1 Introducing the Question: Catholic Imagination

Br. John Mark Falkenhain, OSB

Several years ago, I went over to a colleague’s house to work on a young adult retreat she and I were planning. Shortly after I sat down at the dining room table where we planned to work, Jane’s 4-year-old daughter, Annie, came over to my chair and blurted out rather matter-of-factly: “What’ll you have?” Slow to catch on, I looked over at Jane for a cue. “She’s a waitress,” Jane mouthed inaudibly. I nodded, turned and ordered a hamburger and fries. After she asked if I wanted “a Coke with that” and pretended to write my order down on the palm of her hand, Annie was off.

Our imaginations are born around the age of 3 when we achieve the important developmental milestone of semiotic language. Semiotic language is the ability to use words to represent objects, people and actions in our minds without them actually being present or taking place. A ball no longer need be within sight for a child to think about it and wonder what it might do if pushed down the stairs. And when a parent is not in sight, the child with semiotic language can wonder where he or she is.

Semiotic language is the engine behind imagination or “make believe” and allows the child to see a row of dining room chairs as a classroom full of children to teach, a sheet thrown over a card table as a fort from which to fight legions of attackers, or the coffee table and a plate of potato chips as a make-believe church for his 7-year-old Mass. In the same way that the preschool-aged child “tries on” these different identities, the adolescent later employs his imagination to try on different jobs, different kinds of relationships and different dreams as a means of discerning what he or she might be as an adult.

With the ability to wonder “What if…?,” the imagination becomes the key to our future identities and central to our vocations. And although we no longer find the late adolescent and young adult playing priest at the coffee table, or fireman with the garden hose, his imagination is just as busy wondering what it might be like to live life as a monk, to marry and raise children, or to serve the Church as a diocesan priest.

In fact, throughout our lives, we exercise our imaginations – our ability to ask “what if” – as we go about solving life’s problems, whether they arise in our professional lives, our personal lives or even our spiritual lives. Scientists, inventors and researchers use their imaginations all the time. So do philosophers, theologians and everyday Christians as they try to figure out how best to love, how better to serve, and how more fully to know and relate with God.

Some who are delighted by the active imaginations of children, struggle with its adult manifestation. It might be the abandonment that imagination requires that causes discomfort in some adults. After all, imagination requires a certain willingness to suspend what we know long enough to enter an imaginary world where conventions, reality checks and assumptions about “what is” loosen up and get challenged.

An adult who finds it cute that an arm cover from a couch can become a veil and transform a little girl into a nun may struggle to see how such imagination is useful in adulthood. Preferring to stick closer to the hard facts of reality – what we know to be true and real – the adult may strictly assign the world of “make believe” to childhood and cling strictly to logic, data analysis and proof as his tools of problem-solving.

Perhaps unfamiliar with the limits of knowing, the adult, in his insecurity, might shy away from (if not scorn) the dangerous territory of questioning truths, asking how we know something to be true, or even wondering if there are limits to what we think we know. And yet, that’s what philosophers and theologians, scientists and artists, and even mystics do – set aside what is known, or perhaps even question it, in order to ask if there is something more, something we have missed or don’t fully comprehend. “Let’s say for a moment…” “Let’s make (ourselves) believe…”


The thing that makes the mystics so threatening, and yet so important to us, is that they are willing to slosh around in uncharted territory and lean into their faith (their believing without knowing) in such a way that they eke out some new insight, knowledge or encounter with God that the rest of us are unsure of, shocked by or at least unfamiliar with. Their courage is in their willingness to loosen their grip on what they already know of God and sit in the presence of the Unknown.

We all accept, of course, that God is infinite and cannot be entirely known to us in this world. But why be satisfied? What if there was more we could know, this side of heaven? Whereas our natural human instinct is to cling to our knowledge of God, the mystics invite us to let go (not deny, but to let go) of what we already know long enough that our hands, eyes, minds and hearts might be open to what more God might be willing to reveal of Himself to us. They encourage us to imagine what we have not yet seen, heard or felt.

But then what is the difference between a mystic and a heretic? To map it into another plane, what is the difference between someone with a great imagination and someone who is psychotic? What if the “what if” is just a little too far out there?

