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!