This is a guest post by Erick Allen. Erick and his wife Kathy live in the southern Appalachian mountains. Erick teaches English at Millennium Charter Academy in Mt. Airy, NC.
As Dante enters the ninth circle of the Inferno, the poet perceives what he thinks are the high towers of a subterranean city. His guide, Vergil, gently cautions him against a hasty conclusion. Mark Musa translates Vergil’s counsel to Dante thus: “Because you try to penetrate the shadows from much too far away, you confuse the truth with your imagination” (Inferno 354).
This is, is it not, both the strength and weakness of our imagination? It has the power to penetrate shadows. To create lines out of dots and dashes. To see beasts and human faces in the ever-shifting bulges of clouds. Our imaginations can make more of what is seen than what is actually there. But, in their weakness, our imaginations can also make less of what is seen than what is there. Dante thought he was seeing towers. What actually awaited him were giants embedded in hell’s harsh terrain. Like Dante, we often “confuse the truth” with our imagination.
I recently had occasion to ponder the vindication of the human imagination. I teach Medieval literature to 10th graders. We just finished reading Don Quixote, or at least a substantial part of it. For their final project, the students were required to compose and perform interviews with Quixote. They were given the option to interview him during his state of delusion, or after his return to sanity, in which case he would not be Quixote, but Quixano. The students did an admirable job.
Senor Quixote, or Quixano, as the case may be, was asked such questions as: “Just how did reading literature lead to your insanity? Why did you persist in your delusion when your experiences so clearly and painfully suggested that reality was something quite different? How can you be sure that you are (as Quixano) now sane and not under some new enchantment? Clearly, your imagination led you into disastrous circumstances. So, what would you say is the proper role of imagination in daily life?”
This latter question piqued my interest. As I pondered it, a couple of literary answers readily came to mind. The human imagination enables us to experience pleasure, whether it be through visualizing the light-hearted, earthy stories of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or the intellectually stimulating work of Jorge Borges. Such pleasure in a world which, as Chaucer’s Aegeus puts it, is “a thoroughfare full of woe,” is not to be lightly dismissed. But there is more.
The experience of reading literature grants us, via our imagination, the ability to live, struggle and die vicariously through a multitude of characters — human and earthly or otherwise. These vicarious livings and dyings inform us, mature us and sometimes break us. I have never experienced war, and hope I never do. After reading Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow, I have a small taste of the fear, upheaval and gut-wrenching nausea of war for both soldiers and civilians. I know I am a different man having read this book, and I hope a better one. Examples could be multiplied exponentially, and quite beneficially, were we all to share the wisdom we have gained from the imaginative experiences literature provides. I have not exhausted the benefits of imaginative reading, and have not even touched on music, the visual arts or oral storytelling.
In Thomistic anthropology, the external senses provide our imaginations with phantasms that our reason must interpret. Beautiful and sublime art, whatever the medium, has the power to overwhelm our reason’s routine insistence on the pragmatic and to grant us vicarious access to experiences, however ephemeral, that transcend our quotidian measured lives. We get lost in the story. We close our eyes and let our blood flow in sync with the music. The painting extends beyond the frame and envelopes us in its world.
Have you ever been reading a book and felt like you were leaning hard against an incredibly thin yet impenetrable veil? Felt that if you could lean just a little harder, you would break through and find yourself there? I mean there, in the story, hearing the rumbling thunder of the Trojan chariots? witnessing the diminishing light and muffled sounds as the cave is sealed before Antigone’s eyes? trembling with pale, frozen hands as the now silent Anglo-Saxon wanderer laments the loss of his homeland and the smile of his lord? Does it not often seem as if the imagination’s power is far more than just to pretend? That it enables us to see, and hear and feel the transcendent?
As a Christian, my imagination is populated with images of paradise, reunion with departed loved ones, the redemption of my body and soul, and ultimately, the completion of my present, incipient union with Christ and all the good that will entail. For as long as I can remember, the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” has evoked vivid images and an almost intolerable longing for heaven. I have never been able to sing “all the saints adore Thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea” without, if for only a moment, wondering if I didn’t catch just a glimpse of saints discarding diadems in worship of the one truly worthy of a crown. This, surely, begins to approach what must be the imagination’s highest purpose — to foreshadow the experience of heavenly realities.
I will quickly get in over my head if I attempt to parse too subtly the threshold between the human imagination and actual spiritual realities. Yet, I think I can say this much with confidence. The imagination, as described thus far, does not entail an encounter with the thing imagined. Whether we read a book or sing a hymn, the imagined experience entails deferral. That deferral may be perpetual, as I will never actually meet the fictional Mr. Tumnus. (And yet, is not Mr. Tumnus about something more real than he ever can be?) The deferral may be temporal, in that by God’s grace I may someday kneel beside that glassy sea, or at least witness those who do. The reality is deferred because the imagination does not have the power to cause the imagined experience to become actual, but only the power to create a phantasm of what is potential.
