Awakening the Moral Imagination, Awakening the Culture, Part 2

Janel LewandowskiYear of the Contemplative

by Marcie Stokman

I once heard about a pastor and his wife who studied theology and read the Bible every day. After listening to a talk on the importance of literature as a method for communicating the faith, they were intrigued and began reading C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. At one point, the wife stopped her husband’s reading and exclaimed, “Tom, something has been missing from our lives, and it is the imagination!”

In this brief anecdote, we see a woman who has discovered the fascinating connection between reading good literature and understanding deeper realities. I have no doubt that reading literature did not supplant her reading and meditating on God’s Living Word, the greatest literature of all time! But when we read works of literature, not only do we strengthen our imaginative muscle, but we also learn truths that are powerfully conveyed through story. Robert Houston Smith writes, “When functioning as it should… imagination is the most important means by which higher truths can be communicated.”

One could argue that TV and film exercise the imagination, however, awakening the imagination via good literature is an entirely different experience from sitting passively in front of images streaming in from a screen. Reading is active; watching videos is not. The brain is engaged in a completely different way when a person does the work of forming images while reading or being read to, rather than having the images served up on a screen. Watching someone run the 800-meter dash is different from actually running the race. The experiences don’t compare. When it comes to developing the imagination, screens stifle but books fuel.

We need to read copiously in order to develop our imagination. We also need to read well so that we are formed in a moral way. What we read matters. In After Virtue, Alasdair Macintyre proposes the need for morality to be reconnected with imagination. This is why our mission in Well-Read Mom includes not just reading more, but also, reading books from the Western and Catholic tradition. Literature that has stood the test of time is our mainstay. We choose to read well. The icing on the cake is discussing these books together. It’s often the best part! It is also a crucial part. This is where our moral imagination can come into greater focus. Through our conversations, we begin to see a connection between the books’ themes and characters and the real people and events that make up our own lives.

Kristi Merck, from Ham Lake, MN writes, “At our WRM meeting for the The Screwtape Letters, one woman shared her amazement that Satan, as a pure spirit who knew God in all His Glory, would once and for always choose to reject Him for all eternity. We as humans, on the other hand, are given the gift of time to choose God in every present moment. This is why Satan tries to get us to regret the past or to fear the future and flee the present. This resonated with me because I have often read that Christ is a “present Presence” and I am verifying that it is true. My 84-year-old mom broke her femur a month ago, and as she recovers from a difficult surgery, her dementia has worsened.  Each day looks a little different and feels more than a little fragile. I am learning to take one day at a time. In this new reality, Christ is present! I have been gone from my husband and kids many hours this past month helping my mom. Recently, when I came home, I apologized to the kids for being away so much. One of our teenagers said, “Mom, quit apologizing. We love Grandma too. We’re glad you’re with her, but when you’re home, just be present to us!” Ouch, the temptation to dwell on the past or to fear the future is the subtle way we are kept from living in the present. The present is where we are met in each moment by the Risen Christ! 

In a tangible way, something Kristi heard at her Well-Read Mom meeting helped her not just to analyze a work of literature, but to more deeply understand her own reality; to see more.This is an awakened imagination.

When Saint John Paul II wrote, “Mothers guard and impart the deepest truths of life. The future of the world is with the mothers,” he was acknowledging a deep truth. But there is a catch. To guard and impart these truths, women must not fall prey to what Joseph Pieper termed ‘total work’— a mode of existence where work becomes overvalued and leads to an almost complete neglect of leisure and the person. The growth of Well-Read Mom is a sign that we are waking up to the fact that for many of us, “Something has been missing from our lives, and it is the imagination.”

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