What if “make believe” leads to a permanent belief in something that is simply wrong, unorthodox or dangerous? The difference between a mystic and a heretic, of course, is accountability and discipline, which often comes in the forms of study, the acceptance of limits, and relationship with an ultimate authority who can provide a reality check, feedback and an occasionally necessary redirection – in other words, accountability to a magisterium.

Let’s go back to children, for a minute. In my practice as a pediatric psychologist, I often encountered parents who were reluctant to discipline or say “no” to their children, fearing they might “shut down their child’s creativity” or “crush their spirit.” I used to handle these situations by bringing a cup of water into my office. After explaining all the wonderful things this water could do – quench thirst, water plants, wash the windows, cool off the kids playing outside – I would ask them to pour it out on top of my desk (actually, I never let them do this!) and then ask them to then consider how they might take a drink, water the plant or offer it to the kids if it is running all over the desk and onto the floor. What followed was a conversation about the importance of a container – limits and boundaries – if our precious resources like creativity and spirit (or in our case, imagination) are to be useful and productive.


When we study theology, familiarize ourselves with Church doctrine and steep ourselves in Catholic tradition, we build a container for our imaginations – or as our Fr. Harry Hagan likes to say, we “define the playing field” for our imaginations. With the boundaries clear, our imaginations are not so much confined, but rather set free to play, wonder, question and explore the far regions of our faith, confident that if we wander too far, the boundaries will redirect us and even help us deepen our understanding of what we actually believe: why this and not that?

In addition to defining the playing field, a solid foundation in Catholic thought and culture provides the Christian thinker with an expanded collection of ideas, concepts and vocabulary to analyze, synthesize and juxtapose as he stretches his understanding of what he believes. The more we know, the more fertile our imaginations become. A painter with only two tubes of paint – basic black and white – can do many interesting and imaginative things. But artistic possibilities explode when the palette blossoms to include tubes of emerald, azure, vermillion and magenta.

This, then, is the Catholic imagination: an imagination enriched and directed by a strong formation in Catholic theology, doctrine and culture. The Catholic imagination is an imagination set free, not made fearful, by its container of knowledge, truth, experience and accountability. It paints with a full-color spectrum of Catholic ideas, symbols and constructs, and waxes fluently in the languages of Scripture, the saints, and the mothers and fathers of the Church.

If a child with imagination can transform herself into a nun with only the arm cover of a sofa, imagine what an adult might do with a fully formed and freed Catholic imagination! He might turn mystic or theologian. She might expose some hidden glint of God or solve some great moral conundrum. He might love with incredible abandon or pray with fire at his fingertips and urgent longings in his heart.


Let’s look for a moment at a few models of Catholic imagination at work. They come in every age in the form of artists, writers, composers, theologians, activists and prophets – all of whom open for us a new view of what it means to be Christian. Some inspire us instantly with their direct and accessible brilliance. Others make us squirm and struggle a bit, pushing us out of our comfort zones as we work to grasp insights that sting and yet are so deeply rooted in our Catholic and Christian tradition that we can’t deny the challenging truth they reveal.

Flannery O’Connor’s uncanny ability to draw her readers to a deeper, sometimes disturbing understanding of theological concepts, such as grace, forgiveness, Eucharist and sin, is surely based on a disciplined and clearly studied grasp of Catholicism. Within this container, she exercises great imagination, leaving her reader with short stories that uncover grace in the most unexpected places, and forgiveness in the most undeserving of persons.

Take Ruby Turpin, for example, the main character in O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.” Ruby is us – an upright, pious and church-going, if somewhat self-righteous, woman who thanks God she has been given the right gift of faith. She holds tightly onto what she knows of God (or what she thinks she knows of God) only to be labeled an “old wart hog” from hell by an insolent, young student of the secular sciences!

Offended on her behalf, we smart with embarrassment (and confusion) when Ruby is delivered the final blow: a revelation of the Kingdom in which all the people she pities, including “lunatics and freaks,” the “white-trash” and her own black farmhands, are marching to heaven in front of her! O’Connor rarely, if ever, uses words such as “grace,” “forgiveness,” “Eucharist” or “holiness” in her stories. She simply sees the possibility for them everywhere, then allows them to erupt, obvious but unnamed, in places that the reader might rather leave unnoticed.

