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XX. IMAGINATION IN PRAYER
“Lord, teach us to pray.”—Luke xi. i.
“Full of eyes.”—Rev. iv. 8.
I NEVER see, or hear, or speak, or write the word “imagination” without being arrested and recalled to what Pascal and Butler and Edwards have all said, with such power and with such passion, on the subject of imagination. Pascal—himself all compact of imagination as he is—Pascal sets forth again and again a tremendous indictment against the “deceits” and “deceptions” of the imagination. Butler also, in few but always weighty words, stigmatises the imagination as “that forward and delusive faculty.” While Jonathan Edwards, in his own masterful way, would almost seem to have given the death-blow to the use of the imagination in all matters of personal and experimental religion. But as to Butler,—that great author’s latest and best editor, in two paragraphs of really fine criticism, has clearly brought out that what Butler calls “the errors of the imagination” are not errors of the imagination at all, but are the errors of unbridled fancy and caprice, and of an unbalanced 242 and ill-regulated judgment. “It seems probable,” so sums up Butler’s venerable editor, “that this is one of the rare instances in which Butler, relaxing the firmness of his hold, forgets himself, and assumes a licence in the use of words.” And then, the editor turns the tables on his admired author by going on to say that, in felicity of imaginative illustration, Butler is the equal of Macaulay himself; while, in some other of the exercises of the imagination, Butler is even above Burke.
What, then, you will ask,—with all that,—what exactly, and in itself, and at its best, is the imagination? Well, come back for a moment to the very beginning of all things, if you would have the best answer to that question. And, then, I will answer that question by asking and answering another question. “How did God create man?”—“God created man,” I am answered, “male and female, after His own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.” Our understanding, then, our mind and our memory, are both so many images to us of the Divine Mind. Our conscience, again, is an inward voice to us, impressing upon us an imprint of the Divine Righteousness, and the Divine Law. Our will, also, and the Divine Will, are of the same Divine Substance. And as for our heart—it is “a copy, Lord, of Thine.” And then, in his imagination, man possesses, and exercises in himself, a certain, and 243 that a not very far-off likeness of the Divine Omnipresence, and the Divine Omniscience. For, by his imagination, a man can look behind, and before, and around, and within, and above. By his imagination a man can go back to the beginning ere ever the earth was. One man has done it. Moses has done it. And what Moses has done to this earth, that one day will not be remembered nor come into mind,—all that John, Moses’ fellow in imagination, has done to the new heaven and the new earth. The imagination, then, whatever else it is, is not that “forward, ever-intruding and delusive faculty”: it is not that “author of all error,” as Butler, so unlike himself, so confuses and miscalls it. Nor is it what Pascal so lashes to death with his splendid invective. Nor is it imagination at all, as we have to do with it to-day, that Edwards so denounces in his Religious Affections.
Imagination, as God in His goodness gave it at first to man,—imagination is nothing less than the noblest intellectual attribute of the human mind. And his imagination is far more to every spiritually-minded man than a merely intellectual attribute of his mind. I shall not need to go beyond Pascal himself,—so splendidly endowed with this splendid gift. “Imagination,” says Pascal, “creates all the beauty, and all the justice, and all the happiness that is in the heart of man.” The imagination, then, must not be made to bear the blame that 244 really belongs to those men who have prostituted it, and have filled its great inward eyes full of visions of folly and sin: when they should have set the Lord always before their inward eyes, with all His works in nature, and in grace, and in glory. Because there is only one of a city, and two of a family, who ever employ their inward eyes aright,—are the inward eyes of those men to be plucked out who have on their inward eyes an unction from the Holy One? No. A thousand times, No! “Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law. I am a stranger in the earth: hide not Thy commandments from me.”
