to begin? There is so much that is good and true and beautiful in every human heart, and so much that is broken. Thanks be to God, there are those who are finding their way back to faith and the Church. I am so inspired by their holy desires. I am moved to tears by their sad stories and woundedness. I have learned not to start with rules, but to start with love, compassion, and careful listening – tuning into the Holy Spirit who has led this person here in the first place. Not all topics need to be broached in the first or second – or even tenth – conversation. Much patience and tolerance is needed on the long road of conversion. Perseverance is also needed, resisting the temptation to settle for less than the fullness of truth. I find that once the fire of conversion is burning, the rest tends to take care of itself, one step at a time. Gregory understood all those points, and the results speak for themselves.

Lectio Divina Part IV: Contemplation

Read and meditate; pray and contemplate. “Contemplation” is the fourth and final component of Lectio Divina. It is the passive and receptive dimension, and the ultimate good fruit that emerges, as God takes over and does what he wills. He is the one who knows our hearts so much more intimately than we do. He knows our joys and delights, our sorrows and struggles. He tunes in to our wants and needs, and to our deepest desires. He is the one who placed those needs and desires there in the first place!

Contemplation is the highest human experience. It is our ultimate destiny and the deepest perfection our humanity can attain. Aristotle understood this. Even without the benefit of divine revelation, he explained that we humans will either sink down to the level of the beasts, mired in selfish and vicious habits, or we will rise up to the level of the gods, contemplating the fullness of truth.

Aristotle understood that being is prior to doing. This truth is a challenging one for our pragmatic American culture, with its Puritan roots. We tend to see value in achieving or accomplishing far more than abiding or receiving or contemplating. We forget that the most precious blessings in life, by their very nature, are “useless.” Whether listening to our favorite music or enjoying a sunset or spending time with the ones we love, we do not engage in the highest human activities because they are “useful” for obtaining something else. Rather, all that is good or true or beautiful is worth delighting in for its own sake!

As Christians, we can take it a step further. Our ultimate destiny is the Beatific Vision. We will see God face to face and live. Not only that, the experience we will transform us into him. Nor is this simply an individual experience, for God is love. He is a communion of persons and invites us to abide forever together in that eternal love and truth. The one Body of Christ will be perfected in glory. We will fully share in his humanity and his divinity, as every tear is wiped away.

You can sense the awe and the eagerness in the Beloved Disciple’s heart as he explains not only how blessed we are in the present – as beloved children of God – but also how truly blessed will be our final destiny in the eternal contemplation of God: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are … Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-2).

If we wish to appreciate “contemplation,” then, we may need to renounce some of the lies of our culture.

The first lie, already exposed, is exalting doing over being. Our dignity as a human person comes not from what we do, but from who we are. We are beloved children of God and already share in a communion with him. As we grow in prayer, contemplation allows us just to “be” with God, to abide in his presence, and to receive from him whatever he wills to give us. We may or may not understand what he is up to. We don’t need to – any more than a little child needs to understand the delight and nurture and care and protection that his parents are providing. We just need to be receptive and open.

The biggest lie, indeed the original lie to our human race, is that we can “create” the experience, seizing and grasping rather than depending and receiving. The devil enticed Eve, “You will be like gods…” (Genesis 3:5). With this fruit, you can rely on yourself. You can be strong enough not to need God.

Not needing God. It is perhaps the greatest spiritual sickness today. More and more, humans in the affluent nations of the world try to live as though God didn’t exist, as though we can sustain ourselves by our own efforts. And somehow we are stunned at the results. Year by year, month by month, we witness the unraveling, the disintegration, the chaos, the hatred, the confusion, the descent into darkness. The isolation and despair of hell have become daily news. It need not be so.

Herein lies the greatest difference between Lectio Divina and some of the alternative versions of “meditation” that are out there today. It is the difference between the golden calf and the living God. Are we creating the object of our own worship, like those impatient Israelites growing restless in the desert? Or are we learning to abide, to wait upon the Lord, and to receive, like Moses on the mountain or Elijah in the cave?

Yes, we are called to do our part, eagerly and actively, carving out space for the Lord to do his work. We can cut the wood, split the wood, and arrange the wood – but God alone provides the fire. We can plug in the radio, turn it on and tune it in – but God alone decides when and what and how to broadcast. Receiving is so much different than taking or seizing, grasping or manipulating, dominating or controlling.

