One of the things we have, as individuals, and communities, is creativity — the ability to imagine and construct aspects of our reality, the ways we live, and features of our environment. This creativity is a part of our nature. It is part of the Divine imprint in us as beings made in the image of God. It is one of the greatest resources for conceiving of and living into our unity in the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Jesus speaks of the power that is within us to create and shape our existence in this world. In speaking about expressing our needs to God, he tells us to say what we need and then to offer up thanksgiving for already having received it (Mark 11.24) — because we should live in the certainty that whatever we ask for will be given to us. Our creative relationship with God, the desires we make known, and the dreams that we dream are potent elements of life. What takes shape in our thoughts also shapes who we are and all that we create. The inside matters — the thoughts and emotions that we plant, root up, cultivate, and nurture. What we allow to grow inside of us is what will grow outside as well. Speaking again of this reality, Jesus teaches us that it is not what goes into the body (referring here to clean or unclean food), but what comes out of the mouth in terms of our words that can defile us. (Mark 7.15) This is what we should be concerned about. This is what we should watch carefully and manage with deliberate intention. The connection between our inner vision of things, how we construct in our hearts and in our mind’s eye, is profound and powerful.
When a spouse begins to feel that they do not trust their mate, every suspicion seems to be confirmed. The vision the one carries inside of the other filters what is seen. Doubts and accusations, whether stated aloud or not, affect the relationship by guiding thoughts and actions in such a way as to increase the distance between the two people involved. It is even possible that, encountering a cold and suspicious attitude, the other person in the relationship will grow unhappy and begin to seek consolation by spending more time away from their spouse. As a tree begins to grow away from shade and towards whatever light it can reach, so too will that person living under suspicion seek companionship and spend time in activities that will nourish them. The gulf between the spouses grows. It becomes solidified in habits that exclude each other. The potential for rupture in their relationship increases. And it all began with a seed made of thoughts and feelings of distrust.
What we bring to our life will do much to determine the shape of our experiences. If I impose gloom and unhappiness upon the sunniest of days, it will appear to me as a misery made of hours. Conversely, if I bring to a dark and rainy day my inner sense of joy, it will become a day full of the coziness of warm coats and warm rooms. It is partly about attitude; how we choose to receive that which comes our way. And it is partly about the choices we will make in relation to our attitude. If we make positive choices we increase the probability that what we envision as positive will come our way (in a sense, we have opened our inner “filters” to let those things in). If we make negative choices the opposite can manifest in our lives.
Our imagination builds upon individual choices and constructs a hoped for — or feared — reality. As our thoughts and feelings interact with those things we’ve constructed in our imaginations, they will, in turn, be reshaped in such a way as to go out of us in choices that will affect our external life. The imagined reality starts to take shape because we have started making our lives in such a way as to manifest it. In itself, imagination is a neutral thing. It is a tool that can be employed in a number of different ways. And, when “left on” to idle on its own, it can become unfocused and random — working on us more in the realm of the subconscious — but still working on us all the same.
We need to train our imaginations so that we can build lives that take on the shape of what we care about. As Christians, this means we need to imagine love, compassion, mercy, abundant life, peace — all the things about which Jesus teaches us. This is part of how we live faithfully as his disciples. We build up the kingdom of God within us; rooting up that which has grown up inside of us like weeds, tearing down those habits of thought and feeling that run contrary to Jesus’s Way, and building in our hearts and minds things of love, beauty, and generosity.
To employ our creativity through imagination, it is important to understand the nature of our thoughts and emotions: We have thoughts and emotions — we are not the sum of our thoughts and emotions. This is a realization that gives us great power and freedom. Those thoughts and feelings that are the bricks and mortar of what we imagine inside us and are the tools that shape or outer lives do not just happen; they do not lie outside our ability to choose and shape. We can choose what we want to build up inside of us and we can choose what thoughts and feelings work to help in that; and dispense with those that do not.
When I was a young man, I used to think that who I am (my personhood) was the sum of my thoughts and feelings. I used to regard each of these as integral to “me.” In the way that I lived my life, I valued the powerful surges of emotion and the rush of thoughts that could accompany them. But my life was largely without focus. It was as though I was living in a house with all the windows open. As temperatures outside rose and fell, so did my mood. As winds of concerns and joys blew in, my thoughts followed after them like papers laid out on a table in front of a window. There were times when this was exhilarating. And there were times when it was depressing. I experienced life as something that happened; not as something in which I truly participated.
As I added decades to my life, I experienced events that made me question how I’d thought of who “I” am. Early events like this were deaths of loved ones. Those deaths tore at my thoughts and emotions and made a shredded mess of them all. The first time I experienced this, I thought I would be destroyed. My emotions were overloaded by grief. My thoughts would not form. Sometimes I could neither think nor feel. And yet — I still was. What I noticed, in fact, was that at such times I felt like a spectator to what was going on — and to what was in my heart and mind. Sometimes it was as though I was walking through my home after a funeral seeing the things of life lying about, their purpose no longer what it had been, and not yet reordered into a new meaning. These events came and went. In between I returned to new senses of who I was; and again I came to think of myself as a collection of thoughts and emotions.
But then a season of grief, lasting more than a year that contained one personal storm after another, battered against me. So much of what I’d held dear in my life collapsed. As though one hurricane lined up after another, I saw the structures of my imagination, the life I’d build from within and the life that manifested outside of me, fall and crash into chaos. I’d never experienced such intense inner and outer destruction. As one tragedy came right after another, I thought I would be destroyed. After awhile, though, I began to be fascinated by the fact that I wasn’t.
It was then that the observation I’d made some time before truly sunk in. I was in “a crucible” and so much of what I’d thought was “me” was burning away. Sometimes the emotions in me truly felt like fire. But “I” was still there. It was then that I saw Jesus’s teachings very differently than I had before. In realizing that I am not my thoughts and feelings — but that I have thoughts and feelings — I saw the power of taking charge of those thoughts and feelings and shaping them as a gardener shapes a garden. The world we want to have take shape outside is given shape first within us.
Imagining is something we do together as well as on our own. It is a shared activity as well as one engaged in by individuals. It is something we do in relation to God and creation as well.
It is something many of us have plenty of experience with; although we may not be aware of it. When Christians come together to share in commemoration of holy days, there are often special selections of readings from the scriptures, and perhaps special liturgies, that help draw those gathered into an imagining of the thing or person being commemorated. The story that we share shapes our imagination and the thoughts and feelings that join together to build it. The experience of that imagining together can lead to how our thoughts and feelings are employed to help shape the world around us. Likewise, the sharing of Holy Communion often includes a sermon or homily and a sacred liturgy that help those gathered together to imagine together — to make real within those present — the stories of faith. Those stories of faith can thus inspire the building of a world around them that is shaped by that imagining.
Whether inside the individual, or in the context of relationship with others, the cultivation and shaping of the thoughts, feelings, and constructed imaginings are the first step to building, or creating, reality in our lives and in our world. That realized, it deserves careful cultivation so it will come to blossom all around us as well.
As aspects of the Christian life, how do we imagine ourselves united in the love of God? How do we see the many layers of relationship? How do we want this garden to bloom?