I was once discussing prayer with a group of people. When I asked one man on the fringe of the group what he thought, he said, rather dismissively, “Oh, I don’t have imaginary friends”.
It was meant as a put-down, but the irony is that I actually agree with him. I did then, and I do now: every act of prayer does involve engaging with an ‘imaginary friend’. Lest you think I am being flippant, listen to the insights of the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis:
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
C.S. Lewis, ‘Footnote to all Prayers’, originally published in The Pilgrims’ Regress (1933).
Lewis’ point is that whenever a human being prays, they are engaging with a mental image or construct of what they are praying ‘to’. These ideas, images, concepts, are – by their very nature – not ‘what God is’, for God is ineffable (too great or extreme to be expressed in words). The transcendence of God, the total otherness of the Divinity, is a part of what prayer has to recognise: the apparent impossibility of what it attempts. In Lewis’ words, all prayer ends up ‘address[ing] the coinage of [our] own unquiet thoughts’.
The sceptic who put me down by pointing out he didn’t have any ‘imaginary friends’ actually had a great insight into the life of prayer. He is quite correct: all of us when we pray are engaging with our imaginations, and (says CS Lewis), those imaginings are Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art. Does the sceptic then win the argument? Is all prayer futile, just a form of wish-projection that no intelligent person could, with integrity, contemplate?
Well, that hinges on the critical “unless…” at the end of the eighth line of Lewis’ poem. The poem has seven rhyming couplets, and in good Hebrew poetic tradition the heart of the poem, the literal and spiritual centre of it, is the fourth couplet, the middle one:-
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless…
The counterpoint of address/unless is a brilliant juxtaposition of all the human side of prayer in a single word (address) and the astonishing miracle on which the whole exercise actually rests (the unless…). The ‘address’ comprises and brings together all the previous verbs (bow, attempt, murmuring, embrace, blaspheme, worshipping). All these involve the ‘imaginary friend’ (the object or goal of prayer as variously ‘posited’ or ‘apprehended’ in human imagination and thought).
The balancing unless… places the whole success or failure of the project of prayer on the other side of the relationship: unless the Thou who is addressed, in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert / Our arrows we are left crying unheard / To a deaf idol. While our imaginations might have all manner of images and symbols cluttering the mind while we pray, the whole exercise depends upon the action of the Friend who is able to accomplish abundantly more than we can ask or imagine (Eph 3.20).
However, there is a second sense in which the discipline of prayer involves ‘imaginary friends’. In 2020, as the months of quarantine drag by, we are finding the social space in which we live being progressively depopulated. In Melbourne we have a curfew imposed and severe limitations on public movement and the right to meet. Human beings are quintessentially social animals. We live for social interaction – and in a very real sense those interactions constitute the framework of our lives. Cafés, park benches, convivial lunches are the warp and weft of social life as we weave our meanings together. The mental health impact of the isolation and lack of contact are still being assessed. Just what the effects of our current lifestyle will be on individuals and on our communities are still to be discovered. Yes, there is video-conferencing and phone-chats – but it ain’t the same, and until we can drink and eat together, and smell one another’s bodies and share one another’s laughter, and feel one another’s touch, something essential to human community, and even our individual sense of self, is at risk.
Sociologists and psychologists have explored how much that sense of self, and our solidarity as communities, are anchored in our interactions and shared meanings. As the old koan expresses it “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear, is there any sound?” If I go about my daily activity and there is no one there to share it, or talk to about it, do I still exist? When my rituals of coming and going, of working and meeting, are completely disrupted, what does my life mean? If nobody sees me, or listens to me, have I become invisible, inaudible?
I do not think these are idle questions. They are questions that matter. They are questions that inform a particular discipline of prayer called intercession. The heart of intercession is remembering and imagining your friends – or people you may have never met but whom you wish to recall and embrace in a friendly and loving way. At a time when we cannot meet, or walk together, or eat together, or see each other, we can imagine each other – hold one another in loving intention and imaginative embrace!
I believe the lack of contact and limitations on meeting and interacting that we are living through are driving a collapse of the mental space in which people live. Their inner lives become more arid, more barren. The world seems to squeeze in on us in some way.
When we pray for someone, the first thing – perhaps the only thing – we do is hold them in our imagination. We think of them. Perhaps at a set time of the day, perhaps in the midst of a task or another project, perhaps in an utterly random way we can’t understand – we think of them! Our friend is held in our imagination, in our thoughts, in our loving intention. When that happens, I believe that the world doesn’t squeeze in on them quite so hard, that their lives are not as meaningless as they may be tempted to think, that they are not as alone as they might feel.
So, I am quite proud of the fact that I have imaginary friends! There is of course, the Imaginary Friend of whom I think when I start to pray. I readily admit that I.F. exists only in my imagination: The Reality far exceeds my feeble imaginative powers, and prayer has become more and more a matter of trusting Reality and allowing my imagination to be purged, clarified, purified, opened, calmed.
But my other imaginary friends, dozens of them – perhaps hundreds on a good day – do exist! They exist in my imagination, even when they might not feel that they exist in any other social space or human interaction that matters. I think on them and hold them in my mind. I imagine their struggles, their griefs and their wounds. I imagine their beauty, their strength, and their dignity. I imagine them in the full range of their relationships and roles, their responsibilities and connections – and in their disconnections and loneliness. And all of that is somehow anchored in, and shared with, the Reality that embraces and clarifies and purifies and hallows all my imagining, and with it all my imaginary friends.