Summer is around the corner! As our schedules open up, we may find ourselves on the road to graduations, weddings, or family reunions. Driving can give us time to reflect and provides a great metaphor for our thought life. As the miles roll by and my thoughts wander, I may realize that there are situations that are preoccupying me. I may catch myself wondering, “‘Wait a second! Who is in my mind’s driver’s seat?” Maybe I started by being thankful for the new graduate’s faithfulness in cultivating their gifts, but now I’m worrying that they haven’t taken my advice on a particular point. Maybe I started by being thankful for the gift of family on the way to a reunion, but now I’m discouraged by past family conflicts and rehearsing conversations that I think should take place. Or my gratitude for the gift of love has darkened to worrying about a new couple’s readiness for married life. Is there anything I can do to take back the wheel when my imagination is driving me crazy, nattering about possibilities that may never come to pass?
The first step is to notice that impaired driver! It’s the emotional weather change that first catches my attention. I may have begun with sunny thoughts of gratitude for my destination. But now, I realize that I’m distracted, and the road ahead seems like a dark and bumpy detour as I imagine difficulties that may be around the next corner.
Imagination is a wonderful faculty that can illustrate our thoughts with lived experience: feeling the warmth of sunshine, smelling the lilacs and hearing the beautiful music at a reception. But it can also fade from technicolour to unfocused images in shades of grey; I can easily forget that God’s compassionate care is always directing my journey.
To be useful, the imagination must be directed by right reason illumined by faith; otherwise it may become, as someone has said “the mad woman in the house.”[i] If we let ‘the mad woman’ take the wheel of our thoughts, before we know it, our emotions cloud our vision; we might even cover our eyes in fear of what the future may hold. We can forget that this present moment is not under our sole control but is being guided by God, who wants us to get home safely. Many Catholic authors attribute that vivid image of the mad woman in the house, or behind the wheel in my imagination, to St Teresa of Avila, whose wisdom, humour and ability to teach us earned her the title of Doctor of the Church. St Teresa and her spiritual director, St John of the Cross, took the threat of an unruly imagination very seriously. If our thoughts are dominated by imagined difficulties, daydreams or dramas starring ourselves as heroes, we are in danger of forgetting God.
How can we cure our forgetfulness of God’s compassionate care? St John of the Cross answers that the memory which forgets God must be healed by the hope of eternal beatitude, just as the imagination must be purified by the progress of faith, and the will by the progress of charity.[ii]
When I first read St John’s advice, I was struck that to put God back in the driver’s seat, I would need to grow in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity (love). But to grow I must begin with a childlike request acknowledging my poverty of spirit: “God, help!” One of the places I have found help is in the traditional prayers asking for these virtues, the ‘Acts’ of Faith, Hope and Charity. When I find myself imagining dark detours, it helps to pray the ‘Act of Faith’:
O my God, I firmly believe that you are one God in three divine Persons,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
I believe that your divine Son became man
And died for our sins,
And that he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe these and all the truths that the holy Catholic Church teaches,
Because you have revealed them,
Who can neither deceive nor be deceived.[iii]
I can turn my imagination to see our Lord Jesus leaving the eternal light and happiness of the Trinity to seek out each one of us, emptying himself so He can enter every single dark detour of our lives. I use my imagination to see the radiance of the Holy Spirit filling the Church with warmth and light sparkling from the treasures of teaching safely stored within. I use my imagination to see the Father longing for our safe return and using every circumstance of our life to turn us toward Him, Who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
If I’m preoccupied by sad or hurtful memories, the Act of Hope[iv] reminds me that no matter what our failings as a family, we have the help of God’s forgiveness and grace to reach our destination of everlasting life. If I’m stuck on seeing my will done in a situation, I can redirect my heart to God’s goodness, worthy of all love, by praying the Act of Charity[v] so that I might ‘love my neighbour as myself for love of you.’
So, as the road ahead calls, I can be thankful for the time to travel and for God’s companionship on the journey. If my thoughts wander, I can become aware, understand and take action to find my way home.
[i] Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Three Ages of the Interior Life (St Louis, Missouri: B Herder Book Co, 1947; reprint, Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2013), Volume 1, 410
[ii] Ibid, 414, 415
[iii] Handbook of Prayers, ed. Rev. James Socias, (Woodridge, Illinois: Midwest Theological Forum, 6th Edition, 2005), 42.
[v] Ibid, 43