If, then, you would learn to pray to perfection,—that is to say, to pray with all that is within you,—never fail, never neglect, to do this. Never once shut your bodily eyes and bow your knees to begin to pray, without, at the same moment, opening the eyes of your imagination. It is but a bodily service to shut our outward eyes, and not at the same moment open the eyes of our inner man. Do things like this, then, when you would be in the full spirit of prayer. Things, more or less, like this. “I speak as a child.” Let your imagination sweep up through the whole visible heavens, up to the heaven of heavens. Let her sweep and soar on her shining wing, up past sun, moon, and stars. Let her leave Orion and the Pleiades far behind her. And let her heart swell and beat as she says 245 such things as these to herself: “He made all these things. He, Whom I now seek. That is His Sun. My Father made them all. My Mediator made them all to the glory of His Father. And He is the heir of all things. Oh, to be at peace with the Almighty! Oh, never again for one moment to forget or disobey, or displease Him! Oh, to be an heir of God, and a joint heir with Jesus Christ! Oh, to be found among the sons and the daughters of God Almighty!”
At another time, as you kneel down, flash, in a moment,—I still speak as a child,—the eyes of your heart back to Adam in his garden, and with the image of God still in all its glory upon him: and to Abraham over Sodom; and to Moses in the cleft of the rock; and to David in the nightwatches; and to Jesus Christ all night on the mountain top—and your time will not be lost. For, by such a flash of your imagination, at such a moment, the spirit of grace and supplications will be put in complete possession of your whole soul. Never open your eyes any morning without, that moment, seeing God and saying, “I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.” And never lie down without saying, “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for Thou, Lord, only makest me to dwell in safety.” Never set out on a journey till you have said to God and to your own soul, “The Lord shall preserve thy going 246 out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.” And never so much as say grace at table, however short time you have to say it in, without seeing Him: in the twinkling of an eye, be for one moment, if no more, with Him who spreads your table, and makes your cup to run over. In short, be sure to get a true sight and a true hold of God, in some way or other, before you begin either prayer or praise. There is nothing in this world so difficult. The time it takes, sometimes, and the toil, and the devices, and the instrumentalities—you would not believe: because no word in all the Bible better describes us when we are at prayer, and at praise, and at table than this: “Without God”; and this: “Their hearts are far from Me.” Be sure, then—with all the help that heaven and earth, that God and man can give you—be sure you get your eyes and your hands on God in your prayer. You may begin and end your prayer without that—if you are in a hurry; and if you have no time or taste to give to Him Who will be honoured, and waited on, and well pleased with you. But, if so, you need not begin. It is not prayer at all. In your audience of an earthly sovereign, you would not grudge or count up the time and the pains and the schooling beforehand. You would not begin to speak to him while yet you were in the street, or on the stair, and out among the common crowd. You would keep your cause in your heart till you 247 were in his presence: and then, when you saw him sitting on his throne high up above you, you would then fall down before him, and would fill your mouth with arguments.
Never say any of your idle words to Almighty God. Say your idle words to your equals. Say them to your sovereigns. But, never, as you shall answer for it,—never, all your days,—to God. Set the Lord always before you. Direct your prayer to Him, and look up. Better be somewhat too bold and somewhat unseemly than altogether to neglect and forget Almighty God. Better say that so bold saying,—“I will not let Thee go,” than pray with such laziness and sleepiness and stupidity as we now pray. Look for God, and look at God: till you can honestly say to Him, with Dr. Newman, a great genius and a great saint, that there are now, to you, two and two only supreme and luminously self-evident beings in the whole universe, yourself and your Creator. And, when once you begin to pray in that way, you will know it. Every prayer of yours like that will, ever after, leave its lasting mark upon you. You will not long remain the same man. Praying, with the imagination all awake, and all employed—such praying will soon drink up your whole soul into itself. You will then “pray always.” It will be to you by far the noblest and the most blessed of all your employments in this present world. You will pray 248 “without ceasing.” We shall have to drag you out of your closet by main force. You will then be prayerful “over much.” “Whether in the body I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth.” Such will you all become when you accustom your inward eyes to see and to brood continually on the power, and on the greatness, and on the goodness, and on the grace and on the glory of God.
