Delusion, Demons of Darkness, Discernment, Dreams, Fantasy, Genuine Orthodoxy, Imagination, Logismoi, mental health, mental illness, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Noetic Faculty, nous, Patristic Theology, Protopresbyter John S. Romanides, The Science of Spiritual Medicine, The Spiritual Perfecting of Christians, thoughts
Illness and the Passions
By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
The Imaginative Faculty, Fantasy and Imagination*
According to the teaching of the holy Fathers of the Church, imagination is one of the faculties of the soul that plays an important role in the action and development of passions. It forms the image of a person or thing within us, then provokes sensual pleasure to capture our nous. Once taken captive we commit sin.
We ought, therefore, to study the significant role of imagination and fantasy in committing sins and also how important it is to be delivered from fantasy in order to lead a Christian life. This is one of the basic themes of ascetic teaching in the Orthodox Church. The holy Fathers, as experts on the ascetic way of life, help us to see this issue clearly.
1. Terms Used by the Holy Fathers
The holy Fathers, who took an interest in this subject and wrote about it, did not start by doing psychological research or attempting to study man’s inner world scientifically. We know from the teaching of the Orthodox Church that the Fathers were not desk-bound academics, but Shepherds of the people of God. They knew from experience how God’s grace works in human beings.
The holy Fathers were experts on the state of man’s soul following the devastating event of the Fall, and subsequently they learnt what the soul and man’s whole inner world is like when regenerated by God’s grace. Their observations on the subject of fantasy and imagination were not motivated by scientific research in psychology, but by their own experience through the Holy Spirit. Their aim was to lead people to salvation. They were aware of how fantasy and imagination function in fallen human beings and in those who are spiritual and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
For example, when the holy Fathers used the terminology of the philosophers and scientists of their time, they did not completely accept their views. St Gregory Palamas writes: “If one of the Fathers utters something the same as those outside, this is just a matter of the words; with regard to the meanings there is a great difference. According to Paul, the Fathers have the mind [nous] of Christ, whereas those outside speak from human understanding, if nothing worse.” This passage is worth noting. It shows that, although some of the Fathers used the same terminology as the philosophers, there is a great difference between them. The holy Fathers, with their pure nous, spoke from revelation whereas the philosophers spoke from their own understanding and their own human speculation.
I mention this because, when speaking about fantasy or imagination, we ought not to give these words the same meaning as modern psychologists and psychoanalysts concerned with this subject give them. There is a vast difference between people who have experience of the Holy Spirit and those who are concerned in an anthropocentric way with fantasy and imagination. Even if they occasionally use the same terminology, it refers to different things.
Elder Sophrony Sakharov writes about fantasy and imagination:
“I cannot hope satisfactorily to treat so difficult and complex a theme. As my principal task is to offer the reader an expose of a definite and concrete experience, I shall restrict myself to examining the views and conceptions obtaining to this day on the Holy Mountain — views and conceptions which Elder Silouan likewise held. Contemporary psychological theories may be left aside as having little in common with the approach of Orthodox anthropological concepts.”
In the discussion of fantasy and imagination that follows no comparisons will be drawn between the teaching of the holy Fathers and the views of contemporary psychologists and psychoanalysts. I shall describe how the holy Fathers speak about fantasy and imagination in the light of contemporary experience preserved and guarded in the Church and lived by monks of our own day, who are grounded in the therapeutic method of the Orthodox Church.
As we know, the holy Fathers are not just interested in man’s psychological equilibrium, but in his theosis. To reach this point, a person must be delivered from using his imagination, even if it works positively. In order for the nous to attain to theoria of God it must be completely free of all mental images, however good they may be, and even of thoughts and reasoning, regardless of whether they are beneficial for cultural development or our integration into society.
Although there may sometimes be some similarity between expressions and terms used by the holy Fathers and those used by psychologists, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists, the meaning of each of these expressions and terms is very different. In my opinion it is wrong to attempt to interpret patristic texts in accordance with modern psychology and psychoanalysis, just as it is wrong to regard psychological phenomena as spiritual experiences.
To be sure, the action of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart also has repercussions on the psychological level and affects his behaviour as a human being. In the same way, the absence of the Holy Spirit from someone’s heart has many consequences for his whole personality, including psychological symptoms. Nevertheless, psychological effects are not the same as spiritual experiences.
2. Defining the Imaginative Faculty and Fantasy
St John Climacus defines imagination or fantasy as follows: “Fantasy is an illusion of the eyes when the mind is asleep. Fantasy is ecstasy of the nous, when the body is awake. Fantasy is the vision of something which does not exist in reality.” Fantasy is a vision of something with no real existence, something unfounded. Fantasy is activated when the mind is idle. This is obvious from dreams, when the mind is not alert. However, fantasy is also present when we are awake, and then it is possible for the nous to come out of itself.
A clear distinction should be made between the imaginative faculty, on the one hand, and fantasy and imagination, on the other. The imaginative faculty is a natural power of the soul, whereas fantasy and imagination are the activation of this faculty with various images and scenes that come from outside. The imaginative faculty lies between the nous and the senses. It is not a straightforward faculty of the nous, nor a faculty of the senses. St Gregory Palamas writes, “This imaginative faculty of the soul is on the border between the nous and the senses in human beings.” According to St Gregory, the imaginative faculty is on the dividing line between the nous and sense perception, and the activities of the imagination (fantasies) did not exist in Adam before the Fall, as we shall see below. They belong to man’s fallen state.
