The first time Matthew Cuthbert drives orphan Anne Shirley down the “Avenue” of flowering trees on the way to Green Gables, Anne is enraptured. She describes the sight as “the first thing I ever saw that couldn’t be improved by the imagination.”
This is fine praise indeed from Canadian author L.M. Montgomery’s young character; Anne is constantly searching for “scope for the imagination,” and often sorely disappointed by the pinched lives and small-mindedness of the people around her. Like many orphans—actual and emotional—Anne finds solace, perspective, and magnificence in the natural world. She takes the reality she finds there and allows it to feed her soul. Thus fed, she physically survives.
Carl Jung believed that soul and image are the same, and that they mediate between body and mind. French mystic Henri Corbin wrote of the realm of the imagination, a very real place where images reside with an integrity of their own. Corbin also described images as “thoughts of the heart,” and saw the heart as the seat of the imagination.
I asked my son, who from birth has lived and worked in the imaginal realm, if he thought images were alive and real, existing on their own. His first comic was drawn all over the wall above his bed (in permanent marker) before he was two. He responded as though I had asked if he himself were alive and real; it still seems to shock him that the rest of us don’t already know this. I am trying to open my heart and my mind and stretch towards this truth, because, after all, does not my access to God depend on the imaginal realm? And do I not say often that we humans are created in the image of God? Theologians need to listen deeply to comics artists. And mothers. And orphans.
I resonate with Anne of Green Gables and keep returning to her because in spite of each struggle, she continually falls in love with every aspect of the world, each person, each flower, each tree, each vista; each piece of reality is a potential forever friend. Her soul is beautiful because it is fully an imaginal reflection of the world in all its complexity.
Psychologist James Hillman has said that the soul cannot be easily defined, because it is made up of our experience, of love and connection, but also of death and tragedy. He says that our job on earth is to fall in love with it. Which we have trouble doing because we are anesthetized, distracted, asleep, numb. We cannot fall in love with the earth until we wake up.
Today I begin by imagining my awakening and falling deeper and deeper in love with earth, with all of you, with myself.
Because, as Anne so wisely observes, when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worth while.