My issue with Roman Catholicism


I am currently a Coptic Orthodox Christian, although i was raised Catholic. The story is in itself an interesting one but too long and not important to this topic.

My problem is that ever since i made the decision to become Orthodox i have always had a nagging feeling of wanting to return to Roman Catholicism, which, no matter how far i get it from it i can’t shake this feeling. Every 6 months or so i have this overwhelming urge, start reading Catholic books and think about going back to the Traditional Latin Mass but sooner or later it passes and i go back to my happy life as an Orthodox Christian.

Of course the Catholics on this board would say that it is God telling me to return to Rome but i don’t agree. Why? I think the Roman church has lost some fundamental properties that were once universal to all Christians and are now kept alive only in the various Orthodox Churches.

I could list many of these properties, but the one that is nagging me the most right now is prayer, and it is too that i will now turn.

My claim: Rome, since the Schism, has completely lost a tradition of prayer that would be recognisable to the early church and the Desert Fathers. Specifically, the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, which to a serious and studied Orthodox Christian borders on a heresy because of it’s emphasis and use of the imagination.

For background reading as to what i mean:

"Eastern Orthodoxy displays a great degree of uniformity in following a path of stillness of thought and silence of mind to achieve the prayer of heart in private devotion. Saint John Climacus writes in The Ladder (28:19) that “the beginning of prayer consists in chasing away invading thoughts…” (285) The mind is to be freed from all thoughts and images and focused on the words of prayer. Further in the chapter on prayer (28), St. John instructs not to accept any sensual images during prayer, lest the mind falls into insanity (42; 289); and not to gaze upon even necessary and spiritual things (59; 292).

Unlike Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Tradition does not encourage the use of mental imagery. In fact, it almost appears to forbid sensory imagination during prayer altogether. In the words of one of the contemporary Orthodox elders, Abbot Nikon (Vorobyev) (1894-1963), “that, which sternly, decisively, with threats and imploring is forbidden by the Eastern Fathers—Western ascetics strive to acquire through all efforts and means” (424).

Read more here:

So while i may be able to rationalise certain other polemical issues like the filioque and papal supremacy, it is really prayer that is most important to me, and how can i trust the Catholic Church when it teaches a method of prayer that is condemned in the Orthodox Church?

Can anyone make a defense of these Spiritual Exercises that would hold up under the scrutiny of the Orthodox Church and the Desert Fathers?

Thank you and God bless


The RCC allows for many methods of prayer, some of which use mental imagery, and many of which do not. The RCC currently does not specify any prayers or prayer methods as mandatory, except perhaps participation in the prayers said during Mass.

If Eastern Orthodoxy condemns the use of mental imagery in prayer, and you believe the EO to be right about this, you can just choose not to use such prayer methods even if you return to the RCC. (I believe the majority of Catholics don’t use mental imagery during prayer anyway.) So as I see it, this matter does not have to stand in the way of your return to the RCC.


What an interesting quandary! I think Abbot Nikon is a bit over the top on this one. While it is true that there are methods of prayer that engage the imagination, there are other methods that are more Eastern in nature.

I agree that engaging the imagination can be a risky enterprise. However, God created us with imagination, and harnessing it in service to the Lord seems like the best use of all our characteristics and abilities.


In truth I don’t know the answer but my thoughts are that I worship God and seek a relationship with Him. That’s it. Why Catholicism? Jesus created it and when I read about the wonderful saints within it I’m inspired. I’m not concerned with the furniture and the carpets just that the roof doesn’t leak.
Just my take on this.


What makes the Orthodox Church the ultimate authority and why must you or I obey?


Do you not create mental imagery as you listen to the scriptures? I’m having trouble understanding why that would be a problem.


Perhaps you are right, but the Traditional Latin Mass church near me has frequent retreats of the Spiritual Exercises, and also there is a new TLM Benedictine Monastery that has started in Australia where the Abbot goes around the country holding these retreats, so IF i was to return, the Church and the Monastery that would play a big role in forming my spiritual and prayer life both have a focus on these Spiritual Exercises, so it is more important for me than for perhaps the average Catholic.

But for me the question is a little deeper than it first appears. This use of mental imagery has spawned numerous “visions” in Roman Catholicism, the one that springs to mind the most is the Sacred Heart (a doctrine i don’t agree with). So if i don’t believe in the Spiritual Exercises then i also don’t believe in the Catholic devotions that have sprung from it, which is a further wedge.

Am i making any sense?


It’s not the Orthodox Church who is the authority, it is the witness of the Church Fathers in the East from the Apostles to the present. It also used to be the witness of the Western Fathers prior to the schism. The Orthodox Church is only trustworthy because in it’s limited, fallen manner it is trying it’s best to conform to that unanimous witness of the Fathers.

