“For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination,
that you might see My face and live.”
-C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress
The sanctified imagination will serve us well along this pilgrim way because it will see correspondences—in nature and everywhere else. It will pay attention to a world—a universe—pregnant with metaphors, each of which is a bread crumb, a pointer further up and further in. As Eudora Welty wrote, “connections slowly emerge. Like distant landmarks you are approaching, cause and effect begin to align themselves, draw closer together…And suddenly a light is thrown back, as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you’ve come, is rising there still, proven now through retrospect” (One Writer’s Beginnings).
The imagination of the world is pocked, palsied, and bent double by the weight of personal pleasure and misdirected pursuits. It cannot see the connections because connections require more than one thing and there is room for only thing in the unsanctified imagination: the self. What if my stodgy pedestrian imagination discarded the self and was given free reign to gallop after God, to see the world as he sees it?
Here’s a thought experiment: the self loves a system built to satisfy a myriad of desires and there is no doubt that such a system must be highly complex and readily flexible. What if we shed the complexity for a life more simple? Would our imaginations have room to breath and, therefore, less distraction from the face of God? I have a propensity to allow the complexities of life to dictate the story my imagination perceives. Instead of seeing as God sees, instead of seeing a story colored by the transcendent spiritual freedom found in pursuing God, I am habitually bound by the difficulties inherent in a system of self-satisfaction. This system has made life more difficult, not easier, and I seem intent on maintaining that system. The poem “The Fascination of What’s Difficult” echoes this propensity:
The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road-metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,
Theater business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes round again
I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.
–William Butler Yeats
Our imaginations have stayed too long in the stall of empty, self pleasure and misdirected pursuits.
Maybe its time to imagine like children again, to be captivated by the glory of God.
Maybe it’s time to slip the bolt.
My three-year-old, Sammi, is named after my dad. They are alike in many ways: both of them are animated and engaged with people, both of them are enchanted by the world.
Sammi runs through the wild grasses on an August evening, with her dress slapping against her small legs. She bounces, goat-like, when she runs.
“Daddy! Daddy! The snow turned pink!”
“What snow, honey?”
She spreads her arms and raises them toward the heavens as if to hold the wonder of the world in her embrace. I follow her eyes to see the piled clouds touched by the sun’s setting finger: salmon and rose hues set against azure deeps. My daughter smiles, knowing she has someone with whom to share her ecstasy.
“Imagine that!” I cry out. “It has turned pink. How spectacular!”
This is the sanctified imagination, the simple imagination, for which I long.
Like harvesters, we walk the fields of this world and look for the marks of Jesus Christ, gleaning the savior1 wherever he may be found. When our imaginative vision is consumed with God, captivated by Jesus Christ, and nourished by the Holy Spirit, then the imagination is sanctified and we are most fulfilled. That fulfillment can only start at the source or well-spring of our desires, thoughts, will, actions, and habits: the imagination.
Thomas Howard reinforces this importance of the imagination for gleaning the savior. The imagination is much more than simple fancy. It is “the mode of perception that may lie closest to the truth of our humanness. Angels and seraphim do not need imagination presumably, since it is said that they behold reality directly, and animals do not have imagination as far as we can tell; but we men perceive reality, unlike angels, mediated through a thousand oblique angles and colors in the prism of creation, and we forever try, unlike animals, to decry a pattern by relating all the angles and colors to each other.”
This eternal effort to trace the heavens signifies our human dignity as made in the image of God, patterned after him, and magnetically drawn back to the divine. We want “the birth.” A birth that begins by looking into The Sun: God. That kind of vision inspires awe and delight. Unfortunately, we’re lured into a simplistic, vivifying approach to people, nature, and ourselves: a dissecting attempt to control what we cannot control, a smallification of the grand and glorious. The healthy imagination begins with curiosity which then leads to awe and this awe, dear friends, is wired into us by God as a means of drawing us back imaginatively to Himself. Most of us, however, spend our lifetimes shouting that awe down until it is so small that we are reduced to calling a milkshake “awesome.” But real awe, childlike awe, is a hallmark of a healthy imagination.
Children have natural inborn vitality and so they want things repeated. My daughter has The Red Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear memorized. So do I. I read it to her or recite it with my eyes half closed. She turns the pages without me, so I rest my eyes even more. I finish.
“Read it again,” she says.
I read it again, but I am not strong enough to exult in monotony because I am an adult (so says Chesterton and I reluctantly admit the accusation). A man, for example, performs a magic trick for kids. They have seen it fifteen times before. When he is finished, the youngest cry, “Do it again!” while the teenagers shuffle away, feeling the heavy burden of self-seriousness and enlightened rationalism. “Do it again,” say the children and we remember the words of our Lord: “Lest you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
The unhealthy imagination sees only one flat, faceless, reductionist view of everything that God has made glorious. Nearly everything around us—noise and bustle—conspire against the childlike imagination in this regard. The awe is bludgeoned into silence. The adventurous spirit grows callused. While the created world shines over us with majesty, we peck for scattered seeds along the ground like narrow minded hens. Hens are not known for their broad perspective, for their vision, but we ought to be so known.
