This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.
There are books and other writings on Christian prayer today that encourage the use of our imagination during prayer. Orthodox tradition is adamant on this point; do not picture anything in your mind and do not use your imagination.
In the Jesus Prayer, we are trying to remain in direct contact with God, and such images can lure us instead into thinking about God.
Until I encountered this in Orthodoxy, the use of imagination in prayer had seemed natural to me. But once I began to think about it, I realized how odd it truly is to act that way. If I sat down with a friend for a conversation, but then proceeded to imagine my friend doing or saying various things, and began responding to the words and actions I had imagined, everyone would think I was crazy. And yet that is often precisely what we do with God.
Since it is possible to encounter God in reality, there is no need for fantasy.
And that’s really the crux of the matter. Do we believe God is real and do we believe we can truly encounter him? Our practices reveal our actual beliefs.