The following is an excerpt from a letter about the role of imagination in how we see the world, ourselves and others, which was written to a young member of the body of Christ who loves to read and write fiction (and who read the Chronicles of Narnia in first grade!) The letter accompanies an icon that was given to her as a confirmation gift.
I decided to give you an icon because what we look at, what we learn to see and how we cultivate our imagination is so important. Our imagination is not simply an organ of make-believe and fantasy, but is central to what we are as human; it is one of our most powerful and vital spiritual organs. Imagination allows us to perceive and understand what lies beyond what we experience with our five senses. It is the “place” in which our vision of reality, ourselves, others, and how we perceive truth, grows and is cultivated. It is also a place where our sense of truth and reality can be distorted and formed badly, harming ourselves and others. Most importantly, our imagination is a place where we can learn to perceive God and His presence and interact with Him through the inner kind of seeing, hearing and speaking that we call prayer. What we do with our imagination and what we spend time looking at and focusing on matters!
For Eastern Orthodox Christians, Icons are meant to be windows, communicating to us through what is visible and physical about unseen spiritual realities. They teach us that there is a relationship between the visible and the invisible, the temporal and the eternal. The eyes of our imagination are meant to grow in this way of seeing. We often forget how to see in this way, and instead, we tend to reduce visible and material reality into simply that, simply what lies before us and our five senses, with a meaning that pertains only to our immediate desires, feelings and needs, as if there is nothing else beyond this and beyond ourselves. But nothing in physical creation or our lived, material existence is ever “simply that.” This is because creation itself came into existence through God’s love. This love of God for creation, and for each of us, is expressed uniquely in Jesus Christ. Because of this, all things, seen and unseen, pertain to Him and the spiritual reality of His own existence in some way. He is the truth at the center of creation; it’s beginning and end.
Because of this, creation itself is ultimately an icon of God’s love, and each thing in creation speaks of truth beyond itself. This is especially true for each person made in the image of God, including you! For this reason, we should treasure creation and each other as gifts and icons, pointing us towards God’s truth and love. God loves creation and each of us so much that Jesus gave himself, so that we could be with him forever. He didn’t promise us things in this life would be easy, but he does promise us his faithfulness, presence, and an eternal inheritance with Him in a renewed creation, which has already begun with his Incarnation and Resurrection.
This icon shows us Mary as the Theotokos, which means “God bearer.” It also shows us what each of us are called to be. Like Mary, Jesus asks us if we will allow him into our lives and existence. When we do, he inhabits us and fills us with his love, goodness and presence, and, like Mary, we become “bearers of God” in the world. This is a great gift, and it is also a great responsibility that we have been given in creation and within our shared human family. Unlike Mary, who bore Jesus perfectly, we sometimes invite him into our lives slowly and with much stumbling. He is perfectly patient, however, and as we learn the vast expanse of the grace and forgiveness that he has for us, we also learn to have grace and forgiveness with others. As we learn how significant we are to Him, we learn to see others with that same sense of significance. We learn that there is not one person who is insignificant or unimportant to God; there is not one for whom Jesus did not give His love and His life.
This is particularly important when it comes to being a member of the church, which this icon also teaches us about.The church is far more than just a social gathering of like-minded people; it is a family, the family of God’s people. It is what we are designed for – to be forever united to God through Christ, and through his perfect love to also be united with each other in bonds that endure and transcend this life. We are not meant to be simply isolated individuals, but we are created for this bond of love with Christ and with each other in Christ. In order to cultivate this bond of love, we must learn the way of grace. People in the church and in our families will fail us at some point. They may even betray us, but the more we know Jesus and invite him in, the more we learn that he will never fail us, and the more we are able to forgive others and trust that He will heal our wounds. We learn that our bond of love with him is always a safe place to be, and we can continue to be life-giving “God-bearers” even in experiences of difficulty and betrayal.
I hope that this letter, icon, and most importantly, the Holy Spirit Himself, will help you grow in perceiving how incredibly valuable, loved and significant you are, and the strength of Jesus’ love that is always with you. You have been given a great gift of with your love of reading and writing, fiction and stories. Stories are also icons, speaking of truth and reality beyond themselves. Jesus, who himself is the Word, used stories and imaginative narratives to teach us foundational truths about the nature of God, his kingdom, and ourselves. As you grow in your love of stories and narrative and the use of your imagination, always remember the powerful gift that it is and the call to cultivate it with wisdom and in truth. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you to grow in this gift and in your ability to perceive and communicate that which is good and true and beautiful, so that your imagination will be a place of welcome and communion with the One source of all that is good and true and beautiful – Jesus Christ Himself.