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The Second Commandment: Imagination and Contemplation

Part of a series on the Ten Commandments.

By Mac Stewart

One of my favorite TV shows as a little kid was Reading Rainbow. In a book, the theme song said, you can go twice as high; you can be a king and live in castles and battle dragons; you can fly into space or sail the high seas. You can do it all, said LeVar Burton, in your imagination. And he was right.

The imagination is a powerful thing. It is “like a great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds which are conveyed to it by the senses,” as St. Augustine put it, in book 10 of his Confessions. What Augustine meant, though, is that the imagination is not just a place to escape to when life is tough, which is what you might think if you just learned about it from Reading Rainbow. Obviously, that can be a danger of the imagination, if it becomes a fantasy factory that causes a person to withdraw from the reality that’s right in front of him or her.

But at the more basic level the imagination is just that storehouse of images that furnishes the objects that kindle our desires and motivate our daily striving; it’s the pictures we have in our minds of stuff we want; it’s how we make plans and chart out new hopes and dreams for our lives. People are described as “visionary” because they have clear images in their minds of new projects they want to execute. This storehouse of images expands our understanding of the world and helps us find our place within it. We can indeed do extraordinary things with our imaginations.

Of course, the flip side of this is that images also have extraordinary power over us. Advertisers know this very well. I don’t normally think much about cheeseburgers, but if I pass a billboard with a thick, tasty one painted on it, and I’m hungry, then I’m going to have a pretty strong craving for some Five Guys.

The apostles and prophets and teachers of our tradition have understood this power of images very well, and they have cautioned us to be careful about it: “turn away mine eyes, lest I behold vanity,” the psalmist says (Ps. 119:37); or the Eastern Christian monk who warns his pupils to beware of those “quick and wicked robbers, the eyes,” or the stark and exacting words of our Lord himself, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (Matt. 5:29). The Wisdom of the Church counsels such caution because “the eye is the lamp of the body,” as our Lord also said (Matt. 6:22).

What you look at will determine a lot about what you want, what you seek after; it will affect the state and the temperature of your soul. It is no surprise, then, that the second commandment has something to do with images: “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image.”

There’s an old story about a friend of St. Augustine who made a firm resolve, when he became a Christian, that he was never going to return to those horrific and inhumane spectacles of ancient pagan society that were the gladiator fights, where human beings fought to the death for the sheer entertainment of the masses. One day, though, Alypius found himself among some friends who were on their way to the games. Poking fun at his silly resolution, and silencing his protests against such madness, they dragged him along with them. Alypius vowed that he would cover his eyes with his hands through the whole thing, but at a particularly fierce moment in the action, when the crowd was raging with excitement, his curiosity got the better of him, and he opened his eyes to the sight. And that was it; his resolve was shattered, and he was immediately an addict of the games once more (Confessions, Book 6).

We could make plenty of parallels in our own society, I’m sure, both with things less conspicuous but just as inhuman and debasing, like the scourge of pornography, and with things that are seemingly more innocuous but that still deeply affect us, like the gratuitous violence or profanity in movies and music that people just become accustomed to. We are surrounded by a glut of images in our society: that’s what having screens everywhere does to us, for good and for ill. What we need is a way of sifting and sorting which images are good for us to look at and which of them are “graven,” a wisdom about how to use images well rather than bowing down to them in worship, so that our eyes may be filled with light and not with darkness.

The story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) has conventionally been taken in the history of the Church as a pair of types for two different kinds of life in Christ; or, you could also say, two different modes under which every Christian lives out his or her Christian life. There is the active life – that’s Martha – and there is the contemplative life – that’s Mary. It’s fairly obvious why: Martha is taking care of things in the kitchen; Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching. One thing we should be very clear about is that while Jesus gently chides Martha for being “anxious and troubled about many things,” he is not reprimanding her for being active.

Although it is always a temptation for human beings to attempt to escape the practical demands of life, the Church has never and could never say that active attention to the material necessities of life – for self, family, or community – is a bad thing. Nor is it ever possible for one person or one community to be strictly dedicated to one or the other of these ideals – the active or the contemplative. Every Christian and every Christian community, because of what human beings are (souls and bodies), will involve both work in the kitchen and thoughtful reflection.

Rather, what this story tells us is that all of our activity in the world – our working and our playing, our cooking and our cleaning, our singing and our sorrowing – finds its meaning and its purpose when we bring it into the presence of Jesus.

Mary was looking at Jesus. She heard from him the words of life; she felt in him the weight of love; and she saw in him the face of peace. Contemplation, for a Christian, is not sitting in a dark, barren room with your eyes closed and your ears shut trying to drive out all sensory experience of the world. Contemplation, for a Christian, is looking at Jesus. Christians can never say that images are bad, because the invisible God has revealed in this world an image of himself. Jesus Christ, Paul tells us in Colossians, is the “image of the invisible God,” and “in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell.” Far from telling you to evade or abandon your practical responsibilities, the call to contemplation invites you to ask, “How can I, in the midst of all my activities and responsibilities, set before my eyes the image of the invisible God?”

The task of the Church from the beginning has been to do just that: to place before the eyes of her children the image of Christ their Lord. She has taught us that we see Christ whenever we encounter someone who is hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or sick, or in prison, or all alone. She has taught us that wherever we see an act of forgiveness, a successful reconciliation, a work of mercy and truth, there Christ is visible, as the source and the goal of all reconciliation.

She has given us four biographies that depict our Lord all under slightly different aspects, and which all together give us a clear and textured picture of his humanity and divinity. She gives us icons and crosses, cathedrals and basilicas, mosaics and monstrances, relics and rosaries, baptized babies, married couples, priests, monks, nuns, incorrupt bodies, and heavenly apparitions, all to fill and to fortify our imaginations with the dazzling beauty and expansiveness of the reality opened up for us in Christ. And she places us down in the middle of all of this and says, “Look around!” See the world as it really is, the creation of a good God who wants nothing more for it than that it would be healed and whole in him, and that the human creatures he so loves would taste and see the richness and glory of the life that he has for them.

That’s what images are for: to show us the world as it really is. It’s a fairly good criterion, I think, for determining how we might use our modern media wisely: to ask whether our use of it enhances or diminishes our perception of the world as it really is in Christ; not a world, that is, that’s ultimately vain and threatening and competitive and hopeless, but a world that is broken, yes, but also on its way towards salvation, unerringly guided there by the one who made it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that every picture we post or movie we watch has to be explicitly religious; just that we should be cautious about how a constant barrage of images of fear or vanity or stuff we don’t need can distort the balanced vision of the truth that our faith sets before us.

Images are powerful, and can lead us gravely astray. The human imagination being so constituted, iconoclasm is an explicable phenomenon. But a far better remedy is a practice of genuine Christian contemplation – an intimidating word, no doubt, or maybe one that just sounds like a silly excuse for idleness. But true contemplation actually makes us more engaged, more active, not less, in the real world. Mary would have been a better cook than Martha, as Evelyn Underhill put it. Because the real world is the one where Jesus is King, and to be a real contemplative in this world means to have your imagination enchanted by his regal face. And when it is, you will love like you have never loved before, because you will see in the eyes of every person you know, in the daily tasks that lie before you, in the challenges you meet, and the blessings you enjoy, him who is the firstborn of all creation, the radiant image of the invisible God.

Fr. Mac Stewart is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America.


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