Thursday, July 10, 2008

Praying to an Empty Chair: Your Imagination Does Not Belong to You


A dying woman's daughter had asked the local minister to come and pray with her mother. When the minister arrived, he found the woman lying in bed with her head propped up on two pillows. An empty chair sat ready beside her bed. The chair made the minister think that the woman had been informed of the visit as he said, "I see you were expecting me."

"No, who are you?" said the mother.

The minister told her his name and then remarked, "I saw the empty chair and I figured you knew I was coming."

"Oh yeah, the chair," said the bedridden woman. "Would you mind closing the door?"

Puzzled, the clergyman shut the door and sat down.

The woman spoke, "I have never told anyone this, not even my daughter. All of my life I have never known how to pray. At church I used to hear the pastor preach about prayer, but it went right over my head. It sounded so complicated that I never tried it much, until one day four years ago."

"What happened?" asked the minister.

She continued, "My best friend said to me, 'Betty, prayer is just a simple matter of having a conversation with Jesus. Here is what I suggest. Sit down in a chair; place an empty chair in front of you, and imagine Jesus sitting in the chair. Then just speak to him in the same way you're doing with me right now."

"And did you try that?" asked the minister.

"Yes I did," she said, "and I've liked it so much that I started doing it a couple of hours every day. I'm careful though. If my daughter saw me talking to an empty chair, she'd have me in asylum for lunatics. She's college educated."

The minister was deeply moved by the story and encouraged the woman to continue talking to Jesus in the chair. Then he prayed with her, anointed her with oil, and returned to the church. Two nights later the daughter called to tell the minister that her mother had died that afternoon. "Did she die in peace?" he asked.

"Yes," the daughter answered, "when I left the house about two o'clock, she called me over to her bedside, told me she loved me and kissed me on the cheek. When I got back from the store an hour later, I found her. But there was something very odd about her death. Apparently, just before Mother died, she leaned over and rested her head on the chair beside the bed. What do you make of that?"

The minister's eyes welled with tears and he said, "Mysterious, isn't it?"


Many moderns might find this story quaint. Condescendingly, they may grant that such tales can be quite soothing to the uneducated, usually from the Red states. They will tell you that the human brain has evolved in order to conjure up all sorts of illusory fantasies to help the dying. I personally find that theory odd since the less evolved animals, which seem to have evolved no sense of immortality, have a much easier time accepting death and dying. That theory seems to be another example of unquestioned faith in 'science'.

Nevertheless, we moderns assume an anthropocentric point of view of the imagination. We are told that the human brain creates all thoughts and images from neural connections. We are the sole thinkers and our brains are the solitary image factories. That poor deluded, hallucinating and dying woman in the above story saw nothing more than a humanly fabricated image made of nothing substantial or 'real'. It was all in her imagination.


Yes, it was in the imagination, but what is 'the imagination?' Let's not just accept the assumed modern dogma that imagination originates in the human brain. Perhaps the human imagination arises from the pre-human Imaginal Realm. The Imaginal Realm precedes and fuels all images which we assume that the human brain originates. It seems more accurate to theorize that the human brain badly mimics the Imaginal Realm. Human beings may mentally construct unicorns, tooth fairies and fire breathing dragons through imagination, but such images are created from bits and pieces that exist in the Imaginal Realm.

Santa Claus, Hobbits and Mermaids are not just invented by the human brain, but rather they are also discovered, or formed because they are made of 'stuff' from the Imaginal Realm that is very Real. One might as well say that Mozart invented musical notes, or that Einstein originated mathematics. The human imagination did not invent or originate the Imaginal any more than Mozart invented D minor or Einstein created E=MC2. These were discovered, not invented. The reason literary images from Gilgamesh to Homer and from Genesis to The Sopranos always and everywhere contain the same basic stories or 'notes' is that they were discovered, not just invented. Authors and artists may arrange the pieces, but they did not create them from scratch. These three areas, math, music and myth arise from a Realm that precedes and will outlast human brains and bodies. The basic elements of each of these three (numbers, notes and stories) preceded human form and will continue after this planet becomes a sunless lump of rock and dust.


And of course some imaginary humanly discovered creations will be closer than others to the Original Images from the Imaginal Realm. Let's suppose a random group of people was placed in a room with a Rembrandt painting and asked to copy it to the best of their individual abilities. The results might range from comedic to some of the facsimiles being quite good. That is the relationship of the Imaginal Realm to the human imagination Some humanly discovered and concocted images are quite accurate representations - we call these Laws or Classics - but none is the Real Archetype or Original Pattern.


Many have attempted to declare religion dead or dying. But all around us we see religion not only alive and well, but thriving and morphing into new forms. They might as well try to eliminate math and music, which some despotic regimes have actually tried to accomplish. Mythologies, prayer and rituals show up in every human culture because the Imaginal Realm bubbles up from within and below the surface of human consciousness. We moderns call it 'the arts,' as though we invented it, even pontificating on why the Egyptians and other primitives did what they did. My sense is that those primitives knew more about 'art' than we will even begin to know.

In the Imaginal Realm, Jesus actually sits in chairs and carries on conversations - perceived by an organ little known, yet intuited, by many modern westerners. This Realm is neither literal nor hallucinatory, it transcends liberal skepticism and conservative dogma; it is a third Realm between fact and fiction. One fellow has called it 'faction.'

In this Realm, people saw and still see the resurrected Christ. In this Realm, the dying woman of our story placed her head in the lap of Jesus. Pull up a chair, try it, you might be surprised. Just don't tell your daughter.

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