St John of Damascus, in a very succinct passage, distinguishes between the faculty of imagination, the thing imagined, fantasy and illusion. He writes, “The power of imagination is a faculty of the unreasoning part of the soul. It is brought into action through the organs of sense and is spoken of as a sensation. Something is imaginable and perceptible when it falls within the scope of the faculty of imagination and the senses. In a similar way, sight is the visual faculty itself, but something is visible when it comes within the scope of the faculty of sight, whether it be a stone or anything else. Fantasy is a passive experience of the unreasoning part of the soul which is occasioned by something imagined. An illusion, however, is a passive experience of the unreasoning part of the soul that is not occasioned by anything imagined. The organ of imagination is the anterior ventricle of the brain.”
This extract shows that the imaginative faculty is a power of the unreasoning part of the soul that works through the senses. This means that it functions when the sensory organs function. Something is imaginable (or perceptible) if it falls within the scope of the imagination or the senses. Fantasy or imagination is a passive experience produced in the unreasoning part of the soul by something imagined, whereas an illusion is not caused by anything imaginable. Thus there is an organ called the imaginative faculty, which is a power of the unreasoning part of the soul. There are imaginable things, which fall within the scope of the imaginative faculty. There is fantasy or imagination, which is linked with the senses, and illusion, which is created in the imaginative faculty without any input from the sensory organs.
Sometimes the terms “imaginative faculty” and “fantasy” are used in patristic texts with the same meaning. They refer to fantasy or imagination as the imaginative faculty, and vice versa, because of the interaction between them.
Commenting on St Dionysios the Areopagite, St Maximos the Confessor writes that fantasy and imagination are not the same as thinking. This difference is clear from the different ways in which they work: “Thinking is active and creative, whereas fantasy or imagination is passive, being the imprint of an image representing something that is, or could be, perceptible to the senses.” Thinking is an activity of the nous and reason, and is concerned with concepts, whereas fantasy and imagination are passive and reflect something perceptible to the senses. This is the difference between thinking, on the one hand, and fantasy and imagination, on the other.
It is in this sense that we should understand the teaching of the Holy Fathers, that the imagination or imaginative faculty is a natural power of the soul. Imagination is a natural capability of the soul that acts between the nous and senses. Since the Fall this power has deviated from its natural course and acts unnaturally in all sorts of fantasies and imaginings. When a person attains to theosis he is released from all these. The statement by Kallistos and Ignatios of Xanthopoulos, “The soul of itself naturally has the ability to imagine”, has to be seen from this perspective. Just as the body has five senses, so the soul has five powers or faculties: nous, understanding, opinion, imagination and perception. Thus, “Imagination is one of the soul’s faculties, by which the soul forms mental images.” Here “imagination” is used in the sense of “imaginative faculty”. St Gregory of Sinai makes the same point when he writes, “For by nature the nous readily invents fantasies and forms mental pictures of things it has not yet attained.”
St Maximos the Confessor writes on the subject of fantasy or imagination: “Passion and pain were not originally created together with the flesh; nor forgetfulness and ignorance together with the soul; nor the ever-changing impressions of the forms of created things together with the nous. All these came into existence through the Fall. He who removes pleasure and pain from his flesh has achieved practical virtue. He who rids his soul of forgetfulness and ignorance has successfully attained natural theoria. He who frees his nous from its multitude of impressions has been initiated into mystery of theology.” Just as the flesh did not have pleasure and pain from the outset and the soul did not have forgetfulness and ignorance from the beginning, so the nous did not have an inner world of imaginary images.
In order to gain a clear understanding of this passage from St Maximos the Confessor, we should place it in the context of his whole theology, according to which there are three stages in the spiritual life: practical philosophy, natural theoria and mystical theology. When a person is delivered from pleasure and pain, he experiences practical philosophy. When he is freed from forgetful-ness and ignorance, he experiences natural theoria, which means unceasing noetic prayer. And when his nous is released and liberated from images and fantasies, it is led towards theoria, which is inseparably linked with theology. Like pleasure, pain, forget-fulness and ignorance, fantasy and imagination are a phenomenon that appeared after the Fall, so in order to arrive at theosis, we must be delivered and set free from all these things. From this perspective St Isaac the Syrian says, “All the images the nous is accustomed to construct about these things are fantasy and imagination, not the truth…The images created by the imagination are due to the sickness of the nous, not its purity.”
When we read these extracts from the holy Fathers and other relevant passages, we realise that, although the imaginative faculty exists as an energy of the unreasoning part of the soul, the act of fantasising and imagining, particularly when linked with the passions, is a product of man’s Fall and defiles the nous. In its natural state the nous is free of fantasies and imaginings. As we shall see below, someone who, after thorough purification, attains to illumination of the nous and theoria, is completely freed from using his imagination. This is why we maintain that a person must get rid of fantasies and imaginings and completely purify his nous. Thus we understand why the Fathers speak about deliverance from fantasy and imagination, because the imaginative faculty, which is a faculty of the unreasoning part of the soul, is rendered inactive in pure theoria.
We see this in Christ. Because His divine nature assumed human nature in its entirety, and human nature was united with divine nature in the Person of the Word, it follows that Christ also turned the soul’s imaginative faculty. However, the imaginative faculty, as a faculty of the unreasoning part of the soul, did not function in Christ as it does in us who are dominated by the passions. We could compare the imaginative faculty in Christ with a television set, which, although it is a device for communicating various images, does not do so when it is turned off. So, although Christ had an imaginative faculty, in Him it did not function.
