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 III: Prayer

We continue our exploration of Lectio Divina, the classic Christian method of meditative prayer. By now, you recall the four chief components: 1) Reading, 2) Meditation, 3) Prayer, and 4) Contemplation.

The whole point of reading and meditating is to allow prayer and contemplation to well up within our heart. Our disciplined commitment will begin to pay off. God will beckon us beneath the surface, where most of us prefer to spend our time. If we allow it, he will plunge us into the deep places of our heart, and the real praying can begin.

Scripture uses the word “heart” hundreds of times. So do the Saints. Authentic prayer is always prayer of the heart. The heart is where we encounter the living God.

Isn’t it interesting how a bodily organ becomes so symbolic? Our “heart” represents the seat of all our relationships, the core of our being, and the inner sanctuary in which our truest self is found. Literary experts might refer to this usage of “heart” as metonymy, but it also somehow resonates with our everyday experience! We feel our heart racing when we are attracted or aroused. We feel our heart ache when we are spurned or rejected. We feel our heart go numb when we are ignored or abandoned. We know what it feels like to “open our heart” or to “harden our heart.” We know what it feels like when others do the same to us.

Sometimes people think of “head” and “heart” as opposites. Not so. Scripture speaks of “thoughts of the heart” just as much as it does of rejoicing or groaning or sighing. In the biblical sense, “the heart” integrates all that is core to our humanity: thinking, feeling, imagining, remembering, desiring, hoping, and willing. Our fallen world and fallen human condition keep tempting us to be fragmented and compartmentalized. Our heart is where the integration is meant to happen.

The head and heart need not be opposed, any more than “the gut” and the heart are opposed. Both Scripture and our everyday experiences speak of our guts as the locus of our strongest emotions. We have a “visceral reaction” or a “gut feeling.” We feel emotions intensely there – but do not always know how to handle them.

I know, I know, you scientists in the group will tells us that it is the human brain that generates our emotions and sensations as well as our thoughts. But tell that to a man with a toothache or an ingrown toenail! For everyday purposes, we can definitely understand “the heart” as the core of our being, the seat of our relationships, and the inner sanctuary in which we encounter the living God. It is there that authentic prayer happens.

In that sense, yes, one extreme is to be overly cerebral in our meditation – to stay at the level of thinking only, and never allow our heart to be touched or moved. I have known many Christians who feel comfortable having ideas about God and faith – perhaps even talking about God and faith – but they struggle to describe any actual encounter or conversation or relationship with him. In some cases, a real relationship is there, and shows its good fruit in their lives; they just struggle with self-awareness. In other cases, there are adamantine walls around the heart, protecting the dark or painful places that we long ago compartmentalized in a spirit of self-protection.

At the opposite extreme, we find sentimentality. We can prefer to live in the realm of emotions only, and avoid any seriousness in our relationships. Prayer is not predominantly about good feelings any more than it is about lofty thoughts. Yes, it is common to have our emotions inflamed when we begin to pray in a serious way. We are falling in love with God. But  genuine prayer is not about having a feel-good experience. Eventually we will need to learn to love God more than good feelings about God.

In the end, being overly cerebral or overly sentimental are just two different ways of avoiding encounter and walling ourselves off from meaningful relationships. Avoiding and numbing are so much easier than entering into full communion with God and others. When we learn authentic Christian prayer, we begin to put out into the deep waters – yielding our control and following where the adventure may lead us.

Returning to Lectio Divina, “Prayer” (the third component) translates the Latin word Oratio. Those of you who speak Spanish are familiar with the difference between orar and rezar. Both are translated “to pray.” But rezar has more a sense of reciting prayers, whereas orar describes a heart-to-heart conversation with God. The two are not opposed; we can do them both at the same time. Remember that Jesus taught us to recite the Our Father, and intended us to engage our heart when we do so, truly entrusting and surrendering ourselves to God as a loving Father.

Oratio, the third component of Lectio Divina is the point at which our heart begins encountering God and spending time with him. The experience can vary. It can involve feeling, thinking, imagining, remembering, desiring, delighting, rejoicing, speaking, listening, sighing, weeping, repenting,  firmly resolving, and so much more. Oratio begins happening quite spontaneously, like wood catching fire. We need not and should not strain to make it happen – any more than we strain ourselves in our spontaneous love for spouse or children or friends. As in those relationships, when we have a moment of intimacy, we hopefully learn to drop the other things we are doing and let the moment happen. As in those relationships, more moments happen if we bring a listening ear, an open heart, an attentive posture, and plenty of quality time spent together.

When we find our heart touched in prayer, it is so important not to move on too quickly! One touch of the heart can sustain our prayer for days or even months. When God opens up these heavenly streams in our heart, it becomes a wellspring that we can keep going back to. Ignatius of Loyola offers the image of a sponge slowly soaking up every drop of God’s love. If there is a particular verse of Scripture, image, thought, memory, or impulse that captivates us, we can keep returning to it when we notice our mind or heart wandering. As long as it keeps consoling us, it is working. We will have a sense of when to move on.

As we meditate and pray, we can learn to avoid rigidity (“I have to do it in exactly this way…”) as well as avoiding laziness or complacency. Discipline pays off, but only if we allow our heart to be open – and often to be surprised. God is full of surprises. Indeed, sometimes the biggest graces are given at other times of the day, when we are least looking for God. In that case, be flexible! Allow the moment with him to happen, and then return to that moment of grace the next day, allowing it to become the new content of your meditation and prayer. The more and the better we pray, the more we notice what God is doing. The more we savor what he is doing and respond lovingly, the more and the better we will pray. It becomes a virtuous cycle that leads us deeper into the heart of the living God.

To Be Concluded…

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!