In other words, according to St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov), purposefully creating images in one’s mind, and even accepting those appearing spontaneously, is not only dangerous spiritually, but can also lead to the damage of the soul, or psychological problems, “which,” he says, “has happened to many.” Undoubtedly, here St. Ignatii refers to the spirituality of some Western saints: “Do not play with your salvation, do not. Take up the reading of the New Testament and the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church, but not of Teresa and other Western crazies…” (25) But cases of mental disorders facilitated by improper prayer or state of mind are also mentioned in various Orthodox literature, especially paterikons.
Saint Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022), writing in the late tenth to early eleventh centuries, warns against the method of prayer later used by St. Ignatius of Loyola and other Western saints as potentially leading to mental problems:
The specific features of this… type of prayer are such: when one, standing at prayer and lifting up his hands, and eyes, and mind to heaven, imagines in his mind divine councils, the heavenly goodness, the ranks of angels, and the dwellings of the saints; in other words, all that he has heard from the Divine Scriptures, he collects into his mind… But during this type of prayer, little-by-little, [he] starts to puff-up in his heart, not understanding this himself; it seems to him that what he is doing is from God’s grace [given] for his comfort, and he asks God to let him always be in this state. But this is a sign of great deception… Such a person, [if he practices this type of prayer in seclusion] will hardly be able to stay sane. But, even if it so happens that he does not go insane, he, nonetheless, will not be able to acquire virtues… (Philokalia 5:463-4)
Commenting on this passage, St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) calls imaginative prayer “most dangerous”:
The most dangerous of the incorrect types of prayer consists of the person creating imaginary pictures, seemingly borrowing them from the Holy Scripture, but in reality—from his own state of fall and self-pride; and with these pictures he flatters his own self-opinion, his fall, his sinfulness, deceives himself. Obviously, everything which is created by the imagination of our fallen nature, does not exist in reality, is make-belief and false… The one who imagines, with the first step on the path of prayer leaves the area of truth and enters the area of deceit, passions, sin, Satan. (Works 1:160-1)
The teaching of St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) continues the tradition of prayer carried by the Fathers of the Eastern Church. Much of this tradition was compiled into a large work titled Philokalia (Gr. “love of the good”), which contains the writings of the Eastern Fathers from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. This work, a staple of Orthodox spirituality and an unquestionable Orthodox authority on prayer, forbids the use of mental imagery in no uncertain terms. Saint Macarius of Egypt (A.D. 300-391), for example, writes that Satan appears to those seeking visions as an angel of light to foster in them a proud opinion of themselves as visionaries of the divine, and by this self-pride to lead them to destruction (see 630). Saint Nilus of Sinai (died c. 430) a disciple of Saint John Chrysostom, teaches that the mind must be “deaf and dumb during prayer” (Philokalia 2:208). “When you pray,” he writes, “do not imagine God in any form and do not allow your mind to form any image…” (2:215) St. Nilus also warns to not even desire to see any images or visions: “Do not desire to see any face or image during prayer. Do not desire to see Angels, or Powers, or Christ, in order not to become insane, having accepted a wolf for the shepherd and having worshipped the enemies—demons” (2:221).
Likewise, another one of the Eastern Fathers, Saint John Climacus (A.D. 525-606) asserts that at least some visions and revelations may be created by the demon of pride who uses them to plant and nurture self-pride in devotees:
When the demon of pride becomes established in his servants, then, appearing to them in a dream or in a vision in an image of an angel of light or a martyr, gives to them revelations of mysteries, and as if a gift of [spiritual] gifts, in order that these unfortunate ones, having succumbed to the temptation, completely lost their mind. (191)
A Sinai Father, Saint Gregory (c. 1260-1346) shows an unbroken continuity of the patristic tradition of prayer and continues to caution against mental imagery during prayer:[N]ever accept if you see anything physical or spiritual, inside yourself or out, even if it is an image of Christ, or an Angel, or some Saint, or a light appears to you and shows in your mind. The mind itself has a natural power of imagination and can easily create a phantom image of a thing, which it desires… In the same way, a recollection of good or bad things usually shows their images in the mind and leads the mind to imagination… (Philokalia 5:224)
In another place, St. Gregory repeats the same warning even more sternly:
When doing your task [of prayer], you see light or fire outside [yourself] or in, or a face—of Christ, for example, or an Angel, or someone else’s—do not accept it, in order not to suffer damage. And yourself do not make images; and those that come on their own—do not accept them, and do not allow your mind to keep them. (Philokalia 5:233)
It becomes clear, therefore, why the Eastern Tradition warns so sternly against accepting any images whatsoever, even those seemingly coming from God. Instead, an emphasis is placed on humility and repentance, which are seen as the foundation and the goal of prayer. Saint Ignatii (Bryanchaninov), summarizing this emphasis for novices, wrote:
Concerning voices and apparitions, one must have an even greater caution: here, the demons’ deceit is closer and more dangerous… This is why the holy fathers taught those beginning prayer not to trust voices and apparitions—but to reject them and not accept them, leaving this to the judgment and the will of God, but for themselves considering humility more useful than any voice or apparition. (Works 2004, 5:306)
Mental prayer, according to Orthodox authors, is achieved “when the nous, pure from any thoughts and ideas, prays to God without distraction” (Hierotheos 145). This type of prayer is achieved by stilling the mind, rather than rousing it with ecstasy, by ignoring apparitions, rather than accepting them as a sign of personal perfection, and by deliberately keeping the mind from creating thoughts and images, rather than using it to exercise imagination. Thus, ecstatic visions, which were the core of private devotion of some Roman Catholic saints, are considered by the Eastern Tradition to be a temptation to either avoid or fight off, rather than “favors” from God, as Teresa and Mechtilde call them. Similarly, desiring the images and visions or creating them with the use of imagination is seen as a dangerous practice, leading to neuro-psychological trauma, rather than as an acceptable form of spiritual exercise.
To be continued…