Over time, for God’s saints, prayer tends to become more and more passive and receptive – much like a truly happy marriage. Couples married 60 or 70 years need not say much or do much to cherish each other. Their presence is enough. Married love is but a sign and symbol. Jesus teaches that no one will be married in heaven (Matthew 22:30). The eternal communion of heavenly love will be infinitely greater. Our contemplative prayer is the next closest thing here on earth. If we are faithful in our daily prayer, we will come to experience that heavenly reality more and more, and even now experience the eternal love of God.

Lectio Divina Part II: Meditation

We continue our consideration of how to engage effectively in Lectio Divina, including its four chief components: (1) Reading, (2) Meditation, (3) Prayer, and (4) Contemplation.

Last time we considered component #1: purposeful reading as the fuel that consistently feeds the flame of prayer in our heart. Today we turn our attention to meditation.

In our contemporary world, “meditation” has many connotations, not all of them helpful for launching into Lectio Divina.

For instance, many gurus today (even Christian ones) urge us to “clear our mind” and utterly empty our imagination in order to meditate. I cannot help but think of the hilarious scene in Ghostbusters in which Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) urges his companions, “Okay, empty your heads!” – and Ray (Dan Akroyd) can’t help himself. The Stay Puft Marshmallow just pops in there. It is normal and human to have an active imagination, and God will work with that.

The gurus have a good point, though. The finger that points at the moon is not the moon. God is radically beyond our ideas and images of God. They are but shadows of his infinity. Nevertheless, He chooses to use finite images and concepts to feed us – especially at the beginning of our journey of prayer. Did he not send his own Son in the flesh, as the visible image of the invisible God? He wants to appeal to our five senses, our memory, our intellect, our will, and our imagination. As we actively engage these God-given faculties, they become more and more purified in his presence.

I have encountered misguided methods of “centering prayer” that urge the vacating of our minds. Sometimes they appeal to John of the Cross and other great mystics of our Christian tradition. I truly love John of the Cross, and his message is clear: keep on meditating on something as long as it feeds you. Yes, God will eventually “empty your head” for you – but until he does, keep meditating.

Saint Paul explains to the Corinthians that we feed on milk when we are babies, and gradually grow into the nourishment offered by solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). Over time, God leads his holy ones beyond ideas and images into his own inner life. That process can involve a purifying darkness, described by John of the Cross as the “dark night of the soul.” One by one, God kicks away the props we are leaning upon and teaches us to trust in Him alone. That emptying of our mind and heart will come in time – step by step – and only as we are ready. In the meantime, most of us need to meditate on something, fully engaging the mind, heart, and will that God gave us.

There is also a deeper danger of emptying our minds, namely, a lack of discernment of spirits. We read in the First Letter of John: “Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God” (1 John 4:1). Unfortunately, not all spirits are benevolent spirits. Some of them serve us, but others have rebelled and are actively seeking our ruin. The devil and his minions are cunning, baffling, and powerful. Jesus warns us about leaving our house empty and undefended against malicious spirits (Luke 11:24-26). Eventually, people of prayer learn the gift of discernment and can quickly recognize (and fight) the deceptions of the evil one. In the meantime, a Christ-centered meditation is the safest path for beginners.

We can express similar cautions regarding the practice of mantras, another well-intentioned and sometimes misguided method of meditation. The idea of using a mantra is to help soothe or calm our mind, allowing us to enter a meditative state – i.e., to get into our watchtower. In principle, it’s a marvelous idea. In practice, it can become esoteric, New Agey, or even idolatrous if the mantra invites us to invoke the name of a pagan deity or demon.

By contrast, the classic Christian way to soothe or relax our mind through repetition is to keep repeating a verse of Scripture, a short prayer, or the name of Jesus. Actually, that is exactly the idea behind the Rosary in the West and the Jesus Prayer in the East. Both center on Jesus by repeatedly uttering his holy name. Both can be wonderful ways of calming and soothing us, opening us to God’s presence and activity.

The model of meditation in Scripture itself is found in the Virgin Mary. Twice Saint Luke tells us that she treasured God’s activity in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). We can do the same, in any number of ways.

