Guarding the Imagination (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, a monastic has two main occupations: blind obedience and the Jesus Prayer. All thoughts, images, emotions, etc. are expected to be pushed away with the ceaseless recitation of the Prayer—either noetically or out loud—and in certain cases, by beating oneself with an object or closed fist. A monastic is taught to refrain from all idle and unnecessary talk. Geronda Ephraim states, “The only two phrases that should come out of a monk’s mouth are, ‘Bless’ [evlogeson] and ‘Let it be blessed’ [na’nai evlogemeno], nothing else.” Daydreaming, fantasies, thoughts, conversing in one’s head, recollections, etc., are all expected to be pushed away the moment they appear. Thoughts of any kind whatsoever against the Elder—judging, questioning, criticizing, etc.—are taught to be one of the most serious and dangerous kinds of warfare and they have to be avoided like fire or the devil will drive them out of the monastery. In certain instances, a monastic can be penanced if he or she accepts or consents to certain thoughts. Consenting to carnal thoughts, amongst other things, results in no Holy Communion. Though certain recollections are permitted in certain cases as aids–remembrance of death, hell in moments of pride, remembrance of Paradise, God’s love in moments of despair–the monastic should be focusing on the Prayer.

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In the late 90’s, one of the outside monks asked Geronda Ephraim how he came up with the landscaping plans to make the gardens so beautiful. Geronda Ephraim replied, “It just takes a little imagination,” and all the monks there started to roar into laughter. 

The following article is excerpted from A Handbook of Spiritual Counsels, pp. 146-152.

Monstrous races appearing on the edge of a Medieval map.
Monstrous races appearing on the edge of a Medieval map.

The Devil Is Greatly Related to the Imagination and for This Reason Uses It as an Organ of Deception

The devil has a very close relationship and familiarity with the imagination, and of all the powers of the soul he has this one as the most appropriate organ to deceive man and to activate his passions and evils. He indeed is very familiar with the nature of the imagination. For he, being created by God originally as a pure and simple mind without form and image, as the other divine angels, later came to love the forms and the imagination. Imagining that he could set his throne above the heavens and become like God, he fell from being an angel of the light and became a devil of darkness. St. Dionysios spoke about this devil: “What is the evil in the devils? Irrational anger; unreasonable desire; and reckless imagination.” St. Gregory Sinaite also wrote: “The devils were originally minds who fell from that immateriality and refinement and  each of them received a certain material thickness.” The devil uses the imagination as his organ. He deceived Adam through the imagination and raised up to his mind the fantasy of being equal with God. Before the disobedience Adam did not have the imaginative attribute, as St. Maximos noted:

“In the beginning, passion and pain were not created together with the body; nor forgetfulness and ignorance together with the soul; nor the ever changing impressions in the shape of events with the mind. All these things were brought about in man by his disobedience. He who would remove passion and suffering from the body achieves practical virtue; he who would remove forgetfulness and ignorance from the soul has properly attained the natural vision; and he who would release the mind of the many impressions, has acquired the mystery of theology. For the mind of Adam at first was not impressed by the imagination, which stands between the mind and the thoughts, setting up a wal around the mind and not allowing it to enter into the most simple and imageless reasons of created beings. The passionate physical perceptions of the visible things are scales that cover over the clairvoyance of the soul and prevent its passage over to the authentic word of truth.”

Adam, however, was able at first to be attached to the thoughts of the mind and to enter into them without the intermediary of the imagination.

medieval seraphim

The Lord Did Not Have Imagination

The new Adam, our Lord, did not have imaginations, according to the theologians. One of them, Georgios Koresios, wrote in his theological treatise on the Incarnation: “The Lord deserved merit not for his blessed vision and knowledge and the love that flowed from it, but for the knowledge that was poured upon him from God, and which was always active in Christ voluntarily and never interrupted by sleep or any other cause, as it happens in the mind of other men. The mind of Christ was completely independent of the imaginations which become a wall blocking our penetration into the immaterial realities of the spirit.” Not only Adam but most persons who have ever fallen into sin and deceptions, into irrational superstitions and heresies and evil and corrupt doctrines, have all been deceived through the imagination. This is the reason why the holy Fathers call the devil a pantomime and an ancient painter, as we have seen especially in St. Chrysostom. St. Maximos has noted that the devils deceive men not only when awake but also when they are sleeping, but inciting them with the passions of the body through the imagination. This imagination is considered by the Fathers to be a bridge of the devils. St. Kallistos has written: “Imagination is like a multiform and many-head monster similar to the mythical Daedalos and Hydra, which the devil utilizes as a sort of bridge, as the saints have previously noted. These murderous villains communicate and unite themselves with the soul , making it into a hive of parasites, a place of passionate and fruitless thoughts.” St. Gregory the Theologian said that imagination is the cause of both the consent and the act of sin. Do you see now, dear friend, how many evil things imagination brings about? I beseech you therefore, to guard your imagination as much as you possibly can so that no images harmful to the soul are impressed upon it, as they seek to enter through the senses. And if they have already entered, seek not to compromise with them or to give your consent in your heart, but run directly to God through prayer of the heart, which we are going to discuss in the following chapter. St. Syngletike has noted: “It is important not to give your consent to the imaginations. For it is written that if the spirit of the devil arises in you, do not leave the place of your heart, for such a consent is tantamount to wordly fornication” (cf. Eccl 10:4).

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How Should Imagination Be Used and That We Will Be Judged by the Images Imprinted Upon It

I have referred to images harmful to the soul because there are other images which are permissible, as St. Kallistos noted. Such images include the contrition, the grief, and the humility of the heart; the meditations upon death, the future judgement, and the eternal punishments; the study and meditation upon creation and the Incarnation of the Lord; the phenomena of creation, the miracles, and the mysteries of the Lord’s Incarnation – the birth, the baptism, the crucifixion, the burial, the resurrection, and so forth, as we have said before. Finally, it is permissible, when fighting against certain inappropriate and evil imaginations presented by the enemy, to use other appropriate and virtuous imaginations. Do not pay any attention to the shameful and fearful images of the foolish and irrational imagination and do not be frightened by them. Ignore them and consider them unworthy of your attention. They are empty playthings without any true substance. He who is used to ignoring the imaginations can also ignore the real things themselves that are depicted in the imaginations, as St. Maximos has noted: “He who conquers over the passionate fantasies will also be able to prevail over the realities they represent.” Let me conclude this chapter and summarize what I have been saying. Know that if you impress upon the board and chart of your imagination beautiful and appropriate images, you will be praised on the day of judgement, when what each person imagines secretly will be revealed. But if you allow inappropriate and evil images to be recorded and to dwell in your imagination, you will then be condemned, as St. Basil has noted.

Talk of God, of Jesus, and of the Saints may diminish, but the subject of angels always manages to capture popular imagination.
Talk of God, of Jesus, and of the Saints may diminish, but the subject of angels always manages to capture popular imagination.
dog-headed icon of St-Christopher
dog-headed icon of St-Christopher

William Blake's Behemoth and Leviathan