by Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov)
Disciple: Give me a precise and detailed notion of spiritual deception [prelest]. What exactly is this condition?
Elder: Spiritual deception is the wounding of human nature by falsehood. Spiritual deception is the state of all men without exception, and it has been made possible by the fall of our original parents. All of us are subject to spiritual deception. Awareness of this fact is the greatest protection against it. Likewise, the greatest spiritual deception of all is to consider oneself free from it. We are all deceived, all deluded; we all find ourselves in a condition of falsehood; we all need to be liberated by the Truth. The Truth is our Lord Jesus Christ (Jn. 8:32-14:6). Let us assimilate that Truth by faith in it; let us cry out in prayer to this Truth, and it will draw us out of the abyss of demonic deception and self-delusion. Bitter is our state! It is that prison from which we beseech that our souls be led out, that we may confess the name of the Lord (Ps. 141:8). It is that gloomy land into which our life has been cast by the enemy that hates and pursues us. It is that carnal-mindedness (Rom. 8:6) and knowledge falsely so called (I Tim. 6:20) wherewith the entire world is infected, refusing to acknowledge its illness, insisting, rather, that it is in the bloom of health. It is that “flesh and blood” which “cannot inherit the Kingdom of God” (I Cor. 15:50). It is that eternal death which is healed and destroyed by the Lord Jesus, Who is “the Resurrection and the Life” (Jn. 11:25). Such is our state. And the perception thereof is a new reason to weep. With tears let us cry out to the Lord Jesus to bring us out of prison, to draw us forth from the depths of the earth, and to wrest us from the jaws of death! “For this cause did our Lord Jesus Christ descend to us,” says the venerable Symeon the New Theologian, “because he wanted to rescue us from captivity and from most wicked spiritual deception.”
Disciple: I do not sufficiently comprehend your explanation. I need a simpler explanation, more in keeping with my understanding.
Elder: The means whereby the fallen angel brought ruin upon the human race was falsehood (Gen. 3:13). For this reason did the Lord call the devil “a liar, and the father of [lies]… a murderer from the beginning” (Jn. 8:44). We see that the Lord closely associated the notion of falsehood with the notion of murder; for the latter is the inevitable consequence of the former. The words “from the beginning” indicate that from the very start the devil has used falsehood as a weapon in murdering men, for the ruination of men.
The beginning of evil is in the false thought. The source of self-delusion and demonic deception is the false thought. By means of falsehood, the devil infected mankind at its very root, our first parents, with eternal death. For our first parents were deceived, i.e., they acknowledged falsehood as the truth, and having accepted falsehood in the guise of truth, they wounded themselves incurably with mortal sin, as is attested by our ancestor Eve, when she said: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Gen. 3:13). Thenceforth, our nature, infected with the poison of evil, has, voluntarily or involuntarily, inclined toward evil which, to our perverted will, distorted reason, and debauched heart, presents itself as good. I say voluntarily because there still remains within us a remnant of the freedom to choose between good and evil. And I say involuntarily because that remnant of freedom does not function as complete freedom, but rather under the unavoidable influence of the wound of sin. Thus is every human born and cannot be otherwise; and for this reason we all, without exception find ourselves in a state of self-delusion and demonic deception. From this view of man’s state with regard to good and evil, the state which is necessarily characteristic of each human being, we arrive at the following definition of spiritual deception which explains it satisfactorily: spiritual deception is man’s assimilation of a falsehood which he accepts as truth. Spiritual deception first acts upon one’s way of thinking; on being accepted and having perverted one’s thought processes, it is forthwith communicated to the heart whose sensibilities it distorts; having mastered the essence of man’s being, it seeps into every one of his activities and poisons the very body which the Creator has indissolubly joined to the soul. The state of spiritual deception is the state of perdition or eternal death.
From the time of man’s fall, the devil has had free access to him. The devil is entitled to this access, for, through obedience to him man has voluntarily submitted to his authority and rejected obedience to God. However, God has redeemed man. To the redeemed man He has given the freedom to submit either to God or to the devil; and that this freedom may manifest itself without any compulsion, the devil has been permitted access to man. It is quite natural that the devil makes every effort to keep man in his former subjection to him, or yet to enslave him even more thoroughly. To achieve this, he implements his primordial and customary weapon — falsehood. He strives to deceive and delude us, counting on our state of self-delusion. He stimulates our passions, our sick inclinations. He invests their pernicious demands with an attractive appearance and strives to entice us to indulge them. However, he that is faithful to the Word of God will not permit himself to do so; he will restrain the passions and thus repulse the enemy’s assaults (see Jas. 4:7); struggling against his own self-deception under the guidance of the Gospel, subduing his passions, and thus gradually destroying the influence of the fallen spirits on himself, he will by stages pass from the state of deception to the realm of truth and freedom (see Jn 8:32), the fullness of which will be given through the overshadowing of divine grace. He that is not faithful to Christ’s teaching, who follows his own will and knowledge, will submit to the enemy, and will pass from a state of self-deception into a state of demonic deception, will lose the remnant of his freedom, and in the end he will become totally enslaved to the devil. The state of those who are demonically deluded varies, depending upon the passion by which the particular individual is deluded and enslaved, and corresponding to the degree to which he is enslaved by that passion. And all those who have fallen into demonic delusion, i.e., those who, through the development of their own self-delusion, have entered into fellowship with the devil and have been enslaved by him, are temples and instruments of the demons, victims of eternal death, of life in the dungeons of hell.