Rome, in this particular situation, is the odd one out saying one thing about prayer (that mental imagery is good) that goes against that witness.


Read the article i linked to and you will understand. The issue is discernment. If i am praying, and a thought pops in to my head, where has that thought come from? It’s either come from me, from God, or from the Devil. As you are not a Saint, and you don’t have the gift of discernment, then it’s safer to ignore all thoughts, lest you be tempted and fall in to prelest and temptation.

There are numerous stories in the Fathers of the Eastern Church of Satan tempting monks to jump off cliffs promising them they will fly etc.


Perhaps he is over the top. Orthodox polemics regarding the West usually are, but the quotes from the Fathers are hard to ignore…


For what it’s worth when I pray the rosary I constantly use imagery, sometimes I have some interfering imagery and I concentrate and dismiss it, quite good for discipline. I also have learned to ignore interfering thoughts and not take them very seriously at all, they’re annoying but that’s it.


It seems like holding a sustained image in one’s head would be as much a discipline as holding no image in one’s head.


Yes, I suppose that’s true. Mostly I imagine animated scenes from the mysteries as I go along. That might be easier than holding one single image, though I have a picture of the sacred heart and Jesus and since I know it well I find that quite easy to recall in a stable way.


Ok. Now that I have…thoughts.

First, surprise. In my ignorance of Orthodoxy I always regarded it as a religion with many mystics.

Second, much caution IS given to Roman Catholics about messages, images or voices possibly being from satan.

Third, stillness and quiet in prayer IS taught as an important form. It’s what I love most about adoration before the blessed sacrament.

Fourth, many popular private devotions in Roman Catholicism you are under no obligation to believe as a Catholic.

Lastly, the spiritual exercises you are so worried about. What are they? It is likely more prayers and different types of examens. Have they given you any real reason to worry its a wild vision quest.


First, the Sacred Heart is not a doctrine, it is a private revelation which does not bind anyone, altho it is very popular.

You have doubts about the truth of the Sacred Heart, so you believe it is the result of someone’s using imagination to pray and thus illustrates why such a practice is bad.

This is not logical. First, the apparition may be true, which would undermine your argument. You would have to prove the apparition false for your argument to have a hope of validity.

Second, if you were correct in the aspects above, this still does not prove that using the imagination in pray is bad, as many people pray using their imaginations, and hardly any have had false apparitions.

In fact, we in the Catholic Church are told to ignore such manifestations for precisely this reason.

As to the issue of using the imagination in prayer, we consider that there are 9 levels of prayer, and that imagination is used only in the very earliest stages, to help the average layperson to learn more about Christ (by putting themselves into a scene), to bring them more into prayer.

Nor so we teach that this is the only way to pray. We use it to consider an event, but we do not use it to consider, for example, a property of God.

Most of the Orthodox writings I have read about prayer seem to be very much addressed to those who are very advanced in prayer, who are at levels which Catholics would deem more advanced than the levels at which we recommend use of the imagination.

I never really understood what St Mother Teresa did until I imagined the scene. She is described as seeing a dying man in the street and picking him up to carry him to a hospital.

That seems bland and a pretty normal thing to us in the west, but this was in India. The man was not a well-dressed person who happened to die in the street. He was someone who a possibly never been inside a house, someone who stank of urine and other things, who was probably covered with odorous sores, and who had long learned to ignore the flies which covered him.

Looked at in that way, can I be so sure that I would have done what Mother Teresa did?

To be honest, I can’t really say that.


I think if you read the right Catholic books on spirituality, you will hear what you are looking for. Example: John of the Cross. I’m currently reading (or re-reading) a work of a great Spiritual theologian of the Church, Fr. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., “Christian Perfection and Contemplation,” in which he presents the unified spiritual insights of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross. In a section of the book (Tan Books, 2003, p. 73), discussing the distinction between pure and supernatural faith, and faith that is either natural faith or a mixture of the two, Fr. G-L, citing John of the Cross writes this:

St. John of the Cross speaks in like manner in The Living Flame of Love:
“Spiritual directors, who do not know the spiritual ways and their characteristics, turn souls away from the delicate unctions by which the Holy Ghost prepares them for divine union. . . . They persist in not allowing souls— even if the desire of God formally manifests itself— to pass beyond their principles and methods which are limited to the discursive and the imaginary. They forbid souls to pass beyond the limits of a natural capacity. How poor is the fruit which they draw from it.”
Does not he who conceives faith itself as a discursive process, particularly merit these reproaches? If. on the contrary, we consider the act of faith as a simple act without any reasoning, we prepare ourselves by this very consideration to follow the way pointed out by St. John of the Cross.

