[In full disclosure, I have once again borrowed heavily from Peter Kreeft's lecture on Imagination.]
Children really have an amazing imagination. A few weeks ago, I saw some of the kiddos circling up once again by one of the trees at recess. I went over and asked them what they were doing. "We're building a hospital for the bugs. We're going to save them." It was really cute.
Typically, when we think of the imagination, we think of that God-given intellectual faculty which helps us to make-believe; to create fantasy.
But what is really cool is when our imagination gives rise to reality. Take, for example, the person who imagines making something that was heavy into something light-- so light that it will "fly like a bird." This would typically be the stuff of fantasy, but then the man wields the technology to make it happen and the Wright Brothers fly an airplane.
So, the imagination has to do not only with make-believe, but also with the very real.
I mention the imagination because Jesus uses images-- that is, His parables-- in order to explain to us deep realities. So, today, Jesus talks about heaven and He uses the image of the wedding feast.
From the outset, we must admit that this doesn't seem like too exciting an image. And, after all, it often happens that our image of heaven is boring: I often hear how we will be like angels in the clouds with harps and the light of God will be on us and so on. But, really, I'm bored by that; after an hour of playing the harp on my own personal cloud, I would wonder if there is anything else to do with eternity. (Billy Joel encapsulated this boredom with heaven when he said that he would "rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints-- the sinners are much more fun.")
So, what are we to do with Jesus' image of heaven as a wedding feast? Well, let's explore it.
When we are at a wedding reception, we eat and drink. That's the first thing about heaven: we're going to be able to eat and drink. Admittedly, not all that exciting. But it does reveal to us that there's some connection with some of the things that we did here on earth. Heaven isn't going to be totally foreign and simply harps on clouds. We will actually eat and drink and it's going to be enjoyable.
But let's go deeper. At a wedding reception, we dance. For those who are older or with arthritis, maybe it has been a while. This tells us that in heaven, our ailments will be healed. We will be able to run and jump and dance again. There will be no more suffering or cancer or arthritis!
What else do we do at wedding receptions? We meet and greet with others. We talk with people. In heaven, this means that we will recognize people: we will see our families and friends and even our lost children. We will know them and get to talk with them-- some of them for the very first time! And the saints--! You're going to be able to talk with St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Theodore-- all of those saints that we have read about, we're going to be able to hang out with them. I can't wait to meet my namesake: St. Anthony and St. Joseph-- and to talk with them too.
By the way: this means, too, that you are going to actually hear their voice.
(Spoiler alert: you are actually going to be able to hear the voice of Mary. Think about that for a moment.)
You're going to know her embrace. And the voice of Jesus too-- like Aslan the Lion: deep, powerful, yet perfectly pleasing in every way. You're going to see Him, His beautiful face and you're going to hear Him speak His words that until that time you have only heard in your heart and seen on the Sacred Page.
And this isn't just going to be in some stuffy reception hall or baseball stadium. This is going to be in the "new heaven and the new earth"-- which means that there will be some connection to the current earth. This likely means that there will be new mountains and new beaches and new fields in heaven-- so beautiful, so ready for discovery! There will be more of them and more glorious than we have ever known here on this earth. There will be animals and more of them and our relation with them will be like St. Francis: you will be able to cuddle with a lion and speak with the birds.
Everything will be in right relationship. There will be no grudges; all will be friends. You will see how your prayers were answered and the effects they had on the world. You will see how when it seemed that your prayers were left unanswered, how God really did do something great with them. You will see how other people-- even perfect strangers-- sacrificed for you, even when they didn't know they would be helping you. We will all rejoice at this.
Some think that, when all is in its proper order, even the laws of physics (and therefore gravity) will be subject to you-- which means that you could fly. And another philosopher (Peter Kreeft) has suggested that your good creations here on earth-- like JRR Tolkien's hobbits and elves and Middle Earth-- will no longer be merely fantasy, but will be really real: yes, there may actually be a Frodo, a Sam, a Gimli, and a Gandalf awaiting us in heaven.
Isn't that wonderful?
Friends, heaven will be wilder and more beautiful than our wildest and most beautiful dreams. It will be more than enough to last us eternity.
Atheists, for their part, believe this is all too fantastical to be true. But, here's the thing: I dare say that such atheists are closer to believing than are The Bored.
When I hear an atheist saying that this is too fantastical to be true-- you see, he has actually grasped the depth of heaven. (This is one of the things that imagination does, remember? It helps us to grasp deep meanings). The Bored, for their part, haven't grasped the meaning of heaven. They are farther from it than that atheist.
The same can be said about Holy Mass. The Bored haven't grasped the depth of what goes on here, partly because what goes on here requires the engagement of one's imagination: to think that we are actually at the Last Supper, that we are standing at the Cross on that first Good Friday, that Jesus Himself is actually present in the little host....
But there are other reasons for this than simply non-engagement. We could talk about music and preaching and the loss of sacred art and so on. But I want to present to you another major reason, one that isn't based in religion at all.
Over the past couple of years, there have been multiple scientific studies that are showing that our imagination is being destroyed-- particularly in the young. Again, this is not a religious claim-- I am simply relaying what many mainstream scientific schools and journals are pointing out.
They are pointing out that we possess in us an active and a passive imagination. The passive imagination receives images; the active imagination produces images.
Children typically have a strong active imagination: they gather around trees and build hospitals for insects. That's the active imagination.
But scientists have noted that the more a child uses iPads, computers, TVs, and iPhones, the more the child loses that ability to actively imagine and, subsequently, to be creative.