St John of Damascus, speaking about the natural and blameless passions that Christ assumed, says, “We confess, then, that He assumed all the natural and innocent passions of man. For He assumed the whole man and all man’s attributes save sin. Because sin is not natural, nor is it sown in us by the Creator, but arises voluntarily by our own free will as the result of a second sowing by the devil, and cannot prevail over us by force.” It should be noted, however, that even these blameless passions had no power over Christ, but were in His power. As St John of Damascus says, the natural passions existed in a natural and supranatural way in Christ. “They acted in Him after a natural manner when He permitted the flesh to suffer what was proper to it: but they were above nature because that which was natural did not in the Lord assume command over His will.”
We can say the same of the imaginative faculty of Christ’s soul. Although it existed as a faculty of the soul that He assumed, because “what is not assumed is not healed”, nevertheless it did not act as it does in us. Therefore Christ did not imagine things. This is the sense in which we should examine the passages from the writings of the Fathers and St Nicodemus the Hagiorite, according to which Christ was free from fantasy and imagination.
What happened in Christ also happened, to a lesser degree and by grace, in the saints of the Church. After suitable training and treatment, when a person is healed by all-embracing repentance and his nous is freed from imaginary images, the imaginative faculty becomes inactive. Thus the nous stays free from fantasy or form, as the Fathers say. This is a matter of experience, and in our fallen state it is difficult for us to understand or explain it.
Everything perceptible to the senses is also imaginable and falls within the scope of the imaginative faculty, and so imagination and fantasy come into being, according to St John of Damascus. This fantasy, as the Fathers tell us, is like scales covering the nous and preventing it from seeing God clearly. In order to attain to theoria of God, the nous has rid itself of these scales and appear before God in purity. The imaginative faculty is associated with imagination and fantasy in the language of the holy Fathers, and when they write that we must be cleansed from fantasy and imagination, they mean that we must also cleanse the imaginative faculty. In other words, we must render our soul’s imaginative faculty inactive. The saints beheld God and experienced Him with their pure nous, not through their imaginative faculty, which is why psychiatrists are unable to interpret the saints and their holy visions psychologically.
The imaginative faculty, which is a natural energy of the soul, is distinct from imagining, which is the function of this faculty, and fantasies. The entire ascetic tradition advises us not to attempt to envisage God. Instead, we should strive to purify the soul’s imaginative faculty and free ourselves from accursed fantasy. When the nous prays it should remain “formless” and “free from fantasy”, so that we can guard ourselves against forming images of God.
3. Imagination and Fantasy as a Phenomenon of Man’s Fallen State
Since the Fall man’s imaginative faculty has run wild and is full of fantasies. Apart from man, the devil also has imagination. For precisely this reason fantasy and imagination are an efficient conductor of satanic energy and the devil uses them to ensnare people. Fantasy and imagination are a bridge between man and the demons, which the demons cross to trouble him.
Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos write, “Fantasy, which takes as many forms as the mythical Daedalus, and has as many heads as the Hydra, is said by the saints to act as a bridge for demons. These murderous destroyers go back and forth over it, communing and mixing with the soul in some way, and making it a hive of drones and an abode of barren and passionate thoughts…” In other words, imagination is a bridge by which the demons come into contact with the soul and mingle with it and make man the dwelling-place of sterile and passionate ideas.
According to St Maximos, fantasy, imagination and all the images they offer are scales obscuring the soul’s vision. Anyone who has these scales is unable to see God or be convinced by teaching about God and divine things. Impressions and ideas that come from fantasy “are indeed scales, blinding the soul’s clear vision and blocking access to the pure word of truth.” These scales covering the soul prevent it from reaching the truth and knowing God’s will. This is why St Maximos the Confessor teaches that, when the nous shakes off the ideas and images that result from fantasies, “then the word of truth is clearly proclaimed to it, giving it the precepts of true knowledge.” A person can only become an unerring and sure theologian when he is freed from fantasies and images. Otherwise, he may speak about God under the influence of demons, as the demons will offer ideas about God and other truths of the Faith through his imagination. The holy Fathers say that a person must get rid of these scales obscuring the soul’s clear vision, and also that the saints speak about God “like fishermen” (like the Apostles) and not “like Aristotle”. Their theology comes from a pure heart, and not from their power of reasoning (St Gregory the Theologian).
Although there is only one faculty of imagination, it has three divisions, according to Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos. The first is the ability to depict ideas, to make them perceptible, to turn ideas and concepts into perceptible images. The second is the ability to represent things “from the remnants left over”, to recall and linger on the images produced by the first type of imagination. The third “consists of pleasure and imaginary images of apparently good or distressing things”, in other words, all the pleasure and sadness caused by the existence of those images which the senses present to the soul’s imaginative faculty. So the three divisions of imagination are: firstly, the ability to conceive and inwardly assimilate an image; secondly, the retention of the idea and its image in the soul’s imaginative faculty and the recollection of it; and thirdly, the pleasure or sorrow caused by seemingly good or bad images that linger in the soul’s imaginative faculty.
As imagination is a natural function in fallen human beings and fantasies are scales that have obscured the soul’s clear vision since the Fall, the nous is in its natural condition when it rids itself of all forms of fantasy and imagination. As St Hesychios the Priest teaches, “When there are no fantasies or images in the heart, the nous is in its natural state” and is ready to be directed towards any delightful spiritual theoria pleasing to God.