First there is the classic means, exercised by so many of the medieval monks. They ruminated. Not having a personal Bible of their own, they fastened in on one verse heard orally and proceeded to ponder it for days on end. Imagine a cow chewing its cud, savoring it. If we find a Scripture verse that truly speaks to our heart, we can keep mulling over it: verbally, mentally, or in our imagination – whatever works for us.

Ignatius of Loyola encourages the use of our imagination in prayer, suggesting that we put ourselves into the scene we are pondering. For years I told people that this means of meditation didn’t work for me. I was mistaken.  More recently, I have found enormous healing of imagination through Lectio Divina. Remember that “imagination” refers not just to visual pictures but to all five of our senses and to our creative capacity in general. Sooner or later, those capacities need to be consecrated entirely to God. Healthy meditation can help accomplish that.

As we meditate, God may speak to us in any variety of ways: images, words, thoughts, emotions, or desires.  I have definitely found him to be full of surprises! In time, we will recognize when our heart has been stirred, and will allow ourselves to enter into a heart-to-heart encounter with the living God. We’ll pick up with that point next time!

Lectio Divina Part I: Reading

In my last post, I introduced Lectio Divina as an age-old Christian method of meditation and prayer. Classically, authors distinguish between four dimensions of the experience: (1) Reading, (2) Meditation, (3) Prayer, and (4) Contemplation.

I first began practicing Lectio Divina about twenty-five years ago. If you are as I was, you may be worried about “getting it right.” I can think of many moments of anxiety on retreat or in my personal prayer life. My wounds were causing me to have a distorted view of God and of prayer. I have since learned to be calmer and have confidence that God will lead me on a good path, so long as I keep surrendering. There are many “right” ways of engaging in Christian reading and meditation. To be sure, it helps to learn from the spiritual greats who have gone before us – but with flexibility and trust rather than rigidity and fear.

Perhaps a helpful analogy here is a baseball player aspiring to become a great pitcher. Consider the rich variety of pitching styles that are out there. Each player needs to learn what works for him personally. There are many possible variations of how he might execute his windup, his arm motion, his delivery, his stride, and his follow through. A good coach will identify certain bad habits to be broken, but will resist the temptation to over-analyze or micromanage. At first, there are many mechanics to be mastered. Things may feel awkward for a while. If the pitcher freezes or fixates too much on any one step, he will struggle. In time, with plenty of practice, it becomes a single fluid process; it becomes “second nature.”

Lectio Divina likewise eventually becomes “second nature,” or more accurately, “supernatural.” It is impossible without divine assistance, yet ultimately leads us to become more truly human, and more fully ourselves. If we persevere in consistent prayer, it will come to feel as fluid and natural as an athlete playing catch.

For that reason, I have deliberately avoided using the word “steps.” Yes, there are four dimensions of Lectio Divina, but they often happen simultaneously, and they happen best when we keep our focus on Jesus.

Without further ado, let’s consider dimension #1: Lectio (“Reading”).

As the very name suggests, Lectio Divina is fueled by reading. Most commonly, this includes reading a well-chosen Scripture passage. Starting with Gospel stories is probably the easiest and most effective way to begin.

Our reading is best done slowly and prayerfully, noticing the Word of God, noticing especially how it speaks to our own heart. If we find a word or passage or image or thought that deeply consoles us or deeply troubles us, it is a good time to pause and ponder and meditate. It is important to resist the temptation to rush ahead, to bury ourselves in reading, or to plow through as much text as we can. Instead of pushing ahead or pushing through, we will need to learn to be still and silent, to savor God’s presence and activity.

Alternative approaches: Not everyone finds it easy to launch into Lectio Divina. More often than not, the reason for our struggles has to do with a lack of consistency or a lack of silence (see my last post!). If we are winning those battles and still struggling, then we may need a bit more trial and error until we figure out what works.

There are many “right” ways of praying and meditating, and it is worth considering some alternatives: different books of the Bible, perhaps even other inspirational writings such as a well-written life of a Saint or an devotional book that really resonates with our heart. In the end it is the good fruit that matters, and we can tell what is working well and what is not – especially if we are not just judging for ourselves, but are sharing our discipleship with friends or with a trusted spiritual guide. In considering whether your reading is working, think upon the image of fuel steadily feeding the flame of our prayer life. If the fire keeps burning (and others attest to that fact), we know that the fuel is good.