Yes, but all the time, what about this?—you will ask: what about this—that “no man hath seen God at any time”? Well,—that is true, and well remembered, and opportunely and appropriately brought forward. Whatever else is true or false, that is true. That, all the time, abides the deepest and the surest of truths. And thus it was that the Invisible Father sent His Son to take our “opaque and palpable” flesh, and, in it, to reveal the Father. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory.” And it is this being “made flesh” of the Son of God that has enabled us to see God. It is the birth and the whole life, and the words, and the works, and the death, and the resurrection, and the ascension, and the revelation from heaven again of Jesus Christ—it is all this that has for ever opened up such new and boundless worlds which the Christian imagination may visit, and in which she may expatiate and regale herself continually.249
The absolute and pure Godhead is utterly and absolutely out of all reach even of the highest flights of the imagination of man. The pure and unincarnated Godhead dwells in light which no man’s imagination has ever seen even afar off, or ever can see. But then, hear this. “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father.” Well, if that is true, come now! Awake up, O my baffled and beaten-back imagination! Awake, and look at last upon thy God! Awake, and feast thyself for ever on thy God! Bathe, and sun, and satiate thyself to all eternity, in the sweetness and in the beauty and in the light, and in the glory of thy God! There is nothing, in earth or in heaven, to our imagination now like the Word made flesh. We cannot waste any more, so much as one beat of her wing, or one glance of her eye, or one heave of her heart on any one else, in heaven or earth, but the Word made flesh. “Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee.” There is a cold and heartless proverb among men to this effect: “Out of sight, out of mind.” And this cold and heartless proverb would be wholly true—even of believing men—if it were not for the divine offices and the splendid services of the Christian imagination. But the truly Christian imagination never lets Jesus Christ out of her sight. And she keeps Him in her sight and ever before her inward eyes in this way. You 250 open your New Testament—which is her peculiar and most delightful field,—you open that Book of books, say, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. And, by your imagination, that moment you are one of Christ’s disciples on the spot, and are at His feet. And all that Sermon you never once lift your eyes off the Great Preacher. You hear nothing else, and you see nothing else, till He shuts the Book and says: “Great was the fall of the house,”—and so ends His sermon. All through His sermon you have seen the working of His face. In every word of His sermon, you have felt the beating of His heart. Your eye has met His eye, again and again, till you are in chains of grace and truth to Him ever after. And then, no sooner has He risen up, and come down the hill, than a leper, who dared not go up the hill, falls down at His feet, and says, “Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean!” And all your days, ever since that Sermon, you are that leper. All that day you have been more and more like that leper, till now, as that day closes, you are like him nigh unto death. You worship Christ like the leper. He is beside you. He stands over you. You feel, as never before, the leprosy of sin. It fills full your polluted heart. The diseased flesh of that poor leper is the flesh of a little child compared with you and with your heart. Till in a more than leper-like loathing at yourself, and a more than leper-like despair of 251 yourself, you bury your face before His feet, and cry to Him: “But, Lord, if Thou only wilt, Thou canst make me clean!”
And so on—as often as, with your imagination anointed with holy oil, you again open your New Testament. At one time, you are the publican: at another time, you are the prodigal: at another time, you are Lazarus, in his grave, beside whose dead body it was not safe or fit for a living man to come: at another time, you are Mary Magdalene: at another time, Peter in the porch: and then at another time, Judas with the money of the chief priest in his hand, and afterwards with his halter round his neck. Till your whole New Testament is all over autobiographic of you. And till you can say to Matthew, and Mark, and Luke, and to John himself: Now I believe; and not for your sayings so much; for I have seen Him myself, and have myself been healed of Him, and know that this is indeed the Christ of God, and the Saviour of the World. Never, then, I implore you, I demand of you—never, now, all the days and nights that are left to you—never open your New Testament till you have offered this prayer to God the Holy Ghost: ”Open Thou mine eyes!“ And then, as you read, stop and ponder: stop and open your eyes: stop and imagine: stop till you actually see Jesus Christ in the same room with you. “Lo! I am with you alway!” Ask Him, if He hides 252 Himself from you, ask Him aloud,—yes, aloud,—whether these are, indeed, His words to you, or no. Expect Him. Rise up, and open to Him. Salute Him. Put down your book. Put down your light, and then say such things as these—say: “Jesus Christ! Son of David! Son of Mary! Carpenter’s Son! Son of God! Saviour of Sinners, of whom I am chief!” Speak it out. Do not be afraid that both men and devils hear thee speaking to thy Saviour. What about them all when thou art alone with the Son of God? And, besides, all men are asleep. “Art thou, in very truth, here, O Christ? Dost Thou see me? Dost Thou hear me? Yes! Thou art here! I am sure of it. I feel it. O blessed One! O Son of the Highest! I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof. But Thou art here! Here, of all the houses in the whole city! And, here, with me—O my Saviour: with me of all men in the whole city!” Fall at His feet, kiss His feet. Kiss His feet till thy lips come upon an iron nail in them: and, after that, thou wilt know, of a truth, Who He is, that is with thee in the night-watches!
