by Rex Bradshaw
1948 saw the publication of two books that I would like to put in dialogue. One was the Bampton Lectures for that year, delivered by Oxford fellow and chaplain Father Austin Farrer, under the title The Glass of Vision. The other was a self-published work by Father Sophrony (Sakharov), an obscure Russian Orthodox monk in Paris, and it was called Staretz Silouan. The Glass of Vision became one of Farrer’s most enduring books, influencing prominent Anglicans such as C. S. Lewis and Rowan Williams, while Staretz Silouan has emerged as a classic of Orthodox spirituality. Father Sophrony, latterly founder of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, was formally canonized in 2019.
Farrer’s lectures comprise an original and compelling work of speculative theology; Sophrony’s book, the hagiography of a great Athonite ascetic, critiques the very idea of speculative theology. Both pay particular attention to the idea of the image and address its place in the spiritual life, and both come to apparently opposite conclusions. But each of these books has impressed me with its insights. St Silouan the Athonite, as Sophrony’s book is currently titled, played a major role in the revitalization of my faith, while The Glass of Vision is a more recent influence on my philosophical development. This leads me to question to what extent the disparity of thought between these two authors is real, and whether common ground can be identified.
A Brief History of the Imagination
Both Sophrony and Farrer draw implicitly from the classical understanding of the imagination. Imaginatio is the Latin rendition of the Greek term phantasia, which indicates appearance. Plato used the term phantasia infrequently, applying it to perceptual judgment. In Plato’s Sophist, phantasia means opinion or judgment based on appearances—a lower form of understanding, Plato suggests, especially subject to misapprehension, but not intrinsically false. The Timaeus further identifies phantasia with the liver; it is like a mirror, kept clean by the spleen, that is capable of receiving images from the mind (nous).
It was Aristotle’s more thorough investigation into phantasia that seeded the modern idea of the imagination. Aristotle argued that there is no thinking without images (phantasmata), and these images arise from the imagination (phantasia). Phantasia transforms the elements of sense perception into the unified image—through phantasia, for example, shapes and colors become tables and chairs. But phantasia does more than function within ordinary perception: it is the organ of dreams, memories, and hallucinations. Though Aristotle emphasized the positive and necessary role imagination played in perception, true and false images are alike accessed in and through phantasia.
Neoplatonists developed nuanced notions of phantasia influenced both by Plato and Aristotle. Plotinus believed phantasia had a lower image-making power (phantastikon), which evokes sense images, as well as a higher phantastikon, which evokes intellectual forms. When the mirror-like phantasia is clear and bright, it is capable of capturing the latter from the nous. By implication, a purified phantasia plays a vital though qualified role in intellectual ascent. As Plotinus wrote, the One above all things has no name; “we can say nothing about it: we can only try, as far as possible, to make signs to ourselves about it” (Ennead V.3.13).
Ancient and medieval Christians generally echoed Plato’s ambivalence toward phantasia. St John of Damascus described the imagination as the link between intellect (nous) and senses, passive in comparison to the active and creative reason. Latin scholastics understood phantasia/imaginatio as a kind of mental system for processing and storing images—potentially useful in the approach to God, but often suspect. Islamic philosophy tended to view the imagination (al-khayal) more positively. Philosophers like Ibn Arabi wrote of an “imaginal” level of being (‘alam al-mithal or ‘alam al-khayal), located between the realm of Platonic Ideas and the realm of the senses.
Early modern philosophers who invoked imaginatio were, by contrast, generally disparaging. Whereas Plato and Aristotle saw reason and imagination as functionally interdependent, moderns like Bacon partitioned the logical powers of reason from the creative and fanciful powers of the imagination. Galileo and his rationalist successors generally saw the imagination as a source of chimeric distortions of nature, working over and against a fundamentally rational and quantitative reality. Imagination was branded the handmaiden to error; fantasy (from phantasia) became a synonym for unreality. The Romantics’ efforts to rebrand the imagination did not remove that connotation, which persists to this day, as in the classing of much speculative fiction as “fantasy,” which indicates the genre’s place at a particular remove from the “real world.”
