In English

MENTAL IMAGERY IN EASTERN ORTHODOX PRIVATE DEVOTION (Part 3)

23 Ιουλίου 2009

Continued from (2)

In the context of forbidding attitude of the Eastern Fathers toward mental images, it seems necessary to briefly mention elaborate and very imaginative Orthodox iconography.[5] Icons in the Orthodox Tradition are used for prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Yet, even during prayer before icons, which obviously present visual imagery, the use of mental imagery, according to the Orthodox Tradition, is to be avoided. St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) writes:

The holy icons are accepted by the Holy Church for the purpose of arousing pious memories and feelings, but not at all for arousing imagination. Standing before an icon of the Savior, stand as if before the Lord Jesus Christ himself, Who is invisibly everywhere present and by His icon is in that place, where the icon is; standing before an icon of the Mother of God, stand as if before the Most-Holy Virgin Herself; but keep your mind without images: there is a great difference between being in the presence of the Lord or standing before the Lord and imagining the Lord. (Works 2004, 1:76)

The specific canons and stylistic rules which guide the writing of an Orthodox icon, therefore, as well as the proper training of the mind, may be seen as the means to achieve the goal formulated above by St. Ignatii—the real presence before the Lord, rather than to express or influence visual imagination.

* * *

Having briefly described the Orthodox position on the use of mental imagery in prayer, I highlighted the rejection and non-acceptance of visions and imagination by the Fathers of the Church. However, there are some notable exceptions and inconsistencies. On one hand, patristic and Orthodox authors are certainly aware that some (perhaps, many) saints do have visions which do come from God. Orthodox hagiographic accounts abound in visions and revelation, including some in what appears to be the state of spiritual ecstasy. Of the authors, whose works were examined above, St. John Climacus, for example, recounts an apparition he had during prayer, in which he even had a dialogue with the angel:

[A]n angel enlightened me when I thirsted for more revelations. And again, being in the same state [of seeing], I asked him: “What was the Lord like before He accepted the visible image of human nature?” But the Prince of Heavenly Hosts could not teach me this, and he was not allowed. Then I asked him to reveal to me in what state He is now. “In one that is specific to Him,” he said, “but not in these.” I asked again: “What is His state of sitting on the right of the Father?” He answered: “It is impossible to accept the understanding of this mystery through hearing.” I begged him to lead me to that, which I desired. But he said: “This time has not yet come, because you still have too little of the fire of incorruption in you.” However, I do not know and cannot say whether I was in the body or out of the body when this was happening to me. (274-5)

It is interesting in this passage that St. John kept asking the angels about the matters which are difficult to place within a personal soteriological context. Indeed, it may be questionable whether knowing in what state Christ sits on the right of the Father would bring anyone closer to salvation. It is telling that the angel refused to answer and elaborate on these matters. Nonetheless, it appears that St. John not only had a vision, but accepted it, conversed with it, and desired more visions or revelations.

St. Gregory of Sinai in retelling[6] about his meeting a holy monk by the name of Maximus Capsokalivite says that the latter not only had visions, but also disagreed with those who rejected them. Maximus wondered why some people rejected visions despite God Himself offering them to His people through the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28):

Thus, the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord uplifted upon a high throne and surrounded by seraphim. The first-martyr Stephan saw the heavens opened and the Lord Jesus on the right of the Father, and the rest. In the same way, today also the servants of Christ are given to see various visions, which some do not believe and do not accept them as truthful, but consider them deceits, and those who see them they call being in a state of deceit. (Philokalia 5:474)

It is unclear whether Maximus would have considered most Roman Catholic ecstatic visions to be from God, but he does add a qualifier: “[W]hen this grace of the Holy Spirit descends upon someone, then it shows to him not something usual from the things of this sensory world, but shows that, which he has never seen and never imagined” (5:475). A very similar thought is contained in the teachings of St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov), who, while being one of the most outspoken critics of visions, contends that some of them are true:

True spiritual visions and feelings belong to the next age, are fully non-material, cannot be explained in the area of senses, through a material word: such is the true sign of that which is truly spiritual.—The voice of the Spirit is non-material; it is fully clear and fully non-material: it is a noetic voice. In the same way, all spiritual feelings are non-material, invisible, cannot be explained or clearly relayed through human material words… (Works 2004, 5:306-7)

Yet, even St. Ignatii would probably acknowledge that some visions “relayed through human material words” were nonetheless “truly spiritual.” I am not aware of any Orthodox authors, for example, disputing the spirituality of hagiographic accounts of the visions of an angel as told by Abba Dorotheus of Gaza (A.D. 505-565), or the visions of the Theotokos by Saints Andrew and Epiphanius (10th century), Sergius of Radonezh (ca. 1314-1392), Sergius and Herman of Valaam (14th century ?), Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-1783), or Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), whom St. Ignatii revered as a master of prayer (see, for example, Works 2004, 1:198), or the vision of the Lord by the same Saint Seraphim during a liturgy.

