Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Access the Graced Imagination to Love and Serve the Lord

I want to recommend a short but brilliant article by Sr. Thomas More Stepnowski, O.P., on the workings of the imagination, and its important role in opening an internal door that leads to our grasp of Truth in faith and love, through the contemplation of God.

Sr. Stepnowski is a member of the St. Cecilia Dominican Congregation, based in Nashville, Tennessee and her article, entitled How the Mystery Is Imprinted in the Heart’s Memory - The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Imagination is one essay in the book Speaking the Truth in Love: The Catechism and the New Evangelization, published by Emmaus Academic and edited by Petroc Willey and Scott Sollom.

An abbreviated version of Sr. Stepnowski’s piece appears online, here, in the University of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal.

Both articles draw on an essay of W Norris Clarke called The Creative Imagination, which is in his book The Creative Retrieval of Saint Thomas Aquinas: Essays in Thomistic Philosophy, New and Old.

Sr Stepnowski describes how an imagination formed by the liturgy, and bestowed with God’s grace, gives us an enhanced ability to meditate upon both the Word of God in Scripture, and to read the Book of Nature with fresh eyes, recognizing Creation as a sign of the Creator.

This same imagination, which she terms a ‘graced imagination’, is a principle of creativity by which we, united to Christ and partaking of His divine nature, can see how to govern our own daily activities and participate in the creative work of God. Activity directed by the graced imagination, both in our worship or in our work outside the liturgy, leads to personal fulfillment.

In describing the graced imagination, the primary concern of Sr Stepnowski, consistent with the main theme of the book in which it appears, is its role in evangelization. She argues for catechesis that develops the creative imagination as a form of ‘pre-evangelization’, which primes us to be receptive to the truths of the faith.

In doing so, she distinguishes it from what is commonly called the ‘Catholic Imagination’ by cultural commentators. The graced imagination refers to all operations of the imagination enhanced by grace. This has a broader operation that permeates and informs potentially all operations of the intellect and will. The Catholic Imagination, on the other hand, is a term typically used by commentators to refer to the use of the imagination by creative Catholics in the fine arts, especially literature and poetry and would be used to apply to, for example, the works of Tolkein and Flannery O’Connor. The products of the Catholic Imagination may well result from a ‘graced’ imagination, but the graced imagination refers to the elevation of potentially every operation of the imagination, which can inform pretty much any human activity.

To explain this, she establishes first what the imagination is. The imagination she tells us, citing St Thomas Aquinas, is a faculty of the mind by which data - ‘colors, textures, scents’ and images - are first drawn from the senses and then stored for the use of the intellect. The imagination is more than a simple data warehouse, however, for it can subsequently piece together such data in novel ways, in response to other stimuli, and to create new pictures or ideas then delivered, so to speak, to the intellect. In the example she quotes, she says that if we are told of a ‘golden mountain’ that we have never seen, we immediately connect our impressions of golden objects and mountains we have seen, and then create a composite image of the golden mountain, which does not exist in reality.

This natural tendency to connect things in our mind is what allows us to derive meaning from what we see. However, as she points out the unguided or badly formed natural imagination can be unruly and it ‘rebuffs the intellect with grave consequences’, especially if harmful images, pornography for example, are among the stimuli.

It is wise therefore to seek an ordering principle that guides the imagination in what it selects and connects and which can read the signs of nature correctly. The best ordering principle, she says, is Scripture. Scripture tells us through the imagery of (e.g.) the Psalms, how to understand nature as a beautiful sign of the Creator. Once we have a catechesis that explains to us through the study of scripture the meaning of what we are seeing in nature, we are primed also to recognise the symbolism of what we see in sacred art and in the Church’s liturgy. As a result we are more likely to enter into the mystery of the sacramental life.

Through this process of Christian formation - a Christian inculturation, one might say - the ‘secular’ imagination can operate in an ordered way and help us to see things as God intends. This is still not necessarily the ‘graced’ imagination, however, for it might still rely on natural reason to understand what is seen. This ordered but natural imagination is the imagination of one who understands and maybe even delights superficially in the truth and sees the value of what he understands, but is always as a detached observer.

Jordan Peterson, as he presents himself publicly, adopts the position of one who has a well-ordered natural imagination. He is a gifted commentator who recognizes the value of and understands much of Scripture and the Christian view or nature as sign and symbol, but nevertheless treats it as a benign myth to learn from, rather than a truth to be grasped. It is fiction, but imparts good values and a pattern for good living. Through his approach, many have subsequently become practicing Christians, but he doesn’t admit to being a full believer himself in the way that a Christian would understand faith. He would argue, I think, that every society needs a myth or a story that imparts the values that its members must have in order to be fully participating members. Our myth is Salvation History, just as the Odyssey and the Aeneid were the myths for the Greeks and Romans, and so this should be imparted to Westerners.

Their myth: a 3rd century AD Roman mosaic of Odysseus, from Homer’s epic poem.

