It’s only your imagination

By their fruits ye shall know them.

Matthew 7.16

A person is walking along the street and a thought comes to her: “I ought to phone my Auntie Julie. I know it is boring, and I never know what to say, but she must be lonely stuck in her flat with no visitors.”

Another person is reading a book and a particular sentence leaps out at him: “It is strange that while contemporary society places so much emphasis on external freedom, interior freedom is often given short shrift.” (Abbott Christopher Jamison, Finding Happiness, p. 36)

A third person is praying with the story of Jesus in the Wilderness. She suddenly imagines Jesus turning to her and saying, “Don’t keep asking me to free you from your temptations. Let yourself enjoy life more.”

A fourth person is engaging in some spiritual reading – maybe scripture, maybe one of the mystics – and he finds himself becoming quiet and still and caught up in the beauty of the words, thoughts, and images in the passage.

A fifth person is praying with her friend. An image and a passage of scripture comes to her. She offers it to her friend.

These people are a thoughtful bunch and they wonder what to make of their experiences. Maybe they even take them to spiritual direction. “Is this God speaking to me?” they ask. “Am I to heed this or is it just my own thoughts, only my imagination?” “How do I know if this is real?”

Path (photo by Julian Maddock)

When you are trying to make a decision in the normal course of events, how do you know when something is right? How do you come to an answer? Maybe you remember those times when something felt right. Maybe you have an internal ‘compass’ or ‘touchstone’ against which you measure your inclinations. Maybe you weigh up the evidence to work out what is better. And how is this any different when it comes to listening to God? May we use the same criteria?

These are important questions. They go to the heart of what the Christian tradition calls discernment. How do we know what is of God?

Let me say this, right from the get go: there is no solid ground to stand on; God cannot be pinned down. I assert that certain attitudes, qualities, and behaviours are of God: 

  • to love and to trust;
  • to express kindness and compassion;
  • to suffer “the slings and arrows” and not to fall into resentment;
  • not to blame but to take responsibility;
  • to relish life, to see life itself as a miracle, to enjoy the world, and not to be unduly attached;
  • to trust the silent (still, small) inner voice, and to resist the deniers, begrudgers, and other liars;
  • to express this in meaningful and creative work.

These are some of the values upon which all religions agree (though, I admit, not all sects within these religions). You may not agree with these values. The Truth is not susceptible to certainty. All I can say is that human beings have been experimenting for a few million years to discern what makes for happiness, and these values are ones that consistently come out on top.

This gets right to the heart of what God is. If we think of God as a being, something external to us, invisible and intangible, and we are waiting for ‘Him’ to ‘show up’ or give us a ‘word’ or just let us know what ‘He’ wants us to do, then of course we will struggle to know whether what we hear, imagine, and feel is from God (outside) or from ourselves (inside).

If we see that God is Being – that God is what we are, that God is inside, that we are inside God, that God is that Ground of Being everything indwells – then we have a different appreciation of the Universe to work with. Whatever goes on inside us is within God. When I look for God, I don’t look elsewhere. I look within – within myself, and within everything.

Meanwhile, I know that I am a multidimensional mess of wants, need, motives, desires, craving and aversion, conscious and unconscious. I need sifting. Not every voice is a trusty guide.

Back to the question: How do we know whether our thoughts, images, and feelings are of God? Answer: by their fruits we shall know them – by their effects. Does this thought evoke in me a feeling of love and compassion? Does this image invite me to a greater trust? Do these words make me appreciate and wish to engage with life more? Does this word of God open my heart? Do I feel invited to engage more creatively with a project that has meaning for me? 

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Howard Thurman

***

Ignatius talks about an increase in the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope, and love. Not that we suddenly become loving, faithful, and hopeful. (As far as I’m concerned, “It’s not looking good,” as James Finley is reported to have said.) How we decide whether something is of God is that we notice momentary changes in us. I get a glimpse that the person I dislike is hurting underneath her rebarbative exterior, and my poor, defensive heart cracks open a little. I take a break from the emails to go for a walk and as I step outside I feel myself relax with the fresh air and I remember that I love the outdoors, even if the weather is dreich. I fear the diminishment of old age, but there is a moment of trust when I remember that I am always in You and, although I cannot imagine it, I think that maybe I will continue to be with You in death. Over time, I remember to look beneath people’s exteriors, to step outside more often, and to remember You abiding with me.

Familiarity with God’s ‘voice’ happens incrementally. We follow the fleeting frissons of faith, hope, and love – and they lead us to happiness. In the longer term, these effects are prolonged and cumulative. We slowly become a more loving, trusting, open, creative, alive person. The measure is “the slow work of God” in the transformation of our lives.

***

Although you cannot see it, background radiation is all around us … natural (and harmless) … A cloud chamber is a simple device that allows us to see the passage of ionizing radiation. In other words, it allows for indirect observation of radiation.

How to make a cloud chamber

Like sub-atomic particles, we are not able to experience God directly. We know God by the traces of faith, hope, and love in thoughts, in imagination, in the heart, and in the body.

Or rather we do know God directly. We know God as our own bodies, and as our own thoughts and feelings and imagination.

Importantly, do not worry about getting it right. We learn by experimentation. You are already in God. It is ok to make mistakes. That’s how we learn.

A friend and colleague of mine quoted Joan of Arc to me the other day:

“You say God speaks to you, but it’s only your imagination.” These are the words spoken by the inquisitor to Joan of Arc during her trial for heresy.
“How else would God speak to me if not through my imagination?” Joan replied.

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