The more spiritually sick a person is, the more he is dominated by all kinds of fantasy and imagination. The healthier he is spiritually, the freer he is from fantasies and imaginings. Even what are referred to nowadays as psychological problems are produced and retained in our souls by fantasies. The more we are freed from their oppression, the more we are healed from various psychological problems. This is why St John Cassian the Roman writes that a sign that someone has acquired the virtue of holiness and chastity is that his soul pays no attention at all to imagination or fantasy, even when asleep. “It ignores those images which defiled fantasy produces during sleep.”
Certainly, it is not a sin to have offensive dreams while asleep, but “they are an indication that the soul is ill and has not been freed from passion.” They prove that the soul is sick and is not yet free of passion. This is why, as St John Cassian teaches, obscene fantasies that appear in dreams during sleep are proof of our soul’s idleness and illness.
This is the context in which anything we write about fantasy and release from its tyranny and effect has to be understood. When we write that imagination is a phenomenon of fallen human beings and that we must be freed from the imaginative faculty as well, we mean that our imaginative faculty must been rendered inactive. We must rid ourselves completely of fantasy and imagination, so that our nous is “imageless”, “formless” and “free from fantasy”. This is the only way to reach theosis and acquire communion with God.
All in all, fantasy and imagination have absolutely no place in pure knowledge of God. Knowledge of God exceeds every idea and concept. It is a vision of God to which the nous set free from fantasy attains.
4. Four Kinds of Imagination
As mentioned above, it is clear from the teaching of the holy Fathers that the path to theosis inevitably passes through purification of the heart and liberation from fantasy, when the imaginative faculty is freed from images and impressions. St Gregory Palamas analyses the whole course of this journey in one of his homilies on the Entry of the Mother of God, in which he describes how the Mother of God arrived at deification. In this sense we are taught that the saints spoke about God without fantasy or imagination and that pure theology has nothing to do with imagination.
Within the Church there are Christians at various stages of development. Some are in an infantile state, others are in their spiritual childhood and others are spiritual adults. Thus every Christian’s struggle is different. We should take care not to rely on fantasy or imagination, because this is not the basis of spiritual life, but something that distorts it.
We shall now refer to the teaching of a contemporary spiritual father, Archimandrite Sophrony, who was experienced in spiritual matters and a living witness of this way of life.
On the subject of imagination he writes:
“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.
Such demonic images and those conjured up by man may influence people, altering or transforming them, but one thing is inevitable – every image, whether created by man himself or suggested by demons, and accepted by the soul, will distort the spiritual image of man created in the image and after the likeness of God. This ‘creation’ in its ultimate development leads to the self-divinisation of the creature – that is, to the affirmation of the divine principle as contained in the very nature of man. Because of this, natural religion – religion of the human mind – may fatefully assume a pantheistic character.
Both demonic images and those conjured up by man may acquire very considerable force, not because they are real in the ultimate sense of the word, like the Divine strength which creates out of nothing, but in so far as the human will is drawn to and shaped by such images. But the Lord liberates him who repents from the sway of passion and imagination, and the Christian thus liberated laughs at the power of images.”
He is not referring here to what is nowadays called fantasising and is an abnormal state, but to imagination itself and to every imaginary image which a person regards as significant.
Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov mentions, among other things, that there are four kinds of imagination.
The first kind is “connected with the grosser passions of the flesh.” Someone in this state continually accepts images and fantasies connected with the carnal passions.
The second kind of imagination is day-dreaming or reverie. This kind of fantasy is connected with images from the real world. “A poor man may imagine that he is an emperor, a prophet, a great scientist.”
The third kind of imagination is associated with artistic and cultural creativity. “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 fourth kind of imagination could be called theological creativity. “When the intellect attempts to penetrate the mystery of being and apprehend the Divine world. Such endeavours inevitably involve the imagination, to which many are inclined to give the high-flown label, theological creativity.”
He goes on to analyse, on the one hand, how much evil is caused to a person’s spiritual and general state by the development of fantasy and imagination, and, on the other hand, how the ascetic lives his spiritual life without the expression or action of fantasy or imagination.
Christians, especially monks, fight hard in the beginning to be freed from the first kind of imagination (fantasising about base carnal passions), and then go on to be liberated from the other three types. They refrain from all conjecture and day-dreaming. They avoid speculating about things or pondering on concepts about God. No one can acquire prayer of the nous in the heart and knowledge of God by means of the imaginative faculty. Only the purification of the imaginative faculty by profound repentance brings true knowledge of God.
It is essential for Christians living in society to get rid of the first kind of fantasy (carnal passions). They must at all costs avoid day-dreaming and reverie, which are the source of many psychological problems, and limit the third kind of imagination, referred to as artistic or cultural creativity. When they try to make something, they should do it mostly by copying, as monks do when they paint icons. They must also try to avoid intellectual activity concerning God. They can, however, make use of the teaching of the holy Fathers about God. They should not give their own opinions, but should put forward the teaching of the holy Fathers concerning God and everything to do with the spiritual life. Also, when they pray their nous should dwell on the phrases of the prayer and their meaning, and should not imagine pictures and scenes.
It is very significant that reading literary works develops and stimulates our soul’s imaginative faculty, whereas reading the works of the holy Fathers crucifies our imaginative faculty. This shows that the holy Fathers speak without fantasy or imagination, as they have acquired spiritual health. One way of being delivered from fantasy and imagination is by prayerfully reading the various teachings and homilies of the holy Fathers.
Nevertheless, the existence of fantasy and imagination in those beginning the spiritual life is not a sign of delusion. If, however, it lingers on in their spiritual life for a long time, it causes many psychological abnormalities.
