“Imagination as the Healer”
Marilynne Robinson (b. 1943) – “I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of the miracle is here, among us.”
I have (playfully) wondered whether the reason that God is not petty, is not susceptible to distress, anxiety, or irritation at the way we humans carry on …
Colossians 1:21 (The Message translation by Eugene Peterson) – “You yourselves are a case study of what God does. At one time you all had your backs turned to God, thinking rebellious thoughts of him, giving him trouble every chance you got.
… is that God has such a fully cultivated, magnificent imagination, an imagination populated with such beautiful images. Just one look at that image (above) made by the Hubble Space Telescope is enough to establish this fact.
Consider how it is that the biblical prophecies associated with the Advent season establish in our imaginations beautiful and good images.
We need these images (don’t we?) because we recognize how our imaginations have been invaded and then colonized by so many frightful, banal, gross, and downright misleading images.
And the more those images take hold in our imagination, the “smaller” of personality we become, more “brittle”, and the less we use our intellects. Ugly and manipulative images foreclose our intellect and compel us to react (without thinking) to things. Beautiful and good images “summon” our intellect to wonder about what so moves us. Recall how it is that when, for example, we are frightened, we do not normally begin to think; we just react.
We are living in an American moment when so much of our public discourse profoundly confuses two things. On the one hand, “feeling strongly” about something (reacting to images) and, on the other hand, a careful, disciplined habit of thinking (understanding sufficiently and judging rightly) about something. These are utterly different things, and our confusion about this difference is troubling. (But first we have to notice this distinction.)
An Advent Text (Isaiah 2:1-5)
Let us consider a biblical text and watch how God works with and in the imagination of Isaiah the Prophet. (Isaiah 2:1-5 is the First Reading in the Catholic Lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent.)
Isaiah 2 (The Message translation by Eugene Peterson) –
1–5 The Message that Isaiah saw regarding Judah and Jerusalem:
There’s a day coming
when the mountain of God’s House
Will be The Mountain—
solid, towering over all mountains.
All nations will river toward it,
people from all over set out for it.
They’ll say, “Come,
let’s climb God’s Mountain,
go to the House of the God of Jacob.
He’ll show us the way he works,
so we can live the way we’re made.”
Zion’s the source of the revelation.
God’s Message comes from Jerusalem.
He’ll settle things fairly between nations.
He’ll make things right between many peoples.
They’ll turn their swords into shovels,
their spears into hoes.
No more will nation fight nation;
they won’t play war anymore.
Come, family of Jacob,
let’s live in the light of God.
Notice how it says, “Isaiah … saw.” But Isiah did not “see” what had come to pass … because it had not. Rather, Isaiah saw a glorious possibility in his imagination because the Spirit placed it there.
Why did God put this “vision” in Isaiah’s imagination? Because Isaiah, and perhaps like too many of us in our American moment, was beset by a consistent gloominess of spirit. Why?
Isaiah had been given a transcendent and life-transforming vision when God called him to become a Prophet (Isaiah 6:1-8). Such majesty he saw that day in the Temple! But then God sent him to work among people spiritually dull (in the sense of not noticing God), religiously conventional (in the sense of “practicing” Religion in a rote way), and morally inconsistent (in the sense of a compromised integrity, i.e., content to be kind of moral).
Isaiah 6: 5 Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed!* For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips,d and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 He touched my mouth with it.
To Isaiah God revealed Himself (not a new plan or program or technique) – “my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” And Isaiah immediately and painfully felt his unlikeness to God – “I am doomed!” (See the footnote below about how “doomed” can mean “to be left speechless”.) His gloominess came not from feeling so unlike the Holy One but from an overwhelming sense of the responsibility that now he felt to stand with, to try to turn the people back toward God.
But Isaiah knows that he cannot possibly be successful.
In fact, it appeared to Isaiah, when God first awakened him (Isaiah 6), giving Him a special role, that God already knew that the people were “blockheads”, and that they would continue to expect salvation, safety, and a future full of hope from their provenly corrupt political leaders.
Isaiah 6 (The Message translation by Eugene Peterson) –
9–10 He said, “Go and tell this people:
“ ‘Listen hard, but you aren’t going to get it;
look hard, but you won’t catch on.’
Make these people blockheads,
with fingers in their ears and blindfolds on their eyes,
So they won’t see a thing,
won’t hear a word,
So they won’t have a clue about what’s going on
and, yes, so they won’t turn around and be made whole.”
I think that what God communicated to Isaiah in this “vision” in Isaiah 2 was not that Jerusalem would be the “best” or a “greater than” or “triumphant” over every other city or nation. No, not that. It is about something more subtle … and far better.
