Imagination and Your Spiritual Life

Meditation is the cornerstone of and a necessity for salvation. Many saints have commented on this fact. Saint Alphonsus says, “Mental prayer is morally necessary for salvation.” One may ask, “how do you meditate?” Many who are not schooled in meditation tend to think of it as a difficult activity that requires extreme concentration and is more suited to the saints and disciplined religious than the common man. A simple perusal of a book on meditation, say from the Jesuits, would make you think mediation is a rigid and lengthy, step-by-step process. This is simply not true. Meditation is quite an easy thing to do for two reasons. It is high customizable and it is well suited to our human faculties. Let me speak about these two things separately.

Meditation is Customizable

Meditation is customizable. That is to say, your meditations can consist of whatever is most effective and attractive for you. When a man wishes to enter the religious life, he chooses a monastery based on its spiritual characteristics and its work. The Franciscans, the Jesuits, and the Carthusians are all quite different in their approach to the spiritual life as well as the works they perform as a monastery. One of the great marks of the Church is its universality. This not only means it is found throughout the whole world, it also means it contains enough diversity to satisfy every man within it regardless of his race, gender, or temperament. The Church is for all men at all times. The Church is also challenging and interesting to all men of good will. The Church is, as Saint Paul says of himself, “All things to all men” (I Cor. 9:2). If you like a more austere, quiet, self-contemplative life, the Carthusians may be for you, If you prefer a more fraternal outlook, a traditional Franciscan community might be for you. If you like a more structured and scholarly religious life, try a traditional order that combines both the active and passive life. There is no wrong choices here, it is a matter of preference.

You are encouraged to create your own meditative style. When we all say a community Rosary, we say the same words at the same time, but this does not mean every prayer must approach meditation in exactly the same way. I will propose a skeleton structure of meditation for you further on, something on which to build. For now let us move on to my second previous mentioned point.

Meditation is well suited to our human faculties. What do I mean by faculties? I mean, as Brother Francis of Saint Benedict Center taught us, those twenty-six powers that, all-together, make a man a man. We have the five outer senses, the six inner senses, and the passions. But, let us concentrate on the higher powers, the spiritual powers of intellect and free will, and the inner sense-power of the imagination.

Imagination Is a Power That Brings Events to Life in our Mind

Imagination is a power that every human person has, however it is typically thought of as a childish power as it is used mostly by children and much less frequent by adults. As we grow and mature, we start to value less the wild speculations and scenarios that can be had by an active imagination and concentrate rather on the concrete real circumstances of our lives. Little Suzy can sit in the corner and have a tea party with her imaginary friends while daddy is going over the finances and paying bills. Which of these are more suited to a healthy meditative life? The one who sees what is in front of him or the one who imagines the possibilities? Imagination is the ability of us humans to bring ideas, events, and even people to life in our minds. I can read a historical summary of Napoleon and even look at an image of him and learn some lifeless facts by the experience. On the other hand, I could listen to a lecture by an historian who delights us with many interesting tales of his exploits and the times in which he lived. A good teacher can make this historical figure come to life in our imagination, even while sprinkling in the same dry facts a history book would provide. Imagination is not a childish faculty, it is a childlike faculty. Since we must be as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven, let us then use those childlike helps given us by God for meditation. (Matt 18:3)

Imagination and Meditation are Complementary

But what connection does Imagination have with meditation? The two are perfectly suited! Although Jesus is alive on earth sacramentally, He does not live among us in the same way He did two thousand years ago when He walked about Judea, preached His sermons and cured the sick. Mary, too, has died and although she is alive in heaven and visits us from time to time, most of us will never see her in the flesh in this life. This is true also for the saints and angels, even our guardian angels. They are there but cannot be seen. Yet the greatest of your five senses is your sight. We cannot see Saint Peter as we see our cousins. We can see them in our imagination, however. We can bring life to those great figures of history in order to contemplate them, to meditate about them. Can you not look at your favorite statue in Church and imagine it come to life? Can you not see in your mind Our Lady of Guadalupe raising her arms slightly and turning her head to look at you? Can you see Our Lady of LaSalette burying her face in her hands weeping for us sinners who offend her Son? To acknowledge as a fact of history that Christ climbed a mountain and delivered a sermon is a very adult thing to do. To see Christ standing on that mountain, moving His arms and declaring the Beatitudes directly to us, to imagine yourself there in the crowd listening to our Savior speak the “Blessed art thou’s” while looking directly at us, is a childlike and worthwhile exercise.

