Love-Fevered Imagination

Interesting phrase. “It’s just your imagination.” We use it to tell another that her fears spring from her mind rather than reality, as though the two weren’t intertwined. Fears are part world, part whimsy. That’s true as well of inventions and inspirations. They begin with what is and take us to what might be. A world without imagination wouldn’t be one where humans could live. As that wise wizard Albus Dumbledore once said to his protégé, Mr. Potter, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

A new work by the French philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva has just been translated in English. It’s a novel entitled Teresa, My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila (2014). Unless you’re a devotee of all three—philosophy, psychoanalysis, and Teresa of Avila—it’s 595 pages you may want to pass. But consider this passage. An email from one academic to another, comparing Cervantes to the Carmelite saint:

[w]ho cares if the Quixotic visor is made of pasteboard! Our visionary was able to turn a swineherd driving his pigs through the stubble into a dwarf sounding a horn to herald his arrival at the next castle. And who cares if Jesus is not really walking by the Carmelite’s side? She enjoys him deep in her guts, skewered by the dart of the heavenly lad who appears in her dream. The force of desire is enough to transform an inn and its host into a great fortress commanded by a splendid lord, girls of easy virtue into noble maidens, and a laborer on an ass equipped with a saddlebag and bota of wine (one can’t imagine Don Quixote without Sancho Panza!) into a faithful squire.
The novelist and the nun seem to be saying the same thing: that the love-fevered imagination must never, God-forbid, be asked for evidence! You have to understand that in these misty regions of human truth, things are neither demonstrated nor disproved, they are imagined (380).

Kristeva sees Teresa as a kindred spirit, a genius of the imaginative. In her the human spirit reached a new, self-evident sagacity, which is why “the love-fevered imagination must never be asked for evidence.” Shakespeare made a similar linkage.  “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, are of imagination all compact.”

Saint John calls Jesus the light of the world. Interesting thing about light. It doesn’t change what’s in the world, it simply illumines it. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus is the light, who comes into the world. Nothing in the world alters, yet everything changes for one who comes to love, and live within, this light. The love-fevered imagination must never be asked for evidence.

The other morning, I stepped outside, and paused to look up at the sky. Against the cerulean blue of a Kansas dawn, I saw an illumined cluster of clouds. I suddenly realized that I was being greeted by angels, so I paused and took in the grace. They were beautiful clouds, but no more lovely than any other day. How can I be so sure about their source, about how they entered my imagination?

After all, people can be terribly wrong about their imaginations. They can be deluded into thinking that they have touched the divine. We can be as wrong about inspiration as about anything else. So, how do we discern its source? The evidence isn’t in the quality of imaginative experience. It’s in its fruit. Does it change our world for the better?

The saints were convinced that good and evil warred in the imagination, just as they did everywhere else. The imagination simply had to be experienced, fearfully or happily, as the place where the human opened to something beyond itself, so it could be sanctified, deified. To resist the imagination was to still the Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes to us in the depths of the human, in the imagination. That’s where the human breaks free of itself.  That’s what inspiration means.

This morning I went out, and a silver, three-quartered moon met me. I thanked Our Lady for the greeting. Yes, evil and delusion roam the imagination, but that’s also where God and grace are to be found. It’s in the imagination that sin does battle with the Spirit, where the human becomes the heavenly. Why, where else would they meet?

2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-33  Ephesians 2: 4-10  John 3: 14-21

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