“Imagination” and “faculties”
In our journey toward holiness there are pitfalls and needs for discernment. In the following paragraph, saint Theresa of Avila mentions the difference between the “faculties” and the “imagination”. What does she mean by that? and how can learning this difference affect our understanding of real holiness?
“I like the way in which some souls, when they are at prayer, think that, for God's sake, they would be glad if they could be humbled and put to open shame - and then try to conceal quite a slight failure. Oh, and if they should be accused of anything that they have not done - ! God save us from having to listen to them then! Let anyone who cannot bear trials like that be very careful to pay no heed to the resolutions he may have made when he was alone. For they could not in fact have been resolutions made by the will (a genuine act of the will is quite another matter); they must have been due to some freak of the imagination. The devil makes good use of the imagination in practising his surprises and deceptions, and there are many such which he can practise on women, or on unlettered persons, because we do not understand the difference between the faculties and the imagination, and thousands of other things belonging to the interior life. Oh, sisters, how clearly it can be seen what love of your neighbour really means to some of you, and what an imperfect stage it has reached in others! If you understood the importance of this virtue to us all you would strive after nothing but gaining it.” (Interior Castle, V,III,10)
This passage is taken from saint Theresa’s book “The Interior Castle”, Fifth Mansions, chapter III, paragraph 10. This chapter is of great importance because it addresses the pitfalls of “illusion” and “spiritual pride” in spiritual life, and in our journey toward holiness. (see the whole chapter here)
In spiritual life, striving toward holiness, what is important to achieve for us is a good healthy will, i.e. a healthy virtue. “Virtue” is a “good habit”. A “habit” comes from the “repetition of good acts” (i.e. loving your neighbour). Having a Spiritual Life means that on a daily basis one practises - amongst other things - hours of “prayer of the heart”. If the Prayer of the heart is not accompanied by “lectio divina” (i.e. putting into practise with our will the will of God), we end up entering in deeper and deeper illusions: thinking that we are growing, thinking that by the fact of practising the “prayer of the heart” we are close to God, we are spiritually fine, we are saints.
“thinking that” means fooling myself, imagining something that doesn’t exist. One can lie to himself to the point of starting to believe his own lies. In order to do that one uses his imagination. Today, we easily consider imagination as a “faculty” of the soul.
The most important faculties of the soul, at least for Theresa of Avila are: Mind, Will and Memory. She is following an Augustinian division, as saint John of the Cross as well (while saint Thomas Aquinas will use only: Mind and Will). These are called “rational faculties”, i.e. the faculties of the rational soul (opposed to the animal soul), the higher part of the soul.
Listening to God in order to discover His Will for us, and putting, with our will, His Word and His Will into practise is a key issue in spiritual life. This is why I always stress on the fact that we have always to practise together “lectio divina” and “Prayer of the heart” (but obviously not in the same hour), they are the two legs we use in order to walk. As you can see, the mechanism of the Prayer of the heart is the Action of God in a supra-conscious area in us: the spirit. We can’t see the roots of our being (i.e. the spirit). They are real, but hidden like the roots of a tree. During the Prayer of the heart we are not supposed to see or to feel anything (“seeing” and “feeling” happen in the conscious part), because the Action of God is happening deep in us. And even if we feel or see something (in the conscious part), we don’t have to pay attention to it. We need to remain in the general attitude of love, having our heart/spirit immersed in Jesus. This means that our mind and our imagination are left alone, free, and potential victims of the illusions of the devil. Since we are practising the prayer of the heart, the Devil can try to convince us that we reached the heights of holiness. He can then divert our attention from Lectio divina (thus creating a weakness in our faculties: mind and will). So the time spent in “Prayer of the heart” can make us the pray of the Devil.
Obviously saint Theresa doesn’t use the expression “lectio divina”, but in the end of the day she gives us its real contents, the core of what is needed: we need to love our neighbour and if we don’t do so, we shouldn’t fool ourselves, thinking that we reached the goal of spiritual life. Saint John in his first letter gives us the same warning: how can you pretend to love God whom you don’t see (or feel) (Prayer of the heart) and not to love your neighbour that you see?! (see 1John..,..) There is a big difference between illusion (just the work of imagination) and a human mind and a human will that listen to the Will of God and put it into practise.