In the image of “all nations shall stream toward it” (that “toward” is especially important here) God shows to Isaiah how He has been hiddenly at work in others whom Isaiah did not know. Isaiah would never have expected that they – “the nations” (surely not they!) would “turn” to God … but they did! (The biblical expression “the nations” means “not us”, “those other people”.) Recall how unprepared Jonah the Prophet had been, and openly hostile to the possibility of, “the nations” being an object of God’s interest and of His tender persuasion. But they were and they responded!
This “vision”, when it refers to those carrying “swords … spears” refers to the enemies of Isaiah and Judah. Yet Isaiah was shown that it was precisely they who were “streaming toward” God, committed to letting God change their lives – “ploughshares … pruning hooks”, establishing in them a peacefulness that was becoming contagious – “All nations shall stream toward it” (Isaiah 2:2).
What a solace for gloominess to be shown something so “impossible”, and that God did it when Isaiah was not looking in that direction!
During this First Week of Advent each of us will be force-fed, from many directions (e.g., News outlets), “reasons” to become gloomy. We have become a haunted nation.
But if we consider carefully, it is not reasons that are being fed us (if only they were!) but toxic images of human cruelty, meanness, clannishness, violence, unforgiveness, and so on. Reasons never get a person down (they can confuse a person); images do get a person down when they are toxic and take up too much space in his or her imagination.
What to practice? The First Week of Advent has a penitential purpose to it. There is a kind of fasting asked of us. What if each of us fasted from (i.e., refused to give access to our attention) “the news”? Simply shutting down those sources that generate toxic images, frightening images, doleful images would already be a step toward letting the images of Advent have room in our imaginations to grow.
Consider the beauty of these images.
Wisdom Sought is Wisdom Foundg
12(13) Wisdom is brilliant, she never fades.
By those who love her, she is readily seen,
by those who seek her, she is readily found.*
13(14) She anticipates those who desire her by making herself known first.
14 Whoever gets up early to seek her will have no trouble
but will find her sitting at the door.
15(16) Meditating on her is understanding in its perfect form,
and anyone keeping awake for her will soon be free from care.
16 For she herself searches everywhere for those who are worthy of her,
benevolently appearing to them on their ways,
anticipating their every thought.h*
17(18) i For Wisdom begins with the sincere desire for instruction,j
care for instruction means loving her,
18(19) loving her means keeping her laws,k
attention to her laws guarantees incorruptibility,l*
19(20) and incorruptibility brings us near to God;
20 the desire for Wisdom thus leads to sovereignty.*
21(22) If then thrones and sceptres delight you, monarchs of the nations,
honour Wisdom, so that you may reign for ever.m 
 The Oxford English Dictionary at “colonize” – “To settle (a place, region, etc.) with colonists, esp. as part of an effort by a state or ruler to appropriate the area settled and establish political control over it; to establish a colony or colonies in.”
 The Oxford English Dictionary at “foreclose” – “To preclude, hinder, or prohibit (a person) from (an action) or to do something; to hinder the action, working, or activity of.”
 “A distinctive feature of prophetic preaching by Isaiah and his near contemporaries is that the cause of political success or failure was to be found in the moral condition of Israelite society. Its prominence in the earlier material in the book places Isaiah firmly in the first wave of political and social protest in eighth century B.C.E. Israel and Judah. The connections are not made explicitly since unfortunately these early dissidents (Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah) never refer to one another by name, though at one point Isaiah may be alluding obliquely to Amos (“Yahveh sent a message against Jacob, and it will fall on Israel,” 9:7). Isaiah’s debt to Amos is nevertheless not difficult to detect. [Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1–39: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 19 of Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 106.]
 I highlight this line, because it is such a good example of the genius of Eugene Peterson as a biblical interpreter/translator.
* Doomed: there are two roots from which the verb here could be derived; one means “to perish, be doomed,” the other “to become silent,” and given Isaiah’s delight in puns and double entendre, he probably intended to sound both notes. “I am doomed!” is suggested by the popular belief that to see God would lead to one’s death; cf. Gn 32:31; Ex 33:20; Jgs 13:22. “I am struck silent!” is suggested by the emphasis on the lips in vv. 5–6, and such silence is attested elsewhere as the appropriate response to the vision of the Lord in the Temple (Hb 2:20).
d Is 29:13; Mt 15:1–11; Mk 7:1–13; Col 2:20–23.
 “Fasting” has a two-fold activity. On the one hand, it is about deliberately denying access to something that we normally allow. On the other hand, it is about turning our attention to things truly worthy of our attention. So, spiritual fasting is both detaching and attaching.
* Pr 8:17; Si 6:27; Mt 7:7–11par.; Jn 14:21; Si 6:36; 39:5