Let’s try a thought exercise. Pretend for a moment that you are God on the day before Creation. What is going through your mind? Are you perhaps lonely and dreaming of what it would be like to have companions? If you had companions, what would they be like? What would they do? How would you interact with them? Where would they live? Would you be able to love them? Would they be able to love you?
God dreamed us up
Creation is an act of imagination, born out of a need. God needed something, and so God created it. Being God, he could create anything he imagined.
The pinnacle of God’s imagination was us. God dreamed us up. And in creating us in God’s image, God created in us that same ability to dream and imagine. I’m not sure, however, if we have always been good stewards of our gift of imagination. As a rule, we don’t trust our imagination, and we don’t use it very often. We speak about “imaginary” things as whimsical and even false.
Don’t waste your gift
An underused imagination can be a detriment to our spiritual growth and to our catechetical ministry. We have to teach the catechumens to imagine. Spiritual imagination is the only way they will come to know God. It is through imagination that we can see and touch physical objects and, through them, “see” God.
Try another thought exercise. Think of a large cube. From your vantage, you can only see two sides of it and the top. But you know it has six sides. You can imagine all the unseen sides, and you know they are there. Your imagination informs a reality you cannot literally see.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says that the sanctification of the catechumens (and all of us) happens through the use of “signs perceptible to the senses” (7). In other words, even though we cannot literally “see” the catechumens becoming holy, we know that they are because of the signs we can see. Because of visible signs—especially in the sacraments, but also in daily life—we can imagine that the Holy Spirit is acting in our lives.
We have to teach the catechumens to imagine. Spiritual imagination is the only way they will come to know God. It is through imagination that we can see and touch physical objects and, through them, “see” God.
Imagination in the RCIA process
Therefore, as catechists, we have to teach the inquirers and catechumens how to imagine. Every week, ask the inquirers or catechumens where they saw God in their life. Try to get them to identify concrete experiences and tell stories about things they actually saw or heard or touched. Ask them why they imagined that concrete thing was a sign of God in their lives. Make sure all the Catholics in the room also share how they imagined God in the past week. For folks who have never done this, it will be bumpy and awkward at first. Some people will even say they didn’t see God anywhere in the past week. Keep asking anyway. When the catechumens begin to realize you are going to start every meeting with, “Where did you see God this week?”, they will start watching for signs. At first, they may even make things up, just to satisfy you. That’s great! That’s an initial step in activating their imagination.
As they get better at using their imagination, begin to teach them how to see God in the liturgy. Focus on how they imagine God acting through the stories of Scripture. But don’t stop there. The catechumens might see God in the candlelight, the incense, the procession, the stained glass, the altar, the gathered assembly, the priest…. The list could go on.
God is our imaginary friend
I really think we do not spend enough time focusing on these “imaginary” experiences of God. We cannot teach who God is or what God expects of us until the catechumens have a deep conversion experience that only comes from “meeting” God and “seeing” God. And they can only do that through their imagination. For most of us Catholics, “seeing” God is second nature. But for the catechumens, it is a skill they have to learn. And catechists are the ones who have to show them how.
What do you imagine your RCIA team will do next?
Are you teaching your inquirers and catechumens to imagine? What next step might you take to help them see God? What additional tips or insights do you have that can help the rest of us in our ministry?
12 thoughts on “RCIA catechists: Are you good stewards of imagination?”
Finally you have touched on something I really believe in. Ever since I was told that God speaks through our imagination, I have looked for ways to express it. I call them “God stories”. For many years I was able to share these stories with anyone. When I realized I could do this with a dear old Jewish friend without doctrines getting in the way, we had wonderful, inspiring talks. God became very real to us in the here and now.I was experiencing what Mary and Eliabeth experienced in the Visitation. I work with young people a lot and we look for God sightings and begin every class that way. If I forget they let me know. I love the smile that comes on their face when they think of something.Other people’s stories of God in their life was single most important aspect in deeping my own conversion. Every thing you said in getting started is true, but keep with it. It is life changing.
Hi Penny. I’m so glad it was helpful. Your excitement about all this really comes through in your comment and it must be even more clear to the young people you work with.
One thing I would add is that using our imaginations or telling God stories is not what we do instead of doctrine. It is exactly in that way–telling our God stories–that the doctrine is unfolded for us.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and thanks for the wonderful ministry you are doing.
Aristotle and Aquinas taught that a small error in the beginning leads to large errors in the end. “God needed something…” seems to be completely contrary to CCC 295. I love God stories but I think your premise is wrong. When we use our imagination we create God in our image, not His.
