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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Fantasies and Distractions

 

Fear  |  Guilt  |  Desire and Motivation  |  Books  |  About CSF

 

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Introduction | 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

 
ANY 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.

The Interior Castle
IV:4.11

Understanding, not Ignoring 

Catholic mystics who have commented on the problem show us, therefore, that in the days before the psychology of the unconscious the common spiritual solution to unwanted thoughts and feelings was simply to ignore such disturbances.

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.

  
The Definition of Fantasies

Now, as used in the context of the psychology of the unconscious,  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 intellect.[1] 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 temptations.

  

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 temptations. 

  

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.

 
The Relationship 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 emotion (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 reaction.

“What?” you say.

Well, let’s stop here and consider the way it seems to happen:

Event

Emotion

Behavior

Now, here’s the way the theory of cognitive psychology says it happens:

Event

Belief

Emotion

Behavior

That is, according to the proponents of cognitive psychology, a belief comes between the event and the emotion. For example, when you first experience turbulence 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.

But consider 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.

  

Actually, 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 emotion.

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:

Event

Subliminal Belief

Emotion

Conscious Belief

Behavior

  

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 psychological curiosity [2] 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 here:

1.
  

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.

2.

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.

3.

Then, knowing how you unconsciously desire to act, willingly choose to act with spiritually healthy behavior.

 
Distractions 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 despair.[3] 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 DESPAIR

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 happens to 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 wondering.
 

OVERCOMING 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 happen around you.

 
 
Sexual Fantasies

Sexual 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 smothering).

  

Please note a very important point here:

Having same-sex attraction fantasies does not mean that you are homosexual.

Instead, these 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.

  

When working 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, then consider it to be a sexual fantasy that requires psychological exploration.
 

  

OVERCOMING SEXUAL DISTRACTIONS

If erotic 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 else.

Note carefully 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 sin 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 satisfaction.

 
 
Distractions About Grandiosity

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 control.”

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).
 

OVERCOMING DISTRACTIONS ABOUT GRANDIOSITY

If grandiose 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.

 
 
Distractions About Evil

Evil” fantasies (e.g., violence or killing) can result from a desire to compensate for some sort of perceived injury with acts of hatred and revenge.

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.
 

OVERCOMING DISTRACTIONS ABOUT EVIL

If 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 16:23).

 
 
Distractions About Self-blame

Self-blaming fantasies 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.

  

For example, 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 dead.”

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.
 

  

OVERCOMING DISTRACTIONS ABOUT SELF-BLAME

 
When They Result from Imperfection

When distractions 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

When “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 anxious.

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 thoughts.”

 
 
The Jesus Prayer

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 constantly.[4]

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 the prayer.

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.

 
“Do Not 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 fidelity.

—told to Saint Faustina by Jesus,
Diary (1560)

   
Be Gentle With Yourself

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 created consciously.[5] 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 them. 

Furthermore, spontaneous fantasies do not need to be confessed sacramentally because they are venial sins, not mortal sins.[6] (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 power.

  
Don’t Punish Yourself

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.

  

Consider, for 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 sin—forever.

The real solution is so simple.

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 honesty.

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 what.”

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.

 

Who wrote this web page?

 

Notes.

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 meaninglessly self-evident.

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 place.

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 your will.

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 mortal sin.

 


 
Recommended Reading
 
A treasure of a resource for psychological and spiritual healing. Information gathered from my websites (including this webpage) is now available at your fingertips in book form.

 

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.

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