Guest Post by Fra José Maria Barbin, FI: The Beautiful Struggle

I am pleased to post here an essay of one of our friars, Fra José Maria Barbin on the subject of the imagination and Marian Chivalry.  I am thoroughly in accord with his insights and am grateful for his contribution.

In conjunction with I can heartily recommend also the teaser videos of Kevin O’Brien and Joseph Pearce on Tolkien. The ETWN production, and the talents of Kevin and Mr. Pearce, make looks the $10 that they are asking look like robbery.

And now. . . 

The Beautiful Struggle: “Sanctifying the Imagination”

All things come from God; and above all, reason and imagination and the great gifts of the mind. They are good in themselves; and we must not altogether forget their origin even in their perversion.

G.K. Chesterton puts these words on the lips of Father Brown in the detective story The Dagger with Wings. Truly, the priest-investigator was on to something. Benedict XVI denounced what he dubbed the “dictatorship of relativism.” Pope Francis warns us not to fall into the pit of “aesthetic relativism” (Evangelii Gaudium 167). We must never allow the abuse of reason and imagination to make us “forget their origin.” Father Brown was truly on to something—perhaps on to something mysteriously deeper than anything we imagine.

It is crucial to examine the indispensable role that the imagination plays in our gradual maturity in Christ (Col 1:28) and how its use in an un-knightly fashion inevitably places a serious impediment to the attainment of our full “manhood in the Gospel,” to borrow an expression from Bl. John Henry Newman. Thus, we should discover the necessity of undertaking the beautiful struggle of sanctifying the imagination.

I believe we have to sharpen our Catholic sensibility to the widespread epidemic of the misuse of the imagination, because the exploitation of this faculty—expressing itself in “apparent beauty”—has a much more seductive charm than its correct use. The winsome and wayward imagination can wean even the bravest of men from the Cross of Christ. There are two extremes of this misuse, which may be illustrated by two contrasting literary figures. Eustace Clarence Scrubb, from Lewis’ Narnia myth, is charged of imaginative deprivation (defect), while Cervantes’ Don Quixote with imaginative presumption (excess).

Eustace Scrubb: The Dragon of the Mournful Countenance

C.S. Lewis, in his volume from the Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, has marvellously demonstrated a case of imaginative deficiency in the amusing character of Eustace Clarence Scrubb. The Pevensies’ annoying know-it-all cousin is a boy who “liked books [only] if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools” and who neither made things up himself nor enjoyed works of the imagination by others. Indeed, he was “quite incapable of making up anything for himself.” Eustace exemplifies all those who dislike tales, romances or imaginative literature generally. Eustace never dared and was unable to think outside the box because he had a double-layered bubble-wrapped imagination. The result? A rather natural consequence: a cold, dry, arrogant, wooden and boring character. A boy who lived in a rather peculiar “never never land” where boys were only concerned about “matters of consequence” as the Little Prince of Antoine de Saint Exupéry would call it.

Eustace overcomes his aversion to fantasy and his incapacity to properly use the imagination by living what he refused to experience imaginatively: he suddenly becomes a dragon and is enabled to go beyond the restricted, narrow, materialistic and rationalistic world he created for himself. I believe that the “Eustace experience” is but a surreptitious literary personification of the necessity to sanctify the imagination. Authentic imaginative experience possesses an eminently transforming character. The bothersome little boy that nobody likes gradually matures in Narnia; he unlocks his true character because in the engaging imaginative experience he is freed from trite and familiar view of things. He never read of talking animals in his textbooks, but in Narnia he meets them. In regaining a clear view of things, he strengthens his relish for real life.

Lifting the veil of familiarity from ordinary life does not simply consist in seeing what things are (the pre-dragonized Eustace only interested in information) but rather as we were meant to see them (the dragonized boy eventually freed by Aslan.) For certain, Eustace felt morose and glum while he was a dragon. However, putting on the thick rigid scales of a dragon was the only way to soften the heart of this hardheaded rascal. He had to immerse himself in another character in order to draw his real one out. In this way, imaginative engagement was an essential tool in the discovery of his true inner identity. Through the “sanctification of the imagination,” the immature little boy was transformed into a first-class squire, disposed to enrol himself in the knighthood of Aslan.

Don Quixote: The Knight of the Mournful Countenance

In the immortal masterpiece, Don Quixote by the Spanish king of poets, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, we see the complete opposite embodied in the figure of a middle-aged gentleman from the region of La Mancha. Don Quixote befuddles his imagination with the tales of knightly derring-do and fantastic deeds of chivalry. He decides that his world needs such a knight-errant and that he is just the man. Due to his mistreatment of the imagination, Don Quixote too lives in a sort of “never never land,” where he is paradoxically a self-appointed hero who constantly disturbs the peace. We read in chapter 18, that he often saw “in his imagination what he did not see and what did not exist.”