This shift away from ourselves and toward God depends heavily upon reclaiming the awe-filled imagination as we view nature and people and the significance of life events, thereby bringing our vision into alignment with God’s vision. If his creation is awesome to him, then we imitate him by maintaining that awe. In order to reclaim the imagination, we must repossess a childlike awe even, or especially, of the mundane.
If we start looking for enchantment in the details, like the May-mess of cherry blossoms or ant colonies in a geo-political race to build their own Tower of Babel in the sidewalk, then we will wake up one day to find that we are filled with awe. When we look around us and see The Sun, God, wherever we look then we’ll know that we are right side up. We will know that we have a healthy imagination. We require new eyes so that we can see God’s fingerprint everywhere, for “Christ plays in ten thousand places” and “the world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Grandeur of God”). But if we stop and simply stare, ox-like, at creation, then we will stall our pilgrim steps and home will remain far off. Creation, as an expression of God’s beauty, is a means by which God calls us out of ourselves and on toward Him. Every swallow, every sun-tipped wave, every towering tamarack tree points back toward its Creator as a road sign for us. Thomas Howard reminds us that “all creation whispers, ‘Not yet. Not here. Keep going’” (Thomas Howard).
A river in the sky.
I have five children, four girls and one boy.
Guy time is a rare and valued treat. When my son was about three, we bought him two foam airplanes with which to play with dad. What made these airplanes rather exciting was their potential for air time. Attached to each eight-inch plane was a very large and strong rubber-band. We could pull that rubber-band back about four feet and let the plane fly. Sending that airplane over the back fence became a cinch and we both delighted in watching a perfect long distance flight. That’s what boys do.
We were sitting on the back deck when, being Dad and having a lust for the spectacular that has nearly no bounds, I began to wonder whether we could turn the airplane into a kind of rocket and launch it vertically into the atmosphere. So I took my airplane, pointed it vertically, pulled as far back as I possible could and was about to let it fly when my son frantically stopped me. He had a wild look in his eye, an alarm verging on terror, and the intensity of his face and gestures stopped me.
“You can’t do that, Dad! If you shoot it up there, we’ll lose it in the river,” he said.
Now, you need to know that we have no river near us. I have a small stream and pond I created, but they’re both small enough for a child to step over, so I was a bit baffled as to this sudden alarm.
“What river?” I asked him.
“The river in the sky!” he said with frustration in his tone of voice, as though he was stating the obvious to a man who should already have the intelligence to know it. Unfortunately, I am a child of the Enlightenment with one overdeveloped way of looking at the world and so I asked again, “What river? There is no river in the sky.”
He looked at me with shocked three-year-old eyes and a dropped jaw. “Was Dad serious?” they seemed to ask. “Was Dad really that dense in the head?” they pleaded.
“Look, Dad.” He had suddenly grown into a patient and kind teacher, willing to work around my imaginative barriers. “Look at all that blue water in the sky. Do you see how the clouds move along the water in the same direction? Do you see how quickly they’re moving along the river? That means the river is pretty strong today, so we definitely don’t want to shoot the airplane up there. If we do, then we’ll lose it in the river and we’ll never get it back!”
What does any Dad worth his salt do with that moment? “The kid is messed up,” I thought. “He’s got only some of the facts straight. There is water in the sky, but it’s no river.” I was about to correct him in good scientific fashion, but my tongue stumbled on the words. I was unwilling to place upon my son the burden of my enlightened rationalism which takes our knowledge too seriously.
I laughed. He looked at me, puzzled. Then we were laughing together, father and son, two boys giggling at the river in the sky and wishing we could raft together on one of those clouds. Maybe, just maybe, my son has everything correct. Maybe, just maybe, my son is seeing the sky as God sees it. My narrow rationalist friends will purse their lips and shake their heads to hear the young so lead astray. My more fastidious pietistic friends may well click their tongues and call it all a vile pack of lies. But I often wonder if God is not more playful than we are and that our goal in life is not so much to get all the facts straight as to get the perspective correct. Maybe when we see the sky as a river, we’re actually getting it all more poetically correct and, therefore, more correct in an ultimate sense. Maybe it’s closer to the way God sees the world. Maybe we’ve finally landed right side up.
