May I Imagine Anything During Prayer?
A Question for the Spiritual Father of St Elisabeth Convent
Question: Your blessing, Father. A lot of books mention that we are strongly advised against imagining the Lord, the Theotokos, or the saints while praying. However, I haven’t found what one should have in one’s head while praying. We must be aware that our words don’t sink down into the boundless Universe but go straight up to God, right? How do we recognise the proper way of praying? Prayer is our conversation with God but when we think of talking with our colleagues, our parents or spouses, we usually imagine them in our minds, don’t we?
Anna (Belgorod, Russia)
Answer: Anna, we should not fantasise during prayer. We have emotions and passions but there are rules set by the Holy Fathers. These rules help us to build proper relationships with God.
Of course, we cannot imagine the void. We know that we stand before God, in the presence of Him who can see through us. We do our best to focus on the words that we utter while praying. Nonetheless, our minds should entertain no images. This is one of the differences of the Orthodoxy from the Roman Catholicism. The Catholics fantasise about certain images, they even have a meditation of Ignatius of Loyola who suggests to imagine certain pictures, apparently pious ones… This is just a fruit of our imagination. We stand in front of the invisible God and try to stay alone with him and to lay all our earthly cares aside. We hope to unite our minds and our hearts together during the prayer to restore the inner unity broken by the sin.
We have icons, though. However, icons are not for guessing how the saints look at us, with a smile or with a threat. Icons are our windows into the spiritual realm. We invoke the prototype by looking at the image, that is, we invoke a saint, the Mother of God, or the Lord himself. Icons are blessed by the Holy Church. They are painted according to canons, so they do not rely on an artist’s imagination. Icons are sacred images, which the Church invites us to use to connect to God. They are like photos of our loved ones: we look at the photos and remember them, and talk to them in our thoughts.
I think that when you pray and make spiritual effort, you will settle everything down. Most importantly, you should avoid emotional outbursts and enthusiastic feelings. You should seek discernment, a peaceful mind and heart, and attention, of course. May the Lord help you.
May 2, 2018