In her book, Sacred Heart, Gateway to God, Wendy Wright recounts her faith journey. She was a struggling Hollywood actress, more of an agnostic than a believer, when, while killing time one afternoon in a Los Angeles library, she picked a book about St. Hubert to read about her husband’s middle name. First she was fascinated by the descriptions of Hubert, a scholar, a bishop, and a diplomat. But then …
“I was chugging along just fine until I came to a description of Hubert’s ability to bi-locate. The historical narrative melded seamlessly into a matter-of-fact statement about Hubert’s simultaneous appearances in North Africa and continental Europe. This was followed by a nonchalant prose passage detailing the saint’s many miraculous exploits. Profoundly disoriented, I closed the book. I felt queasy. It was as though two subterranean tectonic plates had collided inside the structured universe in which I lived.
In retrospect, I know this was one moment of many at the time that brought about my inexorable turning towards God and the Catholic faith. This was my introduction to a layered universe, to a conceptual world in which time and space ceased to have the boundaries that my empirically trained mind assumed. Here was a world suffused with a power that did not conform to necessity. Here was a world drenched with grace.
Interestingly, at the time I did not assume that what I had read of Hubert’s paranormal exploits was simply superstition or the mumbo jumbo of long-ago illiterate minds. Since that time I have learned to understand the literary genre of hagiography and can now discourse interpretatively across these varied conceptual worlds for my students and colleagues. But then, the shock of the colliding worlds of historically verifiable fact and dreamed-for possibility was traumatic.
A layered reality is part of the Catholic [Christian] imagination. To possess this imagination is to dwell in a universe inhabited by unseen presences – the presence of God, the presence of saints, the presence of one another. There are no isolated individuals but rather unique beings whose deepest life is discovered in and through one another. This life transcends the confines of space and time.”
What she describes here so brilliantly points towards something that is all but lost in our world today, namely, the fact that reality is more than just physical, that it has layers that we do not perceive empirically, that these layers are just as real as the physical, and there is more mystery within ordinary life than meets the eye. Mysticism is as real as science.
But that’s not easy to understand or believe. We live in a world where what is real is reduced to what is physical, to what can be empirically measured, seen, touched, tasted, smelled. Today the physical is what’s real, massively, imperialistically. We live in a world that’s mystically tone-deaf, where all the goods are in the store window.
For this reason, faith is a struggle, but so are a lot of other things. When the surface is all that there is, it’s hard to be enchanted by anything, to see the depth that’s uncovered by poetry, aesthetics, altruism, religion, faith, and love. And it’s especially difficult to understand community.
When the physical is all that there is, it becomes virtually impossible to conceive of the body of Christ and it becomes difficult even just to understand our real connection with each other.
As human beings, we are connected to each other in ways beyond the physical, beyond time, beyond separation by distance, and even beyond separation by death. But to understand this we need, as Wendy Wright points out, a mystical imagination. And this is not so much the capacity to imagine the world of Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland, or the even the archetypal world of Lord of the Rings.
The mystical imagination is the other half of the scientific imagination and, like science, its purpose is to help us see, imagine, understand, speak about, and relate to reality in a way beyond fantasy and superstition. But the mystical imagination can show us something that science, wonderful though it is, cannot, namely, it can show us the many grace-drenched and spirit-laden layers of reality that are not perceived by our physical senses. The mystical imagination can show us how the Holy Spirit isn’t just inside our churches, but is also inside the law of gravity.
But how do we learn that? A saint might say: “Meditate and pray long enough and you will open yourself up to the other world!” A poet might say: “Stare at a rose long enough and you’ll see that there’s more there than meets the eye!” A romantic might say: “Just fall in love real deeply or let your heart get broken and you’ll soon know there’s more to reality than can be empirically measured.”
And the mystics of old would say: “Just honour fully what you meet each day and you will find it drenched with grace and divinity.”