Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Prayer of imagination

Prayer of the imagination, of the mind, of the heart
by Rd. Michael Hann

As we pass from without to within, we first encounter the powers of imagination and fantasy. ' Many people stop here, not realizing that they must immediately pass beyond this first stage: for if we work chiefly through our imagination and fantasy, we are not yet praying in the correct way. This, then, is the first incorrect method of prayer. The second stage on the way within is represented by the reason, intellect, and mind, and in general by the rational and thinking power of the soul. Nor must we linger here, but pass on: and gathering this rational power together, we must descend into the heart. If we linger, we shall become involved in a second incorrect method of prayer, whose characteristic feature is that the mind remains in the head, wishing by itself to direct and govern everything in the soul. Nothing comes of these efforts: the mind pursues everything, but cannot dominate anything, and only undergoes defeats. This feebleness from which our mind suffers is described very fully by St. Simeon the New Theologian.2 This second way of prayer can appropriately be termed 'mind-in-the-head', in contrast to the third way, which is lmind-in-the-heart'. At this second stage, while this mental fermentation takes place in the head, the heart goes its own way; nobody watches over it, and so it is invaded by cares and passions, and only with great difficulty comes to itself again.

To this account of the second way of prayer, I would add a few words from the introduction to the writings of Gregory of Sinai,3 written by the staretz Basils monk of the great habit,1 companion and friend of Paissy Velichkovsky.2 Having quoted Simeon the New Theologian, staretz Basil adds: 'How can you hope to keep the mind intact merely by guarding your exterior sensations, when your thoughts by themselves stream in different directions and whirl towards material things ? It is essential for the mind, in the hour of prayer, to withdraw as quickly as possible into the heart and to stand there, deaf and mute to all thoughts. Whoever withdraws only outwardly from seeing, hearing, and speaking, obtains little result. Enclose your mind in the inner cell of the heart, and then you will enjoy rest from evil thoughts; and you will experience the spiritual joy which is brought by inner prayer and attention of the heart.'

St. Hesychios3 says: 'Our mind cannot defeat evil dreams by itself alone; and let it never hope to do so. Take heed, therefore, not to think highly of yourself like the old Israel, lest you also be delivered up to our invisible enemies. When the God of all creation delivered Israel from the Egyptians, the Israelites fashioned a molten image to be their helper. By the molten image you should understand our feeble mind: when it invokes Jesus Christ against the spirits of wickedness, it drives them away easily; but when in its folly it trusts wholly to itself, it experiences a sudden and grievous downfall.'

-St Theophan the Recluse

1 On the meaning of 'imagination' here, see above, p. 2 c.
2 St. Simeon the New Theologian (949 1022), Abbot of the Monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople: probably the greatest of Byzantine mystical writers.
3 St. Gregory of Sinai (late 13th cent. 1346), monk on Mount Athos, one of the leaders of the Hesychast Movement.
4 Staretz Basil (died 1767), a Russian by birth, Igumen of several monasteries in Romania. He wrote introductions to the works of various Greek authors who discuss the Jesus Prayer

1 Orthodox monks are divided into three grades: rasophore (one who wears the rason or cassock), monk of the little habit, and monk of the great habit (or schema monk). Only a few monks enter the third and highest of these grades, the great habit: in Russia a schema monk is normally expected to follow a life of strict seclusion and fasting (in Greek monasteries the rules for schema monks are often less rigorous).
* Paissy Velichkovsky (1722-94), Russian by origin, entered the monastic life on Mount Athos and later settled in Rumania, where he became Igumen of the monastery of Niamets. Editor of the Slavonic edition of the Philokaha. The spiritual and monastic renaissance in 19th century Russia was in large measure inspired by his disciples and followers.
3 St. Hesychios of Batos was superior of a monastery on the Sinai peninsula during the 6th or 7th century.

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