In exercising the Jesus prayer there is its beginning, its gradual progression, and its endless end. It is necessary to start the exercise from the beginning, and not from the middle or the end.…
Those who begin in the middle are the novices who have read the instructions … given by the hesychastic fathers … and accept this instruction as a guide in their activity, without thinking it through. They begin in the middle who, without any sort of preparation, try to force their minds into the temple of the heart and send up prayers from there. They begin from the end who seek to quickly unfold in themselves the grace-filled sweetness of prayer and its other grace-filled actions.
One should begin at the beginning; that is, pray with attention and reverence, with the purpose of repentance, taking care only that these three qualities be continually present with the prayer.… In particular, most scrupulous care should be taken to establish morals in accordance with the teachings of the Gospels.… Only upon morality brought into good accord with the Gospel commandments … can the immaterial temple of God-pleasing prayer be built. A house built upon sand is labor in vain—sand is easy morality that can be shaken (1:225–226).
From this citation it can be seen how attentive and reverently careful one must be with respect to the Jesus prayer. It should be prayed not just any way, but correctly. Otherwise, its practice will not only cease to be prayer, it can even destroy the one practicing it. In one of his letters, Saint Ignatius talks about how the soul should be disposed during prayer: “Today I read the saying of Saint Sisoes the Great which I have always especially liked; a saying which has always been according to my heart. A certain monk said to him, ‘I abide in ceaseless remembrance of God.’ Saint Sisoes replied to him, “That is not great; it will be great when you consider yourself worse than all creatures.’ The ceaseless remembrance of God is a great thing!” Saint Ignatius continues. “But this is a very dangerous height when the ladder that leads to it is not founded upon the sturdy rock of humility” (4:497).
(In connection with this it must be noted that “the sign of ceaseless and self-moving Jesus prayer is by no means a sign that the prayer is grace-filled, because [such qualities] do not guarantee … those fruits that always indicate that it is grace-filled.” “Spiritual struggle, the result and purpose of which is the acquisition of HUMILITY … is [in this case] substituted by some [interim] purpose: the acquisition of ceaseless and self-acting Jesus prayer, which … is not the final goal, but only one means of attaining that goal.”358)
7. Prelest 359
These words of Saint Ignatius point to yet another extremely serious aspect of spiritual life—the deadly danger that threatens the inexperienced ascetic who does not have either a true instructor or the correct theoretical spiritual knowledge—the possibility of falling into prelest, or delusion. This term, which was often used by the Fathers, is remarkable for its precise revelation of the very essence of the spiritual sickness it names. In Russian, the root of this word, lest, means “flattery,” and the prefix pre- indicates a reflexive action. Thus, it means self-flattery, self-deception, dreaminess, or an opinion of one’s own worthiness and perfection, pride.
Saint Ignatius, calling pride the main source of this serious illness, cites the following words of Saint Gregory the Sinaite (fourteenth century):
Prelest, they say, appears in two forms, or rather, finds … —in the forms of fantasy and effect, although it has its source and cause in pride alone.… The first kind of prelest is from fantasy. The second kind of prelest … has its source in … lasciviousness, which is born from natural lustfulness. In this state, the person in prelest takes up prophesying, gives false predictions … The demon of obscenity darkens his mind with lascivious fire and drives him mad, dreamily appearing to him in the guise of certain saints, making him think he hears their words and sees their faces.360
What is the main medicine against this sickness?
Just as pride is the general cause of prelest, so does humility … serve as a true forestaller and prevention against prelest.… May our prayer be penetrated with a feeling of repentance, may it be united with weeping, and then prelest will never act upon us (1:228).
About another of the most widespread causes for falling into prelest, Saint Ignatius writes,
There are grounds for believing that the emotional state of certain monks is that of prelest, for they have renounced the practice of the Jesus prayer and mental prayer in general, satisfying themselves with external prayer alone; that is, with unfailing participation in the Church Services and unfailing fulfillment of their cell rule, which consists exclusively of psalmody and verbal, audible prayers.… They cannot escape “self-opinion.… ” Verbal and audible prayer is only fruitful when it is combined with attention—something very rarely found, because we learn attentiveness for the most part through the practice of the Jesus prayer (1:257–258).
Naturally, this remark relates not only to monks, but to all Christians. Therefore, when Saint Ignatius speaks of prelest, hereminds us that,
Whoever thinks that he is passionless will never be purified of passions; whoever thinks that he is filled with grace will never receive grace; whoever thinks that he is a saint will never achieve sanctity. To put it simply: whoever ascribes spiritual activity, virtues, worthiness, and gifts of grace to himself, flattering himself and consoling himself with self-opinion, blocks the entrance to spiritual activity, Christian virtues, and God’s grace with this opinion, and opens wide the door to sinful infection and demons. Those infected with self-opinion are completely incapable of spiritual progress (1:243).
