Desire and Motivation |
Understanding, not Ignoring |
The Definition of Fantasies
(a k a Temptations) |
The Relationship Between Thoughts and Feelings |
Distractions and Fantasies in General |
Feelings of Darkness and Abandonment |
Feelings of Stuckness and Paralysis |
Sexual Fantasies |
Fantasies of Grandiosity |
Evil Fantasies |
Self-destructive Fantasies |
The Jesus Prayer |
“Do Not Lose Your Peace” |
Be Gentle With Yourself |
Don’t Punish Yourself
NY kind of distraction, whether thoughts
or feelings, whether sexual or otherwise, is a common problem during prayer.
Thomas à Kempis was agonized by his wandering thoughts during prayer
(The Imitation of Christ, Book 3, ch. 48).
Saint Teresa of Avila described similar problems as well; she concluded that
the problem derives from Original Sin.
And so it isn’t
good for us to be disturbed by our [unwanted] thoughts, nor should
we be concerned. If the devil causes them, they will cease with this suspension.
If they come, as they do, from one of the many miseries inherited through
the sin of Adam, let us be patient and endure them for the love of God since
we are likewise subject to eating and sleeping without being able to avoid
it, which is quite a trial.
Catholic mystics who have commented
on the problem show us, therefore, that in the days before the psychology
the common spiritual solution to unwanted
thoughts and feelings was simply to ignore
There can be other times, however,
when simple discipline may not suffice. Some distractions may keep intruding
into your awareness despite your best efforts. Therefore, another course
of action can be taken. Psychology, when carefully
applied in a Catholic context, can allow us to do more than just tolerate
such distractions. Instead of ignoring your distractions you can actually
understand them (or, in psychological language, interpret them)
as a way to assist your spiritual purification and growth.
In the language of modern psychology,
distractions are called fantasies, so let’s proceed from there.
Now, as used in the context of
the psychology of the
fantasies do not necessarily mean
daydreams or something with a miniature story line or a well-developed plot.
Nor are fantasies necessarily produced consciously by an act of will; they
can just as well be unconscious products of the
Hence, a fantasy can be just a snippet of a mental image that evokes a certain
feeling or thought process.
Because fantasies can tempt us
to act on them, we can also recognize their association with
Many people have
the misconception that saints are born holy and are so pure that they have
no temptations. But the truth is, we are all psychological beings, and so
we all have temptations. Saints are those who have trained themselves to
use self-restraint and to not act on their
fantasies—that is, to not “give in” to the
In order to understand our fantasies
and to thereby cope with and overcome our temptations, we need to recognize the
feelings and thoughts on which they are built, so let’s look now at the relationship
between feelings and thoughts.
Between Feelings and Thoughts
In the realm
of modern cognitive psychology, the relationship between feelings and thoughts
is expressed by one basic concept: when an
(for example, fear) follows an event (for example, encountering turbulent
air in an airplane), the event itself isn’t the full cause of the emotional
stop here and consider the way it seems to happen:
Now, here’s the way the theory of
cognitive psychology says it happens:
That is, according to the proponents
of cognitive psychology, a belief comes between the event and the emotion.
For example, when you first experience
in an airplane, you might say to yourself, “Oh, no! Now we’re going to crash!”
And so you feel afraid, and you develop the symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
what would happen if your immediate thought was, “Wow! This is fun!”
You would feel a completely different emotion than fear, wouldn’t you?
Well, that’s the idea behind cognitive psychology. If you change your
thinking, you change the emotional outcome—and when you change the emotional
outcome, your outward behavior will change as well.
the premise of cognitive psychology is that “thoughts cause emotions,” but
the neurochemistry of emotion can be very complex, and things may not be as simple
and direct as the theorists make it sound.
Even though there may be a
thought—more of less outside your awareness—behind every emotion, we all
routinely tend to formulate conscious thoughts following our awareness of any
For example, if you feel
discouraged by your inability to accomplish something, you might tell yourself,
“You’ll never succeed at this!”
Consequently, the practical
sequence of things is more like this:
Now, even though the conscious belief
following the emotion is no different from the subliminal belief before the emotion,
it is usually easier and more practical to recognize the conscious belief following
the emotion than it is to discover the subliminal belief before the emotion.
Moreover, more often than not our
conscious thoughts following emotions tend to be negative beliefs that lead us
right into failure. Therefore, developing your emotional awareness
will help you recognize your thought processes, because emotions are
signs—like instruments on an instrument panel—warning you of beliefs
that may be sabotaging your success. Once you train yourself to be aware of those
thoughts you can change the direction they take.
