When I was a small child, I can remember a time when I was caught doing something I should not have been doing, and was marched up the stairs to my father’s study, to that place where I knew I would be punished. Entering that room, which even now seems reserved for serious adult business, I wanted to disappear. All I could think of doing was putting my hands over my eyes and thereby eliminating everything around me. For all practical purposes, I had disappeared, becoming invisible.
Children know far more about the invisible than most adults. They live in imaginary gardens; they can become what they have never seen. Through sympathetic imagination they can enter strange worlds as participants.
Adults, of course, know reality when they see it. They live in a world of facts and objects; they cannot often participate in the unknown or invisible without being thought foolish. They do not understand the playfulness of imagination, which can suspend the material world long enough to enter temporarily into regions beyond the obvious.
Perhaps this explains why Jesus associated with children, and why he set a child before his disciples as an example of faith. It is not that a child understands more, but that one is willing to consider invisible truths and enter into them playfully. Faith has about it the quality of sympathetic imagination—capable of grasping what is not apparent, entering into the lives of strangers, intuiting possibilities where others see only facts.
Contrary to what our senses tell us, we live in the midst of invisible worlds. Most of the universe around us is invisible, even when seen with the most sophisticated instruments. Our bodies, seemingly solid, are energy fields, made of the same stuff as stars. And even the smallest snowflake speaks of mystery.
The danger of sympathetic imagination is that of becoming lost in the invisible world, drawing away from what is seen and diminishing it. But this is not our danger today. We suffer from poverty of imagination. Many of us cannot be faithful because we cannot be like children. Our sense of playfulness has been left behind. If we had faith, we could move mountains, or we could build them.
The snow outside has been falling. I know what I see: everything is buried under white. The world is white.
During Quaker meeting a while ago, someone related a story out of a previous storm, when someone had remarked that “snow is tons of water falling silently to Earth.” And so it is.
But I have faith. Although the snow looks even, no two snowflakes are the same, and under the snow are patches of green and potential spring flowers.