The graced imagination, in contrast, belongs to the person who not only accepts the meaning of symbolism intellectually, but loves what he knows as a sign of the Good in the most profound way. Such a person joyfully and willingly orders his life according to it at the deepest level. This is supernatural faith, and its sign is a desire and commitment to participate in the liturgy and the sacramental life, as a full member of the Catholic Church. The person with the graced imagination then partakes of the divine nature, and experiences the deepest fulfillment in this life. This becomes a positive reinforcing process with infinite progress, for the more deeply we participate in the mysteries of the sacramental life in this spirit, the more we are given and in turn, the more we desire it.

Going further than the scope of the article itself and here offering my own reactions, I would say that the person whose imagination is fired by grace becomes that ‘supernatural man’ described by Pius XI in Divini illius magistri as the product of a good Catholic education. The supernatural man not only experiences the continual deepening of his faith, as described above, but then contributes creatively to the work of God in the world around us, creating beauty and enhancing our surroundings to draw people to Him yet more powerfully.

There is no guarantee that this supernatural state can be induced in anyone by an education, as it requires a free assent of the heart, without compulsion, to be genuine. But partaking of the divine nature is within the reach of any who accept God in their hearts through Christ, and there is an established formation that inclines us, at least, to such a movement of the heart. This is a Catholic education with mystagogical catechesis at its heart and which leads us to its consummation in right worship.

Our ‘myth’? Noah in the Ark of Salvation, Palatine Chapel, Sicily 11th century AD

Conventional, classroom study of Scripture and Salvation History prepares us for right worship, but the greatest preparation for the Mass is the Liturgy of the Hours. Through the singing of the psalms and canticles of Scripture, and the readings in the context of the Church’s worship in the Liturgy of the Hours, the natural imagination is tutored and ordered in a profound way - more deeply than is possible by study of these texts in the classroom alone. Praying the Hours inclines us most powerfully to desire Christ as the still center of the Liturgy, in the Eucharist. The more that non-Catholics are immersed in this practice - even if initially only participating superficially, as say curious or sympathetic observers, the more it is likely that their hearts will be transformed.

Similarly, the Liturgy of the Hours prepares us to take what we receive in the Mass and apply it gracefully in the world. It refocuses our attention to follow the commandment we are given at the dismissal, to ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’ in the world. It inclines us powerfully to maintain an openness to grace, and to allow this same ‘graced’ or creative imagination to contribute to the ordering of our daily activities. This could lead to the production of high art that commentators would recognise as the product of a ‘Catholic Imagination’, but it could as likely lead to creative and inspired work in any other field of endeavor, including many that one would not normally associate with creativity, such as say bookkeeping or cleaning the bathroom (apologies to any noble book keepers and cleaners out there!)

As an artist I would note that the traditional formation of an artist is directed both to engendering the skills of his art, but also to forming the graced imagination.

I would argue that when such a formation is given to anyone (not just those who wish to become artists) in the context of good Catholic education, then it would develop the facility for supernatural creativity, as governed by a graced imagination.

So the child who develops a faculty for creativity in the course of painting classes will subsequently be able to apply that creativity in other fields, whatever their personal vocation might be. One could imagine, for example, that the student who discovers that his personal vocation is to be a software developer, might then humbly and as servant of God, produce new and powerful technology that aids mankind, and is in harmony with the common good. Similarly, the person who is called to motherhood or fatherhood would exercise their graced imagination in bringing up the children well.

Here is a summary of that formation, listed as the disciplines of the conventional Christian artistic training:

The Imitation of a Canon — the drawing and painting of a canon of great works of accepted past masters in the tradition. This engenders humility and a deep understanding of how great people have created art before them.

The Imitation of Nature — the drawing and painting of nature. This is studying the work of the Master Himself. Again it engenders a humility in that the artist must conform to reality. The humble artist is more likely to follow inspiration should God choose to give it to him.

A Catholic Inculturation — the study of all Catholic culture, including but not limited to painting. This is enhancing the students’ understanding and appreciation of Catholic culture in such a way that he understands its importance in a Christian society, and his place in contributing to it.

The Study of the Mathematics of Beauty — the study of the quadrivium and of sacred number. The four mathematical liberal arts of cosmology, geometry, arithmetic and music with a particular emphasis on how this numerical language articulates divine beauty. The study of sacred number involves understanding the symbolic quality of number in the Christian tradition. This is another ordering principle, again ordered by scripture as commented on by the Church Fathers, for the imagination.

Spiritual development — catechesis to the rites of initiation in the Church, and thereafter after a continuing catechesis - known as mystagogical catechesis - that directs the student to a deeping grasp and participation in her mysteries. This is the formation that involves the deep engagement with scripture and a grasp of Salvation History as described above.

Going beyond Imitation — The practice of the creation of beauty, through imagining and incarnating beautiful ideas as paintings. The best artist is not a pure copyist, but rather through the good use of imagination, raises up what he sees through partial abstraction and modification of what is seen so as to reveal invisible truths through the visible means of visual art. This is how, for example, the best artists can paint a portrait and communicate to us that this person is alive and has a soul, and is not simply a perfect wax model of person.
Copying existing works of art. This is someone learning the Academic Method of art trainging developed in the 16th century.

Rigorous study of nature: A figure study using the Academic Method.

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