'Rekindling the Christic Imagination,' by Robert P. Imbelli: June Selection

In the 1980s, the American short story writer Raymond Carver penned a story called “A Small, Good Thing.” It is a haunting story that includes, at once, the death of a child and an ending that illustrates the hope of companionship: the breaking of bread together. The bread served to the grieving parents becomes an instrument of reconciliation, nourishment, conversation and healing. The bread is “a small, good thing.”

The Catholic Book Club’s June selection, Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization, by Fr. Robert Imbelli, might also be called a small, good thing. It is a brief, accessible book that sits perfectly in one’s hands. Its pages are heavy and glossy, its margins wide, its print clear, its headings helpful, its notes and bibliography thoughtful and informative and its artwork striking. The book is a small, beautiful thing that consists in four mediations about Jesus Christ, Trinity, Eucharist and Church. At the heart of the book is a reassurance of the transformative presence of Jesus Christ in the world, in the church and in that which reconciles humanity with its Creator: Jesus Christ present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

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Though only 100 pages long, the book is comprehensive: it refers to Dante, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Simone Weil, Charles Taylor, Etty Hillesum, Andre Dubus, as well as Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, Teilhard, de Lubac, Rahner, von Balthasar, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Imbelli also draws generously from Scripture, especially in his comprehensive presentation of Christ from his anticipation in the Servant Song of Second Isaiah through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension as portrayed and preached in the Gospels, the Pauline epistles and the apostolic letters. For, as Imbelli writes:

The eyes of Christian faith perceive this fullness in Jesus Christ. He is Torah, Temple, and Sabbath in person. His crucifixion is the burning bush of God’s holiness and his resurrection the “I am” of God’s ever presence. The new covenant has been established in his crucified and risen body and will not pass away because, by his Ascension, Jesus’ humanity has been assumed into God (30).

Imbelli recalls for his readers Jesus’ saving ministry and its efficacy:

[Christ’s] cross is the consummation of his passion for communion to the point of taking on himself the sins of the world. His resurrection is the beginning of the new creation…. Resurrection, then, is the end, the goal of incarnation: humanity fully transformed and glorified in God. Whether in the first century or the twenty-first, this Good News is the heart of evangelization (15).

And so, as a consequence, we who live in the present secular age must appropriate the Christic narrative of Scripture in order to, as Imbelli writes:

[…] attract hearts and minds searching for meaning and purpose in their lives and relationships. The beauty, goodness, and truth of Jesus must lay hold of us as we strive to fathom the extent of the transformation to which he summons us. Jesus’ passion for communion and his Eucharistic imagination must fire our passion and enkindle our imagination, not only in the enthusiasm of conversion, but throughout the transfigurative journey of discipleship (16).

Reassurance—perhaps, re-animation and re-creation—in Christ leads to a commitment to ressourcement (the recollection and contemplation of the wisdom of the early centuries of the church) as well as the crucial mission to re-appropriate the riches of the Christian faith to the present realities of the world. Such reappropriation reflects Jesus’ passion for communion and rekindles the modern Christian’s hope for unity and holiness within the Body of Christ, the church.

For Imbelli, the church is the place of unity and holiness (76). The church, anchored in the revelation of Christ, seeks its own transformation or “Christification” and extends its desire for authentic Christification to the whole world (83). The scope of the church encompasses the communion of saints and the Eucharistic table. The church is the place of liturgy that recalls the triune nature of the Christian God and enkindles among its members Jesus’ own passion for communion. Such a rekindling of the Christic imagination serves to combat modern despair stemming from fear of death and isolation. A comprehensive, contemplative grasp of the incarnation precludes the modern tendency toward excarnation—a Gnostic distortion of human life and desire. Christ overcomes isolation and fear. For, Imbelli writes:

The incarnation of Jesus realizes its continuing presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and patiently works its ultimate purpose: to fill up the body of Christ – the body of redeemed humanity. These are dimensions of the one enfolding and unfolding mystery: the Love in which we live and move and have our being (92).       

Thus, Scripture, Eucharist and Church underscore a Christic center through which humanity is invited to genuine communion with one another and with God. Christian art and literature reflect this Christic center and the transformation it inspires and nurtures.

