It’s been a month less a day since I last posted on this blog. During that time I have pondered how best to use this blog, or what new direction would be best for it. Having done so, I think I’d like to use it as a forum for reflecting on the Christian spiritual life. Writing on suitable topics will help me to sort through my own commitment to Jesus, and maybe help someone else who might read what I post. This blog already contains a good number of posts with that purpose and, although they were the most difficult to write, I think that it was worth the effort. So below I will put up the first post with this old/new direction. I have others already planned.
The Inner Longing
Two or three times a year, a friend of mine sends me a series of beautiful photographs of hidden places on the earth. They affect me profoundly, for they are able to reach deeply into my heart’s deep longing.
Whenever people want to have an experience of God, many leave the city and go into the desert, forest, mountains, or other “hidden place” on the earth. In such places, somehow, God seems more accessible. Probably that is because in such circumstances we set aside many of the artificial defenses we have against his presence and activity. The “inner longing” for God that is in the heart of human nature is given proper attention and can emerge.
It’s risky to do so, of course, because the longing can never be fulfilled in this life. We know that to experience genuine longing for God, then, is to experience a measure of grief, of wanting something that is outside the world, something that is inaccessible, something we can never fully have in this life. Because this is so, one’s longing for God will always have a measure of painful unsatisfaction in it. And the greater the longing, the greater the lack of satisfaction. However, the pain of unfulfilled longing for what is radically true and the only source of complete joy, is itself a kind of holy pleasure.
Of all the photos this individual has sent me, this is the one that I would keep if I were told that I could have only one.
This photo puts the viewer clearly into a place where he is a stranger and yet also has right of entry, even passage. There is a road, but it is a way through something. It does not show its end. The trees are tall and classic, giving the viewer a feeling that they have existed long before he came upon the scene. The trees don’t “need” anyone—certainly not the viewer; nor are they at risk because of his presence. There is darkness among the trees, indicative of enormous mystery far beyond what the road shows. Yet there is also bright green, indicative of new life, beauty, growth, and even welcome. Sunlight comes into this place. The darkness and the sunlight are not at odds. There is peace here.
I don’t know who took the photo so can’t give credit, and I don’t know where it was taken —which is probably good because if I knew, probably a whole lot of others would know too, and many would go to the place and then it would become spoiled. This is a place of the imagination, not a place that a GPS could lead you to.
As a reader of many books, appreciator of much music, and gazer at a lot of art, I know that it is absolutely essential that the connoisseur of books, music, and art have a good imagination. It is imagination that ultimately makes use of what the senses receive. One’s imagination, I think, is one of the human attributes by which we love and long for the beloved. Without it, or when it is misused, no amount of beautiful or profound stimulation can have much of an effect.
Nearly two years ago, someone wrote to me and asked, “I was wondering what your thoughts were about the use of the imagination in the Christian life. I am extremely resistant to using my imagination in this context. I’m not sure how to explain it exactly but it seems that I have a great fear of “making up” my experiences with God and it’s as if I expect God to reveal Himself to me entirely independent of myself. I think I have a fairly powerful imagination and I am afraid of “pretending” to experience God and “imagining” that God is comforting me or guiding me, etc. when in reality it’s all in my own head. I realized that this resistance may actually be hindering me from experiencing God in more full and powerful ways - I can see how it affects me in prayer, worship, etc., but I don’t know how to trust that what I think of in my head is truly of God or if it is simply my imagination. What do you think?”
This was my answer:
Imagination is part of what it is to be human. Imagination, therefore, has an important, even vital, place in how human beings relate to God. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” No part of us is left out. We worship God with our bodies, minds, emotions, and everything we’ve got—including imagination. The question is discovering what the right place of imagination is. You are right to guard against taking false experiences as true, but I think that you have gone too far in that direction.
A safe course is to realize that God will use your imagination to provide what imagination does in other places in your life, e.g. entertain, add an emotional sense of security or assurance, fill out or enrich the “bare bones” of an experience, etc. Whenever you read fiction or see a movie, the medium can only provide so much; your imagination must do its part or you are not really engaged in the experience. Whenever you see a movie, your imagination must add the third dimension (depth), scents, etc. Whenever you read fiction, your imagination must add sounds, etc. Your imagination, then, is an essential part of receiving the message in the book or movie.
God works in the same way. He made our imagination and intends it to be used. Read Scripture and other holy books, go through the liturgy, etc., and allow your imagination to put yourself into the situation along with your mind. (When I preach, I try deliberately, intentionally to draw emotion from the hearers or engage their imagination in order to add depth to the message, especially if the topic or passage of Scripture is something they are already familiar with.)
So far, I hope, so good. This tells you that imagination should have its place in your devotions and your overall relationship with God. But how do you guard against error? That’s the other part of your question. There are several dependable guardrails.
Any experience you have of God that is dependent mostly on your imagination must be consistent with Scripture and the tradition of the Church, i.e. the common experience of the faithful throughout the ages. If your imagination takes you off the mark of your relationship with God, it is at least suspect. If you feel suspicion, it is a sign that there are correctives within you to what imagination might do. Imagination never acts alone.
There are guardrails on certain mountain roads because there is need for them, and occasionally people scrape them. Applying this analogy to your relationship with God, this means that you don’t need to worry too much about “getting it wrong” or “pretending”. If you do make a mistake, in most cases a good response should be “so what”? Give God credit for caring enough about you to bring you back on the beam. Scraping the guardrail is not the same thing as flying off the cliff. You’re not always going to get it right all the time. That’s kind of why those bumpy things define the lanes on the freeway. If you drift too much to one side they rattle your tires and you jerk the wheel back to the center.
Besides, suppose you use your imagination in your devotions and have very warm and comforting experience of God, and he feels really close. Is it “only your imagination” or is it God using your imagination to produce those feelings? And how are you going to know the difference for sure??? And is it really important to know? If you conclude, or fear, that something good is “only your imagination”, then what you’re saying is that God is not really close to you and you’re only providing a “wish fulfillment” experience for yourself. To put it another way, you’re looking at yourself and not God. Another side of your doubt is that you might be uncertain about whether you are truly, unconditionally loved—by God or others. (This is extremely common, by the way—probably universal! The condition just manifests itself differently with different people.)
If you really believe that God loves you (at least intellectually), then whether it is “only your imagination” or God using your imagination to produce those feelings is really beside the point. It is a true experience. In other words, you can’t ever tell for sure whether it’s “self delusion” or truly from God because both experiences are identical! Therefore take it, safely, as being from God. The only alternative is that he’s not there and is indifferent to you. I, for one, don’t believe that!
Pulling your imagination back for fear of being uncertain about your “good experiences” with God is itself one of those bumpy things in the spiritual road, but it is telling you to use your imagination more, not less. Without using your imagination, or at least keeping it in tight check, might mean that your devotional life can be pretty dry or mostly intellectual. Another word for that state might be “boring”. A healthy, mature relationship with God should rarely be dry or boring. (I am not contradicting the “dark night of the soul”—even the “dark night” has joy in it.) The fact that you are asking about the use of imagination might mean that you are ready to engage your imagination more in your devotions.
Above all, depend upon God. As you want to move closer to him, he won’t abandon you or let you fall.
As I gaze at the photograph of the simple path through a dark forest of tall trees, I am drawn quickly and easily out of myself with my fears and pains and hesitations and insecurities, and far along the desire for God. I do occasionally wonder where its reality is to be found. But not too much. In a way, I already know where it is in its most important place—in my imagination, that which reaches out to such a place and painfully, joyfully embraces it, knowing it to be truly the threshold of God.