Catholics Discussing the Upsides of Daydreaming

Aug 16, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts members,

I want to invite you to pursue an ordered, balanced, wholesome, and holy understanding of the use of imagination and daydreaming to bring you to both psychological wholeness and a deeper intimate union with God and Mary. With that goal in mind, this reflection will shine a light using many reputable Catholic sources demonstrating that daydreaming and imagination can be good, holy, and even necessary elements in the fullness of our Catholic life.

We’ll learn from St. Francis de Sales, St. Faustina, St. Ignatius of Loyola, modern Catholic experts, and of course Sacred Scripture in this week’s reflection to offer a Catholic counterbalance to the legitimate cautions, criticisms, and concerns about imagination and daydreaming I presented in last week’s reflection, titled Catholics Discussing the Downsides of Daydreams.

A hesitant dreamer

My journey to a place where I can promote imagination and daydreaming as safe and desirable warrants a brief recounting. Embracing this understanding of the ‘upsides’ I’m sharing with you today followed a difficult journey in my own life. For good reasons I spent many years rejecting and suppressing imagination.

Why?

I got burned. Badly burned. In my college years I fell into a very close relationship with a Catholic group that I experienced as manipulative, coercive, and harmful to me and others. After realizing the spiritual and emotional dangers, I gained distance from that group and decided that a primary factor which had allowed me to get trapped and burned stemmed from putting too much trust in my own imagination and inner experience. I did not want to be misled, hurt, trapped or burned again. Understandable.

However, my subsequent rejection of imagination and daydreaming led to living in an impoverished, narrow, highly intellectualized, and emotionally constricted spiritual life in my young adulthood. I focused on virtue, on strengthening my will, on intellectual formation, on coloring within the lines of all the dogmas and doctrines of the Faith, seeking protection in what was sure and sound. Grinding through my daily prayer routines with determination, checking each spiritual practice off the spiritual to-do list, my spiritual life was fairly sterile, but, allegedly at least, safe.

Protected from perceived danger

After leaving the dysfunction of that Catholic group, my pendulum had swung to an extreme as I became overly cautious of my inner experience, especially around spirituality. My attitude toward my inner experience, for the little voices within my heart became: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I wasn’t going to get burned again. My defenses were on high alert.

For years, I embraced many of the reasons and many of the arguments against imagination that I outlined in last week’s reflection, Catholics Discussing the Downsides of Daydreams. I did not want to be misled and I viewed my imagination with suspicion, with distrust.

Highly guarded system

My defenses against imagination were so strong that when Mel Gibson’s blockbuster movie, The Passion of the Christ came out in 2004, I refused to experience it. I received many invitations and I turned them all down. For more than a decade I simply would not watch.

Part of my reasoning stemmed from an intellectual understanding that many elements of Gibson’s re-creation of the passion, especially around the depiction of the physical trauma that Christ endured, were probably inaccurate. Based on the persuasive evidence of a Catholic forensic pathologist, Frederick Zugibe, MD, Ph.D., who wrote The Crucifixion of Jesus, Completely Revised and Expanded: A Forensic Inquiry, I determined that the film’s portrayal took too many artistic liberties. Besides, Mel Gibson had apparently ignored an offer to consult with Dr. Zugibe on the screenplay.

Ultimately, I refused to watch the movie because I did not want my imagination to be “tainted” with erroneous images leading to mistaken beliefs about our Lord’s passion. I didn’t want to expose myself to incorrect, unsound, unreliable impressions that might burn themselves into my memory, perhaps coloring how I understood and reverenced our Lord for His sacrifice for us.

Looking back, I recognize my avoidance to enter into the realm of imagination held true with most other dramatic representations of the Passion as well. I remained highly defended against allowing the Persons of the Trinity and the Blessed Virgin Mary any room in my heart. Instead of seeking a deep, intimate relationship with God and Mary with all my being, I focused on how love was an act of the will. Virtues were my path to holiness.

In a nutshell, my entrenched position held that emotions, desires, and the imagination were treacherous, capricious, dangerous, and unnecessary, best dispensed with in the spiritual life. This rejection of imagination had consequences, as described by Peter Fink S.J. in an entry on Imagination and Worship in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship: Through it all, imagination emerges as indispensable to the act of worship. It is clear that without imagination one cannot worship God at all. [p. 594].

Contradictions

My stilted, rigid spiritual life stood in contrast to a richness in my natural relationships with my wife and children. Though far from perfect, as a husband and father I was warm and receptive, open and connected in many ways. But with God and Mary, I protected myself.

Did all these efforts to prevent misusing my imagination, fearing to bias or deform my understanding of our Lord’s Passion, lead to a greater union with Him or a deeper sense of His love for me?