I urge members of the Catholic Book Club to spend some time with Fr. Imbelli’s book. Do not simply read it, but pray with it. May it reassure you in your faith and enkindle in you a Christic and Eucharistic imagination. I assure you that Fr. Imbelli’s book is a small, good thing.

Also, take a look an interview that Boston College Libraries conducted with Fr. Imbelli. It serves as a fine introduction to the book and the man who wrote it.

Finally, please consider these questions and contribute to our discussion of the book:

1. In your contemplation of Jesus Christ, have you ever considered Jesus’ imagination? What might the Christ of the Gospels imagine? What does the risen Christ imagine for you?

2. Is there a work of art—painting, sculpture, novel—that inspires in you a deeper recognition of God’s presence in creation? What is it? How might this work of art inspire a meditation such as the ones presented by Fr. Imbelli? 

3. Do you have any questions for Fr. Imbelli?

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Christopher Rushlau
3 years 6 months ago
To clarify your study questions, and especially to put this point to Fr. Imbelli: Rahner, with Aquinas, places the act of knowledge ("this is one of those") in the imagination where the intellect encounters and depends on the sensory image of that which is known, God and other immaterial beings being known by the "excessus" and "remotio" of earthly, bodily-received sensations. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to find in Rahner's foundational "Spirit in the World" any reference to imagination as that which lets one inhabit a world of one's own making--that modern usage of "imagination" as unrestrained fantasy. (There is a pejorative reference to "chimera" in a footnote after the text has said that if one attempts to appropriate in an act of knowledge a thing which does not exist, one does not in fact make a judgment--which point is not pursued but which doesn't sound at all consoling a thing to happen.) What did/does Jesus know? Is that what your first question asks? That would push the discussion along the way of, in the second question, trying to follow that way, and, in the third, finding out what Fr. Imbelli's further intentions are on this point. The idea that we please God, or, worse yet, God demands we try to please God, by pretending something sounds to me like a bad idea, looking back on my life so far. Such a course seems to isolate one in a poorly-run prison of one's own making, sealed in by any convenient party line cant that may be around to legitimize that solipsism ("the self alone"). It seems (pardon me for teaching your own embraced doctrine to you, Fr. Spinale) the furthest thing from "recollection", the Jesuit sense of becoming integrated again. I congratulate you on a very nice set-up to this book. If you hear lurking in my remarks here, "What about Rahner's 'anonymous Christian'?", I will confess I did not search the grounds before inviting you into these thoughts. That notion may be in the underbrush here. Is such a poetic turn of phrase as I just used, despite what I said about pretending not being the same at all as faith, necessary to the life of faith? Must one make up one's own language, in the way the poet departs from the path of prose, in order to talk with the God one actually encounters? Must one's spiritual chat with a neighbor also be willing to leave the prosaic path behind? I think that's a frightening thought but that it also confirms what we all find, which makes sharing faith a whole lot of work, since the poet's sole criterion is total honesty: taking refuge in cliches of imagery is only another way of taking refuge in abstractions: nowheresville, where sterile political correctness is all. Thank you for the reading suggestion.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 6 months ago
Though I shy away from the "imaginative" aspect of Jesus, I listened to the podcast and downloaded the Kindle sample. Imbelli's use of art (as opposed to the Aquinas conceptual approach) is what intrigues me. I hope that the Kindle version has a good representation of the art. If not, I may have to get the paper book.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 6 months ago
Kindle sample does not represent the art well ... just ordered the paper version. Looking forward to reading/praying with it.
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 6 months ago
The podcast was instructive in showing the author's love of dichotomies, but if there is a single central Catholic intellectual tradition, it is that Manichaeism is wrong: there is not an essential tension in the world between equally-opposed forces, good and evil, concepts and feelings, concepts and art: there are not in the end two: there is one. God is always triumphant. That leaves you with the much-derided Great Chain of Being, where all things flow from God ("in whom we live, move, and have our being") and the essential but very difficult concepts of the analogy of being (we and all things have being in various measures while "the divine essence is existence itself") and participation (so we all participate in God in some measure). But without the concept of being as a reminder, we surrender ourselves to fantasies in which we are entirely our own gods, as in Isaiah 44's story of the man with the two blocks of wood: and we suffer the consequences of such presumptuousness. The one thing we can never do is divide our people, the people, all the people, the people of God, into two peoples: racism based on the fallacy of races. If I do not love the person whom I can see, how can I claim to love the God whom I cannot see? This is upon me even if everybody around me are agreed that it is mete and appropriate that one person should die so we may all continue as we have been: in our arbitrary exclusivity. I hear the groans of that person, and I know you do. The fact that we cannot say any more than this about God's plan for us, God's "provision" (literally, seeing ahead), locates the human factor, the human problem, in the question of the Good Samaritan. It is hard to see Jesus in that role as the defining characteristic of his ministry, but that may be because the Roman Empire, the focus of evil in his day in its racism, idolatry, and national security priorities, adopted his franchise, his cachet, and transmitted it to us. Jesus did not call for the overthrow of the Roman Empire, perhaps, but he did call for the purification of the temple, what we might call the marketplace of ideas, in whose abuses Roman imperial pretensions become more real to us than the cries of the man who fell among thieves. When you meet a vet of the Iraq or Afghan wars, ask her what a "hajji" is. That is the test and measure of your faith in the risen Christ. I seem to sound like a ranting Quaker. I only wish I could rant better.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 6 months ago
I like your rant, Christopher :-) ... I can be a bit of a ranter myself. I scratched the surface of clearing off my bookshelf this weekend. Got rid of everything that reeked of "spiritual" or "holy". All (except one) of the Karl Rahner, Chesterton, the Dalai Lama, etc. I found one book - "The World in a Pot of Tea" - that almost made me gag. It's all too intellectual and word-y for me right now. Answers in the form of concepts, analyses, getting it right.. Heck with holy. I'm taking a chance on art this time around. What is real and right in front of me. Just got a notice that my book won't arrive until Thursday of this week. I'll let you know how it goes.
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 5 months ago