An Ascetic Critique of the Imagination
Eastern Orthodox traditions have generally cultivated the Church Fathers’ dubious attitude toward the imagination. Ascetics are engaged in constant struggle against the passions, understood as disordered and irrational desires. The imagination plays a largely negative role in this struggle of the psyche, as it is through the forms of the imagination that the passions entice the soul to do their bidding. Impassioned thoughts come garbed in appealing images; the sensual person readily caves to the attraction and ingests their poison, rendering his own will passive and inhibiting his ability to contemplate God.
But even as an instrument of knowledge, and not simply as the chief organ of temptation, the imagination suffers by comparison with the intellect. Spiritual realities—i.e., intelligible forms— are apprehended by the intellect. The imagination, conversely, is oriented to the material and sensual qualities of existence. St John Climacus urged his monastic readers to shut out the sensory imagination during prayer for this reason; intrusive images distract from the pursuit of an invisible God. The Byzantine hesychasts made this assumption the foundation of their techniques aimed at theoria or contemplation: the Uncreated Light would only come to a heart purified of images and guarded by a watchful intellect.
St Sophrony develops this critique of the imagination in his writings on St Silouan. Like Plotinus, his definition of the imagination is expansive, encompassing not only sensual images but conceptual forms. “Imagination plays no part in true spiritual life, which is wholly concrete and positive,” he remarks. Sophrony identifies imagination with the lowest form of prayer, which “imprisons man in constant error, in an imaginary world, in a world of dreams, and, if you like, poetic creation.” The soul, in its desire for a vision of God, accepts the imagination’s impoverished substitute. As prayer, especially for beginners, this is not intrinsically negative, but harm and delusion arise when it becomes a fixed method. As one improves in the path of prayer, “the imagination is curtailed and the mind released from all the mental images that have invaded it.”
For Sophrony, the free creative play of the imagination is a barrier to encounter with God. It puts the human will first and gets the relationship backwards; it is God who creates us, not we who create him. The soul that wishes to come face to face with God must wait in humble, imageless receptivity for the dawn of divine grace. The soul that is attached to images—“mirages,” as Sophrony says—easily falls prey to demonic energy. Demonic images invade and deface the divine image of the human being; God works, therefore, to liberate us from the power of images. Thus Sophrony disparages “visual meditation,” intellectualism, and speculative theology as all guises of this carceral imagination.
There is insight and a poignant irony, given the trajectory of Western intellectual culture, in the Orthodox ascetic understanding of rationalism as essentially a disorder of the imagination. The rationalist theologian tries to conceptualize God and falls in love with the artifice of imagination he has constructed, conflating it with God. The rationalist philosopher tries to measure the world by his own lights and, failing to find God from this posture of pride, imagines himself God and master of creation. This is why for Sophrony, humility is the solvent of the imagination. “Pride bristles with desire to create its own world, whereas humility is quick to receive life from God.”
An Anglican Theory of the Image
Anglophone philosophers of the imagination tend to be more influenced by Samuel Coleridge than by St John Climacus. The imagination’s creative power was celebrated, not feared, by Romantics like Coleridge. Whereas for Sophrony, man and God are at an inverse relation—God descends through creative activity, whereas man ascends by relinquishing creation for God—for Coleridge, the creative activities of God and man are in natural harmony.
Farrer does not tread directly on this controversy in The Glass of Vision. His eight lectures explore relations in meaning between philosophy, scriptural revelation, and poetry; they trace a coherent argument about the truths of reason and revelation in which the concept of the image takes a central place. Along the way, we get a sense for Farrer’s understanding of how images and the imagination specifically contribute to the spiritual life.