Thanks for your comments Walt. You make a good point about “needed.” Perhaps I should have said “wanted” or “desired.” I’m not sure I get your point about imagination though. How are we to encounter God if we don’t use our imaginations? The psalmists use lots of images to describe God. These things are not literally “God,” but they help us imagine what God is like.
Blessings on all your ministry.
Nick, please forgive my philosphical bent here but it is conversations like this that give the catechetical aspect of the catechumenate a bad name. Your whole premise is wrong? God being pure spirit does not have an imagination. Imagination is a material power and works with our senses and deals with material things only. Our imagination even with the highest effort could never give us the image of the Trinity. How is it possible to imagine the unimaginable? We come to know about the inner being of God from Divine Revelation. Armed with that truth/doctrine our imagination can go to work to help us understand better. So doctrine informs our imagination, not the other way around. With this in mind we can avoid statements like the above “…without doctrines getting in the way…”.
Hi Walt. I have to ask you to forgive me as well, because I don’t want to seem to be disagreeing with you. So please bear with me. It is true that God does not have an imagination. Whenever we say what God is “not” like, we are on firmer ground than when we try to say what God “is” like. So while God does not have an imagination, neither does God have a strong right arm, wings, breath, a voice, or feet that bring good news. And yet these are all images we use to say what God is like.
I agree that it is not possible to imagine the unimaginable. And yet, we can’t help ourselves. We choose to say *something* instead of nothing, even though saying nothing theologically safer. When we meet a seeker who is confused and hurting, we want to comfort her with the good news of the Gospel. But to tell her that God is a non-corporeal being made up of three persons–a mystery that is not accessible to the human mind, just doesn’t seem to have the same evangelistic oomph as, God is like a mother eagle that will bear you up on her wings.
I think what I’m trying to say is that doctrine corrects our imagination and shapes it, but that, at least for the uninitiated, we have to start with images they can grasp. We cannot leave them to their own imaginings without some guidance and teaching, but we do have to begin with stories.
Thanks for a great article. It re-enforced something I’ve been doing for quite a while with our catechumnes. I prefer not to say “imagining” God but “imaging” God, as bringing to mind, forming an image. So often God is abstract for us and catechumuns. We need to make God real. Finding God in our everyday lives, recognizing God’s presence in our lives is a start. We need to get into the habit of seeing God’s action in our lives. Starting an RCIA Session with a review of one’s life since we last met is an excellent way to do that. However, we must be consistant and do this often.
Thanks for your comments Carolyn. You are so right about being consistent about starting sessions with a review of one’s life. I think Catholics take it for granted, like blinking, and we forget that the catechumens need more reminders.
Thanks for all the great work you are doing.
God did not need an imagination in order to create us — he foreknew us from all eternity. WE are the ones who can use imagination to help us in our journey to God. Further, God did not dream us up out of a need because he was never lonely. If he did need us that makes us greater than he. We are taught by the Catholic Church that God — as a Community of Trinitarian love — was complete in Himself. Lastly, because we are made in the image and likeness of God, there was never a need for him to ever imagine “what would they be like”…
Hi Cindy. As I mentioned above, I agree that I could have chosen a better word than “need.” Thanks for your comments. Blessings on all you do.
Let me begin by saying that I enjoy your web site. however, this article has haunted me since I read it. I have already shared that I believe your premise is wrong. I find philosophical and theological problems in every paragraph. But the most glaring problem is the fact that Jesus is not mentioned in the article. The catechism says that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” CCC-241. Our primary goal in RCIA is to bring seekers to Christ, to make disciples. Why all this emphasis on imagination when the most perfect image of the Father is right there in the Gospels and each other to see? I would be interested in your source material on imagination. I would recommend Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity chapter 2 for a better understanding of the use of imagination. Also take a look at CCC 477 and 1559. God bless. walt
Hi Walt. Thanks for your ongoing support and gentle correction. My goal in focusing on imagination was not to give a complete summary of the Trinity. Rather, my hope was to get teams to begin to engage their imaginative sides more since our liturgy and our faith is so filled with multivalent images. I agree wholeheartedly that Jesus is the ultimate image of God. Even so, we have to use our imaginations to engage with the risen Christ. The Jesus of the gospels is described somewhat differently by each of the the gospel writers and differently again by Paul, who only encountered the risen Christ. So we have to imagine what all these descriptions of Jesus have to say to us and how we are going to grow in intimacy and communion with Christ.
In the end, however, I take your point that I could have said things better and more clearly. I’ll look up the sources you suggest and try to do better in the future. Blessings.