5. Manifestations of Fantasy and Imagination
It is important to investigate how fantasy and imagination are manifested, how they make their appearance and how they develop. This means looking at the factors that stimulate the soul’s imaginative faculty.
The senses play a significant role in the development of fantasies. Most of the time imagination is a reworking of the images brought to us by the senses. These are images that come from perceived reality. St Maximos teaches that, when the body is impelled by the senses towards desires and pleasures, the degenerate nous “concedes and assents to its impassioned fantasies and impulses.” Thus, when the body is motivated by the senses, the nous consents to fantasies and imaginings. We see something, we desire it, we feel pleasure, and the imaginary image is created. Likewise, the memory of a person, thing or subject arouses the imagination. While the degenerate nous acts in this way, the virtuous nous “exercises self-control and holds itself back from impassioned fantasies.”
Again, St Maximos teaches, “We carry about with us impassioned fantasies of things we have experienced.” When we experience various things, when we acquire a passion for someone or something, we naturally have impassioned fantasies and imaginings, which we carry around with us. In addition, St Gregory Palamas writes that the imaginative faculty of the soul assimilates imprints or images from the senses. “This faculty totally separates, not the senses themselves, but the images that exist within them from their bodies.” The senses are not to blame, but through the senses “things that have been heard, tasted, smelt and touched” are impressed on the soul’s imaginative faculty and become visible.
Thoughts are also connected with the senses, and fantasies can enter us through thoughts too. St Hesychios the Priest says that “Every thought enters the heart in the form of a mental image of something perceptible to the senses.” Mental images of perceptible objects assail our thoughts. St Gregory of Sinai says the causes of passions are sinful acts, the causes of thoughts are passions, and the causes of fantasies are thoughts. Passions come from the sins that a person continually commits. The passions in their turn create many thoughts, because according to which passions we have, the corresponding thoughts are provoked. Then the thoughts become a source of fantasies.
According to the teaching of St Gregory of Sinai, when the passions are active, some thoughts precede and some follow. In other words, sometimes the thought comes first and the fantasy follows and sometimes the fantasy comes first and the thought follows, though this happens more rarely. In any case, thoughts are very closely connected with fantasies and imaginings. “Every thought is an imagination in the nous of something perceptible to the senses” (Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos). Every thought is a combination of an image and a concept. It is not a simple idea, but is always linked with fantasy and imagination.
Man’s nous, revolving around and preoccupied with images originating from the senses, “formulates various kinds of thoughts by reasoning, analogy and inference. This happens in various ways, passionately or dispassionately or somewhere in between, with or without error. These thoughts give rise to most virtues and vices, and to opinions, whether right or wrong.” (St Gregory Palamas). The prevailing state of our thoughts is of paramount importance. If our thoughts are Satanic, they poison our whole spiritual organism. If they are divine, they create spiritual health within us. Thoughts are always linked with imaginings, good or bad.
As sense perceptions and thoughts are closely connected with passions, fantasies and imaginings also originate from the passions or are even expressed through them. St Neilos the Ascetic identifies an important point: if someone gets rid of his passions but continues to be negligent, “he will find that the images of past fantasies begin to emerge again like young shoots.” We can eradicate the passions and struggle to make them inactive, but the images of past fantasies can penetrate our imaginative faculty if we are careless and do not live with spiritual vigilance. Anyone who is not vigilant and watchful creates the conditions for the passions to come back in through their images. Thus the passions produce fantasies and imaginings, and fantasies and imaginings create an environment in which these passions can reappear.
Since the greatest and most terrible passion of all is pride, fantasy and imagination are closely linked with pride. Someone who is proud has something wrong with his imaginative faculty. It is inflamed. It conceives all kinds of images and fantasies and makes his soul an earthquake zone.
Fantasies and imaginings are also expressed in dreams, which are the main indication that images exist within the soul. St Diadokos of Photiki says, “Dreams are generally nothing more than images reflecting our wandering thoughts, or else they are the demons’ mockery.” Most dreams are the result of imagination originating from the development and existence of passions. Consequently, those who are engaged in the acquisition of virtue take care “never to trust imagination.” Also, St Maximos says that when desire increases the materials that cause sensual pleasure, then “the nous fantasises during sleep.” Dreams are fantasies, and they relate to the passions existing within us. From the images in these fantasies we can discern which passions we have.
Since fantasies and imaginings are a phenomenon of our fallen state and both the devil and man have imagination, man is subjected to satanic energy through his imaginative faculty, as we mentioned above. The devil deceives us through fantasy and imagination and many mental images are the result of his work. St Hesychios the Priest says, “Being a bodiless nous, the devil is unable to deceive our souls except through fantasies and thoughts.” He continually excites the soul’s rational and imaginative faculties, and many sins are a result of the devil’s drastic action.
6. The Consequences of Fantasy and Imagination
From what has been said so far, it is clear that when the imagination is continually cultivated it produces many disorders within our spiritual organism. An arousal of fantasy and imagination is concealed in almost every sin and is the main source of trouble. It infects the whole soul and continuously corrupts it. Two serious and terrible consequences of fantasy can be identified as follows.
The first is that it distorts a person’s whole spiritual life and leads him to self-theosis. Archimandrite Sophrony writes:
“Such demonic images and those conjured up by man may influence people, altering or transforming them, but one thing is inevitable – every image, whether created by man himself or suggested by demons, and accepted by the soul, will distort the spiritual image of man created in the image and after the likeness of God. This ‘creation’ in its ultimate development leads to the self-divinisation of the creature – that is, to the affirmation of the divine principle as contained in the very nature of man. Because of this, natural religion – religion of the human mind – may fatefully assume a pantheistic character.”