Do you want to see what is real and right in front of you? Art is artificial, per the etymology ars + fex, "skill" + "make". Van Gogh said he painted to teach people how to see. The holy people who bypassed the man who fell among thieves didn't see a man, they saw a case of ritual impurity. If you look at an Egyptian whose democratically elected president was stolen from him by the international community's demand that that President obey the judges (who are now sentencing people to death right and left), do you see a case of ritual impurity and turn away?
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 5 months ago
I think that I get your drift, Christopher. We must respond to injustice and not get distracted by a "religious" veil of interpretation. Am I close to understanding what you are saying? I have received my book and am working my way through it. At first I found myself turning pages, page after page, and just looking at the words. It made me tired. I've read plenty of "spiritual" books and Fr. Imbelli is obviously an intellectual who likes to lay things out with words. Lots of them. Then I looked a the art and read just a little bit and I could hold on to that for awhile. Chew on it. Now I am picking up the book and reading a paragraph here and there at random. That is working out better for me. I am on somewhat of a quest to find Jesus (weird as that sounds). In a way that is not tied up in dogma (words, ritual impurity?), but is real. Right here, right now, real. I may be passing by the man who fell among the thieves simply by not recognizing the Jesus-truth that holds both/all of us.
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 5 months ago
I just submitted a reply which has been caught up by the spam filter: queued for moderation. If you want to read it and it does not appear, I suggest you contact the magazine and ask to read it. I cannot reproduce it by back-clicking. (The next day). I don't know what word tripped the tripwire. I will suggest that the staff of the magazine may be away from their desks in some sense. But this all leads me to sympathize a bit more with you about not being able to find any decent conversations within the confines of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately I must report that the same is true of Protestant churches. Hint: what do they have in common, right now, right here, today, in this summer of 2014 where three of our teenagers are missing on the West Bank? Further hint: all teenagers on the West Bank are our teenagers. As are all teenagers elsewhere.
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 5 months ago
I just read a scene in a thriller where someone hangs a big mirror in a tree by a horse-racing course so the sun flashes in the horses' and riders' eyes and makes them fall over each other at a jump (English steeple-chase, "Odds Against" by Dick Francis, 1964). If we could see God, what would we see? But everyday spirituality uses this idea if you define that as distinguishing illusion from fact. Facts are things that exist: a lie is like a true statement in every respect except there being no thing where the statement tells you you should see something, some thing. That missing thing ("evil is the absence of good", Augustine of Hippo) could be considered a darkness and a thing that is there, which you were led to find by a true statement, has a sort of light. So being as such could be considered light. So Van Gogh, for instance, telling his brother that he wanted to teach people to see, well, there you are, isn't it? I love the way English people talk.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 5 months ago
I am slowly, and rather haphazardly, reading this book. Though I am far from forming any responses to the book as a whole, I am forming some reflections as I go along that I would like to express. I have always been drawn toward the notion of a Trinitarian God (read many of George Maloney's books about 20 years ago), but I realize that it was an intellectual "tease" for me. If I really consider the actuality of a Trinitarian God, my whole notion of who God is and who I am and the reality of prayer is radically changed. My very life is encompassed in a new and different vision of reality. I am pulled into a Christ-body that makes every breath (of mine) a sort of dialogue/word that is, without my doing anything, of intimate importance. A question for Fr. Imbelli: can this happen outside of Catholic Church dogma? I understand what you (and Flannery O'Conner) are saying about dogma being the protector of mystery, but what about people like Eckhart Tolle, who seems to be interpreting a new kind of consciousness to the unChurched that is awfully similar to what Christ conscious (and death of the ego) is to Trinitarian relatedness. Also, to what extent do you think that tired and pious rituals that are mostly based on superficial superstitions (and elaborate, medieval clerical extravaganza) contribute to Catholics no longer attending weekly Mass? Did dogma get so watered down and removed from its spiritual source that it lost its appeal? Do people like Eckhart Tolle (and other so called "New Age" spiritual teachers) have anything to say to Christology? Or are they irrelevant and distracting? The book challenges me toward "Person". Jesus is a person. I am a person. Rublev's artistic rendering of the Trinity is of three "persons", and the relatedness between those persons. Perhaps most profoundly, Imbelli says that Jesus is not only the way to salvation, he, himself, IS salvation. This is very strong stuff. It takes me many days and nights to consider what is being said here, and how to respond to it. Imbelli also speaks of the "new creation" that is brought about by Jesus' resurrection. I ask myself if it is possible for me to enter this "new creation" here and now? Is it a new kind of consciousness/being? Do all the roads of the many spiritual teachings of mankind lead here, or only Christianity? Imbelli seems to imply that Christianity is different from the other religions, a unique kind of consciousness. (am I interpreting this correctly?) There are many paragraphs in the book that go over my head. For example, on page 14 Imbelli says that "Christ's crucifixion is ultimately attributable to human sinfulness ..." I have never gotten this He died for our sins stuff, and here it is again. I have to just pass over this. I continue to explore this book, though, because there is much in it that does indeed lead me to a deeper (and different) kind of prayer.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 5 months ago
I have a another question for Fr. Imbelli regarding Christ’s crucifixion and human sinfulness, if I may. If our sinfulness (greed, selfishness, pride, etc.) is due to our ego-riddled nature, and supposedly Jesus (and Mary) were like us in all things but sin, does that mean that Jesus had no ego — or at least no ego sins? Is sin (ego riddled-ness) the root of our fear of death? (or is it the other way around? is our fear of death the root of our sin?) But Jesus appeared (in the Garden of Gethsemani) to fear suffering and death like the rest of us. Did Jesus have an ego? I know that I’m looking at this in a sort of evolutionary way. With Adam came ego, and a awareness of ourselves in the universe, as well the knowledge that who we think that we are (ego) will die. And a fear of that death. With Jesus comes an overcoming of death, a willingness to go through death to the “new creation” - a new awareness of who we really are. There are many spiritual teachers from many traditions who say this in various ways. What precisely is it about Jesus and Christianity that is unique? The "person" thing? The pulling of body and blood into the very essence of God?
ELIZABETH MALONE
3 years 5 months ago