Far from lampooning genuine knighthood, what Cervantes fluently describes and brands with such mordant satire is a degenerated knighthood, stemming from a presumptive use of the imagination—the good old “art for art’s sake.” In consequence, the factor that originally sparks Don Quixote’s wild adventures, namely, an uncontrolled imagination, results in persistent misinterpretations of ordinary events he encounters on the road. The aftermath is only natural. He mistakes the windmills for giants. A funeral procession becomes a troop of devils carrying off a princess. A barber’s basin becomes the miraculous Helmet of Bambrino. We are told of how his unsanctified imagination “immediately conjured all this to him vividly as one of the adventures of his books.” The attempt to live chivalry, while failing to tame the “madman of the house,” only ends in humiliation and suffering.

In all this, the power of the Cervantes’ narrative lies in illustrating the gradual transformation of Don Quixote as he regains the balance of his imagination. In Don Quixote we have an eloquent proof of one thing: reality will always be a salutary kryptonite for those who imagine themselves to be superman.

The Zealotry of the Knight or the Lethargy of the Dragon? That is the question.

Neither. That is the answer.

Genuine knighthood has nothing in common with such aberrations and excrescences. The misuse of the imagination in an un-knightly fashion is but another expression of the modern spiritual tendency of wanting to play God. On the one hand, we have the boundless presumption of giving full reign to the “madman of the house,” to the point of the trampling the dignity of man; on the other hand, the negligence or fear of its legitimate use—the overly bubble-wrapped imagination. Both are a dereliction of duty. In fact, these two phenomena go hand in hand because they both stem from man’s denial of his metaphysical situation and his relation to Christ and the Blessed Virgin, and because man has repressed his awareness of his true nobility as the image and likeness of God.   Indeed, the human soul is God’s image because He gave us the ability to “subcreate,” that is, to “make as we are made” (Tolkien). Thus, we have the right and duty to exercise this gift for His glory.

The Journey of the Imagination to God

When it comes to theories on imagination, there exist several tantalizing fragmentary comments by different authors. In the Stateman’s Manual (1816), I believe Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers one of the clearest and fullest definitions of imagination:

that reconciling and mediatory power, which incorporating the Reason in Images of the Sense . . . gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths of which they are the conductors.

Likewise, according to C.S. Lewis, imagination can be defined as the mental faculty that puts things into meaningful relationships to form unified wholes.

In terms of theology and spirituality, the Franciscan worldview of exemplarism, or St. Bonaventure’s symbolic theology, affords a framework of beauty for the sanctification of the imagination. Here, the Seraphic Doctor’s primary concern is to explicitly affirm—in contrast with the modern spiritual tendency—the relations of expression between God and creatures. This metaphysical principle is eloquently formulated in Tract. De plantatione paradisi:

It is through mysterious and symbolic figures that the eye of rational intelligence is led to understand the truth of divine wisdom. For the wisdom of God invisible could not have made itself known to us in any other way than by conforming itself through similitude to those forms of visible things which we perceive, and by manifesting to us, in the form of signs, its invisible qualities which we do not perceive (n. 1, v. 575).

God expresses Himself in creation, and so the creature inevitably bears in its ontological structure a certain resemblance to God which is imprinted on it by the very act of creation. In this sense, the journey of the imagination to God, or the “dialectical” use of imagination, is tailored to St. Bonaventure’s exemplaristic end, that is, to discern, beneath the apparent diversity of things, the fine threads of analogy which bind to one another lead to God. “Contuition,” a typically Bonaventurian term, implies exactly this indirect intuition of God through finite realties. This is an ascetical and mystical approach, rather than a purely discursive one.

Eustace preferred not to use his imagination. Don Quixote used it too much. As St. Bonaventure writes in his Collationes in Hexaemeron: Christus tenens medium in omnibus. “Christ holds the central place in all things”—even in the use of our imagination. Christus unus omnium magister. “Christ is the one true Master.”

The inner pattern of the “vestige,” that is, the visible creature, is primarily its relation to God. For St. Bonaventure, as for St. Augustine, beauty is aequalitas numerosa, an ordered proportion of the parts to the whole. Hence, to see a thing as it is truly is—through the sanctification of the imagination—means to see its external beauty in relation to its Exemplar, the Word Incarnate, the fairest of the sons of men (Ps 44:2). In the last analysis, putting things in meaningful relationships, as C.S. Lewis puts it, ultimately consists in bringing the panoramic beauty of the world, in its multiplicity and variety of creatures, together into unity and in relation to the Word, the Eternal Beauty, or what Bonaventure called Eternal Art.

It’s not easy. But it’s a beautiful struggle.

St. Francis of Assisi, “the most valiant knight of Christ,” sanctified the imagination through the inversion of the chivalric culture into which he was born. St. Maximilian M. Kolbe, the “knight of the Immaculate,” sanctified his, by unlimitedly consecrating himself to the Tota Pulchra, the One who is All Fair (Song 4:7). So, let’s ask ourselves: the conversion and sanctification of souls; the building a Catholic culture; Marian Chivalry; what’s the imagination got to do with these? Perhaps, just perhaps, more than we imagine.

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