Insofar as thoughts play an important role in man’s spiritual state, thoughts connected with fantasy, particularly demonic fantasy, inevitably distort his whole spiritual life. A person can reach the point of recognising elements of divinity within himself, and once he recognises elements of the divine in something created, he is actually a pantheist. Any ideas we have, if we worship them, impart this pantheistic character. Self-theosis is the greatest sin of all. It is the sin into which Adam fell, which led to the distortion of man’s whole life, inward and outward, with devastating consequences. Self-deification, the recognition of a divine principle within ourselves, is actually a repetition of Adam’s Fall. Contemporary natural religions, along with meditation, yoga and so on, come into this category.
The second consequence, related to the first, is that fantasy and imagination give rise to many psychological abnormalities, even hallucinations and delusions. When someone assiduously cultivates daydreams, even daydreams about spiritual states, and particularly when he continues doing this for many years, his whole spiritual life is distorted and he suffers from serious psychological and pathological disorders. People can reach this point through practising meditation. Again Archimandrite Sophrony remarks, “[They] conjure up 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 [nous] 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 mental illness, at the least one continues ‘bewitched’ and living in a world of fantasy.”
This is how demonic states of delusion and heresy come about.
As is obvious from what we have mentioned, the soul of the person in this state is sick. Every deluded person and heretic who cultivates his imagination is sick in his soul. This is what deadens the soul. St Gregory of Sinai says that, when the nous fantasises, “it loses even the slight God-given condition it had and becomes altogether dead.” Someone preoccupied with his imagination is in grave danger of being deprived of what little grace he has and “often of losing his mind.” Deceived by fantasy he often becomes insane, and then even an alleged hesychast becomes “a fantasist and not a hesychast.”
The monastic tradition knows of many such cases of ascetics who were deluded, precisely because they were careless about the serious matter of fantasy and imagination. They lost their salvation, but also their minds. We see many such cases in secular society too. We come across people who intensely cultivate their imaginative faculty and are inwardly disturbed. Nervous disorders and insanity are a clear indication that the imaginative faculty is over-developed and inflamed.
Abba Poimen says that he knew a monk whom the devil attacked so fiercely through his imagination that on one occasion he thought he saw a brother sinning with a woman. When he could not bear to look any longer, he drew near to touch them with his hand and say, “Now stop! How much longer?” Then, “It turned out to be sheaves of corn.” There was nobody there, but the sheaves of corn looked like people, or the devil gave them that appearance.
Also, Abba Ilias narrates that he once saw someone “taking a flask of wine under his arm” – he saw someone stealing wine. However, he realised that Satan was at work, and immediately asked the brother to show him what he had under his cloak. There was actually nothing there at all, and he recognised that it was the action of demons.
Of course, these two examples do not imply that those monks saw such things because they had lost their wits by stimulating their imagination. It was the work of the devil. We mention these examples, however, to make clear that it is possible to see non-existent things through satanic activity but also through stimulating the imagination. We can experience hallucinations and illusions. Just as a drug addict often suffers from delusions under the influence of drugs, so someone in the grip of fantasy and imagination sees things that do not exist and suffers from delusions and hallucinations.
The cultivation of imagination and fantasy leads to hallucinations and delusions, when assisted by the action of a sick human brain.
7. Imagination, Fantasy and Prayer
Prayer, especially what is called pure prayer of the heart, should be free from fantasy and imagination. A nous caught up in fantasy is incapable of praying purely. The prayer of such a nous is impure, full of mental images and fantasies.
The imagination is hostile to pure prayer and the diligent work of the nous. As Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos say, “This accursed fantasy is a great obstacle to pure prayer of the heart and to the single undistracted work of the nous.” The saintly Fathers teach that all those who want to pray purely must “pray with God’s help, without fantasies, imaginings, impressions, with the nous and soul wholly and completely pure.” They should not form mental images concerning God. The nous must remain pure and immaterial. Only then can pure prayer unfold in the heart.
St Neilos the Ascetic advises, “Stand on your guard and protect your nous from conceptual images while you are praying.” Again he urges, “Never try to see a form or shape during prayer.” Elsewhere he teaches us not to form an image of God inside us when we pray. “When you are praying do not form any image of the Deity within yourself, and do not let your nous be stamped with the impression of any form, but approach the immaterial in an immaterial manner and you will understand.”
We also need to be cautious about the delight we feel during prayer. Fantasy may develop, especially amongst those who live together and pray as a community. St John Climacus says that the joy felt by those who live in a monastic community is different from that experienced by those who pray “in hesychia”. The former “may be slightly influenced by imagination” whereas the latter is full of humility. Consequently, the most suitable prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me, a sinner”, which should be said without using the imagination and accompanied by sincere and profound repentance.
When someone prays purely he is illuminated and enlightened by God. This illumination is divine grace, which comes to man through pure prayer. St Diadokos of Photiki says, “The blessed light of the Divinity” only rises “when the heart is completely empty of everything and free from aliform.”
When man’s nous is free from impressions, when it does not accept any fantasies or imaginings, it receives the rays of divine brilliance, according to Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos. During prayer the nous must also be clear of every conceptual image. “The concept of God is not one of those thoughts that imprint images in the nous, but one that makes no imprints.”
