Job's friends come for a visit. He has nothing to offer them: no tea, no coffee, no bread fresh from the oven. Nothing. They sit in silence, all of them, four old men and a brimming youth. Job sighs and shifts on his ash heap; the afternoon plows on. In the courts of the sky a cloud roars up in the east. It boils with demons, locusts, frogs — Job gets to his feet, eye wide, swaying. "Why will He not regard me?" He staggers, then shouts: "He is not in the east; I cannot find Him in the west; I do not see Him in the north. And you can forget finding Him anywhere south of here." Now Job is bent like a fishhook. His hands clasp his knees. He has knuckles like walnuts. "I will not be reduced to silence," he whispers. "This dark mystery will not break me." God walks the streets of His holy city, pauses in the slow, slanted light of the afternoon. Lucifer waits on the corner, silent in fury, shielding his eyes against the light. "You will never have him," God says. "His anger is pure. It is a prayer that answers itself." He tosses a whirlwind from hand to hand.
"What is your name? 'Legion,' he replied." — Luke 8:30 Let me have your abyss, I said, let me have your fear. Give me the voices in your head that sobs will not dislodge. Give me the irons that tear your wrists, the rocks you drag, the devils without number. I will turn you inside out, I said. We know who you are, the demons shrieked. They swarmed — a locust cloud — around him. He tore at his throat; I saw inside him then, a broken vessel, the rotten seeds of death clustered in his heart. The whole village turned out to see him clothed and in his true mind. Beaming, but bruised, he was an innocent, inviting all to share his joy, swinging his chains into the sea under the bright sky. Leave us! they cried to me. What have we to do with you? We saw Lucifer fall like lightning from the sky; we do not know what havoc you've unleashed.
Maybe "Star Trek" is heaven. No war, no disease, no poverty, endless exploration, curiosity the passport to the far reaches of the universe. There is conflict, right against might. We save our firepower for protection. We do not interfere. There is a good deal of luck involved. We meet the strange and marvelous beings who find us odd, but amusing. There are worlds not found as yet within the stellar dust. The technology works — until it doesn't, and then we make do, as always, leaning on one another. We beam down with a message for those on the planet's surface: "Behold, we bring you great joy! Do not be afraid!"
Most of us think there must be something God hates about us. We are lost, down by the docks where the gulls wheel overhead like kites. We cannot understand why we are punished, how we come to be trapped in our ways. Our nature is to be suspicious. There is fire in the clouds; the earth is restless. Our shadows turn and writhe behind us. But yet, a grief is assuaged: A woman passes through a crowded room, her fingers trailing mercy; an old man ascends the stairs, each step a breath of prayer; a sky of stars hovers over mother and child far out to sea; a boy answers, 'Here am I,' into the sheltering darkness. A word is accepted by one who could not forgive; the giver bows his head in gratitude. A question is asked of us. It will take our lives to answer it. Spirit breathes within the spaces between us. There are reasons to think we are wrong about the hating.
Is this how we learn? The sun comes up, the moon goes down, the wind turns the corner with a smile. We go on. One chance each moment together makes the present. I buried a yesterday friend. Our lives from sixty years gone. We are changed. The tide has taken some, the waves have thrown others up on the sand, adrift these long years. God is silent, but not without promise. Within each grain of sand, the future memories of a pearl will bloom. We create with what's at hand. Do not cast away the silence of your grief and grace, the sun dropping behind the hills, light cooling on your shoulders, the stillness of the night spreading out like a blanket under the trees, teaching you the words you will learn by speaking.
It was bound to happen: we all go through that narrow door which swings wide for us. My friend got there first, a little out of breath, surprised, no doubt, how easily it opened.
I had hoped to catch him, having glimpsed him in the crowd ahead. “Friend!” I called out, as the traffic clattered past, but he was farther up the hill and would not have known my voice
from sixty years and a continent’s divide. As in a dream I saw him move, but I could not move. As in a dream I called out, but I could not make a sound.
We change from moment to moment, but not that we can see. Green leaf to brown while we are not looking. Then winter’s pale light and bare ruined choirs.
We see that door in front of us, our hand raised to knock. We hear the footsteps coming up. A voice behind the door calls out our name. We are home.
I think I have always been fascinated by imagination. When I was a teenager, it seemed to be the element that separated the true artists, musicians, poets, and writers from the rest of us. It was a quality that transcended mere talent and hard work. It was mysterious.
When I listened to the singer/songwriters of my time, like James Taylor, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell, they all seemed to have imagination in abundance. So did the Beatles, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Bruce Springsteen. All of them produced music and lyrics that looked afresh at the universals of love, loss, tragedy, beauty, and the spirit.
I studied them, pulled apart their lyrics and musical structure, looking for keys to their brilliance. What they did seemed effortless, an economy of words and composition that didn’t waste a note or a syllable.
