W. B. Yeats believed that it was only with Greek and Roman culture that humans became all-important.
Until then, other questions occupied the human soul:
“One was less interested in man…than in divine revelations, in changes among the heavens and the gods, which can hardly be expressed at all, and only by myth, by symbol, by enigma. One was always losing oneself in the unknown and rushing to the limits of the world. Imagination was all in all.”
Celtic poet and theologian John O’Donahue defines soul as “the place where the imagination lives.” What does the imagination do? It is at home between worlds, it is at home at the edge.
Imagination, said O’Donahue, is “the creative force in the individual. It always negotiates different thresholds and releases possibilities of recognition and creativity that the linear, controlling, external mind will never even glimpse. The imagination works on the threshold that runs between light and dark, visible and invisible, quest and question, possibility and fact. The imagination is the great friend of possibility. Where the imagination is awake and alive, fact never hardens or closes but remains open, inviting you to new thresholds of possibility and creativity.”
M. C. Richards, another Celtic artist and scholar, who is potter, poet, painter and philosopher, in her classic work Centering tells us of the intimate relationship between throwing a pot on the wheel and meditation. Pottery can teach us the discipline of freedom, including the freedom to play. “We must be able to have fun, we must feel enjoyment, and sometimes long imprisonment has made us numb and sluggish….We become brighter, more energy flows through us, our limbs rise, our spirit comes alive in our tissues.”
In art, we learn to let go. “We redeem our energies not by wrestling with them and managing them, for we have not the wisdom nor the strength to do that, but by letting the light to shine upon them.” We also let things be themselves—including unpleasant things. “The discipline comes in when we have to pay attention to what we don’t like, aren’t interested in, don’t understand, mistrust,…when we have to read the poetry of our enemies—within or without.”
In art, we wed body and spirit so thoroughly that redemption comes in a bodily way. “It is in our bodies that redemption takes place. It is the physicality of the crafts that pleases me: I learn through my hands and eyes and my skin what I could never learn through my brain.”
Adapted from: Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing From Global Faiths, pp. 236f.
Banner image: Image of the horned Celtic deity Cernunnos, associated with wild stags, horned serpents, dogs, bulls, and rats, whose form he was said to take on. Detail from the Gundestrop Cauldron, 150 B.C. to 100 B.C. Photo by Kern8, Wikimedia.
Queries for Contemplation
What are the implications of defining the soul as the place where imagination lives? Do you have soul? Do our cultural institutions from education to religion to politics and economics? How bring it back if it has been lost or denigrated?
Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.
In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.