I’m with Beth when she suggests that words, words, words are no substitute for a personal encounter with the Word Incarnate (6/16 and 6/21) but sometimes they can take you on an interesting tour while you’re waiting. I found this book to be an interesting mystical tour in which Fr. Imbelli attempts to bring old traditions back to their source in the Risen Christ. If the route is circuitous it’s probably because there is no direct path into the center of the mystery. He believes that effective evangelization in our secular world begins with the overwhelming felt presence of Christ in our midst. And I think that is exactly what’s missing in so many efforts to reach the unconverted. No one will come to Christ if they feel Christ is not paying attention to them.
In Rekindling the Christic Imagination, Fr. Imbelli, speaks to evangelizers about the subject of evangelization (the Risen Christ) but, like so many who would bring Christ to the world, he tends to skip over the significant third member in the equation. Perhaps this is only because they need and deserve separate consideration but I don’t see how the project of evangelization will ever be effective if those to be evangelized are not given serious attention also. Father Imbelli does go as far as identifying the unconverted as “excarnated” but offers little more after sketching in the meaning of this condition. At the end he himself hints at the book’s deficiency when he quotes Irenaeus: “in reality every authentic act of evangelization is always new”.
In reality, every act of evangelization must be new because no two persons will ever experience the absence of Christ in exactly the same way—or his presence either for that matter. That the Church sincerely wants to make Christ present for all souls is beyond question. Sometimes this can happen only when the words stop and the cries coming out of the void are heard.

