Cultivating Our Imagination

Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI

Originally Published on the Oblate School of Theology Blog

Our imagination is atrophied. It has lost its innate capacity to generate new ideas and establish connections through the emergence of symbols that yield energy and original meaning. Foreign forces invade our minds daily; a plethora of images and ideas pressure us to purchase a product or push an idea. Other images move so fast that they lull us into inaction through mindless entertainment. It is as if our inner self has become an occupied territory; colonized by outsiders. This insidious dynamic can jeopardize our creativity. It may stunt our imagination. For this reason, it also has a significant impact on our spiritual lives and our ability to mobilize for action. Liberating the imagination is the most potent way to unshackle the conscious and unconscious messages that pollute our psyche and our inner religious world.

Let me illustrate how our imagination is lacking with an example. When teaching drama in high school, I told students early in the term they could no longer use material from television or film. Their first forays into crafting short scenes consisted of imitating, various ads, television shows, and movies. They were dumbfounded as if I had told them I was going to lobotomize everyone and then rewire all of their brains. In a sense, the lobotomy had already taken place. Their impoverished imagination was a testament to it. It was colonized by foreign prepackaged material. Slowly, the students worked on rediscovering their creative abilities; the vital energies lying dormant exploded in innovative content. The rest of the term unfolded with dramatic scenes and short scripts that were often moving, authentic, relevant, funny, lively and original. The raw, natural material that emerged from their lives and minds fed their creativity.

Our religious imagination is in a sad state. We hear and pray scripture, listen to homilies and read the bible yet we do not let the raw material of symbols and images, the beauty of poetry and the power of words reach our soul. We try to evoke ideas or find new insights by willpower or through intellectual elevations. It is a useless enterprise without imagination. When we do try to appeal to the imagination, we face its mental conditioning. When praying Moses and the burning bush narrative, we see Charlton Heston’s face. When praying the healing of the possessed man, we hear the screams of a half-naked man thrashing around in front of a stoic Jesus, as in the famous scene in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. We need to move beyond the frozen poses and worn-out ideas and moving pictures that have colonized our religious imagination. It is time to let our imagination soar, especially during this time of Easter when liturgy and scripture call us into a deeper experience of and relationship with the Triune God through profoundly moving symbols, and images.

Ignatius of Loyola proposed a type of prayer which calls vividly upon the imagination. The composition of place characteristic of the evocative contemplative method of prayer asks that we enter scripture as we would a real location. We apply our imagination; we see the persons and places, we hear the words, we observe the actions. The following example of Kathryn praying the passion found in Timothy Gallagher’s Meditation and Contemplation demonstrates the role of imagination in contemplative prayer: I placed myself completely into that scene…I saw Jesus standing before Pontius Pilate and his accusers…I began to hear Jesus saying quietly to the crowd, ‘Yes. Take me. Do what you want with me, for my death will be your salvation’…I saw Jesus dragged off by those who wanted him dead…The moment of terror I felt, as his final walk through Jerusalem began, was excruciating. I prayed for many hours, holding that terror in my heart, desiring to comfort Jesus…I had told Jesus I would not leave him alone and so I stayed there keeping watch.

Contemplative evocative prayer allows us to enter into scripture so that its revelatory power manifests itself through our religious imagination. We enter the Word so that the Word enters into us. In such prayer, scripture transforms us; Jesus becomes real, so our faith journey can translate into action. This process does not generate ‘made up’ material. Ignatius and countless other saints such as Saint Francis de Sale, Saint Teresa of Avila, and people of faith have prayed scripture in this manner. We do not need to have a cinematic screen in our minds for our imagination to be active. The idea is to experience it with the inner senses. William Barry, a seasoned Jesuit spiritual director, and teacher said that if you have winced at someone telling you they have hit their thumb while hammering a nail, you have an imagination! If you have wept at someone relating the loss of a loved one, you have an imagination! Barry reveals that he does not know what Jesus looks like but he can stake his life on his commitment to him and he has a good idea of how he feels about Jesus and how Jesus feels about him. The point is we each have our way of imagining (cf. Finding God in All Things).

We all need to cultivate our religious imagination; whatever it means for each one of us. Our imagination requires to be rediscovered, exercised, and nurtured. Many people complain that distractions plague their prayer life. They often blame their overactive imagination when this happens. It is true that imagination requires discipline and specific orientation and focus towards a given object. Thomas Merton understood this when he said that the contemplative life should not lead us just to suppress the imagination in order to get more pure messages from God. We must allow both for a contemplative prayer in which the imagination has little or no part and for a creative, imaginative, genuinely poetic side in our life. It should point to new meanings. It should create nuclei of meaning around which everything can collect significantly…There are meanings in the Bible which are communicated in concrete, living, material imagery, in material elements, fire, water, etc. One has to be sensible, sensitive, sensitized to the material qualities of these things in order to get the divine message (Contemplation in a World of Action).

Merton wants us to open ourselves to imagination and creativity because they can play a decisive role in spiritual growth in a life committed to prayer. To put it simply, God uses our imagination to communicate God’s self to us. Along with liturgy and Biblical texts, Merton proposes that we listen to music, immerse ourselves in nature or a garden, or read literature and poetry to activate our imagination. These imagination ‘boosters’ will help in both liberating us from the constraints of stunted creativity and reawaken the deeper recesses of our psycho-spiritual selves to be touched by God. All we have to do is allow the stimulation of our imagination; God’s Spirit will take care of the rest!

Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI is a priest, religious and itinerant preacher with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate of the US province. Mentored by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI he ministers from the campus of the Oblate School of Theology (OST) in San Antonio, Texas. Fr. Renaud has degrees and training in drama education, theology, pastoral ministry, psychodrama and spiritual direction. He has preached retreats to priests, men and women religious, deacons and wives and lay people on desire and mysticism, 12 steps recovery, Ignatian spirituality and Jungian shadow work, ecological conversion, the Beatitudes and human development and grief and life transitions. Fr. Renaud is a member of Spiritual Director International (SDI). His areas of interest are resilience, finding one’s mission and purpose in life, spiritual healing of traumatic relationships and everyday mysticism.