Sunday 24 February: Second before Lent
Who then is this?
Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-25; Revelation 4; Luke 8:22-25
By John-Francis Friendship
Priest, Spiritual Director and Pastoral Supervisor
Context: Sunday morning in a suburban Anglican parish, mixed in age and background
Aim: to explore the holy use of imagination
‘Imagination,’ said the 19th century English poet Coleridge ‘is the living power and prime agent of all human perception.’
If I asked how many windows there were in your bedroom, you’d probably imagine the room to answer the question. Imagery plays an important part in forming our imagination and, it can be argued, without imagination it’s impossible to engage creatively with the world.
Today’s readings all are focused on powerful images – we ‘see’ Adam’s rib, those venerable elders and the sea of glass, and the storm. In our imaginations, we conjure up feelings that lie deep within us and give expression to hidden aspects of our being.
Words can be quite inadequate to express deeper experiences. If I were to ask you to close your eyes and think of a place where you felt peaceful, happy, secure and refreshed, you’d probably soon use your imagination. A beautiful garden, or maybe a place by the sea. And you may find your feelings being moved by such images.
Myth - Creation
The Bible makes much use of imagery to convey meaning. It’s not just a book to be studied: it’s also a collection of experiences, insights and memories. Our first two readings draw on another aspect of what we find in the Bible – myth. And myth conveys insights which can speak across centuries and cultures. The Hebrew creation myths, for example, developed from more ancient ones circulating in the Middle East centuries before Christ. The ‘end-time’ myths of Revelation seek to provide images that will draw us into realising our human destiny. Neither are meant to be exact accounts – their power lies in the imagery they use to evoke a response in us. They’re meant to create in us a sense of awe and wonder, to raise questions and to point us towards new understandings. They’re like art – opening for us a door to new perceptions.
Myth - New Creation
The account from Revelation takes us from the garden of creation to an image of heaven, peopled by strange beasts and venerable saints all focused on the worship of God.
Where Genesis paints a picture of primeval life emerging out of the earth, Revelation is full of images of fulfilment and completion. Yet both are also about harmony: as human beings we’re intended to find our fulfilment in union with God and one another. Worship is central. Perhaps the constant theme of this book is that when we cease to worship, or when we focus our worship on something less than God, we’re heading for disaster. Revelation’s imagery may not be of immediate appeal today; after all, the writer was using images of worship that would have resonated with his hearers. But the sense of being swept up into giving yourself over so completely to an Other is still powerful. It plays on the imagination.
And here we encounter one of the potential problems associated with the use of imagination, especially in relation to God. The American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson warned: ‘A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behoves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.’ Is being lost in this Mass, in ‘wonder, love and praise’, leading us to become more ‘Godlike’?
Myth - Salvation
So, we come to the Gospel with that powerful image of the storm at sea and the cry of the sailors, ‘Master, master, we are perishing!’ Storms can rage in other ways, too. We talk, for example, about ‘stormy relationships’ and we all know what it’s like to be tossed around by our emotions.
For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the sea symbolised their terror at the thought of nature out of control. In their primal memory it evoked the threat of inundation, the great watery abyss, which sucked life into its depths. The abode of monsters and unnatural powers. The sudden storms that occurred on the Sea of Galilee were proof that the sea was chaotic and disordered. In short – evil.
We know that one of the reasons the Jewish creation myths were written was to show that God desires to bring order out of chaos. Just as the writer of Genesis 2 wasn’t creating a scientific account but pointing us to deeper insights, so in relating the story of the storm at sea and Jesus’ part in quelling it, Luke is appealing to the imagination and, through it, to our deepest need for a saviour. For we – alone – cannot save ourselves, cannot be rescued from the storms that sometimes engulf us.
I’ve been reading Dive Deeper, sub-titled, ‘The Human Poetry of Faith’ by the Roman Catholic theologian Michael Paul Gallagher. In one chapter he quotes Cardinal Newman: ‘The heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination’. He goes on to observe: ‘The majority of people around us who have abandoned regular contact with the Church … leave less in anger than in disappointment with hollow words that claim to speak of the holy.… The language of the churches seems stuck in an older mode and unable to speak imaginatively to the desires of now.’
So, we need to hone our imagination, to develop it in ways that aid our ability to understand the world in which we live and ourselves as part of that whole.
Images aid us: some come from outside our experience but, in order to be creative, they need to connect with our inner world. We’re fired by our senses: our minds are storehouses of images and memories and through them God works in our hearts. Praying with our imagination can create a deeper and more personal intimacy with God. We can take the familiar stories, such as the storm at sea, and let them flow through our own imagination and see where the Lord guides it.
This use of imagination in prayer is an ancient tradition. It prompted St Francis to encourage people to create nativity scenes, to imagine the Holy Family as people like us. Four hundred years later Ignatius Loyola used imaginative prayer as a key part of his life-transforming Spiritual Exercises. Imagination can unlock the life-giving forces that dwell within us: those which we might welcome and those which are shrouded in fear and darkness.
‘Give birth to your images,’ wrote the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. ‘They are the future waiting to be born. Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter into you long before it happens.’
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