I have wondered at times about Jesus’ thinking processes and how he imagines the workings of redemption. But until now, it has never occurred to me to ask what the Risen Christ might imagine for me. The question was always “what is God’s plan for you?” And that is a question I rejected out of hand long ago because it implied a sweeping executive action on God’s part that I just couldn’t square with free will. That rejection, of course, left me with only “the hint half guessed, the gift half understood.” And that has not been a bad thing (in hindsight).
To reframe the question as ” what does Christ imagine for you?” feels a lot less claustrophobic. It makes room for a creative dynamic in which God and I continually imagine and re-imagine in response to one another as grace and decision bear fruit—or not. It even starts to sound like fun: what can we dream up for tomorrow? So part of the answer to “what does the risen Christ imagine for you?” is that he imagines me imagining what he imagines for me. How cool is that?

Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 5 months ago
Very cool, Elizabeth. This may sound heretical, but I've always sort of sensed that God gives us the reins. It is OUR imagination and dream that influences God.
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 5 months ago
While we're waiting for these other people to respond, let me tell you a joke I made up. Pope John Paul II was hanging out in the Vatican one day with Mother Angelica, and he was working on a new encyclical. He called out to her, "Hey, Mother, come look at what I'm working on--maybe you could give me a few ideas on how it's coming." She said, "Ohhh, no, ohhh, no, Your Holiness. That's YOUR job. You decide what you write, and I'll believe it." Look at Jerry Seinfeld, in the brief intro to his comedy series' episodes, or maybe it's at the closing credits, where he's telling a joke to some comedy club audience, and he's got a look on his face that says no heckler will shut him up, he's there to shut them up and make them think: that's a good way to imagine Jesus in action, wouldn't you say?
ELIZABETH MALONE
3 years 5 months ago
I would say that's fair if it's hecklers we're talking about.
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 5 months ago
I just looked up "Jesuit scholastic". I perhaps should apologize for overburdening Mr. Spinale (as Wikipedia says I may address him as a Scholastic, beginning his journey to priesthood). Well, we'd hate for him to enter the priesthood without having had some taste of pastoral duty. I was wondering, though, whether the Jesuits can survive the "priest shortage" in their particular chrism of intellectualism. Perhaps that's the sort of person who is least likely to become a priest these days. What would Karl Rahner say? He'd probably say, sure, why not? His brother, Hugo, might say, come on, Karl, quit kidding around. Hugo Rahner's "Man At Play" might be just the book for this website, published first in 1952.
ELIZABETH MALONE
3 years 5 months ago
I meant this as a reply to Beth's reply (6/26) and obvoiusly clicked the wrong button somewhere along the line. Haven't figured out how to redo it. Anyway: If hear you rightly,Beth, I would have to say that’s certainly been part of my experience and could probably write for days about it. I’ll just say that it’s dawned on me only recently that the God we get is probably the God we’re able to imagine not because that’s the God Who Is but because imagination limits our experience until something happens to make us think we’ve been missing something. Maybe this is what Fr. Imbelli is getting at: How can the Church best answer that sense that we’ve been missing something--or even foster it?

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