So, if you experience a feeling
that seems to pop up out of nowhere, it would be a psychological and a spiritual
mistake to claim that there are no beliefs connected to it; with some
a connected fantasy (or mental image) can be identified. With that connection
made, you can then begin to understand the psychological reason for the
feeling—and with that understanding, you have the resources to restrain
yourself from the inappropriate behavior of giving in to and acting on the
temptation—or of punishing yourself for it.
Three basic steps can help you
First recognize the
situation in which the distracting feelings arise. For example, are you
praying while still feeling the effects of a critical comment from someone?
Are you praying for someone who has some emotional connection to you? Or
are you praying in meditation on a particular spiritual topic? This will
give you a clue as to the event precipitating your turmoil.
Then ask yourself
what the fantasy could be telling you about your weakness in that particular
situation. This will give you a clue about your beliefs and what you
unconsciously desire in the moment.
Then, knowing how
you unconsciously desire to act, willingly choose to act with spiritually
and Fantasies in General
No matter what the fantasy may be,
it “points to” a profound yearning for something hidden from conscious awareness.
Therefore, the best antidote for any troubling fantasy is to remind yourself that
God Himself—your most precious yearning—is a real presence in your life that more
than compensates for anything lacking in your life. With this reminder, you can
then do something spiritually practical about your distractions.
In the most general sense, when
you are tempted, first separate the feelings from the beliefs.
You may be feeling helpless and afraid, for example, and then you might believe
that you need something to soothe yourself. But that belief can be challenged.
Still, rather than tell yourself that you can’t have something,
or that you can’t do something, look past the allure of the illusion and
think of wanting to love God. Feel the sorrow of your
giving up on Him by giving in to the temptation. Moreover,
feel sorrow for all the persons around you who
have given up on God. Feel sorrow for the impiety and
evil of magazines, newspapers, movies, television,
video games, and music, created and distributed by those who have given up
on God and who hate Him and want to drag others with them away from Him.
Say to yourself, “The thought of betraying God breaks my heart!” Let
this thought be the motivation to resist temptations
and to keep focused on your healing work.
Distractions About Despair
Many saints of the past experienced
periods of darkness, dryness, and
It’s a dreadful experience because it can seem as if God has abandoned you. In
her diary, Saint Faustina described how she suffered this way,
even to the point of physical exhaustion, for months during her novitiate (see Diary
23 ff.). But notice how she coped with these feelings: she clung steadfastly to the
belief that no matter what she felt she would not abandon God. “In spite of
everything, Jesus, I trust in You in the face of every interior sentiment which sets itself
against hope. Do what you want with me; I will never leave You because You are the source
of my life” (Diary 24).
OVERCOMING DISTRACTIONS ABOUT
If fantasies of
darkness and despair disturb you, remind yourself that Christ never
abandons anyone. Sometimes He will withdraw His graces and the awareness of
His presence to teach a person to obediently trust only in Him no matter what
happens. Therefore, acknowledge the feelings, bring them to God in prayer,
but do not succumb to the false belief that God has actually abandoned you
or hates you. Like Saint Faustina, trust in the belief that you will never
leave God, no matter what afflicts you.
Distractions About Uncertainty
Have you ever gotten stuck in wondering
about your true motivations for any given action, even if the action seems perfectly
fine? In that case, it’s likely that you will end up doing nothing for fear
that the motivation behind the action won’t be totally pure and with good will.
It can get to the point that you will be paralyzed from even normal social interactions,
or even doing your work, because you may be doing something out of some
impure motivation. So, you wonder what you should do and then you get stuck in endless
DISTRACTIONS ABOUT UNCERTAINTY
If fantasies of
uncertainty disturb you, tell yourself that all mistakes
can be remedied with prayer and God’s help. Force yourself to do
anything—as long as it’s not a mortal sin—just to get going.
Then put in your heart the desire to learn from your mistakes, pray for
inspiration, and be attentive to everything that happens around you: events,
things you read, things others say. Any of these things can have something to
say to you about the wisdom—or lack of wisdom—of what you did.
For example, if mental
paralysis obstructs your writing, tell yourself just to put some fragmented
ideas into writing, no matter how imperfect, and that you will then take a
break to pray a formal prayer, such as the Rosary, with the intention of
receiving inspiration for your work. Then go back to work, attentively alert
for new insights and ideas.
