April 20, 2021

The Mystical Journey of the Christian, Through the Desert, Towards the Resurrection and Pentecost (3 of 5)

4. "The Imagination and the Ascetic Struggle Against Its Various Aspects"

The ascetic in his struggle for the purity of his inner world and its preservation is called to struggle against the imagination, which is an energy of the soul; however, when it operates in a paradoxical way and accepts influences from the outside world and from the devil it distorts the inner state of the ascetic.

"The world of the human will and imagination is the world of mirages. It is common to man and the fallen angels, and imagination is, therefore, often a conductor of demonic energy."

Thus, through imagination, demons work and distort the inner state of man.

The ascetic struggles against all forms of the imagination that distract him from God. There are especially four forms of the imagination.

The first form of the imagination is "connected with the grosser passions of the flesh." The ascetic "knows that every passion has its corresponding image, since it belongs to the sphere of created being, inevitably existing in one or another image. Usually a lustful thought acquires strength in man when the image is accepted and gains the attention of the mind. If the mind spurns the image, the passion itself cannot develop and will expire." The novice monk is healed from this imagination by watchfulness, repentance, confession and guidance from a suitable spiritual guide.

The second form of the imagination "against which the ascetic has to struggle is day-dreaming. When he gives himself over to reverie, man abandons the real order of things in the world, to go and live in the domain of fantasy." To this form of the imagination also belongs the method of Christian "meditation", when man conjures up within him "scenes from the life of Christ or similar sacred studies. It is generally neophytes who adopt this course. With this sort of imaginative prayer the mind is not contained in the heart for the sake of inner vigilance. The attention stays fixed on the visual aspect of the images considered as divine. This leads to psychological (emotional) excitement, which, carried to an extreme, may result in a state of pathological ecstasy. One rejoices in what one has 'attained', clings to the state, cultivates it, considers it to be 'spiritual', charismatic (the fruits of grace) and so sublime that one thinks oneself a saint and worthy of contemplating Divine mysteries. But in fact such states end in hallucinations, and if one does not succumb to physical illness, at the leadt one continues 'bewitched' and living in a world of fantasy." The hesychast life, with noetic prayer and the deepest repentance banishes all images and daydreams, when the nous and the heart are united by the Grace of God.

The third form of the imagination is as follows: "Pondering the solution of some problem, a technical one, for instance, sets the imagination working, together with the memory. This kind of intellectual activity is of immense significance in human culture, and essential to man's development. The ascetic, however, in his desire for pure prayer tends to put up a resistance to acquisition of any kind, not only material but intellectual, also, lest this kind of imagination hinder him from 'offering to God his first thought, his first energy' - that is, concentrating his whole self in God."

The fourth form of the imagination is "when the intellect attempts to penetrate the mystery of being and apprehend the Divine world." In this situation fall all those who try to theologize with their reason and imagination, as philosophy does, and for this reason many theologians have become entangled in heresy. This is what many call "theological creation". However, the ascetic who is engaged in the science of mental stillness and pure prayer is also struggling against this form of the imagination, because the "point of departure of the ascetic striving for pure prayer is the belief that God created us, not that we created God, and so he turns to Him in imageless prayer, stripped of all theological and philosophical activity."

The whole analysis of this diverse struggle against the imagination shows a spiritual doctor who makes subtle diagnoses of the inner world and gives the right treatment.

5. "Pure Prayer and Mental Stillness"

Mental stillness is watchfulness, the attention not to accept some intrusive thought and some imagination, and pure prayer is the prayer made by the pure nous, without any intrusive thoughts. There is a close relationship between mental stillness and pure prayer, since mental stillness is a precondition of pure prayer and vice versa.

"Prayer corresponds with the stages in the normal development of the human spirit. The first impulse of the mind is outward-bound," because it wants to observe the world that surrounds it and impresses it, and this is done by using the senses. "The second, a return into itself," when it thinks about what it saw with its senses and works them out logically. "And the third - ascent towards God through the inner man," that is, it glorifies God from the heart for all of creation.

"To accord with this progression the Holy Fathers instituted three forms of prayer. The first, because the mind is as yet incapable of attaining directly to pure vision of God, is marked by the imagination. The second, by meditation, and the third by rapt concentration." The analysis of these three ways of prayer shows the great value of pure or noetic prayer.  

"The first form of prayer imprisons man in constant error, in an imaginary world, in a world of dreams and, if you like, of poetic creation. The divine, and in general all that is spiritual presents itself in various fantastical aspects, following which actual human life, too, is gradually diffused by elements from the sphere of fantasy."

"With the second form of prayer - when heart and mind are wide open to all that is extraneous - one is left continually vulnerable to the most heterogeneous influences from without, unable to discern what exactly is happening objectively. How do all these alien thoughts and conflicts arise in man, impotent, as he ought not to be, against the onslaught of the passions? Grace sometimes comes with this sort of prayer, putting him in a good frame of mind, but because his inner disposition is not right he is unable to continue in this grace. Having accumulated a measure of religious knowledge and achieved relatively decorous behavior, content with matters, he gradually takes to speculative theology, and in step with his success in this, so does his inner battle against the subtle passions - vanity and pride - in his soul decrease, and loss of grace is intensified. As it develops, this form of prayer, which is characterized by the concentration of attention in the brain, leads to rational, philosophical intuition, which, like the first form of prayer, opens the way to a contrived world of the imagination."

"The third form of prayer - when the mind is conjoined with the heart - is, generally speaking, the normal religious state for the human spirit, desired, sought after, bestowed from on high. Every believer experiences this union of mind and heart when he prays attentively, 'from the bottom of his heart'. He knows it to a still greater degree when his heart is softened and he feels a sweet sense of Divine love. Tears of compunction during prayer are a sure sign that the mind is united with the heart, and that pure prayer has found its prime place - the initial step in ascent to God. This is why ascetics rate tears so highly. But now, in our given case, in discussing the third form of prayer, I am referring to something different and more important - the mind in prayerful attention stationed in the heart." Thus he is freed from every passion.

Prayer is indeed a great spiritual science and an even greater spiritual science is knowledge of the different ways of prayer, especially when prayer is done without any form and without any image, and this prayer is done when the nous is united with the heart.