Andy Hawes 


Spiritual imagination


‘He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.’ The imagination is perhaps the most distinctive and powerful aspect of the human psyche. Humanity, created as an image of God out of divine imagining, mirrors God’s capacity to envision and create. Imagination is the exploration of possibilities: memory, will, physical senses, emotion, and reason ferment both creative and destructive possibilities.

It can be fired up by any outside stimuli, or bubble up from some unknown region of the mind. It is though the physical image, be it 2D or 3D, that can trigger vivid creativity. In a religious context there has always been controversy about the use of image in the practice of religion and prayer. There are two extremes: either a search for simplicity in environment, or richness in visual media to arouse the mind and the emotion. It is indeed hard to find a balance, and each person will have a preference. 

It was Eve’s ‘seeing’ the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that opened up her imagination to contemplate the possibilities of being like God (Genesis 3). The eye is the window of the soul and the imagination is its greatest friend and enemy. We must be vigilant in guarding our eyes in order to guard our spiritual life from many dangers and temptations. It is perhaps the most testing challenge to a healthy spiritual life in the image-dominated culture of our time.

Conversely, the imagination is a great source of light and strength in the practice of mental prayer. It was the genius of St Ignatius Loyola to synthesise so many well-known techniques in mental prayer and weave in the use of imagination. In his Exercises, the use of imagination is sanctified by prayerful preparation and specifically directed to certain passages in the New Testament. The imagination, through the various stages of the prescribed contemplations, is put to work as a tool, and a prayerful reflection on the experience is used to garner its fruit. All this takes place under the oversight of a director. It is a measure of the power of the imagination in prayer that Ignatius has so many checks and balances in place.

Lent is perhaps the best time to pay attention to our capacity to imagine. Are you feeding the imagination with sounds and images that lead to the peace of Christ, or is it disturbed and leading you into places of disquiet? Has your imagination become dull and tired by the stimuli of image and sound? Are you always living in the outworking of someone else’s imagination (the experience of watching film or TV)? Do you use the imagination in your prayer? 

Given all the power of imagination it is important to keep in mind the teaching of St Paul: ‘Things beyond our imagining has God prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2.9). There comes a point in human experience when encounter with God will move always beyond the limits of human imagining and therefore beyond description or thought of any kind at all.