Prayer that remains in the dimension of discursive meditation (that is, using human reasoning), including human imagination (which, as I understand it, is “Ignatian”) builds and builds upon natural faith - toward the eventual closer embrace of purely supernatural faith. John of the Cross (echoed by Fr. G-L) warns of the danger of this, if one is under a spiritual director who does not understand/trust the radical difference between natural and supernatural faith. Such a director can do harm to the soul of a directee who is being called to a deeper spiritual life, but can be held back by his inexperienced director. St. Teresa of Avila wrote of the dangers of a spiritual director who is himself inexperienced in supernatural prayer - the prayer of infused contemplation.

Infused Contemplation - which is the goal of prayer - is entirely supernatural. John of the Cross is strong on the need to be satisfied with nothing less (as St. Teresa of Avila also would say) than complete abandonment to God and His grace, and not remaining in the realm of the natural (natural human reasoning and imagination) any longer than necessary.

So while Ignatian spirituality may or may not take you where you are called to go, in prayer (at least initially), Carmelite/Dominican spirituality (i.e John of the Cross and Thomas Aquinas) certainly will.

edited to add: a contemporary book that may be helpful in gaining an understanding of this completely Catholic spirituality is “The Ordinary Path to Holiness”. Amazon has it, 3rd edition, here.


With regard to advanced levels of prayer I’d just say that I communicate with God very simply. That’s good because I am simple, but i am totally convinced that we are constantly connected to God and no deep levels of prayer are necessary to adequately connect at all.

That’s my experience that’s all I’m saying and I’m only saying it because if people think they must practise attaining deep levels of prayers skills before they can properly be heard then that would be unfortunate I think.

Just my point of view, that’s all. Each to their own.


But don’t you use imagination to create sacred art? Are all Coptic hymn and prayers directly from the Bible? Don’t your scholars ever use similes and examples to explain complicated topics?


Strange comment about mental imagery. Besides the use of icons we see imagery used in the liturgy, for example from the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil:

For You are praised by the angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, principalities, authorities, powers, and the many eyed Cherubim. Round about You stand the Seraphim, one with six wings and the other with six wings; with two they cover their faces; with two they cover their feet; with two they fly, crying out to one another with unceasing voices and ever resounding praises:

From the Divine Liturgy of St. Cyril:

You are before Whom stand thousands of thousands and myriads of myriads of holy angels and archangels serving You. You are before Whom stand Your two exceedingly honorable living beings, having six wings and a multitude of eyes, the Seraphim and the Cherubim. With two wings they cover their faces, because of Your divinity which none can gaze upon nor comprehend, and with two they cover their feet, and they fly with the other two.

Most famous Russian Icon, the Trinity by Andrei Rublev:


I am not knowledgable enough about the Spirtual Excercises to comment on that specific question. But as to your overall post, a couple of thoughts come to mind. First, does not this all depend on what one’s definition of mental imagery is? It is, admittedly, not a term the Catholic church uses, so we can agree that Eastern prohibition/discouragement of mental imagery is not present in the Roman Catholic tradition (or else we would likely be more familiar with the term). From reading the link you provided, it seems to refer to a couple of things.

First, it refers to the ecstatic visions seen by some well known saints of the West. I think your implication that the Catholic Church encourages these visions is overstated. While many people who are devoted to these saints take great interest in these visions, I do not think the pursuit of ecstatic visions during prayer is really encouraged at all in the West. Rather, to me, they seem to be admired as a gift that these saints were given. I am not familiar with spirituality that stresses the pursuit of ecstatic visions.

It also seems to refer to the use of imagination during prayer. This too is overstated, but it is a little easier to see where the idea that it is emphasized by the Catholic church comes from. There are certainly examples of devotions where this seems to be the case. One that comes to mind is a Way of the Cross written by St JoseMaria Escriva, where he writes each station as if he was present at that point of the Lord’s passion. Now, I happen to like this particular version of the Way of the Cross, and I can certainly see that in a sense it encourages one to imagine himself present at the Lord’s suffering. But it is very directed, it does not encourage the mind to create its own imagination, rather it encourages one to meditate by following the St JoseMaria’s point of view. In general, an imagination running wild during prayer is not encouraged, it is rather to be controlled, even in Catholic prayer.

Another thought comes to mind from reading your post, and it is somewhat covered in the article you read. Without a very precise definition of mental imagery, this emphasis could certainly lead one to embrace iconoclasm. Indeed, it makes me wonder if this was part of the history of the Eastern churchs’ periods of iconoclasm. That is a danger. I would add that the article you linked uses these words from St. Ignatii

" The holy icons are accepted by the Holy Church for the purpose of arousing pious memories and feelings, but not at all for arousing imagination "

I do not think many Catholics would take issue with this at all. But I can certainly see how a admonition against mental imagery could easily be interpreted as excluding even this. Iconoclasm is something to be feared in our modern Church, it has raised its ugly head a few too many times.

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