All the saints considered themselves unworthy of God. By this they showed their worthiness, which consists in humility. All the self-deluded considered themselves worthy of God, and by this they show the pride and demonic prelest which has taken over their souls. Some received demons who appeared to them as angels, and followed after them.… Others stimulated their imaginations, heated their blood, produced movements of their nervous systems, then accepted all this as grace-filled sweetness. They fell into self-delusion, complete insanity, and numbered themselves among the fallen spirits by their own spirit (2:126).
Unfortunately, any of the faithful can fall into such a lamentable state, just as any ascetic can, if he lives according to his own reasoning, without a true spiritual instructor, or the guidance of patristic writings.
But if understanding the Fathers is not always such a simple task, then it is even more difficult in our times to find a true instructor. A mistake in this regard can prove fatal.
The Fathers speak most importantly of
1. The necessity for great caution in choosing a guide, and the enormous danger of accepting an unspiritual “elder” as a spiritual instructor;
2. The correct relationship to the spiritual instructor: life according to obedience or to counsel;
3. The paucity in the last times of spirit-bearing instructors who see peoples’ souls (Saint Ignatius says, “We have no divinely inspired instructors!” (1:274).
We shall cite the thoughts of the Holy Fathers on these questions.
1. On the choice of a spiritual instructor.
Saint John Cassian the Roman (fifth century):
It is useful to reveal one’s thoughts to the fathers, but not to whoever comes along; rather to spiritual elders who have discernment, elders not according to physical age and gray hairs. Many who were impressed by an outward appearance of age and revealed their thoughts have received harm instead of cure (1:491).
Saint John Climacus (sixth century):
When we desire to entrust our salvation to another, then before embarking upon this path, if we have even a little insight and discernment, we should look over, test, and, so to say, try this rudder, so that we not mistake a simple oar for a rudder, a sick man for a doctor, a passionate man for a dispassionate, or a storm for a harbor; and thus avoid ready destruction (The Ladder, 4:6).
Saint Symeon the New Theologian (tenth century):
Pray to God with tears to send you a dispassionate and saintly guide. Also, you yourself search the Divine Scriptures, especially the practical works of the Holy Fathers, so that in comparing with them what your teacher and intercessor teaches you, you might see this as in a mirror. Place them side by side, take them in according to the Divine Scriptures, and hold them in your thoughts; if you find something false and foreign, discard it, in order to avoid being deluded. Know that there are many deceivers and false teachers in our days (The Philokalia, 5:33).
Saint Macarius the Great (fourth to fifth centuries) said that … we meet souls who have been made partakers of Divine grace … but because of their lack of active experience are nevertheless still in childhood, and in a very unsatisfactory state … which lacks true asceticism (1:284). In the monasteries there is the saying about such elders that they are “holy, but not tested,” and caution is observed in counsel with them … that their instructions be not very hastily and light-mindedly trusted (1:285). Saint Isaac the Syrian even says that such an elder is “unworthy to be called holy” (1:286).
Saint Theophan (Govorov):
In determining them [spiritual instructors] one should use great caution and strict discernment, so as not to bring harm instead of benefit, and destruction instead of something constructive.361
2. On the relationship between the spiritual instructor and his flock.
Every spiritual instructor should bring souls to Him [Christ] and not to himself… Let the instructor, like the great and humble Baptist, stand to the side, consider himself as nothing, rejoice in his waning before his disciples, for it is a sign of their spiritual progress.… Guard yourself against passionate attachment to spiritual instructors. Many have not been cautious, and fell together with their instructors into the snares of the devil.… Passionate attachment makes any person an idol; God turns away in anger from the sacrifices brought to this idol.… Then life is lost in vain, and good works perish. And you, instructor, guard yourself from sinful beginnings! Do not replace God for the souls who have recourse to you. Follow the example of Saint John the Forerunner (4:519).
Those elders who take on the role [of an elder] … (we will use this unpleasant word) … are in essence nothing other than soul-destroying actors in a tragic comedy. May those elders who take on the role of the ancient elders without possessing their spiritual gifts know that their very intentions, their very thoughts and understanding of this great monastic work—obedience—are false; that their very way of thinking, their reasoning, and knowledge are self-delusion and demonic prelest.… (5:72).
Some might protest that the novice’s faith can compensate for the elder’s inadequacy. This is not true—faith in the truth saves, but faith in a lie and demonic prelest destroys, according to the teaching of the Apostle (2 Cor 2:10–12) (5:73).
