Discovering our ‘imaginal’ realm

Recently, in talking with friends in the church, I blithely said something along the lines that we need to be more open to the imaginal realm. To be honest I said it because I liked the sound of the words on my tongue; imaginal realm, sounds like Narnia doesn’t it? And yes, I was indeed one of those children that spent many an hour checking out the back of enticing looking wardrobes! But, because of where I had encountered these enticing two words…imaginal realm…in a book “Leading for Mission” by Teresa and Jim D’Orso, I also intuitively understood their inherent power for us as a church, as we wonder about what is life giving and where it may be found. So, anyway, my friends, perhaps sensing my hubris, challenged me:”Is imaginal even a word?” “Don’t you mean imaginary?” “No!” I confidently answered, they are quite different. And it turns out I was right…phew!

The term “imaginal realm” was coined by Henry Corbin, a theologian and Sufi mystic famous for his writings on Islamic spirituality. Note, imaginal not imaginary! For Corbin the “imaginary” was something fantastical we made up, like Narnia, but the “imaginal” was something wonderful that came to us, unbidden. The imaginal is a realm, almost all unknown to us, beyond our imagination, and yet which calls us, draws us forward. The imaginal is real; it is like a way of knowing and living that we can’t yet quite grasp.

Here’s another way of thinking about this. Caterpillars have imaginal cells. This is fact. Look it up on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me! These cells are so totally foreign to the caterpillar’s other cells, that his immune cells try to kill them. Fortunately (yes fortunately) the imaginal cells keep appearing in greater and greater numbers, clumping together, becoming stronger, passing information to one another, and eventually realising a new destiny. This means death to the caterpillar, but the possibility of the birth of something wonderfully new, a butterfly.

So here’s the link I’m making to the mission of God. St Paul writes: “Now I see through a glass dimly, then I shall see face to face.” Paul writes of the now and the not yet of faith, and of the realm of God that we intuit lies before us, drawing us forward, toward new and abundant life. This is not our own creation or projection…an imaginary place. No, it is the imaginal realm of God, the seeds of which already lie hidden within us.

On my soapbox now! When we know that we have an identity in Christ, the fullness of which lies ahead of us, why do we cling so hard to old ways of being? Why do we allow culture, otherwise known as “the way we do things around here sonny”,  to be the DNA of our life together? Sometimes I think we are like caterpillars, engaged in a fight to the death to preserve what is known, secure and above all comfortable. We hold on to what has worked, what we have worked for, what has been life for us. But God, in Christ, is making all things new. We may not know the destination, but can we not open ourselves to wonder?

And because it will soon be Christmas, let us think also of the mystery of God’s incarnation, in the baby Jesus. An angel, a virgin, a pregnancy? Fantastical? Or imaginal? Mary could not have been anything other than overwhelmed and frightened at such mystery. And yet her “yes” to what could not be understood, gave birth to unimaginable joy, hope, love and peace.

Breaking news: apparently the human heart has imaginal cells too!

Alison Bleyerveen




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