Regarding the timing of our reading, there can also be a healthy variety. I know people of prayer who read the night before and allow themselves to sleep on it. I know others who read early in the morning over coffee and then pray at a later time. I know still others who spend ten minutes reading and then enter meditation and prayer shortly afterward. Finally, I know people who alternate back and forth between reading and meditating throughout their period of prayer. In fact, I have personally tried all of the above at different seasons of my life. The main point is to draw spiritual nourishment from what we are reading.

We should also realize that “reading” need not mean picking up a book and looking at the written word. Ponder this: Many of the Christians who practiced Lectio Divina over the centuries were not even literate! Prior to the printing press, books were rare and expensive – especially Bibles. Even in the monasteries among monks who could read and write, their precious manuscripts had to be shared, and with the utmost care. Typically, one monk would read in the refectory as the others attentively listened. Whatever words or verses stuck in their heart were the ones they meditated on later, during their designated time for Lectio Divina.

Outside of monasteries, literacy was even less common. But the stories of Scripture were passed on in song, poetry, storytelling, architecture, paintings, stained glass windows, or statues. Those media fueled the prayer of Christians for centuries. If any of them speak deeply to our hearts today, why not utilize them? I know several Christians who struggle to pray with a written text, but flourish with a visual image, a guided meditation, or even an inspiring podcast. We need to find what works well for us personally. If our mind is meditating and our prayer is bearing good fruit, we know we are on the right track.

Returning to our analogy of a baseball pitcher, there are several styles of “reading” that can be effective. You may need try a few of them until you figure out what works consistently well for you. Returning to our image of fuel and fire, I encourage you to ask yourself: What fuels your heart? If your spiritual reading is indeed working, it will consistently be the fuel that helps your heart to be set ablaze in the presence of the living God.

Next time we’ll consider dimension #2: Meditation.

Introduction to Lectio Divina

Would you like a more profound prayer life? I can think of no better way to plunge into prayer than Lectio Divina. For centuries, this way of praying has empowered men and woman of Faith to welcome God’s healing grace into the depths of their heart so that He can transform every aspect of their being: their memory, their imagination, their thoughts, their self-awareness, their emotions, their desires, and their choices.

Lectio Divina leads us, over time, into deep meditative prayer. Given the explosion of interest in “meditation” these days, it should be a topic of interest for many.

I am not at all surprised that Christians young and old are finding themselves drawn to meditation. There are several blessings to be found there: taking time out of a busy day, relaxation, deep breathing, allowing ourselves be still, and noticing what is happening in our heart and mind and soul. These are behaviors that modern life has ripped away from us – behaviors that belong in every human life. The sad part is that, due to disillusionment, dissatisfaction, or disgust with the Church, many are looking elsewhere for spiritual wisdom, not realizing what a treasure they are missing!

Unfortunately, not all meditation methods are created equal. Lectio Divina, in its original form, is a Christ-centered meditation. By contrast, the modern meditation gurus often lead people into Self-centered meditation (Self with a capital “S”) or into a complete emptying of our imagination, mind, and will. The former runs the risk of pride and egoism. The latter runs the risk of leaving us vulnerable to spiritual attack by the powers of darkness, who are ever eager to return in full force, enter an emptied house, and reclaim it (Luke 11:24-26).

The gurus show genuine instinct by identifying exaltation and emptying as profound human experiences. But they can offer only a partial picture. We can learn the fuller truth of exaltation and emptying by studying the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. They gave into the temptation of self-exaltation. If only they had died to their own will, God would have exalted them anyway! Jesus in the Garden showed us what the process of emptying and exaltation truly looks look. Staying close to His Father, humble and obedient, He died and rose. We can do the same by remaining in communion with God and others and self, all accomplished as a living member of the Body of Christ. If we find ourselves thirsting for growth through meditation, great! It is wisest and safest to put Christ firmly at the center and allow what happened in Him to unfold in us.

Just what is Lectio Divina? Literally, it means “divine reading.” It allows our reading of Scripture to draw us into meditation and prayer, and ultimately into close union with God. There are four main components: (1) Reading, (2) Meditation, (3) Prayer, and (4) Contemplation.

In the weeks ahead, we will explore each of those four components in depth. Before doing so, it will be an indispensable help consider two prerequisites for Lectio Divina, without which very little progress will occur. I find that most of our attempts at meditation sputter at first because we are in need of cultivating two serious habits: consistency and silence.

