Letters to Peregrinus #30 - On Imagination as a Power to re-Live

Dear Peregrinus (Sunday, 8:37 AM, Pacific Standard Time as of 2 AM this morning):

Thank you for writing back to me, and for that quotation you sent from Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina[1] (written 1875-1877):

Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.

Though it has been years since I read that novel from that great-souled author, I can remember now what I felt like then. It is not that I feel something about a particular circumstance in the novel, because I can no longer recall anything in particular of that story. Rather what I am still able to feel is the effect the novel left in me, the enchantment it cast over me. I can still feel how I became a different person – deeper, more aware, more human – while I was reading it.

It is through our imagination, which includes its particular mode called memory, that we possess the capacity to re-live, to re-experience now particular experiences[2] that happened then, once upon a time. An astonishing power![3]

For example, I can “re-actualize” (anamnésis) that night on the eastern shore of Priest Lake. The lake was utterly calm, our campfire snapped its bright sparks into the velvet-black air around us. I heard you say, “Rick, look!”, as you gestured. I looked up and saw the subtle emergence of the aurora borealis from behind the mountains to the north.[4] We could not speak, but only behold and wordlessly praise what made us both feel so small yet shown honor in having been given to witness such glory. You remember, don’t you? Yet it is more than a recalling of an incident; it is that I can (and I’ll bet you also can), after all of these years since then, re-live that moment now through imagination’s power to “re-actualize” it.

And this is what has me thinking, old friend, about the significance of imagination.

For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition. It is, I confess, undeniable that such a view indirectly implies a kind of truth or rightness in the imagination itself.[5]

Yesterday morning the 2nd-graders from our grade school came to the church, with their parents, to celebrate for the first time the Sacrament of Confession[6]. It was not the first time that they had experienced God, or the Church for that matter.

I wonder whether you could guess what it feels like for me, this particular Priest, to go be with these little ones in this way.

It had been a long time since I had heard “first Confessions”, and to be honest, I was feeling a little nervous about it. Being the first Priest before whom these little ones came for their first Confession felt a very great responsibility. Why? Because I remember a Priest to whom I went as a little boy for one of my earliest Confessions. He scolded me in the Confessional in such a way that I never returned to Confession until I entered the Jesuit Order in my nineteen year. He was a good Pastor, who did great good for the parish, and who justly is honored in the history of St. Augustine Parish, but he made a mistake with me that day in the Confessional. I didn’t want to miss like this.

I wanted for these 2nd-graders to gain a “sense” of Jesus, a familiarity with their gracious Lord, not in spite of me, their Confessor, but in some mysterious way because of me able to receive each one as Jesus could and did.

Second-graders do not think God, because their thinking function has not developed sufficiently for them to rely on it, to understand its powers. Rather, they imagine God through their experience of Him who has shown Himself to them before. Imagination is their truth-confirming power that they trust and use. Let me explain what I mean.

When adults tell little ones that they are going to meet God in a place or in a religious ritual (such as the Sacraments), the little ones who experience the place or ritual assess it according to earlier experiences of God that they have had. They are not thinking about what I, for example, say or do with them in the Sacrament of Confession. Instead, they are assessing whether what they are experiencing right now in the Sacrament feels like, or not, their earlier experiences of God. Their earlier experiences of God are the means by which they settle whether this religious place or ritual or Priest (!) is true, is of God. And then they decide, or not, to trust what is happening.

It is, I confess, undeniable that such a view indirectly implies a kind of truth or rightness in the imagination itself.[7]

I have seen children looking at me, the Priest, and making their assessment. On the one hand, I am moved and grateful when I see them transition from assessment to involvement in the Sacrament. I watch him or her open to God who has become present to them. On the other hand, I feel small and insufficient when I see them make their assessment and withdraw, no longer present there in the Sacramental action. In the latter case, I feel that I have still much to learn, or more to the point, that I have still much to become as a Priest and a person.

St. Paul wrote in today’s second Reading at the Sunday Eucharist (the second of the three Readings Catholics reflect upon today at church):

13 And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.[8]

What I think that St. Paul is stating is that there is nothing left in him that is not of, or because of, or for his Lord. Any human “word” he speaks – a spoken word, or a way that he walks or smiles or shows attentiveness to others, or forgives, or accepts his suffering – all of this has become as much expressive of God’s way as it is of Paul’s way. This is what I mean when I say that I “have still much to become as a Priest”, and I am grateful when the little ones at their First Confession remind me of this.