Disciple: Enumerate for me the types of demonic delusion which result from the improper exercise of prayer.
Elder: All the forms of demonic delusion to which the athlete of prayer is subject arise from the fact that repentance has not been set as the foundation of prayer, that repentance has not been made the source, the soul, the goal of prayer. St. Gregory the Sinaite says: “Should anyone fancy to attain unto exalted states of prayer with a self-confidence based on a conception of one’s own worth, and has acquired not true zeal, but that of the devil, him wilt the devil easily enmesh in his snares as his slave.” Everyone who hastens to the wedding banquet of the Son of God, not in the clean and radiant garments wrought by repentance, but rather in the old rags of sinfulness and self-delusion, will be cast into the outermost darkness, into demonic deception. “I counsel thee,” the Savior says to one whom He calls to the mystical priesthood, “to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness not appear; and to anoint thine eyes [of sense and the eyes of thy mind] with [the] salve [of tears], that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous, therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:18-19). Repentance and everything that comprises it, such as: contrition or travail of spirit, lamentation of heart, tears, self-reproach, remembrance and foreboding of death, the judgment of God and the everlasting torments, the awareness of God’s presence, fear of God — are all gifts of God, gifts of great worth, gifts which are basic and represent our assurance of loftier and eternal gifts. The latter you can never receive unless you have received the former. “However great the life we may lead,” says St. John of the Ladder, “we may count it stale and spurious, if we have not acquired a contrite heart” (Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step VII, 64). Repentance, contrition of spirit, and lamentation are signs which attest to the correctness of our feat of prayer. Their absence, on the other hand, is a sign of inclination towards false direction, self-delusion, deception and barrenness. One or the other, delusion or sterility, is the inevitable consequence of the incorrect exercise of prayer, and the incorrect exercise of prayer is inextricably bound up with self-deception.
The most dangerous and most incorrect method of prayer is when he who is praying fabricates, on the strength of his imagination, dreams or pictures, borrowing them ostensibly from the Sacred Scriptures, but in actuality from his own sinfulness and self-delusion. By means of those pictures he lures himself into self-esteem, vainglory, conceit and pride. It is apparent that all that is fabricated by the imagination of our fallen nature which has been perverted by the fall of nature does not exist in reality. It is nothing else but the fantasy and falsehood so characteristic and beloved of Satan, the fallen angel. With the first step that he takes on the path of prayer, the fantast departs from the realm of truth and enters the realm of falsehood, the realm of Satan, and willingly submits to Satan’s influence. St. Symeon the New Theologian describes the prayer of the fantast and its fruits thus: “He raises his arms, eyes, and mind toward heaven; and he fancies in his mind divine meetings, heavenly blessings, the ranks of the holy angels, the dwelling-places of the saints… in short, everything that he has heard of in the Divine Scriptures he gathers together in his imagination. He contemplates all that during his prayers and gazes heavenward, and spurring his soul on to divine desire and love, and sometimes he even sheds tears and weeps. His heart thus grows gradually bolder, without his oven being conscious of it. Not only that, but he also assumes that what is happening to him is the fruit of divine grace, conferred on him by the Lord for his consolation, and he entreats the Lord to vouchsafe him ever to abide in such spiritual activity. That is a sign of delusion. This sort of person cannot but fall subject to delirium and insanity, even though he observes perfect prayerful solitude. And even should he manage to avoid such a spiritual disaster, he nevertheless will never acquire a spiritual mind, virtue, or dispassion. In this manner those who have beheld light and radiance with their physical eyes, who savor sweet fragrances with their sense of smell, and hear voices with their ears, have been deceived. Some of them have become possessed by evil spirits and have wandered about, deranged, from place to place; others have accepted a demon that transformed himself into an angel of light, and were deceived and remained uncorrected even until the end of their lives, refusing the counsel of any of the brethren; still others, instructed by the devil, committed suicide; some cast themselves into an abyss, others hanged themselves. Who can enumerate the manifold deceptions of the devil which he uses to delude and which are inscrutable? Any knowledgable man can learn from what we have said as to the damage which ensues from this type of prayer. Such misfortunes befall mostly hermits who lead a solitary life, but it is possible that some of those who pray incorrectly will not fall subject to one of the calamities described above because they live in community with the brethren; yet such a person spends his whole life in vain.