The reason for this is that all of those iPads, computers, and so on-- those things are the ones that produce the images for the child. The images are given; the child does not have to do the "work" to create them. As a result, the child's passive imagination grows strong (that is, it's dependence on receiving images), but it's active imagination becomes disabled.
We are seeing this play out in they way our youth converse. (And what I am about to say has been confirmed to me by a speech pathologist and special ed teachers that I have presented this to in another class).
So, for example, in the teenage years, it used to be simple awkwardness, lack of experience, or plain ol' shyness that made conversation difficult. Today, however, the task is doubly difficult because they have gone years where they have never exercised their active imagination. I say it is "doubly difficult" because one of the key components to having a good conversation is creativity: that is, we have to imagine what that other person does, what goes on at their work, and so on-- only then can we come up with questions that will carry the conversation further.
Without an active imagination, questions are not asked and conversations fail. This is one of the reasons why teens are constantly on their phones-- even in social situations. When you see them at a table with their phone, not talking, don't simply shake your head. See that intellectually they are on crutches.
This provides us insight into why secularism is so rampant and why they are so bored at Mass.
This makes sense: if a person lacks the active imagination to understand the depth of life's meaning, how heaven and hell depend on it-- and, more, if they can't imagine heaven as we have or hell and its eternity-- they, yeah, it's easy to see how it's just another step to dismiss the importance of God. That's secularism in a nutshell.
Likewise, when a person has only received years of training in the passive imagination, they will expect that Mass is a place only to receive, to consume, and to be entertained. And when it doesn't, they are bored. To challenge them to actively participate by doing the "work" of reflection and prayer and imagining is very, very difficult for them. As a result, they literally do not know what to do at Mass.
It is worth noting that, since the release of the iPhone, among the youth there has been a 50% increase of those who report depression, loneliness, feelings of being lost, and suicide. And at the same time, the majority of our youth do not believe that they can have a personal relationship with God.
What are we to do? Well, first, let's start with this present moment: let's take a moment to strengthen our imagination for this Mass.
St. Padre Pio once said that if you want to get more out of Mass, imagine being at the foot of the Cross with Mary. Imagine Jesus, imagine the blood.... But then imagine Mary's reaction. What would she be doing? Is she on her knees? Is she praying? Is she weeping? Can you imagine what she may say to you? This is Mary's Son. What do you hear? What do you see? What do you smell? Reflect on this and I can guarantee you will get more out of Mass.
Another image: Jesus called heaven the "wedding feast." What do we celebrate at wedding feasts? We celebrate that the bride and groom are now one. Ok, so at the Last Supper, Jesus took bread and said "This is my Body." At Mass, the priest gives you communion and says "The Body of Christ." You then take Jesus' body and ... then Jesus' body is now mingling with your body. "And the two become one flesh." That's what we say at weddings! But I tell you it's "a great mystery, I speak of Christ and the Church." This Eucharist is the foretaste of the wedding feast. Which means it is the foretaste of heaven. That's why we say, "with all the angels and saints we acclaim, Holy..." The are angels here. And saints.
For his part, the priest also must engage his imagination. It's one of the reasons why he wears this rope, called a cincture. It goes back to the Old Testament priesthood. In those days, the priest would wear a long rope that was several feet long. He wore this rope as he entered the holiest part of the temple, a room that no one except the priest could enter. There, he would find the Ark of the Covenant and an angel would stand guard over it. If the priest were not holy as he offered sacrifice-- do you know what the angel would do? The angel would strike him dead! Hence the rope: since the people could not go in to retrieve him, they would pull on the rope. For us New Testament priests, this is to be a reminder for us: do you not know where you are? do you not know how holy you are to be?
Ok, let's wrap this up with some practical suggestions.
First, when we are coming to Mass or coming down the aisle at communion time, perhaps we should have a couple "helps" to activate and strengthen our imagination: maybe a holy card, or a saint's brief words on what happens at Mass. Have something to remind you and engage your imagination to grasp the actual depth of these real and great mysteries.
Second, I think we need to really consider scaling back our use of the phones and computers-- and especially among our youth. I cannot tell you how many kids I know that are addicted to their phones-- seriously, compulsively addicted. This is the New Drug and we need a new war on drugs. And not just for those under 12, but also for us adults. We know our minds have become a little mushy these past years. We once did without all of these gadgets. We once knew a better life.
Third, we need to start being creative: paint again (why does it just have to be for kindergartners?). Learn music, play an instrument again. I had a discussion with a college student, great pianist, who said had didn't have time for it anymore. "No!" I said, now's exactly the time that you must continue playing, else you will lose that creativity in you!
Fourth and finally: we need to start reading again. I'm in the middle of The Brothers Karamazov. Won't lie, it's tough. But you don't need to read 900 pages. Just read stories again. I mean, have you ever noticed how so many of our stories are a re-telling of the Gospel? "Beauty and the Beast"-- the sinful, cold-hearted Beast is converted by love and is transformed into a better man; Rapunzel in Tangled is enslaved to evil, escapes, discovers she is a daughter of a king and has a loving family in the kingdom; Pinocchio-- he becomes a real boy. Aren't these all the essence of the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Our Lord once said, "Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." Part of that is the ability to imagine and create. If we cannot, then we will not aspire to the glory of heaven nor possess the hope to endure life's trials. We should, therefore, be very concerned not only when we lose this, but all the more especially when children themselves lose the ability to create-- it bespeaks a great attack on our very joy and heaven.
Let us pray that Jesus renews and strengthens our intellect at this Mass. That we may be healed of any images that we may have seen that have hurt our souls and have kept us from Him. Let us pray that we may have the strength to push back against our culture and to take the steps necessary to reclaim the depths of our faith, our imagination, and our God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.