Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil 4:8).
In recent years and in certain circles, there has been talk about a ‘Benedict Option’, a theory of forming intentional communities to offset the rampant secularization which is attacking our faith, families, and parishes. In opposing the corrosiveness of modernity by living with other like-minded, truth-seeking families, the community reinforces its Christian values and avoids the risk of acquiescing to the worldly values of contemporary society.
In a sense, though, the family is living as a primordial example of the ‘Benedict Option’, and it begins with parents, who have entered into the sacrament of matrimony, which the Church defines thus:
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament (CCC 1601; CIC 1055; emphasis added).
It’s this “education of offspring” which, as a father, has me so preoccupied, for I am the principle agent responsible for the salvation of my children’s souls. What a tall task, and our modern secularization certainly does not make it easy! Sometimes I feel like constructing a medieval wall around my house: “nobody enters without being morally scrutinized, TSA style!” What we need is a moral ‘Benedict Option’, to help protect the souls … and imagination of our children – and ourselves!
Man’s soul is rational, and that means he has both an intellect and will. The intellect desires truth; the will desires the good. But the imagination is something other. The imagination serves as a database of mental images stored by sensory experiences, and therefore, the intellect recalls images from the imagination which present it to the will as something to be desired. For this reason, it’s important to flood the imagination with the “good, true, and beautiful”, as St. Paul says in Philippians.
How does the formation of the imagination lead to a good moral life? If we present the “good, true, and beautiful” to the mind and store it for later access, then those very mental images provide the moral compass for us, particularly our children. And a good moral life allows us to become partakers in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4), reaching our eternal reward in heaven.
Raising children is a wonderful vocation, but not one without great challenges – such as my own flawed nature. “O Lord, please spare my children from my vices!” Therefore, raising faithful disciples of Jesus Christ begins with forming their moral imaginations. William Bennett has compiled a wonderful collection of stories and poems, which takes a virtue (e.g., responsibility, honesty, friendship, etc.) and illustrates the morale of the story. Bennett’s “Book of Virtues“ selects the finest classics from Scripture to American history, from Greek mythology to English poetry, from fairy tales to modern fiction.
Another author, from whom I learned the value of forming our moral imagination, is Vigen Guroian in his “Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination.” An approach similar to Bennett’s, Guroian suggests that living a virtuous life need not be a boring adventure:
When the moral imagination is wakeful, the virtues come to life, filled with personal and existential, as well as social, significance. The virtues needn’t be the dry and lifeless data of moral theories or the ethical version of hygienic rules in health science classes; they can take on a life that attracts and awakens the desire to own them for oneself (Guroian, “Awakening the Moral Imagination”).
We can certainly see a correlation between moral health and physical health: for those who have a good moral imagination, we want to maintain a good moral “health”. However, if someone has a bad moral imagination – just like having a physical disease or illness – then we need to purify, detox, nourish, medicate, and cure it. It seems to me that virtues are a great way to foster and build up our moral imagination. Bennett and Guroian highlight this in their compilations, but the Christian tradition underscores the importance of the cardinal and theological virtues. It goes without saying, then, that there are conditions which positively (virtues) and negatively (vices) influence our moral imagination.
(In Part II, I’ll share more of the practical aspects of forming the moral imagination.)