Consistency. As with any great endeavor, consistency is the key to success. Whether we desire to learn a foreign language, take up a musical instrument, eat healthier, or run a half-marathon, we will find so much more success if we learn to be consistent. Better to do a little bit every day than to try to tackle everything in big bursts. This is especially true for Lectio Divina. We can start small. A mere 10 minutes a day – every day – can do wonders. The biggest battle for most people is showing up – consistently. It typically means scheduling a prayer time in advance and honoring it just as we would a new job or a series of departure times from the airport. It typically means getting up a few minutes earlier in the morning – and therefore going to bed a few minutes earlier. This only happens if we learn to say “no” to other things the day before so that we can say “yes” more easily to our new priority. As with other lifestyle changes (exercise, eating, etc.) it often helps to make the change together with a few friends, encouraging each other and holding each other accountable.

Silence. Prayer is born from silence. God often speaks in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13). We will not be able to tune in until we learn to appreciate silence. Entering into silence is not easy – especially if it is new to us. We are so used to constant stimulation. There is the obvious need to “unplug” from any distractions caused by our phones or tablets. We may also need to take an honest look at any number of other compulsive “noisy” behaviors that hinder us from silence. We may need to be patient and persevering as we endure the experience of “detox” – unpleasant at first – but ultimately quite liberating. This is precisely the kind of self-emptying that unifies us with Christ and opens us in holy receptivity.

To reduce distractions, it helps to have a sacred place consecrated for prayer. For us Catholics, we sometimes have the luxury of an adoration chapel or church. But we can also pray at home. It may mean getting up extra early or explicitly asking others to give us the space and freedom to pray. Many find it helpful to dedicate a room or a corner or a chair as a consecrated prayer place.

Still, struggling with silence is totally normal. We are, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” The greatest spiritual giants among the Saints describe distraction as a steady diet in their prayer. It is quite normal to experience racing and random thoughts when we try to pray. I find that it helps to accept the distractions – especially during the first few minutes – and give ourselves a chance to calm down. Taking slow and deep breaths can indeed help. Then we can more easily let go of distractions and gently refocus anytime we notice our mind wandering in an unhelpful way.

Remember my previous bit of writing about “Smoke Alarms and Watchtowers”? If we begin our prayer time by entering into silence and becoming mindful of God’s presence, we are effectively stepping into our watchtower – ready to notice what God is doing. If distractions persist, we can stay in our watchtower, and just notice them. Sure they’re there – they won’t stop God from doing his work. We can trust Him.

Once we are committed to consistency and determined to embrace silence, we will more easily be able to read, meditate, pray, and contemplate. I look forward to discussing those four aspects of Lectio Divina in the weeks ahead!

Healing of our Imagination

Of all our human faculties, our imagination is perhaps the most powerful. Imagination sparks every moment of human greatness. Without particularly imaginative individuals, we would never have arrived at modern marvels like the lunar landing or the polio vaccine. Personally, I am even more amazed at some of the prehistoric discoveries: the first writing down of speech,  the first singing of songs, the first riding of horses, and, yes, even the first brewing of beer. Without the gift of human imagination, none of those would have happened.

Unfortunately, the best also becomes the worst. Human imagination, when cleverly or deviously seduced, has spawned some of our ugliest moments: the Holocaust, terrorist attacks, human trafficking, and the multi-billion dollar pornography industry. Indeed, pick any addiction you like, and you will find unhealthy imagination at work. The addict, in his desire to numb his pain or fulfill his unmet human needs, will find himself fantasizing about his drug of choice. He imagines how amazing it will be if only he has a drink, makes a new purchase, eats his favorite snack, and so forth. The promised pleasure quickly gives way to emptiness, disappointment, and shame.

The human experience of disillusionment is not unique to addicts; it is universal to our fallen condition. We all know the feeling of a failed fantasy. Consider the clichés: “the grass is always greener…” or “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” Lured by fantasies, we easily eject ourselves from the present moment and chase after illusions – whether in our relationships, our career, or our leisure activities. We miss the moment.