All the holy Fathers who have described the struggle of mental prayer forbid not only arbitrary daydreams, but also assenting with our will and sympathy to dreams and apparitions that can unexpectedly present themselves to us regardless of our will. This happens during the exercise of prayer, particularly in the midst of stillness. “Accept under no circumstances,” says St. Gregory of Sinai, “should you perceive anything either by your physical eyes or your mind, whether outside or within yourself, even should that be the visage of Christ, or of an angel, or of some saint, or should light appear to you. Be careful and cautious! Do not permit yourself to consent to anything, do not express sympathy or consent, do not hasten to trust an apparition, even should it turn out to be genuine and good. Better to remain cold and distant toward it, constantly preserving your mind devoid of images, free of any depictions and unmarked thereby. He that has perceived anything in thought or with the senses, even though it be from God, and who hastens to accept the apparition, easily falls into deception and ultimately discloses his inclination and capacity for it, because he accepts appearances readily and without discrimination. The beginner must direct all his attention to activity of the heart alone, and regard that alone as non-delusive. He should undertake nothing else until such time as he attains dispassion. God is not angry at one who, fearing deception, guards himself with extreme circumspection and thus does not accept some vision sent by God, without considering what was sent with all care. On the contrary, such a one will be praised by God for his clear thinking.” As an example, we may take the life of St. Amphilochius. He entered monasticism in his youth, and in his mature years and old age he was deemed worthy to lead the life of a hermit in the desert. Confining himself to a cave, he trained himself in stillness and was greatly successful therein. After forty years of solitary living, an angel appeared to him one night and said: “Amphilochius! Go thou to the city and shepherd the spiritual sheep!” Amphilochius, however, remained unperturbed and paid no heed to the angel’s command. The following night, the angel again appeared and repeated his command, adding that it was sent by God. And once again Amphilochius did not submit to the angel, fearing lest he be deluded and mindful of the words of the Apostle, that Satan can appear even as an angel of light (II Cor. 11:14). But the angel returned once more on the third night, glorifying God in order thus to convince Amphilochius, for, as is generally known, the outcast spirits cannot bear this. Then the angel took the old man by the hand, led him out of his cell, and brought him to the church which stood nearby. The doors of the church opened of thorn selves. The church was illuminated with a heavenly light and a multitude of holy men in white robes were visible therein, their faces shining with a sun-like radiance. They consecrated Amphilochius as bishop of the city of Iconium. In contrast to this procedure, the venerable Isaac and Nicetas of the Kiev-Caves Lavra, while yet new and inexperienced in the solitary life, gullibly believed a vision which appeared to them and therefore fell into the most dreadful misfortune. To the former, a multitude of demons appeared in light; one of them assumed the guise of Christ, and the rest that of holy angels. The latter was first deceived by a demon by means of a sweet fragrance and voice, afterwards appearing to him openly in the guise of an angel. Monks who are experienced in the monastic life, truly holy monks, fear delusion far more, show a far greater distrust of themselves, than do beginners who are seized with fervent zeal for the ascetic struggle. The venerable Gregory of Sinai, the Hesychast, with heartfelt love warns us to guard ourselves against delusion. “I desire,” writes the saint in a book written chiefly for those who pray in solitude, “that you have a clearly-defined understanding of delusion. I desire this with the goal in mind that you may be able to preserve yourself from delusion, that, in a struggle which has not been illumined by the necessary knowledge, you not inflict great damage upon yourself and destroy your soul. For man’s free will readily inclines to fellowship with our adversaries, particularly the will of those who are inexperienced and new to the struggle, for they are still in the power of the demons.” How true! Our free will does incline toward deception because every delusion flatters our self-esteem, our vainglory, our pride. “The demons are close by and surround beginners and the arbitrary, spreading in their path the snares of evil thoughts and pernicious fantasies, digging for them abysses into which to plunge. The city of the novices,” i.e., the entire being of each of them individually, “is still under the suzerainty of the barbarians… Wherefore do not hasten to deliver yourself over to that which appears to you, but remain serious, holding on to what is good with much circumspection, and rejecting what is evil … Know also that the effects of grace are always clear; the demon is incapable of producing them: he cannot give meekness or gentleness or humility or hatred of the world, and he does not restrain the passions of voluptuousness, as grace does. These are the effects of the devil: conceit, haughtiness, fear — in a word, all forms of malice. Therefore, by its activity will you be able to discern the light which shines in your soul, whether it be from God or from Satan.” We ought to know, of course, that such circumspection is the property of advanced monks, never of beginners. The venerable Gregory of Sinai, it is true, is conversing with a beginner, but, as is evident from the book, a beginner in the life of prayerful stillness who was, according to the years he had spent in monasticism and from his age, already an elder.
Translated by S. Karganovic from the Serbian edition of the writings of Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov) The text above has been carefully compared with the Russian original in The Works of Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov), Vol. I (Ascetic Experiences), pp. 129-135. The above is but a segment of a longer article on spiritual deception.
[This article originally appeared in Orthodox Life, July-August 1980. It is posted here with the kind permission of Holy Trinity Publications.]