The imagination of a child is the source of great fun, whether an imaginary tea party, playing cops and robbers, or the impromptu sword fights that break out when sticks are found, children entertain themselves with whatever is at hand. Why can’t meditation be enjoyable as well? We are told to “love God with our whole mind” (Matt 22:37). Part of our mental power is our ability to imagine and this can be brought into the service of God.

I said at the beginning that many people think of meditation as a difficulty thing to do. I hope you are starting to see that it can be an enormous source of enjoyment, not just the satisfaction of completing a meditation, but also the journey to get there.

Catholic Art and Meditation

Let me say a word about good Catholic art before I finish with what I promised, a basic framework to start customizing your own meditations. A Catholic home should be filled with good religious art. I did say good art for a reason. Yes you can get some mass produced, cheap plastic statues made in China and fill your house with them for a few bucks, but it is far better to surround yourself and your family with good quality Catholic art instead. The more lifelike and attractive the art, the easier it is to use with imagination in your meditations. Although you cannot afford an oil painted rendition of a work of Michelangelo, what you can afford is a three dollar high quality print of a Michelangelo in a tasteful inexpensive frame. Collect good art and save your holy cards. (I keep mine in a photo album). Put them in prominent places in your home and look at them often. When it comes time for meditation you can recall these images and, once you do, you’re off on an adventure!

Customized Meditation

Finally, as promised, I would like to give you a head start on your own customized meditation. There are certain common features of all Catholic meditative efforts and I will share them with you now.

The first step is supremely important. You must place yourself in the presence of God. If we are to meditate, let us put God first in all things. How do you do this? Using our new friend “imagination,” we can find a quiet place, close our eyes, and imagine Our Lord walking into the room. He sits near us, looking at us, waiting for us to speak to Him. What do we say? We can recite the “Acts”: The Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity all the while knowing Our Lord is in the room near us listening. Direct your speech to Him, even if mentally. Next, make a short examination of conscience and recite the Act of Contrition. Imagining God is in the room paying attention only to you and listening intently to you is a great help to your sincerity in prayer. God is everywhere, so when we imagine Him in a very specific spot, He really is there. Having placed yourself in God’s presence and recited the four Acts, you can now move on to a specific meditation. You may ask what to meditate on? There are many sources for this: Bible verses, the writings of the saints, the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, the Mysteries of the Rosary, The Stations of the Cross, the Liturgical Year, Lives of the Saints, or even the Summa Theologica. There are also books with meditations for every day of the year if you find those helpful. What you meditate on and how you approach it is up to you. One piece of advice I will give you if you are using meditations from a book is that you should not dwell on any single part any longer than is helpful. If you read a sentence and could meditate on it for a half hour, do not interrupt this because you feel you must move on and read the rest of the meditation. Stay on any one part as long as it is fruitful. When it ceases to be fruitful, move on to something else. If you set out to make a three minute meditation at each Station of the Cross, but you find at station six you were getting distracted after one minute and at station twelve you had to break off your meditation because you were going too long, do not feel bad. Be flexible. If one minute is all the fruit you can get this time from a certain meditation, then thank God for the one minute. If you spend seven minutes on another meditation thank God for that as well. As I said, stay on any one part as long as it is fruitful. When it ceases to be fruitful, move on, lest you become distracted.

At the end of your meditation I would recommend that you do at least two things. First, thank God for a good meditation as well as for all the good things He has given you. I also recommend a meditation on Mary even if it is as short as the length of one Hail Mary. The world, as well as every Catholic, needs to honor her more. A short daily meditation about her is apropos. To finish this short Marian meditation I highly recommend that you end with the words, “Mary, I love you!” I further recommend that you say this out loud and encourage others to do the same. Readers of this website are probably familiar with the Latin phrase, Lex orandi, Lex credendi. It means, “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” Let us pray out loud, “Jesus, Mary, I love you, save souls!” The more we pray it, the more our love for her increases and we become special to her Immaculate Heart. Imagine that!