Shocked, we finish the story upset by the juxtaposition of divinity and such base humanity; then we feel a little embarrassed that we had never seen such possibilities before. In the end, we take comfort in knowing that even we might be so close to grace as to touch it without even having to move.

Among the many imaginative carvings that adorned the medieval cathedrals and churches of Europe, those of Giselbertus stand out, partly due to his distinctive style, but perhaps more to his ability to expose a new angle from which to view the stories, ideas and teachings of our Catholic tradition. In his dramatic depiction of the last judgment in the famous tympanum at the Cathedral at Autun, for example, we find the typical composition of Christ seated in judgment. The saved are at his right and the damned are at his left, being led away to demons waiting to devour them.

But Giselbertus has added a surprise: an elegantly tall angel who has crossed over to the side of the damned. There she pulls on the scales of justice in an apparent attempt to save even those whose lives did not warrant salvation. The scene challenges our notions of judgment and poses an interesting question: Are there any limits to God’s mercy?

This same Giselbertus appears to have carved the tympanum at the Cathedral at Vezelay as well, but probably did not lend his hand to all the carvings in this great church. Still, one wonders if his keen imagination may have influenced the other stone carvers at work at Vezelay. Among the many provocative and playful images carved into the church’s capitals is the famous “Mystical Mill.” This capital features Moses pouring a bag of wheat kernels into a feed grinder while St. Paul crouches below, catching the flour in a sack of his own.

Here, the imaginative sculptor has suspended the limits of time and space to explore a relationship between the two laws of the Old and New Testaments as symbolized by each of their great teachers, Moses and Paul. Are they two laws or one? The answer lies in the symbol of Christ, the “Mystical Mill,” who transforms the wheat kernels of the old law into the flour of the new covenant, whose sign is living bread and whose law is written in our hearts.

Christ, too, provides a perfect model of an imagination at work within the tradition of the Jewish faith He was steeped in. Take, for example, the myriad times Jesus’ persecutors attempt to use the law to trip him up and condemn him. Yet, Christ’s knowledge – better, his understanding – of the law is far greater than his attackers’, and his imagination is too keen. With responses like “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…” and “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” Christ not only dodges their malicious schemes, but proves Himself a great teacher. For Christ goes beyond simply knowing the law to fulfilling the law – seeing not its limits, but the limitless possibilities for love, mercy, forgiveness and true justice that lie within.


In his Introduction to Catholic Theology, Richard Lennan (1998) explores several definitions of theology before finally asserting that “theology is an activity…and not simply a body of knowledge to be learned.” If, as Lennan goes on to suggest, theology involves such specific activities as meditation, interpretation, critical reflection and translation, we might further conclude that imagination – the capacity to creatively juxtapose ideas, to see beyond the literal, to ask hypothetical questions (i.e., to “make believe” for a while) – is necessary for one truly to be called a theologian.

I have asserted in this article that the Catholic imagination is distinguished by a particular formation or discipline: the study of and accountability to that body of Catholic knowledge that we find, for example, in the Catechism, in our official Church documents and in our tradition. Both then – the imagination and the discipline – are necessary to the practice of theology. Just as the highly imaginative individual without any accountability to Church teaching runs the risk of turning heretic, the highly knowledgeable, orthodox and well-read Catholic without any imagination is not so much a theologian, but an encyclopedia or a mere clearinghouse of Catholic information.

This monograph series has been envisioned for those involved in seminary education and formation. Given this audience, a challenging question arises: how does a priesthood formation program assist men in developing a Catholic imagination? Academic courses in Scripture, systematic theology and patristic authors offer a solid knowledge base of Catholic teaching and thus help to define what we have earlier called the “boundaries” of the imagination’s playing field.

The more elusive task, however, is to find ways to foster appropriate freedom of thought, critical reflection, comfort with ambiguity, and the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual maturity needed to recognize, accept and even admit the limits of our spiritual and theological understanding. Yet, these skills of imagination are indispensable if a priest or minister is to deepen his relationship with God, much less enter another’s world of suffering, spiritual doubt or rapture.

Another chapter might explore various strategies for fostering these skills of imagination within the context of priestly formation. For now, we might leave the question unanswered and hope that simply posing the question might allow for some discussion among seminary formation staff, faculty and students. The discussion, itself, would be an exercise in Catholic imagination!


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Catholic Imagination by Br. John Mark Falkenhain, OSB is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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