The responsibility of the imagination

On the border between Macedonia and Albania, on the side of the former, by the shores of Lake Ohrid, is the Monastery of St Naum. St Naum was one of the disciples of St Cyril and St Methodius who, in the language of the guide who first showed me it, brought education to the Slavs. He was betraying a speech learnt in the days of socialist Yugoslavia. Cyril and Methodius were missionaries and education was a means to an end: an acceptance of the Gospel.

St Naum's church is small beautifully frescoed and contains his tomb in a small side chapel, decorated with scenes from his life.

The building has a sense of abiding unity - the medium is the message - it invites you to pause, pray and wonder.

I was reminded of it when reading a phrase of Owen Barfield's 'the responsibility of the imagination'. 'What we behold', wrote Blake, 'is what we become', Barfield's version is more active, we are made (and judged) by what we make.

I was one day standing at the tomb of the saint, saying the prayer of the heart. It is an habitual practice even if my habit is a mite disorganised and fitful! As I stood there, it was adjusted: it was as if the prayer, its rhythm and its association with the breath was changed by 'external' agency, fine tuned, finding its proper place.

The reality of that imagined place - its light, composure, the story of the saint and his presence - contrived to re-direct my attention, even if only momentarily, and deepen it towards the compassion that the prayer embodies - it is a place constructed out of a responsibility to the imagination.

This happens to be an overtly religious context but  we can find 'secular' equivalents that allow a person entering them to be changed in simple but liberating ways. Barfield found this shift in consciousness, a shift that gives life, by reading lyric poetry, especially that of the Romantics.

It would be an interesting test of the quality of a work of art, a building, or a film to ask whether it expands my awareness? Do I carry it away with lightness? Is the feeling one of consolation?

If the answer is no, why do we do it? 

That it is often no, I sadly do not doubt, but it is a criterion worth pondering, and hard.

For both Barfield and Blake, it was a criterion that not only related to artefacts in the world but the way in which we behold the world, our dominant world view, which was, for both, an act of imagination, that could be more or less truthful to the heart of things.


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