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‘Let the Scene Unfold:’ Professor Talks Prayer, Imagination

Marina McCoy, philosophy professor and expert in Platonic philosophy, spoke about the interconnectedness of imagination and prayer Thursday night in Corcoran Commons. The presentation focused on how these two entities, which are core tenets of Ignatian spirituality, can be used to broaden a person’s spiritual insights and better discern motions of the soul.

Her talk was part of a series of talks on Ignatian spirituality co-sponsored by the Center for Ignatian Spirituality and Boston College’s Jesuit Collaborative.

“Imagination and prayer allow God to guide you to truly see.”

– Professor Marina McCoy

Plato argued that our imaginations are limited in the sense that people can only truly understand a few facets of something because how one sees the world is shaped by one’s own history.

McCoy shared how she struggled to come up with how to write an appropriate eulogy for her grandmother’s funeral. She decided to tell anecdotes about her grandmother’s life.

“She was a physician, she had great courage to survive in a refugee camp after leaving her own war-torn country, she liked to drive her convertible, and drove it very fast,” McCoy said. “She liked to slice ice cream in rectangles out of the box by undoing the entire box and slicing it, instead of scooping it, and she absolutely hated to cook.”

She decided to articulate certain facets of her grandmother that she knew. God is like this as well, she said, but no matter how much we know through our lived experience with God, we are always restrained in how we can understand Him.

Aristotle points out that in mathematics and ethics, she said, people immediately jump to specific examples. The different answers we get to specific problems are shaped by constant mathematics or ethical principles. McCoy questioned why understanding God is not done in the same way. She pointed out that our imaginations can allow us to better reconcile our desires with those which God wants of us.

Ignatian contemplative style, or deliberative prayer, McCoy said, can help us better discern what we want out of our lives. This Ignatian exercise relies on retreat and immersion into the story. To deliberately pray with a text, she said, you must “read the passage and let the scene unfold.”

The story of God and the stories of other people are weaved together, she said, and we discover that our stories are interwoven. Her friend likens our combined stories to a piece of embroidery, in which we can only see the crisscrossed threads and messiness. In truth, the fabric of our lives is much more beautiful than we will ever realize.

“Imagination and prayer allow God to guide you to truly see,” she said.

McCoy mentioned the story of Jesus curing the blind man in the New Testament. In the story, the man born blind is cured of his physical blindness when he accepts the task that Jesus gives him in blind faith. The man’s physical cure is symbolic of the spiritual remedy.

“He wants to see, but it must have been more than a physical seeing that he wanted,” McCoy said. “This seeing was more than physical. When he’s healed, he is so full of love and gratitude that he cannot resist going out and talking about it. He shares the gift that he has received with everyone else because his gratitude cannot be contained.”

This type of deliberate prayer, she said, helped her while she was clinically depressed. McCoy’s depression was particularly difficult because her depression was accompanied by personal shame.

While she was praying, she looked outward, seeing Christ with his bloody wounds. She said that she identified with him because of her internal wounds.

McCoy’s love of God, combined with her imagination, allowed her to grow spiritually and come closer to Him, like the blind man. Her narrative of pain, suffering, and loss allowed her to realize how beautiful love is and foster her relationships with God and other people.

McCoy asked if the desires we have and those of God are really different. St. Augustine’s view, she said, is that our deepest desires are in fact truly good. When our desires are distilled to the fundamentals, we are left with a love of God and people alone. We are often called to desire things that will not make us truly happy. In reality, living by the beatitudes and loving our neighbors require our attention.

An audience member asked McCoy whether imaginatively finding God is like Machiavelli’s views of effective leadership. The audience member likened imagining God to Machiavelli’s imagined truths as opposed to effectual truths.

McCoy agreed, echoing an earlier point in her talk that the imagination is always going to be at least partially removed from the truth, and she pointed out that it is in knowing God better that we better understand what we do not know.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

January 31, 2016