Tag Archives: imagination

“I think,” says Fr. John from behind the confessional screen, “that we tend to see our sexuality as a burden, instead of a gift.” He laughs to himself a little, maybe thinking You and me both, buddy; you know as well as I do that celibacy is no joke.

“It feels like a burden because it’s so powerful,” he continues, “and so hard to control. But make this your penance: ask that the grace of this sacrament will help you to see your sexuality in a positive way. As a gift.”

Phew boy, okay. I’ll try. A couple of thoughts flit through my head — about fatherhood as an expression of masculinity and therefore of sexuality, about how all men, even (especially?) the celibate, are called to be fathers in one way or another — but mostly I put the question aside and hope I’ll remember to pray about it.

While Fr. John is still talking, I glance up at the screen. Usually I go face-to-face, because I like Fr. John and he knows all about me and it’s nice to visit with him and confess at the same time. But the screen’s good, too. You can’t see the face of the priest, so it’s a little easier to realize that it is in fact Jesus behind there, and that the kindness and humanity of Fr. John is at least equal to the kindness and humanity of the One he represents and makes present.

More than equal, of course. But I make allowances for my weakness of imagination. When I picture Heaven, I stop short of the Beatific Vision and just picture a place where there are always friends to go exploring1 with. When I imagine Jesus, picturing somebody more or less like Fr. John is a lot easier, and a lot more effective, than trying to conjure up an image of perfect love, and ending up with some saccharine2 unreality.

I’ve been nursing a grudge against the Lord, because I still don’t understand what to make of the hell I went through earlier this year, the hell He didn’t save me from; I’m still trying to learn what trusting Him could mean. But while I imagine Jesus behind the screen, listening to my silly little selfishnesses, the grudge melts for a moment, and I whisper, too soft for Fr. John to hear: How do you put up with this shit?

I don’t mean to swear at the Lord, and I hope he takes it the way I mean it: as a squalid little cri de coeur instead of a sign of irreverence; as a way of saying, I’m confused and angry and grateful and in love all at the same time, and I don’t know what to do with any of it because, like Philip, even after keeping your company all this time, I still don’t know you. I hope he takes it the way he must have taken it when his earthly friends slipped up and let fly with the occasional oath.

They were, after all, a bunch of fishermen and whores.

1 Like this.
2 Like this.

“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.

1 Screwtape, Senior Tempter in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.
2 Greek for “enemy,” although apparently it can also mean “one who hates”. Or just “hater.” Heh. Also used to beautiful effect in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door.
3 The book is called Clean of Heart, and you can find it here.
4 “Quasi-sexual” because — despite the infantile-but-still-damnable advice Planned Parenthood gives to teens [Follow link at your own risk — PP’s nonsense is full of language explicit enough to constitute an occasion of sin for some.] — masturbation ain’t sex.