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Reflections in the Silver Cup

IMAGINATION IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

Image courtesy Morguefile

 

This entry first appeared in Spiritual Perspectives in the Gallup Independent on Saturday, June 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

 

 

When I was a child, my father often asked us what we thought was meant by various scripture passages. I always felt he was genuinely interested in our opinions. One question I distinctly remember is, "What do you think Jesus meant when he said, 'Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'?"

 

We suggested such things as being humble, innocent, or loving. My dad would challenge us, saying things like, "But children can be stubborn, tricky, and mean at times, too. Are you sure about being humble or loving?" No, not at all. I wasn't at all sure.

 

Recently I spent a few months living in Gamerco. During that time I sought spiritual direction with a nun who had served at the Sacred Heart Retreat Center and now lived in Gallup. One time I was puzzling over how to interpret a certain scripture passage, there being many ways to understand a particular verse in the Bible.

 

The spiritual director suggested that I use my imagination. Maybe I looked skeptical because she went on to say that she had found that suggestion when she was reading St. Ignatius Loyola. She told me, "I thought, 'How childish to use my imagination to interpret scripture!' Then I said to myself, 'Wait a minute! Jesus said that we had to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. What are children better at doing than just about anything? Using their imaginations, of course.'"

 

In those few words, this nun had both taught me something about interpreting scripture and given me a possible answer to the question my father and I had puzzled about all those years ago. What she said also made me think more deeply about how I might use God's gift of imagination in my spiritual life.

 

Jesus often used imagination in his ministry; he told stories that could intrigue his listeners, make them think about things they hadn't thought of before, and keep them remembering what he'd said for far longer than they might have remembered a dusty sermon. He used metaphor, telling people not to worry, that they would be cared for, like the lilies of the field, whose simple glory outshone King Solomon. He talked with learned Nicodemus about being born again, and Nicodemus, who should've understood, asked, "What? Do you mean I have to reenter my mother's womb?" I'll bet Nicodemus pondered that metaphor for a long time.

 

When I studied at the Scandinavian Yoga and Meditation School in Sweden, many meditations involved using imagination. In one of them, the teacher instructed us to imagine a hand resting on the top of the head, and that hand became, in my mind, the hand of God blessing me, loving me, comforting me. Another meditation required imagining a flame atop my head, a flame that could reach up through the ceiling of the meditation room and into the heavens. This one caused me to think of the flames on people's heads at Pentecost.

 

When I worked with high school students who had difficulty with reading, I taught them seven skills that good readers use to understand and remember what they've read. One of those skills utilized their imaginations to create a picture evoked by the words. A passage might be telling about a grandmother, and I would ask, "What do you see when you read that she's stepping through her door?" One student might say, "She's wearing a flowered dress, and she has curly gray hair and glasses." Another might say, "She looks like my grandmother wearing her best satin and velvet and her turquoise jewelry."

 

We can fly to the heart of God on the wings of imagination. I hear the words of the hymn, "There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God," and I feel myself resting softly in God's arms, hearing God's beating heart. Does God have a physical heart like yours and mine? I doubt it, but my imagination has allowed me to feel the Presence of God right here in my life. I think of the many extraordinary things I read of in the Bible—an angel touching Isaiah's lips with a coal of fire, Jacob dreaming of angels traveling up and down a ladder between heaven and earth—and I think imagination must have been involved in those events, that God gave us imagination for more than creating our own paintings, stories, poems, films, or music. I think my spiritual director and St. Ignatius were right to say that our imaginations can also lead us to a deeper experience of God and perhaps an all-important childlike experience.

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DOUBT AND FAITH

This blog entry first appeared in the Gallup Independent as a Spiritual Perspectives Column on the Saturday before Easter, April 20, 2019. It is reprinted here with permission.

 

In a church meeting, I once raised a question that I've thought a lot about but haven't yet found an answer for, except through use of my imagination. The question? "Just how did the disciples, and other people who'd known Jesus in the flesh, talk about him in such a way that so many people were drawn to him and drawn to following his teachings and his way of life? And how did the people that wrote about him later, write in a way that attracted people for the next two thousand years? I want to know."

 

One woman in the meeting had no need to need to ponder my question. She answered immediately, "It's because he rose from the dead!"

I was taken aback because it seemed she'd missed the point of my question. I went a little further, "Yes, but how did Jesus' followers talk about the resurrection in a way that caused people to believe it had actually happened? I mean, resurrection isn't exactly believable." The woman didn't have an easy answer for that. No one else did either.

 

In one of my favorite novels about the time of Jesus—The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas—the main character is the centurion who won Jesus' robe in a game of chance at the foot of the cross. Marcellus leaves Israel after that, deeply disturbed by all that he's experienced. Later he returns to try to make sense of his encounter by learning all he can about Jesus' life and about the new sect that wasn't yet called Christianity. He is attracted to Jesus' teachings, but when a friend hesitantly begins to tell him about the resurrection, Marcellus starts to freak out. "No. No!" he says. He doesn't want to believe what Justin is telling him because believing that the man whose death he witnessed is now alive requires a willing suspension of disbelief. He's not ready for that.

 

Actually, I learned from my nephew Noah, while he was still in seminary, that in the time of Jesus, people like Marcellus probably didn't have so much trouble believing that someone could come back from the dead. Noah told me it was an age when people easily believed in miracles, expected them even, especially from charismatic leaders.

 

The late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, tells how she was sent to Sunday school as a child but had trouble with the resurrection, so she never joined the church. Nevertheless, she remained very interested in spirituality and felt that spirituality is something essential that adds to our lives. Much of her poetry is profoundly spiritual despite the trouble she has accepting the resurrection as factual.

 

Now here we are again, at the time of year when Christians celebrate Jesus' resurrection with Easter. In my book, To Drink from the Silver Cup, I tell how, after forty years of self-exile from church, I sought and found Christian community. Though I'd joined a church, I didn't attend on the first Easter. Nor the second one. It wasn't because I found it so hard to believe that the resurrection could have happened. I had read in Yogananda's book Autobiography of a Yogi about a yoga practitioner who purportedly rose from the dead. There are several accounts in the Bible about people being revived after dying. I had read D. H. Lawrence's explanation for the resurrection in The Man Who Died. I had experienced ordinary miracles in my own life and possibly some extraordinary ones. I skipped services on Easter Sunday because of how the resurrection is tied to another Christian belief—namely the idea that Jesus had to die to save us from our sins—something I no longer believe.

 

My third Easter after becoming part of a Christian community, I bravely but not without trepidation, took myself to church. The pastor read these words from the book of Matthew, chapter 28, which takes place sometime after the story of the resurrection: "Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted."

 

The preacher then gave me the takeaway of the year. He said, "Some of us believe without a doubt. Some of us are doubters. But we don't throw the doubters under the bus."

 

I did a spontaneous fist pump and in an audible whisper said, "Yes!" I readily confess to being a frequent doubter. Many of us are. Yet, like Mary Oliver, we continue to pursue a life of the spirit. It is my contention that only those who doubt have need of faith.

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