No.

How often did I meditate upon our Lord’s Passion with my “untainted” imagination, spared by my repeated refusals to watch Gibson’s blockbuster? Almost never. Almost never.

Pendulum swings into balance

With regard to this issue of imagination, my internal pendulum has since found a balance. While still holding caution for the misuse of imagination in disordered daydreaming as it creates difficulties — both moral trouble (discussed in last week’s reflection) and psychological disorder (discussed in my first reflection in this series, Daydreams: The Secular Experts Speak), I have grown to understand that the proper use of imagination and daydreaming serves to enrich our spiritual life and thus benefit our whole life and all of our relationships.

Upsides of daydreaming and imagination

Let’s delve into the ‘upsides’ of daydreaming and imagination by first embracing Sacred Scripture. In Philippians 4:8, St. Paul tells us: Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Think about these things… These beautiful glorious things. Bring them to mind. We haven’t experienced all of them yet, so we have to use our imaginations. In their Sacra Pagina commentary on this verse, Bonnie Thurston and Judith Ryan write:

consider these things: …“Consider” or “think on” (logizesthe) means “meditate on” or “mull over” and was used at 3:13. The invitation / command is literally to fill the mind with these virtues. Paul is an astute psychologist and knows that the greatest area of sin is that of thought, and so he gives “alternatives” to sinful or even useless or trivial or petty thoughts…. As the Sermon on the Mount makes clear, a Christian must be as careful in thought as in action (Matt 5:21–48). [p. 147].

St. Paul’s admonitions encourage us to “meditate on,” to “mull over,” to reflect and engage in that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and praiseworthy. In addition to the Passion, the content for our imaginative engagement includes many other scenes in Christian history, especially in the Gospels. Since we were not there as eyewitnesses, our imaginations become the key to entering into reflections and meditations.

Saints speak

As outlined in my weekly reflection from August 2 titled A Catholic Researcher’s Reference List, my process for delving into various topics follows a pattern and uses authentic Catholic resources and trustworthy voices. Our next window for looking into positive perspectives on imagination and daydreaming will come from the writing of the saints, our holy heroes.

St. Francis de Sales’ wisdom

In Chapter 16 of his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales invites his reader to actively and deeply engage with the wonder and glory and beauty and loveliness of heaven. This requires the use of imagination as he explains:

1. Represent to yourself [i.e., imagine] a lovely calm night, when the heavens are bright with innumerable stars: add to the beauty of such a night the utmost beauty of a glorious summer’s day, –the sun’s brightness not hindering the clear shining of moon or stars, and then be sure that it all falls immeasurably short of the glory of Paradise. O bright and blessed country, O sweet and precious place!

2. Consider the beauty and perfection of the countless inhabitants of that blessed country, –the millions and millions of angels, Cherubim and Seraphim; the glorious company of Apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, and saints. O blessed company, any one single member of which surpasses all the glory of this world, what will it be to behold them all, to sing with them the sweet Song of the Lamb? They rejoice with a perpetual joy, they share a bliss unspeakable, and unchangeable delights.

3. Consider how they enjoy the Presence of God, Who fills them with the richness of His Vision, which is a perfect ocean of delight; the joy of being forever united to their Head. They are like happy birds, hovering and singing forever within the atmosphere of divinity, which fills them with inconceivable pleasures. There each one vies without jealousy in singing the praises of the Creator. “Blessed art Thou forever, O Dear and Precious Lord and Redeemer, Who dost so freely give us of Thine Own Glory,” they cry; and He in His turn pours out His ceaseless Blessing on His Saints. “Blessed are ye, –Mine own forever, who have served Me faithfully, and with a good courage.”

St. Francis de Sales knew deeply that imaginative meditations like these, fantasies or daydreams directed toward experiencing heaven in the mind yes, but also in the heart, fan our desires and impel us toward greater love. This reminds me of Romans 8:18: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. That glory has not yet come – we can only imagine it, and via our imaginations, allow it to motivate us toward openness to greater faith, hope, love, and to sacrifice.

St. Faustina’s take

St. Faustina’s Diary: Divine Mercy in my Soul, there is a passage where she imagines and dreams of the work her new congregation would do in the future. Her inner reflection occurred while she was almost totally incapacitated by tuberculosis and convalescing in a sanatorium:

During prayer today, my soul was overcome with such a strong desire to begin the work, that I could not restrain my enthusiasm. Oh, how ardently I desire that the souls in this Congregation present themselves before the throne of God and continuously implore His incomprehensible mercy on behalf of the whole world, praising and glorifying this unfathomable mercy of God. A mysterious force is driving me to action. [paragraph 1013].