It is for good reason that Aristotle once declared the products of our imagination to be “for the most part false.” For every one brilliant burst of insight, there are myriads of missteps. He is not wrong. How do navigate the labyrinth? The answer can be found in a sanctified imagination. It is not a curse to be cast aside, but a gift to be healed.

Previously I wrote about the healing of our memory, which is the root of our identity. Our identity will be either distorted or healthy depending on how fully our memory is integrated into God’s eternal memory. Similarly, an unhealed imagination runs wild and creates chaos, but a healed and sanctified imagination begins to participate in God’s own creative action. He designed us men and women to share in his creativity, crafting us in his own image and likeness and setting us apart from the other animals.

When it comes to imagination, we are both alike and unlike the beasts. Thomas Aquinas compares and contrasts human imagination with animal imagination. We both have the capacity to form and store up “images” – not just visual ones – but all sorts of mental impressions of the experiences of our five senses. We hold on to pleasant sights and sounds and smells – or nasty ones – and learn to seek or avoid them accordingly. Not only that, men and beasts alike form connections between one mental impression and another, and react accordingly. A child learns to associate the words “ice cream” with a pleasurable experience. A dog reacts with equal excitement to the words “dog park.” The same holds true for avoidance of danger or discomfort. Animals learn to recognize the presence of predators and elude them. Children learn not to touch things that are pointy or hot, and they quickly avoid uncles who offer to play “52 pickup.”

Human imagination, however, has the capacity to go far beyond the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. We can do something astounding that animals cannot do. We can take one mental image and pair it up with other seemingly unrelated images. Thomas gives the example of combining “gold” and “mountain” to envision mountains made of gold.

This powerful human capacity to imagine new possibilities points towards God’s perfection, particularly his infinity and his creativity. He alone is truly infinite, having no limits whatsoever. He alone truly “creates,” making something out of nothing. Yet in his abundant goodness he wills us to share in his infinity and to share in his creativity. Imagination, with its endless potential, plays a particularly important role, whether for good or evil. We share in God’s own creativity when we allow our imagination to be ordered to all that is good and true and beautiful.

By contrast, we rupture our relationships when we employ our imagination to “create” in a manner totally independent of God. That is the original temptation of the devil, who is a liar and a murderer from the beginning. He tempts Adam and Eve by appealing to their imagination: “You will be like gods!” Instead of receiving from God and participating in his plan, they seize and grasp and “create” their own version of truth, goodness, and beauty.

We all share in the sin of our first parents. Our imagination has been wounded, and is now reclaimed by the blood of Christ. In him, we have the freedom to allow our imagination to be sanctified, and we have the freedom to fantasize in a way that disconnects us from God and others and self.

 How is our imagination healed and sanctified? Jesus offers answers.

“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). When we Americans hear these words (Puritans that we are) we often think of sexual purity. But the deeper meaning here is an undivided heart, consecrated entirely to God. If we have a fragmented and unsanctified imagination, we will feel pulled in a million directions. As we allow our imagination to be sanctified, a true vision emerges: both of God and of ourselves. We can follow the path which he illumines, step by step, and exit the entangled labyrinth.

This slow and steady sanctification is particularly important if we have struggled with addictive behaviors. In that case, our brain has formed many habitual associations between mental images (sights, sounds, smells, etc.). We can easily be triggered. Indeed, the most deviously imaginative advertisers deliberately market their products so that users will be constantly reminded of them and feel the urge without even realizing it.

But there is hope. Ancient and medieval wisdom tell us that bad habits can be reshaped into virtues. Contemporary brain science tells us about brain plasticity. It turns out that you can teach old dogs new tricks – at least if they desire to learn, and if they are patient and consistent. There are two main ways of purifying and sanctifying our fragmented imagination: regular “exercise” and regular prayer.

By “exercise” I mean any number of activities that flex the muscles of one’s imagination in life-giving ways which correspond to one’s own God-given heart. This could include art, crafts, writing, poetry, music, cooking, hospitality, computer programming, etc. The unique gifts vary from person to person. We have to ask which ones truly cause us to feel like a child of God, which ones make our heart sing.

In terms of prayer, if done well and done consistently, it truly engages all our faculties, especially our imagination – allowing God’s grace to soak in and transform us. What kinds of prayer work well? There are many possibilities, but I know of at least two that are tried and true: Lectio Divina and a daily Examen. I look forward to discussing each of those in the weeks ahead!