If a guide begins to seek obedience to himself and not to God, he is not worthy to be a guide of his neighbor! He is not a servant of God! He is the servant of the devil, his instrument and snare! Be ye not the servants of men (1 Cor 7:23), commands the Apostle.362
Ambition and self-opinion love to teach and instruct. They do not care about the worthiness of their advice! They do not think about how they might inflict an incurable wound upon their neighbor with their senseless counsel, which the inexperienced beginner accepts with unreasoning gullibility, with heatedness of flesh and blood! They want success, never mind its quality, or its source! They need to produce an impression on the beginner and morally submit him to himself! They need the praise of men! They need to be thought of as holy, wise, and clairvoyant elders and teachers! They need to feed their insatiable ambition, their pride! (On living according to counsel, 5:77).
Therefore it is necessary to part with a “blind” spiritual guide, according to the Savior’s command: Let them alone: they be blind leader of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch (Mt 15:14). “Saint Pimen the Great (fifth century) instructed to separate oneself from an elder without delay if it becomes harmful to the soul to live with him” (5:74).
On life according to counsel.
Saint Nilus of Sora (fifteenth century) never gave instruction or advice directly from himself, but if asked, offered either the teachings of the Scriptures or of the Fathers. When … he could not recall an enlightened opinion on some subject, he would leave off answering until he could find some instruction in the Scriptures. This method is apparent in the writings of Holy Hieromartyr Peter Damascene, Saint Gregory the Sinaite, the saints of Xanthopoulis, and other Fathers, especially the later ones. The hieromonks of Optina Hermitage, Leonid and Macarius, also held to this method.… They never gave advice from themselves.… This gave their advice power (1:489).
According to the teaching of the Fathers, the only life … which is appropriate to our times is a life under the guidance of patristic writings with the counsel of contemporary brothers who are progressing [in spiritual life]; this counsel should also be tested against the writings of the Fathers (1:563).
The modest relationship of a counselor to the one he instructs should be something completely different from that of an elder to an unquestioning novice.… Counsel does not involve the condition of its unfailing execution; it can be followed or not followed (5:80).
Do not be obedient to evil, even though you might have to endure some grief due to your refusal to please men, and your firmness. Take counsel with virtuous and wise fathers and brothers; but assimilate their advice with the utmost caution. Do not be caught up in counsel according to its first effect upon you! (On life according to counsel, 5:77).
Saint Theophan (Govorov):
Here is the best, most reliable method of guidance, or education in the Christian life today! Life in dedication to God’s will according to Divine Scriptures and patristic writings with counsel and inquiry amongst those of one mind with you.363
3. On the lack of spirit-bearing instructors.
Already in the tenth century, Saint Symeon the New Theologian said that it is difficult to find a dispassionate and saintly guide, “that in these days there are many deceivers and false teachers.”364 Saint Nilus of Sora (1423–1508), in his preface to the book A Bequeathal to My Disciples, wrote, “Thus the Holy Fathers say: if in those times one could hardly find a teacher who did not delude by his talk, now, in our most impoverished times, one must seek diligently.”365
Saint Gregory the Sinaite “resolved to say that in his time (the fourteenth century) there are no grace-filled men, so scarce had they become.… Ever more so in our times the doer of prayer must observe supreme caution. There are no Divinely inspired instructors amongst us!” (1:274).
Fathers distanced from the days of Christ by a thousand years, repeating the counsel of their forebears, already complained of the scarcity of Divinely inspired instructors and of the appearance of many false teachers, and offer the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings as a guide. The Fathers closer to our times call Divinely inspired guides the inheritance of ancient times, and already decisively leave us to the guidance of Sacred and Holy Scriptures, testing by these Scriptures, accepting with extreme cautiousness the counsel of contemporary … brothers (1:563).
Now, because of the total paucity of spirit-bearing instructors, the ascetic of prayer is forced to be guided exclusively by the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers (Saint Nilus of Sora) (1:229).
Thus speaks the voice of the Church’s sacred tradition on one of the most painful issues of modern spiritual life.
It would be a great mistake to think that prelest is something that sprang up on Orthodox soil specifically. In his article “On Prelest” Saint Ignatius says outright that “Prelest is the state of all people, without exception, which was produced by our forefathers’ fall. We are all in prelest. The knowledge of this is the greatest protection against prelest. To consider oneself free from prelest is the greatest prelest. We are all deceived, we are all deluded, we are all in a false state, and need to be freed by the truth. The Truth is our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:230).
Very apropos to our times are Saint Ignatius’ thoughts on Western, Catholic saints. In complete agreement with all other saints of the Orthodox Church he says that,
Many of the “ascetics” or “great saints” of the Western Church, which came after its split from the Eastern Church and the Holy Spirit’s departure from the it, prayed, attained visions, presumably false ones, through the method I have noted earlier.… Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, was in such a state. His imagination was so heated and complex that, as he himself stated, he only had to wish and apply certain exertions and hell or paradise would appear before his eyes.… We know that visions are granted to a true saint of God only by God’s grace and by an act of God, and not according to a man’s own will or exertions. They are granted unexpectedly, and quite rarely.… The increased asceticism of those who are in prelest usually stands right next to extreme licentiousness. Licentiousness serves as an assessment of the flame which consumes the one in prelest (1:244).