This is why the person praying must “separate himself completely from concepts that imprint images in the nous.” We must reject all conceptual images during prayer. The pure nous “is called the throne of God”, according to the same Fathers.
Certainly, the Holy Fathers recommend great caution, because someone can pray calmly and purely and yet be approached by a strange and alien figure, originating from the devil, which compels him to accept it as divine, with the result that he falls into presumption and pride. This is a trap set by the devil. St Neilos the Ascetic writes, “Be on your guard against the tricks of your adversaries. While you are praying purely and calmly, sometimes some strange and alien form suddenly comes before you, making you imagine in your conceit that the Deity is there. Their purpose is to persuade you that the figure suddenly disclosed to you is divine.” Of course God is “without quantity or form.” There are many criteria for distinguishing theoria that comes from God from that which comes from the devil. However, the Holy Fathers recommend us not to accept any concept or vision while praying. If it is from God, God knows how to convince us.
St John Climacus recommends, “Do not accept any sensory image during prayer, lest you be distracted.” We refuse every perceptible image and every kind of imagination and fantasy during prayer. As the holy Fathers say, the uncreated Light is shapeless, tranquil, single and colourless. The opposite is true of diabolical light.
8. Imagination, Fantasy and Theology
We have already mentioned that pure theology develops in the person who has been freed from fantasies and imaginings. Anyone who has passed through the stages of purification (freedom from sensual pleasure and pain) and illumination of the nous (freedom from forgetfulness and ignorance) and has been delivered from fantasy’s images, has acquired pure theology. He is initiated into pure knowledge of God. The eyes of his nous are able to receive divine energy, as St Maximos says.
Because knowledge of God is linked with the theoria of uncreated Light, St Hesychios the Priest stresses that the “blessed light of divinity” rises within us when our nous is freed from everything and is without form. Then the nous “is in its natural state” and is ready to proceed “to all kinds of delightful spiritual theoria pleasing to God.”
A theologian is someone in whom the deifying energy of the Triune God dwells. However, just as God does not dwell in man-made temples, “neither does He dwell in any imaginings or fabrications of the nous,” as St Basil the Great says in his teaching quoted by Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos. When man’s nous is driven by the soul’s imaginative faculty and the senses, “it engenders a composite form of knowledge.” This is the teaching of St Gregory Palamas: “When the nous enthrones itself on the soul’s imaginative faculty and thereby becomes associated with the senses, it engenders a composite form of knowledge.”
The Holy Fathers talk about two kinds of theoria. There is one kind of action and grace that is “received” and another that is “apprehended”. They teach that these two types of theoria are as far apart as the east is from the west and the heaven from the earth; and that one is as superior to the other as the soul is superior to the body. The theoria that is “received” is more excellent. It is engendered in the heart “by God Himself hypostatically”, and also transmits this energy and grace outwards to the body. Theoria that is “apprehended” is lower. It is produced “externally, and by considering how well created things are directed, ordered and arranged. By bringing together different images into a semblance of the truth, it progressively reaches up to God in faith.” “Received” theoria is engendered in the heart by God hypostatically, whereas “apprehended” theoria comes from looking at God’s creation and His ruling providence. The second type of theoria involves an element of imagination. The first type, the superior “received” theoria, is the unadulterated theoria of God, which is sometimes called apophatic theology.
Besides, as St Isaac the Syrian says, our soul has two eyes. With one eye we see what is hidden in nature (“apprehended” theoria) and with the other we behold the glory of God, when God leads us to the spiritual mysteries (“received” theoria).
The Prophets did not speak about God using their imagination, but through God’s revelation in their heart and nous. St Basil the Great says that the Prophets “saw images imprinted in their governing faculty [nous] by the Spirit.” As St Gregory Palamas teaches, “The Holy Spirit settles upon the nous of the Prophets and, using this governing faculty as material, announces the future to them, and through them to us.”
God revealed His mysteries to the Prophets within their heart, to their nous. Their reason, aided by appropriate education, which includes images of the world perceptible to the senses, articulates this revelation, but the revelation itself has absolutely nothing to do with the imaginative faculty. The holy Fathers speak about God without using their imagination. Also, what is termed a symbol in theology is not simply a symbol or something symbolic, but an energy that comes from the very nature of the divine Being. The Prophets and those initiated into holy mysteries do not imagine God, but God is revealed to their pure hearts.
9. Liberation from Fantasy and Imagination
All this shows that we must be freed from what the holy Fathers call “accursed fantasy”, which is the source of many bodily and spiritual disorders. We shall identify ways of freeing ourselves from this horrific, disfiguring condition.
In the first place, we have to fight against fantasy and imagination. We must realise that we need to struggle to get rid of them. As St Nikodemos the Hagiorite says, “Impassioned fantasy has more power and domination over us than the senses themselves.” In order for the senses to sin they need various things or pretexts, whereas the imagination works without anything, even when the senses are not functioning.
In addition, we must not accept any images at all from the imaginative faculty. When we realise that our imaginative faculty is at work, we should immediately stop it. St Diadokos says, “We can achieve great virtue just by never trusting our imagination.” The holy Fathers advise us not only to reject thoughts, but not even to believe what we see with our eyes or hear with our ears. “Even if you see something with your own eyes or hear it, do not accept it”, according to Abba Ilias. Indeed, Abba Poimen commands, “Even if you touch something with your own hands, do not testify to it.” We must make an effort to reject what thoughts and fantasies tell us, but also to refuse to process information gathered by our senses, because the devil may tempt us through the senses.
