Imagination: The Eyes of the Heart

September 20, 1987


The Eyes of the Heart

Last Sunday, in the first of a three-part series, we considered a priceless human faculty called imagination — the ability to escape preoccupation with one’s self and see into the heart of another, to identify with somebody’s else’s happiness or grief. Believing that we cannot be truly human, and certainly not people of faith, without a healthy imagination, I would like to expand those comments this morning, mentining first the two ways we “see” things. The obvious way, of course, is with the physical eye, so that we register an image on the visual cortex of the brain: the girl has black hair, a snub nose, braces on her teeth. The other way, less obvious and learned later in life, is to see with the eyes of the heart, so that we look beneath the surface and read a mood of depression or happiness, and then actually feel those emotions ourselves.
We see that way only if we have a sensitized imagination, which means we can’t have a lasting friendship or a good marriage or a full life without it. The bride-to-be asks me rather lightly, “Do you think we’ll be a happy married couple?” If I had time to explain it, I would like to say, “I don’t know. How’s your imagination?” But she’d be puzzled, and I’d have to go on and explain myself. “I mean, have you learned to see into another person’s heart, and feel in your own heart what you find there?” — and by then I’d be preaching, which is the last thing she’s interested in at the moment.
But during the ceremony, when she can’t escape, I remind her and her young man that while they created their separate lives before they met and fell in love, they now begin the process of creating one another as well. Not intrusively, I caution them, and probably done almost unconsciously, but one way or another it happens, and it will take a sensitive imagination if the marriage is to become as rich and happy as they hope. I don’t go on to say this, but all the things they hope for are not really there yet, except in their imagining.
And sometimes the difference between what one sees in the other is so invisible to the rest of us that someone says it out loud: “I just can’t imagine what she sees in him!” Of course not, but if love is wise and persistent, what others can’t see may by and by show up as imagination creates its vision. One day a fisherman named Andrew, excited at the thought that he had found the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, went off to find his brother, Simon, and brought him into the presence of Jesus. In a fascinating little vignette, Jesus looks steadily at him and says, “You are Simon, the son of John, but from now on your name is Petros , Peter, the Rock” [John 1:42]. Scholars wonder if that story was created by the early church after Peter became such an important apostle, but if it happened as John’s gospel describes it, then it means that Jesus saw in Simon what you and I might have missed. Because what Jesus saw with imagination and hope, with the eyes of the heart, took a while to come true. Peter was rash at times, overconfident at others, and in his worst moment swore, out of cowardice, that he didn’t even know a person named Jesus. You and I might have described Simon as more of an agitated jellyfish than a solid rock, but imaginative faith half creates what it sees, so what Jesus saw in prospect helped make it happen, in reality.
And this has staggering implications for you and me, in our relationship with other people. Because if you help to create me, and I to create you, what terrifying responsibililties we have toward each other. If I look past you as if you were a nobody, then I help make or keep you a nobody. If I believe in you, I help make you what I believe you to be. My beloved wife saw with the eyes of her heart more than was in me, and by the power of that trust created more than I could ever have managed on my own. There is some parallel between creating people and creating something artistic. I heard a story once about the dedication of a splendid new building at which the Master of Ceremonies lamented the fact that the architect had died before seeing his work completed. “It’s a shame that he couldn’t see it finished before he died,” the speaker said. To which some perceptive soul in the crowd responded: “But he did. That’s why it’s here.”
It would not surprise me to hear that someone may have present last Sunday who went away thinking it was a bit strange to hear a minister be so passionate about the role of imagination, but I remain convinced that it’s one of the most undervalued of all human faculties. I would remind you that most of us are not often deliberately cruel, but we are often unintentionally cruel simply because we fail to imagine how others are feeling. How do you react when you see a painfully shy person come into a room of strangers? If you see with the eyes of the heart, if you deeply imagine that person’s distress, you will not be able to help yourself — you will immediately do what you can to make the other feel more comfortable.
If you lack empathy, of course, you will only notice what is visible to physical eyesight. Whether fairly or not, Somerset Maugham believed his fellow novelist, Henry James, lacked the eyes of the heart and once made this devastating criticism: “He did not live. He observed life from a window.” Put that image of disengagement over against a comment the Apostle Paul once made about his fellow Jews who had not seen in Jesus what he had seen. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart for my kinsmen,” he said, and went on to declare that for their sake he would give up his own chance for eternal happiness
The American novelist, Theodore Dreiser, had the same gift of living inside the hearts of others. A fellow author tells how he once saw Dreiser sit and weep as he watched orphan children file back from the playground into their gray, cheerless dormitory. And a class of mine was studying the English poet Shelley one day when we found a remark of his that links goodness and imagination as closely as anyone has ever done. Listen: “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely….. he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; [their] pains and pleasures ….must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”
Please don’t let that that last sentence pass too quickly. When Shelley says that “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination,” he has said what we know if we know the past. When some of my university students were surprised at times at how cruel a Shakespeare character might be toward others, I would remind them that the times were cruel, that far too many people were locked in unimaginative hearts. Whole families would sometimes go out for Sunday afternoon entertainment to Bethlehem Hospital in London where insane people were locked up. They would throw pennies through the bars and roar with laughter as men and women scrambled for them on the floor, like monkeys after peanuts. They would make faces to frighten the timid and send them scurrying off to tremble in a corner. “Are you William the Conqueror?” they would ask of a man, and howl with laughter when the lunatic puffed out his chest and said, “Yes!” “Are you Christ?” they would ask another, and then bow down in mock reverence. You could not even stay to watch such cruelty, let alone take part in it, because your imagination has been sensitized. You could not help feeling with the poor wrecked lives in their cages, and the moment that happened, the fun would be over.