Or, if you are trying
to decide if you should do or say something, pray for guidance and, if you are
still not sure, just make your best guess and carry it out. Then carry in your
heart the desire to learn about the wisdom of your action. Be alert to events
around you: psalms from the Divine Office, readings from Mass, something said
in a homily, something that someone says to you about his own struggles. Seek
to find wisdom in what comes to you unexpectedly. Rather
than fear punishment, seek to learn—and you will.
And what about the things
you hear in prayer? Are they delusions or not? Well, as long as you are not being
told to think something that is sinful or illegal or contrary to Church teaching,
accept it at face value. Then seek confirmation or disconfirmation from the events
that occur around you.
fantasies, whether thoughts or feelings, often arise as images of satisfaction
when, because of other circumstances, we are feeling deprived, ineffectual,
weary, unrecognized, or alone. The experience of genital arousal points to
a yearning for an intoxicating existential merger with an “other”
to hide the unwanted reality of your own
brokenness, so that you can experience
the ecstasy of transcending the
“unknown” or of “seeing”
or “feeling seen” (common male fantasies) or of “being
filled” (a common female fantasy).
Same-sex attraction fantasies
can reverse these roles: a man can desire to be
filled with the strength of a father (who in reality
was weak, or absent, or cruel); a woman can desire to see, or be seen by,
a mother (who in reality was cruel or neglectful or
Please note a
very important point here:
attraction fantasies does not mean that you are homosexual.
fantasies point to a certain lack of unconditional childhood recognition,
guidance, or acceptance that resonates with a current lack—that is,
deprivation—of recognition, guidance, acceptance, resources, or time.
What you yearn for in fantasy you are unconsciously yearning for symbolically
in your mother (if you are female), or in your father (if you are male).
Sexual fantasies can also derive
from conscious memories of past sexual activity or unconscious emotional
memories of molestation in infancy—that now carry feelings of shame,
guilt, regret, or resentment.
to understand sexual feelings during prayer,
keep in mind that the only two feelings which have any value in
prayer are a spiritual feeling of
compunction and a general spiritual feeling
of warmth in the presence of God. But if this warmth takes on the
quality of the natural feeling of genital arousal—and if the arousal is
spontaneous and not the result of deliberate self-stimulation—then understand
that the arousal is occurring in the body but is not about the body.
That is, even though the genitals are aroused, the real desire is not about sexual
fulfillment but about a spiritual yearning for the soul to be touched by God.
Therefore, you don’t have to be distressed that something sinful might be occurring,
and so you can relax and turn your attention back to the prayer.
fantasies or urges to look at
pornography disturb you, keep in mind
that you cannot stop these fantasies
just by telling yourself to stop. Nor will you be able to stop them
by feeling guilty about them. Instead, it
will be necessary to train yourself to seek only in Christ—not
in the body of another person, and not in your
own body—the true recognition and comfort that is lacking everywhere
that at this point many persons make the psychological mistake of telling
themselves that they can’t have something or shouldn’t
do something. Trying to force yourself away from a desire only increases its
intensity! Therefore, it is important to look beyond the illusion of
satisfaction that the desire projects in front of you; instead of seeing
the illusion, pay attention to what you are really seeing when you look
at someone. Instead of seeing a body that arouses your lust, learn
to see the sad reality of God’s holy creation being defiled by
immodesty. Learn to see the sad reality of a
wretched soul who has been
duped by secular society into believing
that emotional emptiness can be filled by using the body to incite
lust in others. Instead of seeing your own
pleasure, feel in your heart the sadness of seeing another soul deceived by
cultural lies and lost in sin. Feel the sorrow
for a world that has been overwhelmed by sin.
Therefore, instead of
getting stuck in self-punishing guilt, open your
eyes and heart to see lust for what it is—see the sad reality of sin, and
then you will be a true friend of Christ. Then you will be able to look at others
with real love—to will their good—rather than use them for your own
Fantasies of mild grandiosity
(e.g., being a hero, or having notable strength or poise to get the upper
hand in a social situation) are common in normal psychology. These fantasies
usually derive from experiences of hurt, or
insult, and they represent a desire to overcome
feelings of helplessness with images of feeling powerful and “in
Note, however, that as emotional
wounds increase in intensity or duration, fantasies of grandiosity can become
increasingly disordered, resulting in a personality
disorder, in mania, or in a preoccupation with
the occult (as a way to feel powerful because
of what you know).