We must keep calm even when faced with imaginary images coming from the devil. When the devil troubles us during prayer we should not be disturbed. St Neilos the Ascetic says that, even if you see a sword drawn against you or a torch before your eyes, or a disgusting and bloody figure, “do not be shaken”, “stay calm” and “do not lose heart at all.” There is absolutely no need to be anxious. A good confession of faith is needed: pray to Christ with faith and they will disappear.
There are circumstances, mainly at the beginning of our spiritual struggle, where, if we cannot completely reject imagination, we should at least put it to good use. This undoubtedly involves the risk that we may remain in this condition and suffer other psychosomatic problems. Saints Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos teach that “Imagination should be discarded altogether.” If we cannot achieve this by repentance, humility and contrition, then we should “contradict and counterbalance it with well-ordered imagination.” This is said with many reservations, and only applies when we are at the beginning of the spiritual struggle, the aim being that we should quickly abandon this method.
As fantasy and imagination are closely connected with the soul’s illness and existing passions, they are healed by our endeavour to cure our soul and free ourselves from passions. As St Maximos says, “Once the soul starts to be aware of its own good health, then even its imaginings during sleep become simple and calm.”
We must also strive to keep our nous pure. This is called vigilance or watchfulness (nepsis) in the language of the New Testament and the holy Fathers. Saints Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos write that the nous is an essence that is indivisible, simple and complete within itself. We must keep it “pure and radiant”, and ensure it is “separate from the imagination, with no participation in it.” Guarding the nous is a very good method of getting rid of the burden of imagination and fantasy. The only way to achieve spiritual vigilance is “by examining the imagination closely”, because the devil cannot provoke and deceive the nous in the absence of thoughts linked with fantasy and imagination, according to St Hesychios the Priest.
The most effective method of getting rid of fantasy and imagination is repentance. We can only purify our imaginative faculty through profound repentance. The holy Fathers have much to say about the praxis of repentance. Fantasy is expelled “through repentance and contrition, mourning and humility”, as Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopoulos write. Repentance is associated with hardship and tears. Weeping completely burns up all our anthro-pocentric attitudes to life.
Furthermore, when we struggle to observe Christ’s commandments we are delivered from the appalling and distorting states caused by fantasy and imagination. Keeping the commandments of Christ means trying to follow God’s precepts and reaching theosis through them.
Repentance is linked with humility. Or rather, repentance comes about in a climate of humility. Wherever there is deep humility it is impossible for imagination and fantasy to develop, as they thrive on pride, egotism and conceit. The proud man usually day-dreams and has a high opinion of himself; he sets himself high goals to achieve and thus stimulates his imaginative faculty.
Since many fantasies are also expressed in dreams, the holy Fathers recommend that we should say many prayers before going to sleep. Abba Philemon advises, “Before going to sleep, say many prayers in your heart…as far as you can, take care to sleep only after reciting psalms and attentive reading … Say the holy Creed of the Orthodox faith before falling asleep.”
Much prayer, reading holy books and reciting the Creed can free us from the attacks of imagination and fantasy. It is noticeable that studying the writings of the holy Fathers crucifies the imagination, whereas reading impassioned writings, especially fiction, excites the imagination. The Fathers never concerned themselves with so-called Christian fiction, narrative tales and so on, because that sort of writing provokes fantasy. By contrast, even poetry written by the saints has an element of repentance and theoria of God. The poems of St Symeon the New Theologian contain a revelation of God. There is no trace in them of speculation or contamination with figments of the imagination.
Above all, when the grace of God enters the human heart it creates a perception that enables someone to distinguish between grace and impassioned fantasy, which is satanic energy. St Hesychios the Priest says, “The soul that has received blessings and sweetness from Jesus, repays the Benefactor by offering thanks to Him with exultation and love.” Through the nous, the soul sees the Lord within itself “destroying demonic fantasies.” When Christ enters the heart He brings peace and expels all the fantasies and imaginings of the evil spirits.
The subject of fantasy and imagination is wide-ranging and very important for spiritual life, as is clear from what has been said above. We can only acquire a clear perception of Orthodox life and pure knowledge of God when we are purged of “accursed fantasy”. As long as we are dominated by it, we remain in the world of fantasies and imaginings, and cannot acquire a clear perception of Orthodoxy.
We have made this analysis of imagination and fantasy for the following reasons.
Firstly, some people think that imagination is good and should be cultivated, as it does us no harm and comes naturally to human beings. It has been shown here, however, that the fantasy and imagination at work in the imaginative faculty are a phenomenon of man’s fallen state and do not allow the nous to acquire experience of God. The nous must be liberated not only from fantasy but from the activity of the imaginative faculty. According to St Gregory Palamas, when the nous is linked with the imaginative faculty it produces “a composite form of knowledge”.
Secondly, I wanted to emphasise that we should all strive to free ourselves as far as possible from the power of imagination. We must not trust it or cultivate it. At the very least, we should use it for good purposes and only in the short term. Our ultimate aim must be to be set free from its influence through repentance.
Thirdly, theosis is very closely linked with complete liberation from fantasy and imagination. This is the Church’s teaching, which represents the experience of the saints, including those alive today. If we ignore the tradition of our saints, we reduce Christianity to the level of ethics and psychological sentimentality.
[*Although the English word “fantasy” derives from the Greek word “phantasia”, the Greek word has a wider meaning that includes all aspects of imagination. I have therefore often translated “phantasia” as “fantasy and imagination”. —Translator’s note]