It has been people with imagination, with eyes of the heart, who have fashioned all the great reforms in our history. They felt the shame of slavery, though they had never been slaves, and they made others feel it so deeply they could not live at peace until it ended. They made us feel the horror of inhuman prisons until we cleaned them up. Not so long ago, in both England and America, they made us live inside the hearts of children who rose before dawn to work in factories and coal mines, and slumped wearily home after dark, until we were finally troubled enough to change the labor laws. And in these still turbulent times of racial hatreds it will be those who can escape the bondage of feeling only their own color — white, black, brown or yellow — and enter into the hearts of others, who will show us the way out of the prison of prejudice. I hope you begin to understand why I feel so strongly about the importance of developing, from childhood, a strong, vivid and sympathetic imagination.
Some of you may have read, years ago, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, a novel based on his conviction that white people once learned, as a technique for survival, not to see black people. We were, at the time, denyi\ng them freedom, denying them the vote, denying them the ordionary dignities and decencies of life. To see them, to recognize individual faces, to run the risk of imagining what lay behind the faces, would have been to remind ourselves constantly of what we were doing. So we made them invisible. We said, ‘They all look alike,” which meant we were not seeing them at all, either with the eyes of the face or with the eyes of the heart.
It’s still hard for us to look at people imaginatively. We see a face that’s white or black, plain or pretty. We see a Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Hindu….but not someone like ourselves, clutching a hope, afraid at 2 in the morning, embarrassed about a weakness, sustained by some fading dream. Like that little crowd of self-righteous men, 2000 years ago, who dragged a woman before Christ so she could be publicly stoned for adultery. They could not identify with the hunger that may have driven her into somebody’s arms, or the humiliation and fear she felt to be discovered. The only person present who could put mercy above the legal code was Jesus, who invited any man free from mistakes of his own to throw the first stone — and then knelt down while they thought it over, and one by one crept away. With his sensitive imagination, Jesus saw into the woman’s heart and felt her anguish. Her accusers never escaped the prison of their own self-righteous minds.
They could quote the law from memory, but they had fogotten their own mistakes until Jesus quietly reminded them. The optic nerve worked well enough for them, but the eyes of the heart were blind. There is a wonderful moment in King Lear when the desperate old monarch forgets that his loyal friend Gloucester is physically blind, and cries out: “You see how this world goes!” To which Gloucester makes a perfect response: “I see it…. feelingly.” His sight had failed, his heart — his imagination — had not.
I hope this helps us know what Jesus meant when he said the pure in heart will see God. I used to think it was a promise that if we were good we would see God in some after life, but I am convinced he was talking about something that happens now. If our hearts are in tune, we see the unseen by the eyes of imagination. Just as we are expected to see in one another what may not be visible to physical sight. Matthew’s Gospel [25] has a judgment story in which Jesus rebukes those who saw him hungry and gave him no food, saw him a stranger but did not give him welcome, encountered him sick and in prison but extended no compassion. When they reply, in great surprise, that they never saw Him in those straits they are telling the literal truth. It was not physical sight which had failed them. They had lacked the imagination to realize what Jesus explained to them, in what has to be one of the noblest statements to be found in any religion on earth: “I was in every stranger you met who needed your help, and you had no eyes to see me.”
A girl named Lizzie, in a play called The Rainmaker , describes how the eyes of the heart work. “Some nights I’m in the kitchen washing the dishes,” she says, “and Pop’s playing poker with the boys. Well, I’ll watch him real close. And at first I’ll just see an ordinary middle-aged man — not very interesting to look at. And then, minute by minute, I’ll see little things I never saw in him before. Good things and bad things — strange little habits I never noticed he had — and ways of talking I never paid any mind to. And suddenly I know who he is — and I love him so much I could cry! And I want to thank God I took the time to see him real.”
We lose a thousand days and remember one, and here is an evening I have never forgotten from the distant past when I was present one night at a faculty Great Books study on the college campus where I first taught. I sat down beside a colleague whose company I, and others, had found hard to enjoy. He seemed terribly stuffy and condescending, and we had the feeling that if someone stuck a pin in Paul an enormous gust of hot air would whoosh out and leave him shriveled and flat like a punctured balloon. It was his turn to be the discussion leader on this particular night, and I remember thinking how stiff and pompous he was with a group used to informality and opinions spoken with some caution.
He had barely finished his introductory comments before someone began firing questions which confused him. He hadn’t done his homework, and all of a sudden, right before our eyes, he began to come apart. The more he tried to make a sensible response, the more he failed, and as he grew almost incoherent his blushing face suddenly looked to me as fragile and vulnerable as that of a child. He threw out his hands, finally, and said, “I’m mixed up. Apparently I didn’t prepare as well as I should have.” In an instant, the room changed. The confession seemed to shatter him, but it was a transforming moment for the rest of us. We had seen with the eyes of the heart a man more vulnerable than we had imagined before, and from that night on it became easier to be his friend.
It was a poet, predictably, who spoke of how “imagination gathers up the undiscovered universe,” sees what the dull heart overlooks. It has been popular to add a beatitude to the few spoken by Jesus. I would like to add this one: Blessed are those who cherish the gift of imagination, for they shall see what others miss.

Grant us in greater measure, gracious God, the gift that discovers
for us a hidden world of hopes and fears in those whose lives touch
ours, and tells us how to respond. Amen.