Along with G.K. Chesterton and Thomas Howard, Robert Farrar Capon is helping me reclaim the imagination. His perspective on things is obtuse enough to startle me into the enchantment of the world, people and things alike. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “all the real argument about religion turns on the question of whether a man who was born upside down can tell when he comes right way up” (Orthodoxy). Capon is upside down in just the right way. And that’s the point of reclaiming the imagination: to become right way up. We all have an imagination and it always runs hot, but the sanctified imagination is right way up. Because the imagination is at the core of who we are as people reclaiming our imagination is reclaiming our humanity–what and who we were meant to be–recapturing and nurturing the divine image. What a playful anthropology.
Capon suggests that we reclaim our humanity, as God intended, by looking poetically at the world: “In our fear of picking up an incorrect causal connection we deprive ourselves of the freedom of rummaging playfully through all the connections we could think of. And that’s a shame because it’s precisely connectedness, interrelatedness, that’s the most engaging thing about the world. We should be far more afraid than we are of the habit of assuming there’s only one correct way of talking about it. To get a connection backwards or wrong or to pick it up fabulously or poetically—to say the sun rises or the moon wanes, to think boats grow from seed or plankton have plans—is all small compared to missing the wonder of it altogether. Or as happens more usually, to turning the world into an alien, tiresome place where only the least fabulous, least poetic—least human—reading of causality can be the right one”
The sanctified imagination sees connection and difference, types and shadows, symmetry and singularity; in a word, correspondences. The sanctified imagination sees the fingerprint of God everywhere, it sees the face of God pressing through the fabric of this world. In this way, the healthy, or sanctified imagination is attentive because as Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son, “a man without attention is not fit to live in the world.” And Tennyson echoed the same when he wrote, “for what are men better than sheep or goats that nourish a blind life within the brain?” (The Passing of Arthur).
The more healthy the imagination, the more it sees the world as it really is: enchanted with the divine presence.
“We will sense you
like a fragrance from a nearby garden
and watch you move through our days
like a shaft of sunlight in a sickroom.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Christ came to bring abundant life (John 10:10). What does that mean imaginatively? The abundant life is the imaginatively captivated life, the full life, the good life. The captivated life is the Godward life where God is the fixed point of the healthy imaginative vision. Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1328) made this claim quite clear when he wrote, “What one grows to know and come to love and remember, his soul follows after…If the soul were to know the goodness of God, as it is and without interruption, it would never turn away…” (Sermon on the Eternal Birth). When we fix our spiritual vision, our imagination, on God then we see everything around us with new eyes. Everything is subsequently colored by the radiance of God. This kind of sight improves with practice and for this reason we can call it the sanctified imagination.
Meister Eckhart wrote, when you have your focus on the true abundant life, “everything stands for God and you see only God in all the world. It is just as when one looks straight at the sun for awhile: afterward, everything he looks at has the image of the sun in it. If this is lacking, if you are not looking for God and expecting him everywhere, and in everything, you lack the birth” (Sermon on the Eternal Birth).
The birth of which Eckhart speaks is the spiritual rebirth found by reclaiming the imagination: the ability to see what is not literally before the eyes. When we have new birth and new eyes, then our energies are spent pursuing more of that light found only in God. Shall we slip the bonds of selfish preoccupation? Can we actually jettison our self-induced life-ruptures and look for the light with new eyes? The answer is yes. How is it possible for us to leave the old ruptures and press toward the new birth since we are estranged from God? Christ’s parable of the prodigal son reflects not only the fracture and estrangement that characterize our lives, but also the fact that God has bridged the divide between our mortality and His divinity. He is our Life and he calls to us with the vigor of both a father and a hunter. He desires imaginations captivated by him and so he entered his creation to ensure that captivation.
Augustine says it well: “But our very life came down to earth and bore our death, and slew it with the very abundance of his own life. And, thundering, he called us to return to him into that secret place from which he came for us…For he did not delay, but ran through the world, crying out by word, deeds, death, life, descent, ascension—crying aloud to us to return to him. And he departed from our sight that we might return to our hearts and find him there. For he left us, and behold, he is here” (Confessions, Book Four, chapter 13).
Because he bridged the divide first, we are able to cross it. Although all the faculties of the mind aid us in this crossing, the imagination is the means by which we finally come face to face and see eye to eye with our maker. We are not home yet, but our pilgrim journey leads us toward that destination. Healthy imaginative eyes give us the ability to see the entire world, in all its complexity and pain and joy, as it really is: charged with the fingerprint of God.
If we see ourselves with imaginative eyes, then we see purpose-ridden characters in a master story. If we see others with imaginative eyes, then we see bright eternal souls bursting with the image of God. If we see creation with imaginative eyes, then we see as the poets have seen: a world charged with the grandeur of God. His face presses in upon his creation and we need the imagination to see the indentation. Let’s use the imagination to trace his shape and to journey toward him.
