“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”1
To be a Christian is to know that the phrase “too good to be true” is nonsense. A thing is true insofar as it is good, and good insofar as it is true. The best thing imaginable is the truest thing imaginable.
But the imagination is limited, and what’s more, it is under attack, whether by the old Ἐχθρός2 himself or just by the constant onslaught of mental and spiritual noise from the culture at large. As Screwtape points out above, the best way to attack the imagination is not to put things in but to keep things out.
So what does the enemy want kept out?
I’ve been reading a series of daily meditations3 aimed at overcoming sins against purity. Today’s meditation started with a prayer:
Come, Holy Spirit, come dispel the darkness of lust with the light of hope.
Dispel lust with hope? This didn’t make sense to me until I remembered the line I always get fed when I’m being tempted to sexual sin. It goes like this:
You are never going to get what you need. So take what you can.
This is an attack on hope via the imagination. Most people don’t masturbate or fornicate or look at porn because of the pleasure it involves. Sexual sin comes from the hunger for deep contact with someone who loves you. The setup for a really successful temptation always involves convincing the temptee that such a thing is impossible — or at least forever out of reach.
The unclouded imagination — the imagination that has been fed on prayer, meditation, holy images, Scripture, the lives of the saints — can picture, however dimly, the Beatific Vision. It knows that the loving contact it wants is ultimately found in God, in living close to his heart. The unclouded imagination knows that living close to God’s heart will open our hearts both to the joie de vivre that the habitual sinner lacks, and to the love of other human beings.
But this is precisely what a tempted human being is prevented from imagining.
And because he can no longer picture divine love, he accepts a sickly substitute: the sad, solitary quasi-sexual4 act of self-abuse, the anonymous hookup, the mere agitation of body parts. Show me someone who thinks an orgasm is the best he can get, and I’ll show you someone whose imagination needs rekindling.
So come, Holy Spirit, give us hope. Direct our eyes to the fire of your beauty and our hearts to the fire of your love. Let us never be satisfied with anything less.