Tuesday 26 March 2013


Imagination and Experience  

“Use your imagination!” we may have been told as children, when asking a particularly dumb, awkward or just embarrassing question. 

Someone recently asked why a theological discussion group like Wychwood Circle’s open forum would want to base a discussion on a novel – even if the theme was the contemporary one of a priest and his family caught up in very real moral and emotional dilemmas.  “I don’t read novels,” she said.  How familiar that phrase is, though more often in the mouths of men: surely life’s too short to waste it on fiction?  Yet I once heard a sermon in a church in Barnes (where else?!) where the priest enjoined us all to read novels and see them as sacramental.  I think that means they speak to us of life and of God.   Well, the good ones, anyway, and they are the ones worth seeking out.  Give me Iris Murdoch or Tolstoy any day, rather than the Encyclopedia Britannica!

In a religious or non-religious context there is no doubt that fiction is useful to hone our morality or direct our moral compass.  Stories allow us to enter into the experiences of others, from which, however involved we become, we can remain more detached and therefore more rationally observant than we ever can from our own.  Arguably you need to develop your imagination before you can experience empathy – and unless you are a strict calculating utilitarian you probably base a lot of your personal actions and reactions (of compassion, of service, of respect for the other person) on thinking you know how they feel and how you could help them.  So anything which contributes to exercising that imaginative muscle in a positive fashion is good for humanity.  If the novel helps you to relax and step out of the rat race of your life, that can’t be bad for growth and balance either.

Ignatius of Loyola 

In the Hilary term at Oxford, the Thursday lunchtime series at St Giles was on the theme of Ignatian Spirituality, with 8 different contributors including the well-known author, walker, peace campaigner and Jesuit priest Gerard W Hughes (God of Surprises, God In All Things).  St Barnabas in Jericho also hosted a day with Father Gerry Hughes when he talked about “Earthing our Prayer”.  The last half-hour of the day was particularly special as two dozen of us sat at the feet of this grand old man and listened to words of distilled wisdom, gently and serenely spoken from a lifetime of study, practice and reflection.

Ignatians are big on self-examination and reflecting on our inner journey and Fr Gerry is keen for people to use their ‘felt experience’ in discerning what God might be telling them.  People ‘feel drawn to God in the depths of themselves’.  Where else would we find God, who, as St Augustine might remind us, is closer to us than we are to ourselves?  If we are to find God, Gerard Hughes says elsewhere, ‘we must learn to listen to these depths, to the emotions and feelings we experience in prayer and out of it, and use our minds and intelligence to help us understand what these emotions and feelings are saying to us.’ (In Search of a Way, 1986)

Prayer may be about meeting with God: it is also about meeting ourselves, because (as he is fond of quoting) ‘in God we live, move and have our being’.  Prayer, he claims, ‘is the most revolutionary and liberating activity in which we can engage’. He told us to use our imagination in prayer, particularly in the very Ignatian practice of reviewing the day. ‘Memory is an arsenal, not an archive’, was one memorable phrase.  He also told us to read the gospel stories imaginatively:  imagine you are there – eg in the upper room in Jerusalem, scene of several big events in the gospels including the Last Supper commemorated this week on Maundy Thursday – and ask yourself:  Who else is there? What is the room like? Why are they afraid? Listen to them.  What do they say to you? Talk to them…

We owe it to Gerard Hughes that he introduced us on both these occasions in Oxford to the work of a French poet, politician and philosopher, Charles Peguy (1873 -1914). His poem, entitled God’s Dream, expresses a dream of God and begins, I myself will dream a dream within you…;   it includes these lines which show God as ‘most intimately within’:

                                You will meet me often as you work –
                                in your companions, who share the risk,
                                in your friends, who believe in you enough
                                to lend their own dreams,
                                their own hands,
                                their own hearts,
                                to your building,
                                in the people who will stand in your doorway,
                                stay awhile,
                                and walk away knowing 
                                that they, too, can find a dream   

                                [The full text can be found online, for instance here]

It's a nice thought. 

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