‘Where is God right now?’ How imagination can aid our faith in quarantine
Fr. Hans Magdurulang of San Felipe Neri Parish visits and prays for the medical frontliners against Covid-19 at the VRP Medical Center in Mandaluyong City April 17. ERIC PAUL GUANLAO/CBCPNEWS
By Hannah Brockhaus
Catholic News Agency
April 22, 2020
ROME— Living under coronavirus-caused quarantines and stay-at-home orders, many Catholics may find themselves unable to practice the faith in the ways to which they are accustomed.
When you can’t attend Mass, receive the Eucharist, or even go to church, where do you find God?
The first thing to remember is that “God wants to save me at every given moment, so he doesn’t want to save me less now than he did when Mass was available, when we could avail ourselves of all the sacraments,” Fr. Nicolas Steeves, SJ, told CNA.
“When we’re deprived of the sacraments, we really have to wonder: where is God right now?”
A theology professor at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, he said this question is not only relevant in the present time of coronavirus, but also during Eastertide.
Between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension into heaven, “where were the disciples, where was Mary Magdalene, where were the apostles going to find Jesus?” Steeves said. “It was on Jesus’ terms and conditions that he would be visible to him, that he would appear.”
“So, we’ve got to figure out during this Eastertide too: Where is Jesus present, where can I find him in my life right now?”
Steeves recalled an image from the Old Testament, when the temple was destroyed, and God followed his people into exile and remained with them.
He drew a comparison to the coronavirus quarantine as “an exile away from the churches where we usually find [God].”
The theologian said we might think, “Where is God in me, around me, right now, so I can get in touch with him?”
And that is where the imagination can be useful in a very real way, he explained.
Though imagination is difficult to define, “Aristotle would say our imagination and our memory too are like a treasure trove of images that our senses and our [mind] have invented from what we see around us,” Steeves said.
Our bodily senses can only experience the surface of things, he said, but “the specific task of the Christian imagination is to imagine the real.”
He pointed to a fundamental concept in Christian theology: revelation, which “literally means taking away the veil.”
“Our Christian faith recognizes that even during ordinary time, there’s always some kind of hurdle about us discovering God, and so revelation ordinarily comes through tradition, scripture, and the magisterium of the Church.”
One example of this is the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist.
During the Mass, Steeves said, Catholics use the imagination “to realize that beyond the veil of the bread and wine, God is present in the Blessed Sacrament in his body, blood, soul, and divinity.”
“The faith teaches me that Christ is really present in the Eucharist and using the imagination doesn’t mean that it is fake or made up – it’s very real – but I’ve got to go beyond appearances to realize that.”
According to Steeves, “the whole point of using the imagination in our faith is not to make up fanciful things, it’s how we can figure out where this invisible, un-hearable God is hiding so that our seeking for him, our search for him is going to actually be that which saves us and brings us to eternal life.”
Christians do this through using their imagination in prayer, in reading Scripture, in the liturgy, and in the sacraments, he said. “Also, in the way we can be imaginative in our charity on an everyday basis.”
Faith during a pandemic
The theologian acknowledged that just as it is not the same thing to speak with a loved one over the phone or through an app as it is to hug them in real life, neither is watching a livestreamed Mass the same as being physically present.
But he said there are still ways people can use their imagination to get more out of Mass through a screen.
For example, while listening to the Scripture readings: “How do the metaphors in some of those readings, the Pauline analogies, the poetry from the Psalms, the biblical stories from the Old Testament, Jesus’ parables, how do those strike my imagination and help me increase my faith, increase my hope, increase my charity?”
Imagination, he continued, can also help us grow in virtue both during the Mass and throughout the week that follows, when we might make a special effort to pray for a particular intention from the prayers of the faithful or to help someone who is sick or suffering through a visit or phone call.
In thinking about how to encounter God and feel a part of the Church – even when attendance at Mass is impossible – Steeves encouraged asking: “What is going to be the most helpful thing for me?”
“Is watching Mass [through a livestream] helping me, or is it making me more frustrated?” he said.
He also gave ideas of other concrete ways to find God during this time, such as praying with Sacred Scripture, reading theological writings, reading the stories and writings of the saints, and praying traditional prayers like the rosary and litanies.
He also suggested things which incorporate your senses, like burning incense, listening to hymns or sacred music, and meditating on a piece of art.
“Whatever would help your bodily senses bring back happy memories of being a church together, of encountering God, of increasing hope and charity, I think those are wonderful things to incorporate now,” he said.
Memory can also be a useful tool during this time, he noted, whether it is personal memories and experiences of encountering God in liturgy and prayer or the Church’s communal memory.
“If we know the history of the Church then we will discover that the Church has always found ways, during a plague or another sickness, to foster the faith of the clergy and of the faithful and to go on being a Church though the circumstances are not usual.”
Though it is a difficult moment, Steeves encouraged people to be faithful in seeking God.
“I think we have a better feeling right now of revelation, of who God truly is – the Creator – and who we are,” he said. “We’re just poor creatures, but we’re still loved by him, [and] he’s inviting us to walk out of our ordinary ways and try to find him right now.”