Lecture I tries to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. Farrer believes there is a real difference, despite the efforts of some theologians to blur the line. In supernatural action, Farrer argues, God “supernaturalizes” things within the natural world to give them powers they do not have by their nature. Lecture II pursues this line of thought into the subject of revelation, that is, supernatural knowledge, and it is here the imagination becomes obviously relevant. Supernatural inspiration involves the infusion of knowledge from beyond the upper bounds of natural consciousness. In exploring this idea, Farrer finds it necessary to distinguish supernatural inspiration from “inspired wit” and from “preternatural” consciousness. He explains that “the excellence of the mind consists . . . of a conscious intelligence based always upon acute senses and riding upon a vigorous imagination.” He uses several analogies:
The previous labour of the intelligence is thrown down into the imagination as into a cauldron, from which it emerges again fused into new figures and, it may be, enriched with materials from the subconscious sphere, which were never in distinct consciousness at all. . . . In inspired wit a spark leaps from intelligence to intelligence across a field of imagination: whereas in weird abnormal consciousness the spark leaps from the outer dark into imagination itself, providing an image of which the intelligence must make what it can. (24-25)
The imagination is thus key to inspiration in the secular sense, but what is the role of the image in the receipt of true supernatural knowledge? A central one, Farrer thinks. Lecture III examines the puzzle of the inspiration of Scripture. The primary revelation is, of course, the person of Jesus Christ, the supremely supernatural one, uniting in himself divine and natural causes. This revelation expresses itself through word and deed. Farrer calls these things “the precious seeds of revelation, but they are not the full-grown plant.” There is no essence perspicuous in itself that can be separated from “the apostolic comment” of the New Testament; both the “primary action” and the “primary interpretation” which is scripture must belong to Christ. The “Head” (Christ) retains his utter primacy, but the “members” (the apostles) partake of the mind of Christ through the Pentecostal presence of the Spirit, allowing them to render him truly in their teaching.
It is here that the role of the image comes into focus. Christ expressed his thought in what Farrer calls “dominant images” such as the Kingdom, the Son of Man, and Israel. “These tremendous images . . . are not the whole of Christ’s teaching,” Farrer writes, “but they set forth the supernatural mystery which is the heart of the teaching.” Revelation is precisely the “interplay” of such images with the great events of Christ’s life, each interpreting the other. This “interplay” persists long after the Ascension, for these key images “continue to unfold within the apostolic mind.” These images are therefore dynamic, alive: “The several distinct images grew together into fresh unities, opened out in new detail, attracted to themselves and assimilated further image-material: all this within the life of a generation. This is the way inspiration worked. The stuff of inspiration is living images” (44). Even today, these images are not dead: we hear the voice of the Spirit when they quicken in our own minds.
In Lecture IV, Farrer examines how inspired images can be said to convey divine truth. It would seem to be impossible to verify divinely revealed images, precisely because access to the reality they purport to reveal is only through those same images. Or rather, the only verification is that of the Holy Ghost working mysteriously within to unfold and testify to the images of revelation. As Farrer observes, we cannot directly witness the supernatural action of God within us—but “the veil, however impenetrable, is not blank. It is painted with the image of God, and God himself painted it, and made it indelible with his blood. . . . We know him through the image, and by faith” (61). Farrer is not simply resigned to the inherent mysteriousness of this process. Metaphysics, he argues at length, entails “irreducible analogizing,” moving from term to term into mysteries that cannot be approached otherwise. “What, then, is the ordinary healthy thinking of which metaphysics is the systematic elaboration?” Farrer asks. “It is just contemplative thinking.” The images of revelation act similarly: by juxtaposing them, putting them into creative tension, the contemplating mind advances from the visible word and deed of Christ to awe and adoration.
Lectures V and VI extend this theory to the natural image, and VII and VIII to poetry, but for our purposes it is unnecessary to pursue Farrer thither, other than to note some key assumptions that emerge in Lecture V. Farrer is here concerned with how we know God or become aware of him directly. After all, God cannot be known through awareness of finite particulars; to “reconstruct” some sense of his infinite being from the signs of finite creatures may be to engage in mere mythologizing. No, we must know God in his infinite Act which pervades and precedes the whole of created existence—in the utterness and universality of his presence. But how can our minds receive him? “Will he pass through us completely, as perpendicular light through a pane of perfect glass, or, to change the metaphor, will he find nothing to illuminate in us, like a ray passing into a hollow sphere lined with black velvet?” Farrer argues in an Aristotelian vein that the receptivity of the mind depends on its activity. In fact, “We can only know God in expressing God: and we can express him in no other terms than such as are already significant to us.” We approach God through “embodied discourse.” The mind seizes on finite objects to act as symbols for the otherwise unthinkable Infinite which is present to it as a “shadow” cast on its existence.
In contrast to Archimandrite Sophrony and the tradition of Orthodox asceticism, Farrer believes that God can only be known insofar as he is “bodied forth” (107). We cannot conceive God apart from images, whether these be supernaturally revealed or naturally given; though faith is addressed to God, and not images, it discerns God through these images, and not apart from them. Though Farrer does not use the term “imagination” extensively or systematically, it would seem to follow from his argument that the imagination, understood as the psychical organ corresponding to and receptive of the image, is an indispensable faculty in the knowledge of God, who clothes himself in diverse images and is the archetypal image-maker.
