It takes imagination to see the unseen in our lives

January 24, 2017

What does it mean to be a child of God? How can we, at any age, relate to being a child of the incomprehensible holy Mystery? Do we focus on how God perceives us, His child, or on how the Mystery will unfold and become apparent through our life experiences? This theological question might be best discussed by reflecting on the concept of religious imagination. 

Aristotle taught that, as the eye needs light to see, so the intellect needs imagination to know. Though we are blessed to be a child of God at every age, we know that in the early childhood years of life we are already ultimately rooted in our spiritual existence. It is not known to us intellectually, but this truth is expressed in our existence — a genuine experience of God. All other life experiences will build upon this one. How we interpret those ongoing encounters with God will continually transform how we know ourselves as a child of God.

Imagination does not provide new knowledge, but it does allow us an avenue to more clearly see, feel and understand that which is implicit in us. It can be a positive or negative influence. It can improve a situation or make it worse. We all have and use the gift of imagination. It involves all of our senses and flows from our memory and emotions. How then might this great human resource aid us in teaching children about the faith and aid them in developing their relationship with God?

Living involves the total person, as does living a faith-filled life. Young children naturally exhibit the use of imagination. For them it is a form of discovering themselves and the world around them in ways that are safe and very enjoyable. Imagination is central to our faith, allowing one to see the unseen and appreciate the presence of God, explaining why Christ often stated that having a child like faith was advantageous to adults. Children possess the ability to be freely dependent on God, represented by their parents initially, and totally trusting that kindness, care and protection will be extended to them.

In Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, an experiential approach to faith formation based on Montessori principles of education, children as young as three are helped to come closer to God by themselves. The catechesis acknowledges that the child has a relationship with God and introduces the child to the Bible and our Liturgy through hands-on materials that free the child to develop their relationship with God and the Church through their experience and imagination. Together the catechist and the child become co-learners seeking together the mystery of God and God’s kingdom.

Imagination is useful and even desirable in meditative prayer. Even the youngest child can visualize the spoken word to create and recreate images that satisfy and deepen one’s thoughts and experiences. Cultivating our imagination enhances our prayer life. As one matures it’s the events in life that may lead our prayer life. Those same events may inspire our imagination to define our religious beliefs based on how we continue to define the truths of ourselves and our life experiences. For Christians, we get to the truths of ourselves by spending time in prayer and reflection. 

One way all persons often and easily grasp truths is through hearing stories. This is precisely why people of all ages are drawn to telling and hearing stories. Inside a good story is a lesson or truth that can spark our imagination to better claim our reality and possibly do something to improve our life. Jesus, the master storyteller, demonstrated for us how positively stories can affect listeners by not directly giving them an order or an answer. Stories provide space for the one’s heart to connect to the heart of the story when one’s imagination is fully engaged. True imagination is beholding a truth of God.

A child is fully human all of their life. The development of that human life involves having experiences that define one’s existence and connection to the world. Each child’s development is unique and unknown, being revealed as time and experiences allow. As we mature, each time we use our senses, via imagination, to envision new possibilities we improve our chances of building better relationships through acts of justice and love. 

By doing so, we build up the Kingdom of God. Being a child of God is an ongoing process, which began when we were first loved into existence by God and in return were open to receive his gift. The connection between a youthful childhood and a mature childhood is the fact that both maintain an orientation to God. It is sincere acts of faith, hope and love that directly link us to a Christian life that professes our child of God status at all ages. 

Charleen Katra is an Associate Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.