Innocence and Imagination

St Therese as Joan of Arc

I think there is a line in George Bernard Shaw’s play St Joan in which the inquisitors say with exasperation about Joan’s visions, “Joan, Joan! These visions are all in your imagination!” To which she replies, “But of course! How else would God communicate with me?”

One of the major problems in our society and in our church is that we are suspicious of imagination. There are two forms of imagination. The primary is that part of us–our Soul–which connects us with all that is mysterious and mystical and intuitive and universal. This we might call Imagination with an “I”. The second is derived from the first and is the lower form of imagination–that faculty whereby we envision a solution, dream up a new future, devise the plot to a story, see in our mind’s eye what someone is describing or create something beautiful and amazing in our heads.

Our society and our church is suspicious and uncomfortable with both. Instead we prefer the utilitarian solution. We want facts. We want statistics. We trust engineers and mathematicians and scientists. We want proof. In religion we want certainty. We want dogma. We want rules. We want regulations. Do not misunderstand me. We need all this concrete, solid and “sure” stuff, but without Imagination–without contact with the Spiritual realm and all that is greater than us, transcendent and awesom and wonder-full we are left with dull facts.

In religion we are suspicious of Imagination as well. We pull back from the mystical visions of the night. We draw away from the fiery chariot, the earthquake, wind and fire or the still, small voice of Love. We run from the immensity of Imagination–the power of the transcendent and the vast, swirling depths of the ocean of the impossible.

In place of the prophetic vision, the mystical transformation and the trembling ranks of angels we have substituted emotionalism. We mistake the sweet, sentimental comfort song for a real experience of the overwhelming Love of God. We accept the feel good self help sermon as a substitute for the transformation by the tongues of fire–fire that promises to transform only by burning away all the wood, hay and stubble in our lives. We opt for the false comfort of universalism–in which everyone gets to go to Heaven because God (who we have made into a sort of celestial Colonel Sanders) is too nice to send anyone to Hell.

What is required along with a renewal of the Spiritual Imagination is the renewal of Innocence. By this I do not mean naivete, or immaturity, but the sort of child like innocence demanded by the gospel. Along with out distrust of Imagination is a cynicism and skepticism which destroys the soul. The Innocence of which I am speaking is the sort of cheerful innocence which regards miracles as not only possible, but to be expected. This child like innocence sees wonderful connections between things the rationalist would never connect.
Therese (who once played the part of Joan of Arc) as a child once saw the stars in the shape of the letter ‘T’ and exclaimed with delight that her name was written in heaven.

C.S.Lewis once wrote, “The saints, the poets and the children were right.” They had this Innocence and Imagination, and so their hearts were open to Eternity.

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  • Magister Christianus

    O Father, I could not agree more. As a public school teacher of high school Latin, I have seen us plunge ever faster into an abyss as we have chased after the gold standard of statistics and data, as if that were all to measuring the valuable interaction of a teacher and student. I have seen our children lose their imagination. And in the Protestant world of which I am still a part, we have swung between the extremes of desiccated dogmatism and the flaming emotionalism of the charismatic movement. Yet I have always believed that Baalam's donkey really did speak, that Christ really did rise from the dead, and it is for this reason that I so desperately long to experience the reality of the Eucharist some day.

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    yesbecause like Hillary of Poitiers said quite rightlywe go back to Paradise not forward to heaven (although the KFC would be good either place)Paradise maintained… not lost or regained[who cares what Ingrid Bergman SAIDto see her is to love her. ED]

  • kkollwitz

    I'm reminded that in "An Army of Angels" Joan hears the voices in a swarm of bees.

  • La gallina

    I think you have just explained to me why I love the Holy Catholic Church so much.I hated church from as early as I can remember — in the Protestant world. It always left my mind feeling dry, empty, and scared. That's why I called myself an agnostic for many years.The Catholic world of beauty, tradition, mysticism, and mystery feels so rich and satisfying. (Even the tough parts like suffering and mortifying of senses.)

  • Robert H

    This reminds me of Mt 18:3, 'Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven.' Not that we remain childish, but childlike. How many of us really, truly, believe what we say we believe? Too often it is more of an intellectual thing, rather than something we feel in our bowels? To do so requires a simple, childlike faith.