The other day I introduced the claim that imagination is one of the most powerful allies in the spiritual life.
Today I’d like to see how this plays out in the Western mystical tradition and some its more casual contemporary manifestations. Despite Christianity’s general suspicion of the imagination, both the Scriptures and mystical tradition (to say nothing of Judaism and Islam, which share much of our spiritual heritage) are full of vivid descriptions of visions and dreams, and uphold these as places of genuine encounter with God. These are often very personal, and yet — from Joseph’s dreams in Genesis, John’s apocalyptic visions in Revelation, through Julian of Norwich’s fevered ‘showings’ of Christ’s passion, to today — they are generally also universal enough to inspire generations of believers.
All of these phenomena traffic in the world of symbol and metaphor. In so doing they play creatively with the boundaries of words and make new connections between disparate ideas, and in this way they deepen and enrich our understanding of the world and our faith. We might think of Julian’s famous vision of the hazelnut; I doubt that a hazelnut was a symbol of much of anything before her vision, but now it is a powerful symbol of divine love and providence for millions of people who have been touched by her words. In a similar way, St. Hildegard’s image of God’s presence and work in the world as veridity, that unstoppable greening force of life, put renewed emphasis on God’s immanence and ongoing creativity, in a way that only seems to be increasing in relevance as the centuries pass.
On a more personal level, the course of my life was altered by a vision I had in my mid-twenties. In a moment when I was feeling lost and spiritual empty, I was filled with the image of a dripping faucet. A couple of days later, at the Eucharist, I was given the interpretation that I was the faucet and the water was the Spirit and I was only ‘turned on’ enough to let the Spirit trickle through. This vision caused me to completely reassess my theology and spirituality, and I still feel its echoes today, fifteen years later.
Similar things can happen with words. I remember once, about a year or so after the previous incident, entering a bit of a trance during a sermon. We had a visiting preacher that day and he going on in unhelpful ways about “purity”; I’d been sitting at the back of the church and doodling on the bulletin and when I regained awareness I saw that I had written the word “purity” on the page, only I had written the first three letters in Greek (“πυρity”). This drew the connection for me between purity and the refiner’s fire (πυρ being the Greek word for fire) — purity isn’t about measuring up to some (imagined) standard of behaviour as the evangelical purity cult of the ’90s’ and ’00s taught, but is about the true substance that endures life’s trials and tribulations.
You may think I’m losing the plot here. After all, there is a big conceptual difference between dreams, visions, and imagination. But, as I try to tease them apart, I find the distinctions tend to become muddy. I know that when I have engaged in imaginative practices — such as Ignatian Gospel contemplation, guided meditations or automatic writing exercises — very little ends up being the result of my intentional imaginative thought, and I am often genuinely surprised by what comes up. These different phenomena, from everyday daydreams and fantasies on one extreme to divine trances and visions on the other extreme, exist in a kind of continuum in terms of individual effort and state of consciousness. I think they’re actually more similar than they are different.
And, I think that with the proper discernment, they can all be places of encounter with God.
Even looking at the traditional objections to mental images, they are more nuanced than they first appear. For example, the most common objections, voiced by people like St. John of the Cross, aren’t that they are false (though they certainly can be) but that they are misleading, distracting, and become sources of spiritual pride and acquisitiveness, particularly among beginners. And so, those on the mystical path are encouraged to set them aside for the greater gifts of union with God. These are sensible concerns and are an important corrective to any kind of spirituality that overemphasizes the role of visions and mental images. But they are far from a rousing condemnation of these practices. In fact, the monastic opposition to imaginations and visions generally assumes they exist and are real. They are simply not the “one thing needful,” and require a lot of discernment and due humility.
But, really, what in this world doesn’t require a lot of discernment? To me this is less an argument against the imagination than it is a reminder that everything in the spiritual life must be tested. And this is a good thing.
And so, engaging with the imagination and such phenomena as visions and prophetic dreams has been a consistent feature of the mystical tradition and such experiences continue to be a place where people can meet God. These aren’t revelation in the traditional sense, and they require a lot of careful discernment and humility — they are for beginners as much as for the mature — but they are places of genuine and creative encounter with God. They can draw connections in our minds and hearts in new ways and provide insights into the workings of God’s love and grace that we might not otherwise grasp.
And for all that, they can be beautiful supports for the life of faith.