Prayer Beyond Imagination: Space, Time, and Story

Lately I came across an interesting theological intersection between Abraham Heschel and John of the Cross. John, advising would-be contemplatives, writes about how the imagination can be helpful to us when we’re beginning to meditate and pray, but can become an obstacle to progressing in prayer, because anything we construct in our imaginations can never correspond to the reality of God.

Heschel, in his wonderful little book on the Sabbath, writes about how the Sabbath returns our attention from the arena of space towards the arena of time. Heschel argues that our imaginations have to do with space—the way we conquer and move in the world of space.  In that view, images of God necessarily depict God as existing in space, losing the dimension of God’s existence in time. However, for Israel, the Sabbath functioned as a temple in time, reminding Israel that God existed and worked in the sphere of time.

I was reading John and Heschel together, and it led me to think about how this all gets played out in the Hebrew canon, and the implications for a narrative theology. If we think about the two sides in the analogy framework, we get something like this:

Image : Space :: Story : Time

Image is to space what story is to time—Image and story are depictions of existence in the respective spheres of space and time. Interestingly, in the canonical faith of Israel, the God of Israel is freely depicted as through stories. God is depicted in time through the use of story, while the canonical tradition explicitly rejected the depiction of God in space through image. Perhaps that is just because of the nature of the written canon, but it seems also to be an affirmation of something essential about the nature of God. God is in pursuit of goals, on a mission. God works through time, across time—not cyclical, repetitive time, mind you, but historical time, in which there is progression and fluidity.

The canonical God is a storied God, because God is a personal being, expressed in story better than in a space/image, as if he were material. For Heschel, this is a reminder that we, too, exist not just as matter in the sphere of space, but also in the sphere of time, and that this is what really matters. Being a person is about existing through time.

In the prayer theology of John of the Cross, the problem with the use of too much imagination in prayer is that it prevents progression—God becomes fixed, static. The imagined God may be dependable, but it can never fully express God—God as eternal person is beyond full expression through image. When the imagination is allowed to play too heavy of a role in prayer, the prayer is prevented from developing a faith in God that can exist beyond what can be imagined.

However, the situation is different in a narrative theology that understands God as having been at work, which depicts that work through story, and understands the story to be somewhat open-ended, and continuing through the present. In that theological framework, there is a place for hopeful prayer in the midst of darkness, while God is  hidden and unseen. Indeed, such time is healthy, because it keeps us from restricting and limiting God to our image. God may be at work in new ways throughout time. Thus, waiting, praying, and living in faith (not by sight) is an affirmation of definitive hope, and yet also an exercise in provisional discernment. We live in the story we know, knowing that we don’t yet know the whole story.

One thought on “Prayer Beyond Imagination: Space, Time, and Story”

  1. Good post. . .

    I’m skeptical about anything or anyone existing ‘outside of time’. . .even God. The supposition that God is outside of time doesn’t make sense to me. The space/matter thing is more confusing and complicated to me. It’s not clear to me how space/matter work in ‘God’s space’.