DISTRACTIONS ABOUT GRANDIOSITY
distractions disturb you when you are feeling helpless, train yourself
to trust in God’s perfect justice, rather than get caught in believing that
you have to do something to fix the world. Instead of always taking matters
into your own hands, say to yourself, over and over, “Into Your hands, O Lord,
I commend my spirit.” Work also on cultivating the virtue of
humility as an
antidote to the disorder of pride and grandiosity.
fantasies (e.g., violence or killing) can result from a desire to compensate
for some sort of perceived injury with acts of hatred and
Note that merely having the fantasies
themselves is not immoral and is not something to be ashamed of. Real evil starts
to come into action when you dwell on the fantasies for satisfaction and becomes
manifest if you actually carry them out.
DISTRACTIONS ABOUT EVIL
fantasies disturb you, remind yourself of Christ’s command to not
hate your enemies but to love and pray for them. Train yourself to say to
the fantasies themselves what Christ Himself said when hearing something
contrary to His mission: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an obstacle
to Me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew
can result from perceiving the behaviors (or the actual words) of a rejecting
parent and then internalizing the parent’s feelings as your own
beliefs, thereby desiring to punish yourself. Moreover, this desire
to punish yourself can have two components.
First, by inflicting pain on
yourself, you get to control its intensity and duration, rather than feel
like a helpless victim.
Second, self-inflicted pain can
be a punishment for the guilt you feel for being
angry with your parents because of the pain they
inflicted on you.
consider a woman, newly married to a man who turns out to be irresponsible,
and now despairingly pregnant with a child she doesn’t want. Right in
the womb that developing fetus will be “infected” psychologically
with the belief that “It would be better if you were
Or maybe a woman
is too emotionally immature to attend to an infant’s needs. As that
infant struggles with the dark terror of its neglect, it will be
“infected” psychologically with the belief that “It would
be better if you were dead.”
Or maybe the
child is a living “accident,” the unanticipated result of raw sexual
pleasure stripped of any responsibility to reproduction. As that child struggles
with lonely emotional isolation from its parents, it will be
“infected” psychologically with the belief that “It would
be better if you were dead.”
However it may
originate—in the womb, as an infant, throughout childhood—the
child’s unconscious desire will be to destroy itself in fulfillment
of the rejection it feels from its parents. And that desire will persist
even into adulthood, where it will wreak its own secret havoc, unless it
is recognized and healed.
DISTRACTIONS ABOUT SELF-BLAME
When They Result from Imperfection
interfere with your concentration, telling you that something is wrong with
you and that you can’t do anything right and that God must be fed up with
you, say to yourself, “It’s OK. I don’t have to be perfect. My
intent is love; I don’t have to be perfect to love.”
When They Result
from Impure Thoughts
“blasphemous” and impure thoughts intrude into your mind, if you
try to fight them they will only get more intense, and you will become more
The key here is to
understand that God does not hold against us the things we think spontaneously,
nor does He expect us to stop all spontaneous thoughts; all He wants from
us is to grow in love by recognizing that certain thoughts are offenses to
love and to tell ourselves so.
Therefore, say to
yourself, “It’s OK. I know these thoughts are an offense to love,
and I don’t really intend to carry them out in actions. My intent is
love; I don’t have to be perfect in not having intruding
Fantasies will not go away just
because you interpret their motive. Therefore, after you have done the work
of understanding the meaning of various fantasies, you will need one additional
solution: drive away these intruding thoughts from your mind by keeping in your
heart the constant, holy awareness of the presence of God; to do this, recite the
Jesus Prayer constantly.
The prayer is simple: Lord
Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.
The technique, too, is simple:
recite the prayer
And, as simple as it is, it’s
hard work. No sooner will you start to pray than your mind will wander and
you will be off in your own thoughts. But once you realize that your mind
has wandered from the prayer, stop thinking and return to the prayer. Don’t
try to analyze what happened. Just immediately stop thinking and return to
You have to hold in your heart
the will to do this. But if you desire it more than anything else—more
even than the desire to stay stuck in your fear and
disability—you can do it. If you love God, and if you love your soul,
you can do it.
Lose Your Peace”
As I said above, fantasies will
not go away just because you interpret their motive. The more you can train
yourself through discipline to respond to the proper spiritual solution,
however, the stronger you will become in
perseverance and faith.
. . . during these ordeals,
do not lose your peace; live in My presence. . . . have the
certitude that I am looking at you and supporting you. . . .
if only you are willing to fight, know that the victory is always on your
side. . . . by fighting bravely you give Me great glory and
amass merits for yourself. Temptation gives you a chance to show Me your
—told to Saint
Faustina by Jesus,
Be Gentle With
Note also that spontaneous fantasies
(“thoughts and imaginings,” as Saint John of the Cross
described them) are, as I said above, products
of the intellect, not the will. That is, true spontaneous fantasies are not
Therefore, you do not need to be overwhelmed with
guilt about them. Be gentle with yourself and resolve
to learn from them rather than fear
Furthermore, spontaneous fantasies
do not need to be confessed sacramentally because they are venial sins, not
(See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1458).
