Your imagination is key to saintliness (or sinfulness)

4 mins read

Jesus never said imagination is a two-edged sword, but … it kind of is.

He did tell his followers (which, of course, includes us) that it’s what comes out of a person’s heart that’s the problem, not what goes into his mouth.

There, in the Gospel of Matthew, he was referring to what can spring from within an individual: “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy” (14:19). It seems safe to say the same basic principle applies to our imagination.

It’s never “Bless me, Father, I’ve been attacked by sin.” Oh, no. It’s always, as it should be, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” This didn’t just happen to me. I didn’t just, uh, happen to do it. Our sinning doesn’t pop out of nowhere. It always starts somewhere. But where oh where could that somewhere be? Possibly, just possibly, could that source — that seed — be me?

Imagine that!

Pipedreams. Daydreams. Mindful, mindless mental meandering. All in our head. Sometimes, far from what our imagination was created for. For example, there’s this old joke: A priest in the confessional asks, “Do you entertain impure thoughts?” The penitent responds, “No, Father, they entertain me.”

The good news/bad news is this particular God-given faculty (or chosen action) can be a first or further step toward virtue or vice.

You might ask yourself, “But why would God … ?” Slow down, slow down. We’re filled with many gifts from above that we can use — that we do use — for good or for far-from-good.

For instance: “My, Mrs. McCarthy, what a lovely sweater! Such a pretty color.” Or: “Take a gander at what Old Lady McCarthy’s wearing at Mass today. That sweater! Is she losing her eyesight?”

Where did each comment originate? In our brain, in our mind. That’s right, in our imagination. Perhaps in less than the blink of an eye, we choose to be kind or to belittle.

Now, to use a legal rather than a theological term: There’s always malice (or virtue) aforethought. And to use a quote the Rev. Jesse Jackson championed, “If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it.”

A very positive message, except if the “it” we’ve conceived in our mind is anything but positive.

What to do? A few points to consider … or imagine.

1. Our past greases the skids for our future

Virtue and vice, while competing forces, each grow stronger with more frequent use. Or weaker with less and less use. That’s not to say we’ll never sin if we have a long and illustrious history of imagining and following through on goodness. And it doesn’t mean we’re so mired in bad imagining that there’s no way we could do something virtuous. We can.

Temptation is always tempting because, man!, that looks like fun. And virtue is always with us because God — who is everywhere — is always right here, right now.

We imagine something nice. (“This will cheer up Mrs. McCarthy.”) Or something mean that enhances our status. (“This will entertain the members of my little clique.”) Again, the decision can happen in an instant and be acted upon in no time at all. Just. Like. That.

Pick a commandment, any commandment, and each of us can imagine scenarios on either side of “Thou shall not” and “Why the heck (or worse) shall I not?”

Here’s a tip for quickly stopping that imagination-driven temptation. This from Deputy Barney Fife, Mayberry law enforcement officer: “Nip it! Just nip it in the bud!”

God loves you so much, and he has such faith in you, that the choice is yours. Free will. Have at it, through every day of your life. (Yes, yes, that’s after you’ve reached the age of reason and are of sound mind, but you know that.)

2. Fear not!

You may imagine doing something virtuous but hesitate, because then your friends and others will consider you some kind of Holy Joe or Holy Jane.

Horribile dictu! Horribile visu! (“Horrible to say! Horrible to see!”)

“Just who does he think he is?” “Well, hasn’t she gotten all la-di-da?”

Get a grip. That is, at most, a form of miniscule martyrdom. The equivalent of a (small) papercut. On the other hand, it may be that imagining losing a friend or boon companion is accurate. You think about no longer drinking to excess or at all, and, wham!, what’s your drinking buddy going to say? Your group shares dirty jokes or has elevated verbally trashing others into an art form. You imagine not doing that anymore. What will they say!? Quite possibly, “So long.”

Your imagining of the very real consequences of some virtuous actions can help you choose those actions with eyes wide open, knowing what you’ll have to face. And at the same time, your imagining of the consequences if you continue along the path you’re on can be a proverbial wake-up call. Those consequences, most likely, are far worse.

3. Sin has sparkled

Since Eve imagined what the serpent’s message meant for her, and later, Adam imagined what it meant for him, sin has sparkled.

Even now, in our imaginations, doing wrong just sounds and feels mmm, mmm, good. So let’s get to it. Time’s a wastin’.

All right, all right, all right, there are occasions when our imagination pops up with a good idea. With the right choice. With a saintly action or attitude. But even then we can lean toward, to paraphrase a quote from St. Augustine, “Help me stop [fill in your favorite sin here], Lord, but not yet.”

Why? Sin is fun and easy. Virtue is grim and tedious. Or so we imagine, even though we know that’s not true. Both come with strings. Sin chains us to pain and remorse. Virtue offers ribbons of grace.

Let’s quote another saint here. St. Catherine of Siena said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” What a happy thought. What a lovely image. Just what the doctor (of the Church) ordered. A perfect prescription to help our wandering mind focus on the eternal big picture by helping us more clearly see the temporal challenges and choices we face every day.

And, one final scriptural paraphrasing and rewording. This (sort of) from Deuteronomy 30:19: Your God-given imagination sets before you life and death, blessing and curse, choose life.

Bill Dodds writes from Washington.

From two followers of ‘The Saint of the Imagination’

“The mental quality of thought that drove [St. Ignatius Loyola’s] spiritual life was his remarkable imagination. His imagination played a central role in his conversion. Through his many years of directing others, he discovered how useful the imagination could be in fostering a deeper relationship with God. Imaginative prayer is recognized as one of the hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality.”
Jesuit Father David L. Fleming in “What is Ignatian Spirituality?” (Loyola Press, $12.99)

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
Jesuit Father Joseph P. Whelan, in a 1981 address

Bill Dodds

Bill Dodds writes from Washington.