Connections interest me. As I watch builders secure the roof onto a new porch, I wonder what holds the tiny house together. Nails, joints, staples, glue, and gravity? Later in the morning, I see a formerly homeless man teaching a business executive how to harvest ripe figs, and I ask the same question: what makes them together instead of apart in this moment?
The third component of imagination (which I also reflected upon in my last entry) in my recent seminar is that imagination is the power that connects, drawing disparate images, ideas, and feelings into integral wholes. As the power that mediates what we see and sense, the imagination is a kind of collector, amassing in our minds a wealth of images, ideas, memories, and visions. A weak or immature imagination organizes this array arbitrarily or fancifully, jumbling (for example) our anxieties about tomorrow’s presentation with the smell of coffee, as the wildest of our dreams might do. A disciplined imagination, on the other hand, selects and integrates what it receives according to principles: moral, aesthetic, theological, and so on. Thus, a historian with a well-trained imagination can collate thousands of primary documents and recorded facts, and yet can, in a lecture or a page, give his readers or students a coherent picture of a day in the life of the past.
As I have pondered the imagination’s connective power, I’ve sought for a good metaphor. In this search, I’ve realized there are a number of ways in which two material things can be connected. Most simply, I can mix things together, placing them in proximity to one another but little else, as with a tossed salad. A mixture can be good or ill, according to the principle behind the mixture (e.g. the “lettuce s’mores” I tried to make as a child were a work of botched imagination). Mixtures do not necessarily require much planning or foresight, making them easy to create spontaneously and without much effort. At the same time, these mixes have very little lasting integrity, and will put up little resistance if some force attempts to separate them.
Another category of connections involves taking two (usually similar) things and using both to create a new structure. A knot–in which two threads are looped and pulled in such a way that the resulting structure holds them together–is an easy example. Similar is the interlocking warp-and-weft structure of woven fabric, or the puzzle-piece precision of dovetailed joints. Depending upon the materials and the skill of the maker, these bonds can be both strong and flexible.
At other times, a third element is introduced to bind two things together: thread to stitch together two patches of fabric, glue to bond two pieces of paper, a nail to secure one piece of wood to another. In these cases, the integrity of the bond depends chiefly on the strength and skillful application of the third thing, the connective element or substance.
Finally, things can be combined by melding or melting them together. When I make lotion, I melt beeswax into jojoba oil, for example. Once melted, I can no longer tell with the naked eye where one constituent begins and the other ends. Dissolving one thing into another, or steeping, as I do with tea leaves and water, produces similarly powerful combinations.
My instinct is that each of these processes can serve as metaphors for the various ways imagination can connect the elements of our interior world, as well as connecting us to the world around us and to one another. Imagination can, with dream-like generosity, mix the images and feelings of our day into jumbles of delight or terror. A skillful imagination can weave two things (for example, prayer and cooking) into a strong, flexible union by identifying natural structures for connection (the tedious work of chopping vegetables, for example, can provide the mental freedom necessary for prayer). Imagination can introduce a third thing–a common language or memory, for example–to bind to people together. And perhaps, imagination can create the necessary conditions for two things to meld with one another, no longer simply joined, but participant one with the other. Before I venture more on that mystery, perhaps I should go spend some time with our community blacksmith.
For me, how to discipline and empower my imagination, making it an agent of powerful integration, is a live and tender question. As I walk through the early months of marriage, longing for the mystery of “two-become-one,” we are making our home in a village for the chronically homeless, one that aims to restore their sense of connection by empowering the people of this city to come, know, and love them. Both these works–marriage and ministry–have every chance of failing, for we live in a fallen world. But with each thread I weave and each hammer I hear, I pray for the grace to do this hard and needful work: mix, weave, knit, stir, dovetail, glue, meld, and cleave.