20 November 2017

In a World of Pure Imagination


The 6th of 15 in a Series of Meditations on the 15 daily intentions offered by members of the Angelic Warfare Confraternity.

Imagination is the wildest, the most unruly thing ever. The Church Fathers constantly warn us against it. It's the one that only the Jesuits take on (and see where it gets them, sometimes). It's hella dangerous, to use a Californianism. Imagination is the ability to picture what is not and to act as though it were. If you really want to explore that the Church teaches about the imagination, start with this article in the Catholic Encyclopedia.


For our purposes here, though, let's just stick to "seeing things not there, and acting as if they were there."  There is an earlier post discussing Evil Imaginations, but let's add to that. We pray that "we may be preserved from any fantasies that defile us, that all impure images may vanish, and that we may be protected from all the assaults of demons." So, define things that "defile" us and things that are "impure"? We might be tempted to see that only in sexual terms yet that still seems a bit of a luxury. For certainly hate is a defilement and an impurity. Certainly racism denies the image of God in the other person. The quest for revenge or victory (at the cost of another), the drive for success at all costs, the urge to resolve things only in my favor, the idea that I'm perfect and everyone else is as fault... these are all imagination's function, and they defile us. Their impurity is contagious: sexism and ruin a relationship, be that with a coworker, a fellow parishioner, or a spouse.

In dealing with people whose life-choices have led them away from the Church, I find that many in the Church suffer from a failure of imagination. Their conception of the personhood of the other is limited to whatever perceived sin or failure is involved. Often that sin or failure, itself, is limited in imagination as well. We fail to account for the full personhood of the other. In the imagination of some all of same sex attraction is boiled down to sex, and most folks make that man-man only, and limit it to one sex act. The imagination robs that entire conversation of meaning because one party is discussing an entire life experience, whilst another is discussing a sex act that is not participated in even by all men who act on their SSA. (One Orthodox Priest refers to the "ick factor" as a way to keep men and women with same-sex attraction under control. I've always wanted to ask him what was so icky about being able to quote movies like The Wizard of Oz or The Women, or about "the decorating gene".)

Imaging what could be (instead of seeing what is) almost always acts as a negative filter. I really want to go to the coffee shop and get an everything croissant - which is just what it sounds like: a croissant covered in seeds and other things, just like an everything bagel. I am so excited that, seeing it in my mind's eye, I begin to imagine what I'm going to do with it today: cream cheese? no, toasted with ham! When I discover the man before me purchased 27 everything croissants and left them with nothing to sell to me I am very sad. It's as if the shop has nothing left to sell me. (This is a true story, and I got a free coffee out of it because the shop knows what I get every morning.) When I imagine just the clothes I'm going to buy for the office party and they are not available on the website. Or they don't have my size. When I can't find the thing I wanted and imagined having, all sorts of good things go to waste.

When I imagine the spouse I want you'd be surprised how many fail to measure up! When I imagine my next apartment or job, the same is also true. We want something we can't have and can't want what we get. Welcome to a world of pure imagination. Impure imagination would be a better title, though.

Imagination, of course, is not all bad. That's why we pray specifically to avoid any fantasies that defile us, any impure images, and demonic attack. Images and fantasies can come from within. Yes. But they also might come from without. How much time, envy, greed, and/or gluttony can be aroused by imaging something other than what God has set before us? What God gives us is the reality we have: these are the tools we have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. To reject these and dream up new ones is to reject the gifts God has given us to use - the most sure and certain path God has laid before is is one foot in front of the other. 

This is the first time we've seen demons mentioned in the prayers. It's important to know: demons are real; and they mess with our minds. Refusing to believe in demons is like refusing to believe in rip tides, tornadoes, or the caldera under Yellowstone. These things are unseen, but constantly present. And deadly dangerous. They mess with our minds not because the can control us, but because they can say the exact thing needed to make us respond in a "triggered" way. If you spend your day noticing your triggers, many of them are aimed at your imagination. The more time I spend watching, the more it seems that it's my imagination (lately) that is used to trigger all kinds of secondary things: anger, reaction, judgment, pride. 

We need to be protected from the assaults of demons. The only way to do that is to struggle constantly, to pray constantly, and to go to confession often.

This intention is the first intention to invoke what the Byzantine tradition would call "watchfulness". We need to keep an eye on what our mind is doing - to be alert always. Yes, it's a struggle and, certainly, at first it is exhausting. But it's also rewarding. The Buddhist practice is called "mindfulness", and being mindful of our imagination is the first step towards controlling it. It must involve saying, over and over, "Dear God, there, Just there, I was triggered. Help me." Such a prayer is a cry for help, but it also is our own reminder to keep a constant vigil, ever warding off impure thoughts, fantasies that defile us, and the assaults of demons. These we cannot fight on our own, but with God's help, we can train and be stronger each time.