The fundamental question at issue between these thinkers is the role of the imagination in the approach to God. Sophrony, following the tradition of Orthodox hesychasm, seems to reject the imagination almost entirely. Those at the beginning of their spiritual journey naturally latch on to images, as their lower nature demands; but they do not truly begin to know God until those images give way to a real and immediate personal encounter (theoria). Farrer, by contrast, does not seem to believe God can be approached in any other way than by a succession of images. Can these two views be harmonized?
One could start by complicating Sophrony’s blanket condemnation of images with the testimony of his own life. Sophrony was an artist in his youth, studying under Pyotr Konchalovsky and Wassily Kandinsky in Russia. As a monk in Paris, he commissioned the first icon of Staretz Silouan from famed iconographer Leonid Ouspensky. In his old age in Essex, he took up iconography seriously and completed several large wall paintings. He referred to icons as “springboards” to eternity and contested the notion that iconographers ought to reproduce their subjects mechanically. For someone whose view of the imagination was apparently so austere, much of Sophrony Sakharov’s life seemed to revolve around images.
One could, further, attempt to nuance Sophrony’s apophatic presentation of Orthodox ascetic theology. Modern Orthodox often deny that imagination or painterly expression should enter into the painting of icons, but closer inspection reveals a deeper tension in the Orthodox tradition. St Theodore the Studite explicitly called despite for image and imagination “nonsensical.” Not even Farrer’s suggestion that humans are incapable of knowing God apart from images is unprecedented in Orthodox thought; it seems a natural ally to the East’s theology of incarnation, which identifies Jesus as the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), not to mention its characteristic iconophilia and richly sensual liturgies. St John of Kronstadt’s rhetorical question “Can our nature do without an image?” pushes the image into the center of the Christian approach to God. It does seem, then, that some strands of the Orthodox tradition at least allow that images can truthfully attest to God, and true images are licit and perhaps even necessary to genuine theoria.
Some Orthodox ascetic theologians, going back to Evagrius, distinguish between physike theoria or “natural contemplation” and theologike theoria or “theological contemplation.” St Isaac the Syrian referred to these two modes as two spiritual eyes: physike theoria contemplates God through created things (we may say images), whereas theologia addresses itself directly to the formless light of God, visioned through divine self-revelation. Although like Evagrius, Isaac frames the ascent to God as a movement from physike theoria to theologia, this metaphor of the two eyes combined with Isaac’s famed attentiveness in prayer to the created order suggests that we are not speaking here of mere sequence. Indeed, it seems reasonable to conclude that we ought to be concerned with the health of both eyes. Physike theoria addresses itself to a universal and ever-present mode of divine self- revelation that is none the less genuine for being lesser, whereas, as the ascetics acknowledge, theologike theoria is a gift of God that none of us enjoy uninterruptedly.
This view seems consonant with the mystical philosophy of Ibn Arabi, who also spoke of two spiritual eyes, which he identified as the modalities of reason and imagination. Reason contemplates created things and discerns God’s transcendence and dissimilarity. But imagination is the organ of symbol and theophany, finding God imminent in created things. Fullness of vision, which we might label spiritual stereopsis, demands that both eyes be open, comprehending images both as signs of God and as wholly inadequate to him. To revert to traditional Christian terminology, the apophatic (negative) and the cataphatic (positive) modalities work most fruitfully in dialectic, presenting us with both sides of a paradox.
Admittedly, the two eyes are not equal. The cosmos of St Isaac and Ibn Arabi alike is a hierarchy of being; the ideal, rather than standing in opposition to the real, is the real’s highest form. That intelligible ideal whose ground is God is communicated through images that transcend the material medium whereby they touch our senses. Yet images, even the most noble, are not unequivocally true or false; they are compounds of the real and the unreal. They are only sensual or conceptual impressions of what they represent, incapable of fully capturing essences.
This means images are intrinsically suspect. According to St Maximus the Confessor, the imagination receives representations which become “scales” that conceal God from the soul— thus also St Isaac would describe an intellect surfeited in images as sickly. The proud and sensual soul is attached to this crowd of images and unable to know God for who he is. Analogously, if we are fixed on our mental sketch of another person, rather than attending receptively to the person in living encounter with us, the relationship is dead; neither growth nor communication is possible.
