The poet Rainer Maria Rilke makes a wise observation when he says, “The future must enter into you long before it happens.” The use of imagination is one powerful way we can explore the meaning, promise and peril of a future direction we are discerning before that future is actually realized.
Images can come to us in many different ways. They can come through dreams, contemplation, prayer with Scripture, listening to music, or walking in nature. One way we can use imagination in the service of discernment is to contemplate thoroughly one image for the insight it holds around our decision.
Here’s an example from my own life: A few years ago, I began to seriously consider the possibility of leaving my university faculty position of 20 years to enter my name for election to congregational leadership. One morning, I woke up with the image in my head of someone going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It was a startling image! Would a decision to leave university teaching to go into administration (which is not my strong suit) be as foolhardy, reckless, and without purpose as a decision to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel? The image helped me to get in touch with both my fear of failing (I could lose the election) and my fear of success (I could win the election, but be totally inept at the job). As if on the edge of the falls in a barrel, was I on the edge of a fatal mistake that could ruin my life?
As I continued to mull over the image, I remembered my attraction to Niagara Falls. Having visited the falls many times, it had become a God image for me. Like God, it was glorious, awe-inspiring, and fearful in its grandeur. Yet, it bedazzled me and allured me to come close and experience its beauty and its power. The roar of the falls often wrapped me in prayer. Above the falls, the river would roll along at its unhurried pace and then quite suddenly, without notice, meet the falls and plummet through mid-air as if to its death, only to reemerge at the foot of the falls and live anew as a river once again. It was an image of death and resurrection.
Leaving my university position would certainly be a kind of death, which I felt deep down was necessary for new life to emerge. It felt like God’s call. After much deliberation, I left my position. I was not, however, elected to leadership, but was appointed as vocation director, a ministry more suited to my gifts and talents. The image brought clarity and insight to my decision that has brought me new life in abundance.
Take time in prayer to get in touch with your discernment issue. Let an image arise from your prayer. Interact with your image. Pay attention to what it represents. Ask your image, What wisdom do you want to reveal to me? Listen for its response.
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Get out your bell-bottoms and platform shoes, because DISCO is here!
Okay, so it's a little less dancing, a little more talking... Sisters Lorraine Réaume, OP, and Sara Fairbanks, OP, have a new video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!