Bishop Ignatius also shows other causes of deluded states that are hidden from superficial observation. He writes,
Blood and nerves are aroused by many passions: by anger, love of money, lasciviousness, and ambition. The last two passions extremely heat the blood of ascetics who are laboring unlawfully, and make them into frenzied fanatics. Ambition strives for untimely spiritual states of which the person is not yet capable due to his impurity; he contrives fantasies in place of the truth he has not acquired. Lasciviousness, uniting its action with that of ambition, produces delusional false consolations, delights, and intoxications in the heart. This is a state of self-delusion. All those who labor unlawfully in asceticism are in this state. It develops in them to greater or lesser degrees, depending upon how much effort they put into their ascetic labors. Many books have been written by Western writers in precisely this state (4:499).
It is interesting to note that Bishop Ignatius Brianchininov (who studied Catholic ascetic literature not in translation, but in the original Latin), shows the concrete time coordinates of the Catholic ascetics’ falling away from the unanimous experience of the saints of the one Universal Church. He writes,
Saint Benedict [†544] and Saint Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome [†604] are still in agreement with the ascetical instructors of the East. But Bernard of Clairvaux (twelfth century) already differs from them sharply; later [writers] depart even further. They immediately grab their readers and pull them toward heights that are not accessible to the beginner; they lift up themselves and others. Heatedness … fantasy replace all spirituality in them, about which they haven’t the slightest understanding. They consider this dreaminess to be grace (4:498).366
10. There is One Truth
Prelest, as we see, happens in those who live not according to patristic precepts, but according to their own thoughts, desires, and understanding, and seek from God not salvation from sin, but grace-filled delights, visions, and gifts. The miserable ascetic usually does “receive” these gifts abundantly in his heated imagination and by the action of dark powers. Prelest is therefore not one of the possible, especially not equivalent variations of spirituality; it is not one’s own special path to God (as the apologists for Catholic mysticism say), but a serious illness, which eats away the ascetic from within if he does not understand and evaluate it properly.
And this terrible illness threatens to destroy not only separate individuals, but Christianity itself, as we see. If some Christian community or ecclesiastical jurisdiction departs from the principles of spiritual life that have been revealed and sanctified by the vast experience of the Church, it inevitably leads it to a loss of understanding of true sanctity and to the glorification of its open distortions. So also does any departure from the “royal path” of spiritual life, paved by the ascetical steps of the saints, lead to similar destructive consequences for every believer individually.
Especially often are transports to “the heights” observable in the newly converted and young ascetics, who have not yet come to know their old man, or been freed from the passions, yet are already seeking states natural to the new, perfect man. It is not in vain that the fathers say, “If you see a youngster climbing to heaven by his own will, take him by the foot and pull him down, for this is beneficial to him.”367 The reason for such mistakes is obvious: lack of knowledge of the laws of spiritual life, or of one’s self. Saint Ignatius cites the following remarkable words of Saint Isaac the Syrian in this regard:
If certain of the fathers wrote that there is purity of the soul, that there is health of the soul, dispassion, and vision, they wrote this not so that we would seek them before the time, and expect them. It is written in the Scriptures, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation (Lk 17:20). Those who had expectations gained only pride and a fall. Seeking with an expectation of lofty Divine gifts is something which God’s Church denounces. This expectation is not a sign of love for God, but rather an illness of the soul.
Saint Ignatius concludes this thought with the following words:
When the Holy Fathers of the Eastern Church, especially the heremetics, reached for the heights of spiritual practices, all these practices blended within them into repentance alone. Repentance embraced their entire lives, and all their activities. It was the result of having seen their own sin (2:125–126).
In this vision of one’s own sins, which gives birth to true humility and repentance not to be repented of (cf. 1 Cor 7:10), lies the only true hope, and the unshakable foundation of correct spiritual life.
§ 2. On Sancity in Orthodoxy
1. God and Man
The essence of religion usually—and justly—is seen in the special unification of man with God, of the human spirit with the Divine spirit. Every religion shows its path and means for achieving this goal. Nevertheless, ever unshaken is the postulate of a common religious awareness of the need for man’s spiritual unity with God in order to acquire eternal life. This idea is like a thread that runs through every religion in the world, embodied by various myths, tales, and dogmas, and underlining in various plans and from diverse sides the obvious significance and primary nature of spiritual precepts in man’s life, and in his comprehension of its meaning.