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Patristic Induced Imagery as an Antidote to Despondency

October 4, 2012

In the day-to-day struggle, it is easy to fall into a rut in which further effort seems pointless and the reasons for going through the motions become unclear to the person making them. The fathers knew full well that such an experience could take the life out of the struggler and leave the soul bored, despondent, and thoroughly unmotivated. At times like this, the soul needs to be shaken up or drenched in cold water: anything to wake herself up from such a malignant slumber. Saint Paisius Velichkovsky, the father so instrumental in rekindling hesychasm in the Slavic lands, offered an interesting approach that would be called by modern cognitive therapists an induced imagery technique. The contents, however, are quite different from contemporary techniques to get over a feared crisis. The aim is, in fact, to bring on a saving crisis through a fearless look at the reality of death, the realities of faith, the sufferings after death, and then the beauty of the Kingdom of Heaven. When languishing in spiritual doldrums, this is what Saint Paisius suggests:

When this happens, occupy the mind with the thought of death. Come mentally to the grave; behold there one who has been dead four days: how he grows dark, bloated, and gives off an intolerable foul odor, is eaten by worms, having lost his fair appearance and beauty. Then look in another place: here there lie in the grave the bones of young and old, the beautiful and the ugly; and consider: who was fair, or ugly? Who was a faster, a continent man, an ascetic, or a careless man? And did it bring benefit to rich men that they had repose and enjoyment in this world? Remember then the endless torments of which the holy books speak: the fire of Gehenna, the outer darkness, the gnashing of teeth, the infernal Tartarus, the unsleeping worm. And depict to yourself how sinners cry out there with bitter tears, and no one delivers them. They lament and weep over themselves, and no one has pity on them. They sigh from the depths of the heart, and no one has compassion on them. Think how creatures, each in its own time, unfailingly serve the Lord their Creator. Reflect concerning the most glorious miracles of God which have been performed upon His slaves from the beginning of the world, and especially of how the Lord, having humbled Himself and suffered for the sake of our salvation, has benefacted and sanctified the human race; and for all this give thanksgiving to God, the Lover of mankind. Remember the future endless life and the Kingdom of Heaven, the repose and unutterable joy. Stand firm, do not leave off the Prayer of Jesus. If you will recall and reflect on all this, then despondency, slothfulness and weakness will disappear, and you soul will come to life as from the dead, by the grace of Christ.

It’s striking how often the saint gives the struggler instructions such as come mentally, behold, look, remember, depict, think, reflect, and recall. To shake off despondency and spiritual torpor, one needs intense and clearly directed mental activity. And it should be pointed out that this is not an exercise to be completed in 3 minutes! To really behold, look, depict, think, reflect, and recall takes a good chunk of time. I would say at least 20 minutes. Of course what matters most is the content. The saint also begins with the most material, undeniable, and empirically verifiable facts of death and decay, facts that can shake us to our core. When the imagination has been captured by such vivid images, he then instructs the struggler to consider the equally startling images from revelation starting with the threatening, but gradually rising to the comforting and hopeful images of God’s mercy, taking the soul through fire into a place of coolness and refreshment. And when this veritable mental journey in the mind has taken place, the soul finds itself in another state and another context, in which the Prayer of Jesus, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, as a cry for help and as a hymn of praise can be uttered with the mind and heart united.

Thus, this passage underlines a fundamental truth, which is confirmed again and again in the teachings of the ancient fathers: when assaulted with thoughts of despondency and giving up, carefully and methodologically change the focal point of your mental imagery.  Whatever transitory, earthly issue that may be the cause of your despondency, eternity trumps such issues.  An eternal perspective tends to be the perfect self-corrective. Perhaps more importantly, such a change in perspective leads one to a renewed life of prayer.  This inner life, birthed through humble prayer, leads to a renewed vision of earthly life in which there is little room for despondency and slothfulness, for the mind is enlivened by union with the heart. Every moment is far too precious and weighty to allow such sterile states to linger.

One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on The Georgian Church for English Speakers and commented:
    From Alexis Trader’s very interesting blog on the interaction between Eastern Christian teachings and modern cognitive therapy. Given the stressful time many in Georgia have been through, and an uncertain year to come, this ancient remedy for despondency is worth reading.

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