Say to those of a hasty heart, Be strong, fear not; behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the full dealing of God. He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
In everyone’s life there is evolution. We evolve from being babies to full adults. We start learning how to read and we grow into teachers, engineers, doctors. So in spiritual life we develop from indifference, to interest, to engagement. Of course there is also involution but we’ll leave this subject for another time. In one of these stages of my personal spiritual life (I won’t tell which, I’ll let the tension grow here a bit for the sake of the story line) I spent a couple of days in a monastery. After an evening service, one of the monks felt compelled to give the pilgrims a little explanation about the faith. Among other things that I don’t recall, he mentioned that we should strive to pray without imagination. What an idea I thought! Why would one want to pray without imagination? When we pray we all like to picture ourselves in front of a radiant God, sitting on a throne of fire, with the Mother of God at His side, surrounded by rosy cheek cherubs, on top of white clouds, with hosts of saints wondering around in serene contemplation. This kind of image that appeals to our emotional side can stir in one’s mind pious thoughts, can squeeze out tears and these tears will be sublimated in a pure moment of prayer. Right?
You can probably realize now in what type of spiritual stage I was… In my defense however I was not alone. There are many people that believe that this sort of “enhancers” of our spiritual life can help reach a higher stage of understanding of the celestial world and therefore take us closer to God. This is not something new: an article I read recently describes that in Western Church arts, especially music and painting, the idea of induced spirituality was present for centuries. The product of it was music composed purposely to stir deep emotions in our senses, like the Passions after Mathew of J.S. Bach, meant to push even an atheist to repentance; or religious paintings like the crucifix of Grunewald that depicts Christ and the Virgin Mary in such a naturalistic way that it is very hard to watch without being deeply disturbed.
The proposal is that our senses, excited in the right manner, can transform us. If we cry during a nice music piece, if we are moved by seeing Christ suffering on the cross, or if we simply imagine these in our heads while praying, we will have a more truthful prayer experience. Many, probably most, are in agreement with this. But in reality this ends up like the proverbial Prozac paradox. A man meets a woman that is nice and sociable, they start going out and she is the most wonderful women ever so the man proposes and they end up getting married. After a while she stops being nice and gradually becomes angry, moody and isolated. The disarrayed husband does not know what to believe and eventually finds out that she was taking Prozac for some early problems and now that her life has settled she stopped taking it. Question is who did he marry: the wife or the Prozac?
Same applies in our spiritual life, if one takes the enhancers away so goes our spiritual experience. We may cry during an aria of Bach, we may be appalled to the point of anger at the executioners of Christ in the Passions movie of Mel Gibson, but once the music has stopped and the TV is turned off, we mostly go back to where we were, until the next things triggers our emotions. Isn’t really this some sort of a Pavlovian induced response: give me the right stimulus and I will be the best Christian? Where is then the exercise of our free will to choose God voluntarily? Where is our unceasing commitment to the way of Christ? Our spiritual life cannot and should not be just a series of artificially induced states of ecstasy.
Leading such a life, based on senses and passions, a life spent in imagining the kingdom of God, but never truly tasting it, can create idols that will preclude us from recognizing with our senses full of materiality the presence of God. In the parable of the blind man today, after the miracle of the healing the Pharisees, ask the formerly blind man: “Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.” A mind that construct its own god, based on sense and human imagination, will fail to see what even a blind man can.
Sometimes we have to be blind in order to see the truth. Our human senses cannot give us the slightest clue where God is. They offer a temporary relief and can help us for a while, but unless we come to a full understanding and engagement in our faith, independent of external stimuli, we won’t make any real progress.
In the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church we strive to transform our senses by giving them only as much as they need to attain a stage of awareness, but without trying to arouse them towards artificial emotions. The Orthodox ecclesiastical “art”, if we can even call it such, has as sole purpose to make the faithful attentive to the prayer that is flowing through the Church. The prayer alone should be the motor that would move us towards God. This is why the Holy Tradition is so important in the praxis of our Church, giving us the right framework for a healthy Christian development, helping us avoid any such spiritual traps.
We might have now a little bit more of understanding as to why we need to pray without imagination. In the silence of our minds, undisturbed by emotions, images or sounds, God can reveal Himself to us and He will fill all our being, not just our senses, with His presence. He will show Who He really is not Who we imagine He is. Like the blind man that opened His eyes and saw Christ standing in front of Him just as He was. He couldn’t have imagined Him because he was blind from birth, but He saw Him in flesh and no imagination was necessary.
To reach this stage of peace is not enough to use a prayer “enhancer”, but it is necessary to clean ourselves through askesis, the struggle of our spiritual discipline that should be worked upon every day. Without catharsis, without cleaning ourselves from sin, we will never reach the peace we need to pray earnestly. A soul troubled by the passions, which come through the senses, will not be able to reach it. The cleaning stage is what frightens the most and therefore is not popular and easily traded for any of the ephemeral and questionable spiritual experiences that post-modern Christianity abounds off. This is like looking for your lost keys under a light pole only because it is light there.
Christ teaches us to stay the course no matter how difficult the course may be; we are called to take on the responsibility that comes with our acceptance in the body of Christ and walk the high road of true engagement in our faith. We need to become blind to the world so that our vision of heavens will grow in us and become eventually our only reality. Amin.