The Death of Imagination-The loss of Spirituality?

Post by Dominican

In the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of Spirituality

By John O'Neill

A few years ago, I was fortunate to be able to buy a small cottage with some land,and a few barns in the Ox Mountains, on the Sligo/Mayo border in the West of Ireland.  On my first visit I found it empty of all furniture apart from an old rusty electric cooker and a rather unpleasant smelling fridge.  The roof of the cottage leaked a black liquid which seeped in through a broken chimney and the front door was rotten. The room that had been added at the rear of the building had fungus everywhere and most of the ceiling had collapsed.  There was no sanitation or running water and no heating apart from the old Stanley Range that had certainly seen better days!  When I reflect on those first few days there I really don't know how I survived the cold and damp, and the lack of "bathroom" facilities, but, strangely, none of this really mattered at all, because for the first time in my life I had a place that I could call my very own!  I imagined myself one day hence retired in a splendid isolation. A few hens in the barn, goats in the field and perhaps even a donkey that would pull the shattered cart that languished in the yard. I  wondered if my fantasy would ever become a reality? In later years as I gazed across the valley from the kitchen window I tried to imagine what life  would have been like during the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840's, or during the Penal Days when Mass would have been celebrated in secret just two miles up the mountain on the famous Mass Rock. 

Or, perhaps, in the Seventeenth Century, Oliver Cromwell himself marched his New Model Army up the valley to persecute the local people! 

Imagination run riot, and yet imagination is such a wonderful creative gift- it can gaze into the future or glance back at the past.But just imagine if we had no powers of imagination, how dull and sterile our lives would be! We would live to exist not exist to live. 


Jesus knew very well the power of Imagination.  In the Gospels he says to his disciples: "Imagine a sower going out to sow!", and instantly those simple uneducated men were enraptured by the vivid Parable of the Sower….the seed, the rocky ground, the birds and the thorns.  Jesus told parables, or Imagination Stories, to plainly teach his disciples the Good News of the Kingdom.  They revealed to those who heard them all that was extraordinary in the Kingdom of God, in and through their everyday lives.  Above all, the parables appealed to their imagination, changing their lives and their outlook on life.  It would be true to say, that imagination is somehow dependent on the language that is used together with the interpretation of the message, when Jesus taught in Parables. 

Again, Jesus says "consider the lilies of the field……".  He encourages his disciples to consider, to reflect on, to weigh up the the images that surround them every day.  The Marian references in the Infancy Narratives of Luke are more images of the power of imagination, for we read that Mary pondered, treasured and stored them up in her heart.  She weighed up and reflected upon the wondrous and sorrowful experiences that she underwent, spending much time in deep thought and prayer.  Is it not quite clear in the New Testament that Jesus constantly encourages his followers to take time out from the business of daily life?  His own example shows this. He went into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights before he set out on his Galilean ministry; he went up a mountain where he could be alone with his disciples where he experienced his Transfiguration; the night before his Passion and Death we know that he suffered terrible mental anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane whilst his companions fell asleep.  The message of Jesus is abundantly clear that in order to cope with the trials and tribulations of life in any age(and one might add above all in our own sophisticated and stressful one) it is crucial that we slow down the frenetic pace of our lives, and make space to reflect and ponder.  Sadly, too few of us manage todo so, for we are enthralled by society, enslaved by by 'busyness', addicted to the social media. 

It seems that all people want to do, old or young, adolescents or adults is to spend time on screens, apps tablets and social interaction,  where reality has become confused with communication, completely free of imagination and creativity. Let these machines do our thinking and communicating for us and if we feel like it we can switch people off in a nanosecond. We are even in danger of losing the ability to read...we don't need books when we have Kindle and Wikipedia. 

In the Eighteenth Century, the rise of the Enlightenment dealt a major blow to the use of the imagination, and, indeed to the dignity of mankind.  New ideas in science, philosophy, music, art, literature and, of course religion began to change the outlook and beliefs in many people.  These were new and exciting times for many of the intelligentsia, but the realm of mystery and imagination appeared to be in opposition to this Enlightened Age.  If something could not be proven through scientific means, then it was irrelevant.  This had immense repercussions for Theology and Scripture as Science and Religion were finding it impossible to co-exist.  Even though the theories of men suchas Galileo and Darwin were plausible, there was a feeling among theologians that they were a threat to the Church.  It was Voltaire, however, in his Encyclopaedia, who distinguishes the power of the mind from perception, judgement and memory.  He stressed the positive and inventive role of the imagination in the development of the arts and sciences, especially when it was augmented by reflection and judgement.  In a similar way, Immanuel Kant in his 'Kritik der Reinen Vernunft' (Critic of pure Reason,  

1787) distinguished between the productive and reproductive imagination: the former being under the control of the intellect whilst the latter operates through the laws of association.  However, it was David Hume who took this argument a step further when he declared that the imagination is the "ultimate judge of all systems of philosophy". (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739).  Thus, imagination had its supporters as well as its detractors amongst the Enlightenment philosophers. 

During the following Century a transformation took place in most of the major European nations that was to change the face of society- it became known as the Industrial  

Revolution.  From about 1740 until 1914, there was a major social upheaval that changed the shape of civilised culture and society.  The general movement of working man from rural and agrarian occupations into urban and industrial situations meant a gradual but massive shift in the environment in which the imagination could be used.  In particular, the introduction of machines into factories, mines and farms meant that peoples gifts and skills became subservient to the workings of machinery.  The need to craft and utilise the imagination became almost obselete. Now that workers understood how to manage the machines, there was little thinking to be done- the machines would do that for them! 

