Friday, May 01, 2009

Catholic 'Imagination'

I've always had a problem with the so-called Catholic mystical or contemplative tradition. Having studied it in div school, I never found it very personally edifying or, more importantly, for real.

As I slowly wade through St. Silouan the Athonite by Elder Sophrony, I keep coming across insightful comments that inadvertently explain my many discomforts with Tridentine Catholicism.
The second [pattern of logismoi] applies to those who practise the first form of prayer and indulge in 'visual meditation' -- who 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 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 physical illness, at the least one continues 'bewitched' and living in a world of fantasy.
I have yet to read a Catholic anticipate and defend these concerns, whose scope reaches everything from Ignatian to Carmelite spirituality. It probably says more about my ignorance, but the current de facto sense of the faithful is that human imagination is a wonderful unalloyed good to be given free reign "in the Spirit" so long as it does not directly conflict with Catholic doctrine. I hear this Oprahesque sentiment all the time from priests, bishops, and religious. See how we tend to define spirituality legalistically and negatively, devoid of Christological substance? Christ is more often than not a foil or a guard rail to our imagination, not the purifier of the imagination.