31 October 2007

Theophan, on "images in the soul"

To this "Wisdom Sundays" posting, in which Theophan the Recluse makes brief mention of "the images in your soul", Mary Ann asks "[W]hat are the 'images in your soul'? Thoughts of the material or self?"


The quick and dirty answer is no, he isn't referring to worldly images, but to images which might appear to one as one prays. It would then be to these images that one prays, and upon these images that one relies for response. The key word is intermediate -- intermediate images, not simply images.

I'll allow Theophan to explain.

Hold no intermediate image between the mind and the Lord when practising the Jesus Prayer. The words pronounced are merely a help, and are not essential. The principal thing is to stand before the Lord with the mind in the heart. This, and not the words, is inner spiritual prayer. The words here are as much or as little the essential part of the prayer as the words of any other prayer. The essential part is to dwell in God, and this walking before God means that you live with the conviction ever before your consciousness that God is in you, as He is in everything: you live in the firm assurance that He sees all that is within you, knowing you better than you know yourself. This awareness of the eye of God looking at your inner being must not be accompanied by any visual concept, but must be confined to a simple conviction or feeling. A man in a warm room feels how the warmth envelops and penetrates him. The same must be the effect on our spiritual nature of the all-encompassing presence of God, who is the fire in the room of our being.

The words, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me" are only the instrument and not the essence of the work; but they are an instrument which is very strong and effective, for the Name of the Lord Jesus is fearful to the enemies of our salvation and a blessing to all who seek Him. Do not forget that this practice is simple, and must not have anything fanciful about it. Pray about everything to the Lord, to our most pure Lady, to your Guardian Angel; and they will teach you everything, either directly or through others.

and

In order not to fall into illusion while practising inner prayer, do not permit yourself any concepts, images, or visions. For vivid imaginings, darting to and fro, and flights of fancy do not cease even when the mind stands in the heart and recites prayer: and no one is able to rule over them, except those who have attained perfection by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and who have acquired stability of mind through Jesus Christ.

As you can see, Theophan isn't talking about images of the material world or of the self. For issues related to the material world, and to Self, he has other solutions.

Now, it might seem strange that Theophan would say about prayer that the words don't matter. But think about other relationships we have. Mine with my wife comes to mind just now. Often she will express a desire to talk. To me, to talk is to talk about something. If you want me to talk to you, but can't name the thing you want to talk about I'm inclined to put my nose back in my book.

I learned long ago not to ask my wife what she wants to talk about. (I still do it occasionally, just like I do other things I know better than to do -- like drinking a litre of single malt scotch or tequila. But I digress.)

If my wife and I spend thirty minutes talking about the number of ground hog burrows, or the amount of rabbit excrement on the ground (it's not for nothing that our place is called " Las Conejeras") she's happy. It's not the subject matter that counts; it's the visit. For the same sort of reason Theophan can talk about prayer in which the words are inessential, unimportant. What Theophan is talking about is visiting with God, or perhaps better acknowledging the fact that God is always visiting you -- experiencing, or being aware of the fact of God's presence, always with you.

And here we come to a good reason for not permitting images or concepts. If you think about visiting perhaps you have an image in your head about the last time you visited with, or were visited by, someone. (Every time I think of Chicago, I think of the "El", which I rode with my grandmother when I visited her as a child.)

That image (i.e., of "visiting") isn't really helpful when it comes to "visiting" with God, or in thinking about his "visiting" with you. The reason, of course, is that when you and your spouse, or friends, or relatives visit, there is a time when the visit is over and the visitors leave -- hopefully. That is not the case with God. Acknowledging that the words in prayer are inessential because the point is to acknowledge one's being in the presence of God works quite well as long as you don't think of it as -- don't employ the concept of -- a "visit".

Just pray, says Theophan. And don't employ any concept of what it is you are doing. Though Theophan might not have put it this way, it may help: As soon as you employ a concept you begin not to pray but to theologize. Now there's a time and a place for everything, but the time to pray is not the time to theologize.

Therefore, as Theophan says, "Just pray." Don't conceptualize what you are doing. Don't categorize it -- adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication -- whatever.

When you think about it, what Theophan is talking about makes sense when you consider that God knows what you need or want before it occurs to you to mention it to him. Prayer, then, isn't primarily about accomplishing anything; it's primarily about communing with God. It is about enjoying the privilege of unity with God through his son Jesus Christ.

Note: I'm still Calvinist, Reformed, and Presbyterian. So, Happy Reformation Day !

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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