I noticed the same in some of my favorite writers, beginning with Hemingway, a master at creating a scene with as few words as possible. In different ways than Hemingway, but no less imaginative, were Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, John Gardner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joan Didion, and James Lee Burke.
All of them, writers and musicians, drew on an inner power that expressed a more spacious vision than I found within myself. I wondered if you had to have lived a respectable number of years to write in that way. But many of these icons were doing some of their best work in their twenties and thirties. Maybe you had to travel the world on a merchant freighter, be a short-order cook, do time in a county jail, start a business and fail at it, get married and divorced, or give up a law practice to write full time. Well, no, not really. All of that might give you experience to draw from, but it wasn’t necessary. There was something else.
Anne and Barry Ulanov’s book, The Healing Imagination, emphasizes imagination as the creative activity of the psyche and the soul. We work with the images that appear to us, often unbidden. “They just happen,” they write, “They arrive in consciousness from the unconscious, like a wisp of spirit. . . they speak of another life running in us like an underground river-current.”
I’ve come to believe that this creative impulse in all of us originates with the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t recognize it as such. No matter how it plays out and through whom it appears, imagination is critical to our humanity and to our spiritual growth.
The development of imagination, for example, in the act of creative writing, whether it be fiction, essays, drama, sermons, songs, or poetry, is an exercise in dropping the barriers to one’s inner life. “Art’s desire,” comments Jane Hirshfield, in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, “is not to convey the already established but to transform the life that takes place within its presence.” The presence of an unexpected newness.
We see this newness in the parables and sayings of Jesus. They are a wellspring of wisdom, never depleted on multiple readings. I believe Jesus discovered how to listen to his unconscious, that depth which is in all of us, and how to open his mind and spirit completely to God. What he offered the disciples was a glimpse of that imaginative power.
Our reflex is to reject these images. The new breaks in upon us often without form, almost unrecognizable at times. Hirshfield comments in Ten Windows that it’s a question of how much of the random, chaotic, and the mysterious we are willing to admit into our lives, assuming we have a choice.
We can also draw a distinction between hope and imagination. We can think of hope as an extension of present reality, but with the possibility of God breaking in to make something new. Then imagination is the seed from which hope grows. Our difficulty is in perceiving and believing that God can bring a new creation from the chaos of our situation.
Cease to dwell on days gone by
and to brood over past history.
Here and now I will do a new thing;
this moment it will break from the bud.
Can you not perceive it (Isa. 43:18,19)?”
The Ulanov’s note that our play as children in imaginatively creating personalities for our stuffed animals and toys, sustains our capacity as adults to enjoy and create images of God from tradition, Scripture, and experience. “Imagination digs the soil,” they write, “and brings the water so that what comes to us grows . . . In this space between our single unconscious life and our shared conscious life with others, imagination plays and heals.”
For poets, artists, and the rest of us, what really matters in life begins with questions: Who are we now? What shall we be? Where will we find healing for our souls? How can we respond to hatred and indifference with love, justice, and mercy?
Since the first thing to go in a crisis is imagination, our subversion of the status quo is plain: we must begin to imagine together the newness of what our worship, our service to our communities, and our spiritual arts could look like in the face of such global shifts as climate change, the displacement of millions, and the presence of COVID in our midst.
The preacher enters the pulpit. The waiting watchful befriend her like a cloak. In the round silence of those before her she breathes — in, out, in. But this moment! Perfect communion lies within her, just as the infinite bowl of the sky and the sea — arms open — enjoy their widest horizon. A poet lays down a line, scrubs it out, tugs a thread of memory up to the light, tests its tensile strength, rappelling down the sheer face of terror — almost delight. On the sea cliff a diver waits, counting the waves, marking his breaths, holding this moment — all heart and bones — as near to prayer as the cry of a newborn. Each one enters Creation innocent of the abyss, the leap itself containing all.
"What do you see?" he asked me. It was a simple question: describe what is before you,
give it a name. Do you remember? No? Well, do the best you can. All this was in my head then,
but I froze, all categories lost, edges blurred into backgrounds, names of things locked in a child's room.
"I see men," I cried, "They look like trees." Would uncarved hope make it true enough, this true answer, short of the mark?
"How about now?" he said, and touched my eyes again, thumbs across my eyelids.
We were tested, both of us, and passed.
for some sign of human feeling.
Nothing’s here but gelled indifference,
cooling to the touch.
God thunders in the
mountain pass. A juniper
throws arms against the line of squalls.
Granite teeth are bared.
beyond the blackened timber.
Here it is, the tool
to strip the flesh from one’s own breast,
expose one’s heart toward the sky
beneath the stars in four directions.
Spirit, take this heart of stone, this
lichened stone and break it slow.
I hold it to the sky of rain
if you will green its life again.
Do you hold your breath, far God,
delighting in your showering grace,
though most will only see it
as a warp within the slant of light?