As long as the completely human experience of what is imagined is deferred, the question remains as to whether or not the imagination is simply a trick of the mind with no connection to material reality other than to mentally represent it. What the imagination needs to be vindicated as anything beyond a mind-game is the actual, and simultaneous, experience of what is imagined. The body needs to experience what the mind imagines for full vindication of the imagination as a faculty that engages reality.
For the book reader, this deferral is not a significant problem. I am quite content to have a purely imaginative experience of the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno, or any of his infernal circles for that matter. He can keep his crowded whirlwinds and his lake of human popsicles. For the worshipper, however, the immateriality of the imaginative experience with God is a huge deficit. This immaterial encounter is a deficit because we are, in part, material, physical beings. Even if I physically kneel while singing of saints encircling the placid sea, I cannot touch the celestial sand nor can I feel the empyreal breeze. I do not hear the angelic chorus. True, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must do so in spirit” (John 4:24). But God created us hylemorphic, composites of matter and spirit, so we must also worship him in and with our flesh and blood.
Think of the Edenic encounter with God. It is, at the very least, described as a physical event — God meets with Adam in a way we can imagine only in bodily terms, namely “walking in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). Even if we view Genesis 3 as an anthropomorphic depiction of an immaterial event, the passage resonates with our deep desire to physically encounter God. I have always found the prospect of floating on a cloud as a disembodied soul rather disappointing. But the thought of walking in a garden, enjoying a cool breeze after a hard day’s work, and then hearing the footsteps of God approaching — now that is a paradise I want to experience!
We must consider that not only are we as humans physical, but Jesus, in his human nature, is as well. The disciples and others were able to touch him after his resurrection, and he ate and drank. Our physicality and the physicality of the risen Lord we worship drives home that something is missing when our worship is purely imaginative. Our actual experience of the physical Christ is deferred, or at best experienced indirectly through fellowship with each other. Curiously, this deferral is also true of the saints in heaven. While they enjoy, presumably, unhindered spiritual union with Christ, their physical union with him is deferred until the resurrection of their bodies.
This makes what I have now come to believe all the more astonishing. Until recently, I assumed that the human imagination, with its inherent deferral, could not be vindicated as a faculty by which we perceive actual, transcendent realities. However, I have come to believe that the imagination is incipiently and yet marvelously vindicated this side of heaven. This is so because heaven, in an impatient act of love, crosses over to our side and meets us in our unity as spiritual and physical creatures. It seems that God desires union with us as much as we want it with him.
This extraordinary and, dare I say it, sacred function of the imagination only became evident to me as I reflected on the Easter Vigil of 2016. It was then that I was received into and confirmed as a communicant in the Catholic Church. Prior to this, I had lived most of my life as a Protestant, even receiving a seminary degree and serving in various ministerial roles. It was not until I had my first communion as a Catholic, eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the real Presence of Christ — it was not until then that I realized that the Mass, and especially the Eucharist, is the vindication of the human imagination. For it is only in the Eucharist that, this side of heaven, the highest thing the imagination is capable of perceiving is actually and simultaneously experienced — spiritual and physical union with the crucified and risen Christ. All of the longings awakened by great literature, by soul-aching music and the uncertain glimpses of perfect beauty — all of our imagination’s frolics, battles, and reveries are redeemed and find earthly manifestation in the eucharistic celebration. The imagination’s vision is, in this event, no longer deferred. What is seen imaginatively is physically touched, tasted and consumed. As St. Thomas sings, “O res mirabilis! Manducat Dominum, pauper, pauper servus et humilis” — “O astounding thing! a pauper, a poor man, a servant and lowly man consumes the Lord.”
There is an undeniable not yet to this already of spiritual and physical union with Christ. We do not yet see him face to face. We cannot yet touch his scars. Nonetheless, the already we do experience vindicates the imagination and its power to perceive what is not yet. I prefer to allow the host to dissolve on my tongue. In part, this is because it seems to do less violence to the body, but perhaps the violence of chewing is intended, as a reminder that it is we who crucified Christ. Mostly, however, to treat the host gently allows the moment of union between my physicality and the physicality of Christ to linger just a bit longer.
That the highest thing we can imagine actually happens in the Eucharistic celebration guarantees that all of our other imaginative reveries are not in vain. Ironically, we enjoy, if only momentarily, what the saints in heaven cannot. They have the advantage of unhindered spiritual fellowship with Christ, whereas we briefly enjoy spiritual and physical union with him. Heaven, in compassion for our present condition, gives us a little more heaven than most in heaven yet know.
In the Eucharistic event, set as it is in the context of the Mass, what is imagined is reified, what is most deeply desired is given. “For he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood…” The eucharist is the pivot point between heaven and earth. It is the moment when there is no distinction between what can be imagined and what is real. Deferral itself is deferred and the actuality of heaven vindicates the potentiality of the imagination. The eucharist vindicates the human imagination as something far more than a utilitarian intellectual faculty — the imagination’s greatest power and highest purpose is realized when it serves as the means by which we participate in the mystery of faith — the spiritual and physical union of Christ with his Church. Like Dante, we should take heed lest we “confuse the truth with our imaginations” and see less than what is actually there.