19 For through the law I died to the law,* that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ;o 20 yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.p[9]

Blessings to you, old friend, in this month of November. On Saturday, December 2nd, we conclude this Christian year, making way for the arrival of the first Sunday of Advent on December 3rd, entering our new Christian year. [10]

Remember me in your good prayers.


Rick, SJ


[1] Britannica Online, in its article about Leo Tolstoy, or in full his name is Lev Nikolayevich, Graf (= “Count”) Tolstoy, born in 1828; died in 1910, remarks: “Tolstoy is best known for his two longest works, War and Peace (1865–69) and Anna Karenina (1875–77), which are commonly regarded as among the finest novels ever written.... Most readers will agree with the assessment of the 19th-century British poet and critic Matthew Arnold that a novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life; the Russian author Isaak Babel commented that, if the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”

[2] The Oxford English Dictionary offers the etymology for the noun anamnésis: “The Greek noun ἀνάμνησις remembrance, n. of action < ἀναμνα- stem of ἀναμιμνήσκειν to remember, < ἀνά back + μνα- call to mind, < μένος mind.” It is usually translated as “recollection” or “calling to mind.” But in its Christian usage it means a far richer experience than mere remembrance. See, for example, in the New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, ed. Peter Fink (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 45: “This Greek word is practically untranslatable in English. “Memorial,” “commemoration,” “remembrance” all suggest a recollection of the past, whereas anamnésis means making present an object or person from the past. Sometimes the term “re-actualization” has been used to indicate the force of anamnésis.”

[3] An example of this is resentment, which is a particularly negative expression of anamnésis that is widely attested in American culture. Resentment is a pathological compulsion to re-actualize ourselves now inside of a powerfully negative experience we suffered back then. We make ourselves re-live it, over and over again, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “a sense of grievance; an indignant sense of injury or insult received, or perceived; a feeling of ill will, bitterness, or anger against a person or thing.” It is not wrong of us to feel the fact a terrible, cruel, brutalizing experience of evil forced on us. It would be outside of the truth of things to ignore our appropriate reaction to harm done to us. But to get ourselves into the habit of “re-actualizing” that negative experience over and over again is dangerous to the soul.

[4] It is difficult, if not impossible, to describe how one feels when experiencing what we called as kids, and still do, the “northern lights.” It is not what I would call a mystical experience, but it might be what God decided to use as an example if He were trying to explain to me the depth and beauty He experiences in people we call “mystics.”

[5] C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes: a Semantic Nightmare,” p. 265, in his Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: the University Press, 1969), pp. 251-265.

[6] The Sacrament can be correctly called the Sacrament of Confession (emphasizing the desire of the penitent to praise God for His faithfulness, to acknowledge His greater goodness and mercy, expressing the “reason,” if you will, why he or she trusts God) or of Penance (emphasizing the penitent’s willingness, after the Sacrament, to “make good” on any damage his or her action has caused self or others) or of Reconciliation (emphasizing the power of God working in the penitent to bring about the purpose of the Sacrament – reconciliation, which is a key aspect or mode of the Redemption). I have always preferred Confession as the name for the Sacrament.

[7] C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes: a Semantic Nightmare,” p. 265, in his Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: the University Press, 1969), pp. 251-265.

[8] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 1 Th 2:13.

* Through the law I died to the law: this is variously explained: the law revealed sin (Rom 7:7–9) and led to death and then to belief in Christ; or, the law itself brought the insight that law cannot justify (Gal 2:16; Ps 143:2); or, the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2) led to abandoning the Mosaic law; or, the law put Christ to death (cf. Gal 3:13) and so provided a way to our salvation, through baptism into Christ, through which we die (crucified with Christ; see Rom 6:6). Cf. also Gal 3:19–25 on the role of the law in reference to salvation.

6:14; Rom 6:6, 8, 10; 7:6.

1:4; Rom 8:10–11; Col 3:3–4.

[9] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ga 2:19–20.

[10] It is worth recalling that for many centuries, “new year day” coincided with the solemnity feast of the Incarnation, with March 25th, which date was understood to be the day when the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary and asked her a question, to which she replied, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). But now for some centuries our Christian “new year day” is the First Sunday of Advent, which begins at the setting of the Sun on the evening before, on Saturday evening.

Samuel Zeller

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