It appears that the seeming inconsistency in relation to visions in Orthodox patristic writings, may come from their (the writings’) pastoral nature. While the Fathers are aware of true visions from God and experience them, they are also aware of the real dangers along the spiritual path and warn less experienced adepts to not accept any visions until a certain level of spiritual maturity and a skill of discerning spirits is reached. In other words, the Fathers warn the novices not to have the Satan for an iconographer. Having founded prayer on repentance and humility, rather than on visions and revelations, a person stays on the correct path and is able to overcome the temptations and attacks of the devil regardless of the presence of any visions or their absence. Founding prayer on ecstatic visions, on the other hand, according to the Orthodox thought, puts the soul, especially that of a novice, on the path of great danger.

Willful and conscious use of imagination, on the other hand, finds favorable or at least tolerant mentions in Orthodox works influenced by Western spirituality. Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), for example, who is usually seen as somewhat more tolerant of Western spirituality than is St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) (with whom St. Theophan entered into polemic on more than one occasion), wrote that imagining the Lord is acceptable: “When you contemplate the Divine, then you may imagine the Lord however you want,” but he adds: “During prayer, you should not hold [in your mind] any images… If you allow images then there is a danger to start praying to a dream” (qtd. in Kuraev, Challenge 121).

Another example of Western influence may be seen in the works of Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain (1749-1809), one of the compilers of the Philokalia. His famous work, which was printed in English under the title Unseen Warfare, was based on Combattimento Spirituale by a Roman Catholic priest Lorenzo Scupoli (Handbook, 26), while Nicodemos’ Spiritual Exercises was based on Esercizii Spirituali by Piramonti (28). Nicodemos, in his Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, warns about the dangers of using imagination, but concedes: “Finally, it is permissible, when fighting against certain inappropriate and evil imaginations presented by the enemy, to use other appropriate and virtuous imaginations” (152). The wisdom of such advice was questioned by St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) who suggested that one of his correspondents stop reading the Unseen Warfare (which had recently been translated into Russian by Theophan the Recluse) (see Works 2004, 5:274). While we may never know whether the saint’s correspondent heeded the advice, what is important here is the very fact that even works by respected Orthodox authors, such as St. Nicodemos, may be questioned without much hesitation due to the dissonance they create with the strictly Orthodox path of prayer.

Summary

While differences in opinion of Orthodox authors, such as St. Ignatii (Bryanchaninov) and St. Theophan the Recluse, exist, the overall attitude of the Orthodox Tradition forbids the use of mental imagery in prayer. Even though the adepts on the higher rungs of the spiritual ladder are reported to have visions[7] and revelations, the general advice to those who have not achieved perfection is to reject or at least ignore all and any visions and apparitions as potentially dangerous. The basis and the founding principle of Orthodox prayer is seen in repentance and humility, rather than in ecstasy and “favors.”

With respect to the conscious use of imagination during prayer, the prohibition of the Orthodox Tradition is equally strong. Some use of imagination is viewed by some authors as permissible outside of prayer, but all the Orthodox sources known to me unanimously speak against the conscious and willful use of imagination during prayer. Thus, there appears to be a clear difference in the area of the use of mental imagery between Roman Catholic prayer as exemplified by Saints Teresa of Avila, Angela of Foligno, and Ignatius of Loyola on the one hand, and the Orthodox tradition of prayer as presented by Saints Ignatii (Bryanchaninov), Nilus and Gregory of Sinai, John Climacus, and others. While some of the theologians quoted above may have written in part in reaction to Western mystical experience, others—Macarius (4th century), Nilus (5th century), John (6th century), Isaac (7th century), and Simeon the New Theologian (10-11th centuries)—constitute an earlier tradition that predates the lives of St. Teresa and St. Ignatius by several centuries. Thus, the formative influence of this patristic tradition can be traced through the writings of later Orthodox authors.

Western American Diocese Lenten Pastoral Retreat

17 March 2009

San Francisco, California

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[1] Here et passim translation from Russian is mine—S.S.

[2] That is to say, perhaps, devotes enough time and effort to it.

[3] In Orthodoxy, mental prayer is called “noetic,” from the Greek “νοῦς”—“mind.”

[4] Mind.

[5] Similar questions can be raised concerning Orthodox hymnography.

[6] It appears that the text in Philokalia was written down by someone else who had either heard or read the account of St. Gregory.

[7] Including the “uncreated light” of the hesychasts.

source: manastir Lepavina