My sentences have become littered with filler words. My thoughts are brought to a complete stop by “ums” and “likes”. Why do I say them? Perhaps I’m in the habit. Perhaps I’m afraid of looking aloof. As Taylor Mali put it, “In case you hadn’t realized, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about? Or believe strongly in what you’re, like, saying? Has society just become so filled with these conflicting feelings of ‘nugh’… That we’ve just gotten to the point where we’re the most aggressively inarticulate generation to come along since…you know, a long time ago!”
The consequences for such decay are enormous. George Orwell said, “The current political chaos is linked largely to the decay of language.” And here we are, stranded in a wasteland of ambiguity, unsure of what we think and, therefore, insecure in, like, every way, you know? Winston Churchill put it this way: “We are slaves of the words we let slip out.” He was right. We were made to be masters of the words we speak, not slaves. What makes our slavery worse (if that’s possible) is that we have chosen this slavery. In the classroom we guard our tongues from slippage to avoid the raised eyebrow and the lowered grade, but then we speak in the hallways of the world with near incoherency, as if words don’t matter. But words matter.
Imagine a man, well educated, competent, reflective, who found himself living in a house full of mice. What would we think of him if he chose to squeak with them whenever they were near. Whenever they showed their faces he would show his front teeth like a mouse, get down on the floor and start squeaking. One minute he would speak like a man amongst men and the next minute he would squeak. Go ahead and ask him what he’s doing. Go ahead. He will say one of two things: either he is in the habit of squeaking and doesn’t know it (in which case he needs a kick in the pants) or he fears they will no longer be his friend (in which case he needs a really big kick in the pants).
The world is full of mice, my friends. It is full to the brim with people who don’t know how to speak and don’t care to know how. God made them to stand tall, to live vertically, but they squeak along the ground nonetheless. We are not mice. We are men and women made in the image of God, the Logos, the Word. He made us like himself and for himself. We are people of the Word so let us speak in a manner worthy of that Word.
But I begin to preach with conviction and maybe we’re not, like, ready for that yet…you know?
The history of the world has known many bad men: Attila the Hun, Adoph Hitler, Ivan the Terrible. All men who sought to throw God from his throne and sit upon it themselves. I propose we add another name to that auspicious list: Jacque Derrida.
Jacque Derrida believed that all the world was wired for the Logos, the Word. He considered God tyrannical for wiring us with himself and so the little anarchist came up with a scheme to destroy God. Like many others before him, he believed that if we take God down then we will be free. His plan for taking God down was sneaky, almost innocent. It was applauded as highly intellectual and worthy of the great minds the world over. Jacque Derrida decided to discredit the Logos, the Word, by discrediting words themselves. He wouldn’t destroy them, of course, he would simply discredit them. After all, he said, the simplest words have so little meaning. Surely, if little words have no meaning, then the Father of words also has no meaning. The father of Deconstruction Literary Theory, Jacque Derrida, needed no bombs, no guns, no high powered technology to free us from God, he simply freed us from the importance of words.
“Ums” happen. “Likes” happen. But when they happen we should not embrace them. When we say filler words and speak like those unfamiliar with the language we call English, we embrace Jacque Derrida. When we take such little care to learn our own mother tongue and to speak and write it with all the care due to such a mighty inheritance, then we lock arms with a very bad man and call him our brother. My friends, this partnership is not worthy of those who have been called by grace to be sons and daughters of the King.
Why would the King’s children so willingly become slaves to the words they let slip out of their mouths when there is so much in the English language yet to master? Thomas Howard said, “The English language is an entity o rich, so exquisite, so inexhaustible, that no one–not Shakespeare himself–has yet wrung it dry.” There so much to say, so many ways to beautify the world and enrich each others lives. Why waste our oxygen, precious as it is, on so many empty words? Because our words have become muddied, our sentences are muddy. Muddy sentences betray a muddy mind and a muddy mind betrays muddy affections. Know what, or Whom, you love and order your thoughts and words accordingly.
In I Corinthians 14:19, Paul says, “I would rather say five words with my intellect and intelligently than say ten thousand words incoherently.” And Proverbs 15:23 says, “A man has joy in making an apt answer, and a word spoken at the right moment–how good it is! (Proverbs 15:23 AMP). This is the joy of being earnest, people of conviction, people who are true, aimed and purposeful. This is the importance of being earnest.
I have a problem–a problem that needs your help to hold me accountable. And though “ums” and “likes” have slipped into my speech I, for one, will not link arms with a bad man. I will not call Jacque Derrida my friend and I will not aid him in his sneaky rebellion against God. Yahweh stands in righteousness and his Word is established forever. I beg of you, my friends, to renew your love for God by loving the words he has given to us and to speak in such a way that those around you are raised from the ground to stand vertically, like men, for it is good and fitting to do so.