St. Faustina’s inner vision motivates and vivifies her, even when she is so medically compromised and physically restricted. Her rich inner life and openness to holy daydreaming and imagining fueled and catapulted her mission from a place of utter physical immobility.

St. Ignatius of Loyola’s discovery

St. Ignatius articulately sums up what he learned during his painful convalescence while recovering from a cannonball injury which shattered his leg: “Good discernment consists of prayerfully pondering the great desires that well up in our daydreams.”

It is interesting to note that for many of the saints, a tremendous set-back or time of forced rehabilitation or immobility provides the fertile soil to allow them to enter a much richer interior life with the fulness of imagination and time for daydreaming.

In future weekly reflections in this series, I will offer you much more from St. Ignatius, whom I consider to be the Catholic father of holy daydreaming.

Praydreaming

Mark E. Thibodeaux, S.J., in his article Praydreaming: Key to Discernment (worth every penny of the $0.99 it costs) writes:

Are desires good or bad? Many spiritual writers of Ignatius’ day spoke of desires as obstacles to God’s will. One solution was to suppress one’s desires—to eliminate them whenever possible. Ignatius, on the other hand, held the radical notion that God dwells in the desires of a good person.

Not only are desires not evil, but they are one of God’s primary instruments of communicating his will to his children. God enflames the heart with holy desires, and with attraction toward a life of greater divine praise and service. Ignatius did not seek to squash desires, but rather sought to tap into the deepest desires of the heart, trusting that it is God who has placed them there.

We fall into sin when we are ignorant of the desires beneath the desires. Consider this way of understanding personal sin: We sin, not because we are in touch with our desires but precisely because we are not in touch with them! This is one of Ignatius’ most profound insights.

Fr. Thibodeaux captures the depth of St. Ignatius’ thought as he recognizing that desires have levels – surface desires can reveal the deeper, latent desires, if we are willing to listen to them, rather than attempt to suppress and silence them.

Worth the work

Jessica Keating in her article St. Francis of Assisi: Icon of the Hospitable Imagination from October 4, 2017 wrote this beautiful passage on the importance of imagination in loving others:

In short, being Christian means going to the “very roots of life and love.” It means imagining a civilization of love. It means cultivating an imagination hospitable to life, an imagination that is more spacious. It is an imagination that sees the proper ordering and distinction among life issues not as a threat but as an invitation and challenge to love more fully and more deeply. It is an imagination that resists the reductions and exclusions that a culture of death (a throwaway culture) would demand we make. The hospitable imagination wonders at the magnificence of creation and mystery of human life, “wandering in the garden of youthful joy.”

And Emily Heyne in her Mighty is her Call article The Saint of the Imagination: Ignatius of Loyola wrote that:

…as St. Ignatius has taught me, the gift of imagination is an integral component to our life of faith and prayer. Like consciences, imaginations, too, require attention, formation, and sanctification.

Attention to, formation of and sanctification of the imagination — what a great concept, and what an important but neglected area of human formation for Catholics! What a shift from a place of suppression, suspicion, and resentment. Such an expansive and creative arena for the Holy Spirit to enliven, enrich and inspire both our spiritual and our natural lives.

In an effort to foster this proper formation of the imagination, future stops along this journey will take us to places of learning to discern whether daydreaming, imagining, fantasy, and other internal experiences are truly directed toward bringing us closer to God, and provide concrete guidance for that attention to, formation of, and sanctification of the imagination that Emily Heyne recommends.

Our philosopher-in-residence

I am pleased to announce that Monte De La Torre has joined Souls and Hearts as our philosopher-in-residence. Dr. De La Torre combines special expertise in metaphysics with a strong interest in psychology. He will take the lead in the next two weekly reflections, continuing and extending the discussion of daydreaming, fantasy, and imagination in a moral context. He will help us to consider and evaluate our internal experience in a clearer and more accurate way.

The Resilient Catholics Community retreat

Four staff and 26 RCC members came together in Bloomington, Indiana for our second annual human formation retreat. Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB joined us and the experience was amazing, difficult to put into words. It was so good to be together in the same space. Thank you to all who came, and to all who supported us in prayers. Next year’s retreat dates are set for August 9-12, 2024 at the same location. You can find out more about the RCC here.

Be With the Word for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dr. Gerry and I discuss the psychology of petitionary prayer in this week’s 44-minute episode, titled Four Essentials For God To Grant Your Heart’s Desire. In addition to the four essential elements, we discuss the common psychological impediments to each, that will allow God to grant our hearts’ desire. You can listen to us share the Mass readings aloud here.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. Remember that you can subscribe to our email list and receiving these weekly reflections each Wednesday in your email inbox by going to our home page and clicking the blue box.

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