Nevertheless, for the sake of
your own spiritual purity, such fantasies do need to be confessed
psychologically; that is, they must be spoken—consciously admitted
by being put into language—so that their unconscious meaning can be
interpreted, thus freeing you from slavery to their repetitive
The problem with self-condemnation
and self-punishment is that it usurps God’s justice, and, in doing that,
it pushes away God’s mercy. As long as
you’re punishing yourself, you simply are denying any mercy that God
could show to you.
example, the difference between Judas Iscariot and Saint Peter. Judas betrayed
Christ and then, in despair, ran off to kill himself. Peter, too, betrayed
Christ, but, rather than punish himself, in tears and sorrow he sought out
Christ’s mercy. Furthermore, Christ built His Church on Peter to demonstrate
that the Church, from the pope to the laity, must be largely composed of those
who (a) have the capacity to betray Him, (b) have an awareness of their
wretched capacity for betrayal, and (c) seek out His
mercy in tears and sorrow.
That’s why self-punishment
is such a mistake: it’s a sin in itself. Moreover, it’s even more
ironic that if you presume to punish yourself for your previous mistakes
of self-punishment, you stay locked in self-punishment and
The real solution is so
First, gather up all your
emotional pain, acknowledge its truth and present
it to God. This is not self-pity, it’s an act of emotional
Then look to God and say,
“I’m sorry; because of all the emotional pain I failed to acknowledge,
thinking it was just self-pity, I made a mistake. I’ve made a mess of
things. From now on I will get out of your way with my attempts to punish
myself. I surrender to the truth. Teach me what to do from here. I will learn,
even if it’s a slow process and even if I make more mistakes along the
way. I won’t give up, though; I resolve to keep learning no matter
Anything can be learned if only
you ask—from your heart—to be taught. Anything can be forgiven
if only you stop denying the forgiveness because you’re too preoccupied
with punishing yourself.
1. The modern psychological term intellect
encompasses two components which academic theology has traditionally
distinguished: the intellect itself (a faculty of the soul) and the
mind (or the imagination). Thus, instead of saying that
“fantasies are products of the intellect,” it would be more
theologically precise to say that “fantasies are products of the
imagination”—but to modern ears the latter statement would sound
2. In the technical language of psychoanalysis,
this “curiosity” could be called free association, a mental
process by which one word or image spontaneously brings to mind other words
or images. So, in our present context, if you can identify a thought or mental
image that occurs along with a feeling, you can focus your attention on that
thought or image and ask yourself what other thoughts or images come to mind.
Following the “tracks” of a string of associations can lead you
to the original experience that engendered the feeling in the first
3. Mother Teresa of Calcutta also experienced this
spiritual darkness. Contemporary commentators, however, have tended to misunderstand
this spiritual experience and have tried to picture it as some sort of scandal.
4. You don’t have to be concerned about getting
your work done. When you need to think logically, or when you need to pray
other prayers, the Jesus Prayer will not interfere. It will cease when you
need it to cease; just remember to start it again when you become aware that
it has stopped.
5. If you dwell upon a spontaneous fantasy for
the sake of pleasure or satisfaction then it has become a conscious act of
6. They are venial sins because they carry within
them the desire to harm someone else; wishing harm upon
someone is a defilement of love, and so it is a sin. The sin can be absolved through
perfect contrition: acknowledging the desire as wrong, calling upon God’s
mercy, and doing anything it takes to learn from your
mistakes. Note also that if you act upon a fantasy, whether through
masturbation or some other willful act of
sex or violence or revenge, then
you quickly step from the realm of venial sin to
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Healing by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. explains how psychological
defenses help to protect us from emotional injury. But if you cling to the
defense mechanisms that were created in your childhood and carry them on
into adulthood—as most everyone does unconsciously— your quest for spiritual
healing will be thwarted by overwhelming resentments and conflicts. Still, God
has been trying to show you that there is more to life than resentment and
conflict, something so beautiful and desirable that only one thing can resist its
pull: hate So now, and in every moment until you die, you will have a profound choice
between your enslavement to old defenses and the beauty of God. That decision has to
come from you. You will go where you desire.