9/25/2014 10:41:00 AM SEMINARIAN'S DIARY Imagination is a gift from God
This is part of The Evangelist's ongoing series of reports from diocesan seminarians on their formation for the priesthood. Read previous installments under "specials."
BY RICK LESSER
Ignatian spirituality encourages us to intimately place ourselves in the mystical experience of prayer. Whether our chosen vehicle is Scripture, ritual, liturgy, formal prayer, art, icons or music, entering deeply into the experience fosters a conversation with God which forms us.
This experiential prayer is more than merely reciting words. It is much more than just engaging in an academic study of the divine. Truth be told, "knowing about God" is a poor substitute for "knowing God."
History scholars, agnostics, atheists, even the demons in the Gospels "know about God." Keeping that kind of knowledge about God at arm's length is safe - but, in the end, it falls short of experiencing God. And that is what we were really built for.
For those of us who are lifelong learners, "knowing about God" can be seductively appealing. I was very grateful that we began this semester at the seminary with a morning of reflection during which the director encouraged us to engage our imaginations when approaching God.
That can be a little tough for serious, rational, responsible adults. It requires us to risk losing control for a few moments - to be vulnerable enough to experience what God wants to tell us, instead of us maintaining control of the conversation so that we can inform God of what we think He ought to be telling us.
Kids are naturally good at this. They have the best imaginations. They are not constrained by the need for certitude, fear or self-conscious embarrassment. A cardboard box becomes a racecar that careens with breathtaking speed around a track. A tube from a spent roll of paper towels becomes a rocket, exploring the night sky.
That haphazard pile of cushions from the couch becomes a fort from which great battles are fought between good and evil. Friendships are tested. Courage is found. Justice is realized. Stuffed animals take on real personalities and identities. Whole little communities are formed. Conflicts about who wants tea and who wants toast are envisioned and resolved. Compassion is discovered in the face of a hurt. The old bear with a missing button eye is valued for its innate beauty, which far exceeds its outer wear and tear.
In the midst of all that imagining, kids experience so much about life and love and truth - more than they would learn by memorizing a list of rules, reciting definitions or attending an academic discourse on virtues and vice.
As rational, responsible, serious adults, we might be tempted to dismiss these experiences as mere games - fantasies that have nothing to do with reality. We all know that physical objects are real because we can see, feel, hear, taste or smell them. There are other non-material things that we really know (like love, hate, justice and greed) because we directly experience them in the physical world.
But I need my imagination, guided by the Holy Spirit, to access the reality beyond physical reality. In short, I need my imagination to experience the divine.
I am not suggesting that we let our imaginations run wildly hither and yon. While academic endeavors alone fall short of the divine, we cannot dismiss the value of "knowing about God." By availing ourselves of the richness of our tradition (Scripture, homilies, the writings of the Church Mothers and Fathers, Catholic spiritual writers and the catechism) our imaginations are more likely to lead us to universal faith than into personal fantasy.
Let your guard down. If you can't trust God, who can you trust? Engage your imagination. Place yourself in the presence of God like a little child. See yourself there. Tell God what's on your mind.
What excited you today? What worried you today? What were you sad about today? Where did you find joy today? God already knows; it is the act of telling Him that impacts us. After you talk a while, be quiet, and hear God speak - not with words, but in the magnificent imagination He gave us for exactly that purpose.
"Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 8:3).
(Rick Lesser is a widowed father of three, a former equine veterinarian and a graduate of St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry in Albany. He is in his final year of studies for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese at Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary near Boston.)