On top of that, and she says it in this beautiful chapter III: if we do love our neighbour, the love that God pours in us during the prayer of the heart will increase a lot. Saint John of the Cross will mention this Golden Rule as well in his Spiritual Canticle (See Spiritual Canticle, A, 12,11; Living Flame of Love, I,6,34).
In another place, she says: if you practise the prayer of the heart and don’t work on growing in virtues (activating the mind and the will, according to the Will of God) you’ll remain like dwarfs (spiritual dwarfs, i.e. very weak).
One of the tactics the Devil uses with spiritual persons is to convince them (to fool them) that they reached the Goal (union with God or so), and by doing that, they stop making their efforts of growth, real growth, especially in loving their neighbour – the result is going backward. Living in illusion is a very good tactic of the devil for more spiritual persons. This is why, from the first lines of the Fifth Mansions, saint Theresa of Avila mentions the spiritual illusion: “the Devil appearing like an Angel of light” (quote from saint Paul). Obviously the Devil changes his tactics and adapts them to the spiritual level of the person. He won’t tempt the spiritual person with something clearly evil. On the contrary, now that the person is determined to reach God, the Devil will tempt her with “the appearance of Good”. A fake “good thing”: he tries to convince the person that he/she is with God, that he/she reached Him… “yeyyyyy, now rest and enjoy”. He then won.
Theresa of Avila, as a real Master of Spiritual life, has to warn us about this temptation. And in order to discover it, one of the most important elements of discernment is to be able to distinguish between an act of will from anything else like: feelings, emotions, imagination… i.e. illusions. While an act of the will is real, free, voluntary, any feeling, emotion, imagination is more of a passive, receptive state that doesn’t necessarily involve any change in us, any use of our will.
Therefore, discernment and discipleship (through Spiritual Direction) are vital in certain stages. Seeking Advice/Discernment is an implicit act of proclamation of the Incarnation: God is present amongst us and wants/loves to speak to us through our Spiritual Director (but watch out, we need to choose the right one, because the “spiritual son” will be like the “spiritual father” says the Catechism, quoting saint John of the Cross. There is no magic here.). See Ascent of Mount Carmel book 2 chapter 22, second part.
Important remark: As we can see here, imagination (which is considered as a faculty), can be the easy pray of the Devil. Of course, what saint Theresa of Avila means by “imagination” could be explained as well as an act of the mind (producing thoughts) with no practical application (no implications for the will). Like the one who reads, reads and reads spiritual books and ends up by believing that he reached the state he is reading about. Reading can have a “hypnotic” effect on him (with the help of the Devil). But, but: there is a difference between this illusion and convincing ourselves, strengthening our desire and willingness to serve God, setting high goals, and motivating ourselves with great thoughts: in her writings, saint Theresa invites us on the contrary to motivate ourselves by setting high goals and widening the horizon of our mind. Something will come out of “many good desires”, while nothing will come out from not harbouring “high goals” and “good desires”. In fact, saint Theresa of Avila is very modern: nowadays we do hear a lot about the role of visualisation in order to achieve high, complicated goals/acts. You run it first in your mind: you visualise it. The brain (neurological paths) is then activated accordingly and creates new paths and, by repeating the visualisation, you strengthen these new paths and will be able to put what you visualised into practise. This is not “illusion” or ill imagination, or fooling ourselves. On the contrary, this is opening the way for the mind and will in order to achieve new directions given by God. Saint Theresa of Avila is not jeopardising imagination and creativity, on the contrary; she is warning us of a false “imagination” that doesn’t lead anywhere.
Here, “imagination” and “mind” are very close. You can almost repeat what saint Theresa said this way: “because we do not understand the difference between the mind and the will…” i.e. we don’t see that thinking about something is not yet doing it. Saint Paul says is bluntly: the good I want to achieve (what my mind sees and knows as “good”) my will doesn’t put it into practise! My will is still ill, not transformed into the will of God. Mind and will are divided.
In other words, it connects with what saint James says in his letter: faith is not enough! Believing is good, it opens us and connects us with God in order to receive His Holy Spirit. But a faith that doesn’t have real applications, that doesn’t spring in real practical acts, remains an illusion. In other words: you may have the Holy Spirit at the reach of your hands, but if you don’t put into practise His Will, then He remains at your door and never really enters. You are fooling yourself.
I hope this helps.