Austin Farrer himself was more than aware of the dangers posed by the unchecked imagination. As he explains in The Glass of Vision, an image of God qualifies as an idol when it does not advance toward a “relation of identity” with God—that is, toward incarnation. An idol is “an imaginative realization without claims to particular truth” (107), a mythic construction that is not a true representation because it remains unsupernaturalized. Images must be “reduced” Godward through the canons of reason and the principal revealed images, as exemplified by the Church’s first great theologian:
The images which [St John] ‘reduces’ to terms of others no more disappear or lose their force, than do the whole body of images, when we remember that they are no more than images, and so reduce them to the one ineffable simplicity of God’s saving love. All is denied, and all is affirmed: what the Christmas hymns say of God’s descent to earth is the stammering of children’s tongues, and nothing of it in accordance with the truth of that unspeakable mystery; and yet it is what God has taught us to say, when out of the mouths of babes he would establish praise. We speak because silence is impossible, and when we speak this is how we speak: “Behold the great Creator makes/Himself a house of clay:/A robe of virgin flesh he takes/Which he shall wear for ay.” (111)
Here Farrer practically revels in the fundamental tension undergirding the image. The power of the image to manifest God is power in weakness, in negation, in “the stammering of children’s tongues.” Is this not manner in which the image of God functions in every Christian (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9)?
Whether or not the hesychast’s experience of God is truly devoid of images in Farrer’s sense is beyond my competence to question. But I believe Sophrony and Farrer would both agree that images in the broad sense serve a definite purpose in the spiritual life, and that true images point beyond themselves. By extension, Sophrony’s harsh dismissal of the imagination should not be taken absolutely. It clearly does not include use of icons, nor need it necessarily extend, as some of his interpreters would have it, to all works of creativity and imaginative literature. Images that gesture away from themselves and toward God are not idols, and an imagination with open doors is not a prison of the soul.
A late Byzantine text collected in the Philokalia and attributed to Kallistos Katafytiotis describes three “ways” of theoria. The first is the “self-moving way” which employs human will and imagination (phantasia) and allows one to contemplate God indirectly and imperfectly. The “supernatural way” entails direct illumination worked by the divine will. The third is a “mixed way” which starts in imagination and ends in “noetic light and gladness.” For most of us, I would suppose, the path into the presence of the living God is not to be found apart from the images given us by scripture, hymn, rite, and theology. Yet these images are only true insofar as they render themselves ultimately transparent to the light they exist to reveal.
Our fallen imaginations may be stained by delusive, passionate fantasy, but in the fire of humility, false images burn away—and true images burn clear. The imagination is transcended by purity of heart. Yet no ascent is possible apart from the divine action of incarnation, as the invisible God takes upon himself our images, and in so doing, transfigures them. For God is not less than our imaginings, but more, and a holy imagination will unfold its petals to reveal his imageless splendor. “It is God who gives thee thy mirror of imagination,” George MacDonald once wrote, “and if thou keep it clean, it will give thee back no shadow but of the truth. Never a cry of love went forth from human heart but it found some heavenly chord to fold it in.”
(The above icons were painted by St Sophrony of Essex)
Chiari Bottici, Imaginal Politics (Columbia University Press, 2014).
William Chittick, Ibn ‘Arabi: Heir to the Prophets (Simon and Schuster, 2012).
Oliviér Clement, trans. Theodore Berkeley, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City, 1993).
Austin Farrer, The Glass of Vision (Glasgow, the University Press, 1948).
Robert McSwain, Scripture, Metaphysics and Poetry: Austin Farrer’s ‘The Glass of Vision’ with Critical Commentary (2016).
Anne Sheppard, “Phantasia in De insomniis,” in Donald A. Russell and Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, eds., On Prophecy, Dreams, and Human Imagination (2014).
Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), St Silouan the Athonite (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991).
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Rex Bradshaw lives with his wife and daughter in Mississippi. He teaches economics and geography at Jackson Academy, history at Belhaven University, and youth Sunday School at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church. He is at work on several writing projects and publishes occasional pseudonymous essays on his blog Burning Poplar.