However, in the sphere of religion, there were still the Churches to guide the Faithful. The emergence of the Non-Conformist communities and the Anglican Revival thanks to St John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement produced a new confidence in Christian teaching. The Missionary Evangelisation of the Ninteenth Century gave the Churches (mostly Protestant) the opportunity to reach out to areas of the world which still remained untouched by  industrial and technological change. New ideas were to surface rather briefly within the Roman Catholic Church at the turn of the Century in the form of the Modernist Movement, but Pope Pius X saw this as yet another threat to established religious belief and ensured that it was quickly suppressed.  He felt that speculation and modern ideas were not suitable for the 'ordinary' Faithful who needed a spirituality that was fed by obedience to the Papacy.  The central focus of the Roman Catholic Faith was still the Latin Tridentine Mass that offered to simple folk a supernatural experience that had little to do with reason, science or modern ideas, and simply demanded an obedient and unquestioning Faith. 

The unbelievable horror of The Great War with millions of young men slaughtered in the trenches of Flanders(The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori; Wilfred Owen) was to concentrate the mind and spirit of Humanity.  After the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the War it seemed that such horror could never happen again, but the steady rise of Fascism in the personalties of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, were to show the world even more unimaginable horrors, indeed, only now is the world coming to terms with the monstrous events of The Holocaust. 

The momentous ecclesiastical change of the Twentieth Century came about because Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council(October 1962-December 1965). It promised visionary changes in every aspect of Church life and practice.  As I have already intimated the Tridentine Mass was the lynchpin of the Universal Catholic Faith, for it was identical whether you"heard" Mass in the inner cities of Europe, the jungles of South America or in the Pacific Islands.  It was "written in stone". It was felt to be safe, perfect and unchangeable.  The Council Fathers after much wrangling and dispute, decided that the Latin Mass was now to be celebrated in the vernacular and massive liturgical changes followed in the wake of this decision..  When celebrating Mass, priests could now face the people and concelebrate;the laity could read some of the Scriptures and the congregation could now participate vocally. (I well remember as a thirteen year old altar boy being the first person ever to read the Epistle, at  Mass, little realising that I was making History!).There is no doubt whatsoever that the changes brought about by the Council were visionary, prophetic and progressive, but as is the norm with the Church when change is made , some precious things would be discarded with the "bath water". The liturgy seemed to have lost its mystery and awe; Benediction, the Lenten Stations of the Cross, May and Corpus Christi Processions, and even the Sacrament of Reconciliation were "downgraded"?  Why was it that after the first few years . Did we lose some of our wonder and imagination in our attempt to renew the Church? Perhaps a weakening of Spiritual resources?  Why was it that after the first few years of novelty and change the new liturgy seemed to become mundane and dull, and there never seemed to be a space to pause and reflect! 

As I write this piece it is over fifty years since the end of the Council and so much has changed in the world.  Arguably, the biggest change for all of us has been the World Wide Web. It has brought great benefits in many areas including speedy communication and access to knowledge, but it has also brought many not so good things. What has this digital age with its computer technology given to us?  The irony seems to be that with easy communication and social interaction through such things as Skype, Facetime and e-mails, people have become more self centred and isolated than at any time in our history.  We spend time with our App, our Tablet, our Internet rather than with each other.  Through the Internet any person of any age, intellect, discernment or perversion can lose themselves in a raft of fantasies beyond our wildest imagination. It must be true that if you spend so much time indulging in fantasy, of whatever nature, then your ability to confront the real world must diminish.One only has to reflect on some terrible events of recent years: the torture and murder of little James Bulger on a Liverpool railway track; the Dunblane massacre of the innocents; the Omagh bombing; the atrocities perpetrated by the so called Islamic State and so on.  Two boys whose violent fantasies(fed by video technology) became horrific reality; a sick and lonely man obsesses with guns and with a perverted interest in children runs amok in a revenge killing. a group of so called Freedom Fighters cause wanton carnage to fulfil their unreachable dreams; disillusioned young people perpetrate horrific acts, broadcast on the Internet, in the name of Allah.  

Evil fantasies and acts seem to have replaced healthy imagination and goodness. 

It is quite disturbing that so many people cannot cope with silence or quiet of any kind. There is so much noise going on around us that it is well nigh impossible to create a space or some stillness so that our imagination can function. I was once a Parish Priest in a busy seaside town where thousands of people would arrive each summer.  To be fair, many of them were very polite and reserved, but many more of them were noisy, aggressive and arrogant.  So full of themselves with their mobile phones and their loud techno music blazing out from their car stereos. They were a pathetic sight. Their lives were simply a veneer- all show, no depth, no imagination and not surprisingly, no belief in God, and therefore no spirituality. 

Rowan Williams(one of my tutors at University) once wrote that"the Church has to be committed to the deepening of its own corporate imagination"(Priests and People, July 1998). We have a duty to encourage times for peace, stillness and reflection in our churches and communities, and for this we need new prophets. People like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Nelson Mandela and Oscar Romero but also ordinary people who by word and example can show us the way to the peace that the world cannot give. 

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