But your absolutely highest, and absolutely best, and absolutely boldest use of your imagination has yet to be told, if you are able to bear it, and are willing to receive it. It is a very high and a very fruitful employment of your imagination to go back and to put yourself by means of it into the place of 253 Adam, and Abraham, and Moses, and Job, and Peter, and Judas, and the Magdalene, and the thief on the cross. But, to put out this magnificent talent to its very best usury, you must take the highest boldness in all the world, and put yourself in the place of CHRIST HIMSELF. Put yourself and all that is within you into the Hand of the Holy Ghost, and He will help you, most willingly and most successfully, to imagine yourself to be Jesus Christ. Imagine yourself, then, to be back in Nazareth, where He was brought up. Imagine yourself,—and show to your son and your Sunday school scholar the way to imagine himself,—sitting beside Joseph and Mary every Sabbath day in that little synagogue. Imagine yourself to be the carpenter’s son, as He was. Imagine yourself at Jordan at John’s great awakening of the dry bones, and then at John’s Baptism. Imagine yourself fighting the devil in the wilderness with nothing but fasting and praying and the Word of God for weapons. Imagine yourself without where to lay your head. Imagine all your disciples turning against you and forsaking you. Imagine the upper room, and the garden, and the arrest and the Cross, and the darkness, and “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Did you ever imagine yourself to be crucified? Paul did. And the imagination made him the matchless apostle of the Cross that he was. And then, imagine 254 yourself Christ risen, and in glory, and looking down on your heart, and on your life, and on your closet, and on your bed. Imagine Him seeing you,—your mind, your heart, your inspiration, your motives, your intentions, your thoughts:—all you think, and all you say, and all you do. And then,—I challenge you to imagine what HE must be thinking and feeling, and making up His mind to-day as to what He is to say, and to do, to you; and when! What would you say about yourself, if you were in His place,—if you had died on the tree for such sins as yours, and then saw yourself what, all this time, you are, having no wish and no intention ever to be otherwise? I think you would throw down your office. I feel sure you would wash your hands of yourself. You would say, “Let him alone!” You would say “Cut it down! Why cumbereth it the ground?” I will tell you literally and exactly what you would say. From God’s word I will tell you what any honest and earnest and wearied-out and insulted man would say, and what may this moment, for anything you know, be said over you from the great white throne of God. “Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out My hand, and no man regarded. . . . I will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; when your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind. . . . For that they hated knowledge, and did not 255 choose the fear of the Lord.” Imagine the Lamb in His wrath saying that! And imagine yourself dying, and not knowing at threescore and ten how to pray! Imagine yourself at the river, and no one there to meet you—and no one to say to you, “I will be with thee”! Imagine the Judge in His hot anger saying it;—and shutting the door—“I never knew you”! And then, imagine with all your might of imagination—imagine that, by an unparalleled act of God’s grace, you are sent back again to this world, just for one more year, just for one more week, just for one more Sabbath day or Sabbath night! O prayer-neglecting sinner! O equally prayer-neglecting child of God! One more Sabbath day of the Mercy-seat, and the Mediator at God’s right hand, and the Blood of Christ that speaketh peace!
“I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear: but now, mine eye seeth Thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”256
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