Orthodox America


  What is “Prelest”?


     The term prelest is a Russian word which has come into Englisg usage for lack of a precise equivalent, although it is often translated as "spiritual delusion ," "spiritual deception," or "illusion," accepting a delusion for reality in contrast to spiritual sobriety. Prelest carries a connotation of allurement in the sense that the serpent beguiled Eve by means of the forbidden fruit. (Apart from its spiritual context, the word in Russian is often used in a positive sense of something charming, "lovely.") Here, two Holy Fathers of recent times define prelest in greater depth, and explain the two ways in which it is applied.

 

Bishop Ignatius

 

    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 (John 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" (John 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 descent to us,” says the venerable Symeon the New Theologian, “because He wanted to rescue us from captivity and from most wicked spiritual deception."

(...)

     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" (John 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. 

Casting down imagination and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. (II Cor. 10:5)

 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...

   From the time of man’s fall, the devil has had free access to him. The devil is entitled to this access, for, through disobedience 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 James 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 John 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...

(Excerpted from a longer article in Orthodox Life, July-August, 1980, which was translated by S . Karganovic from the Serbian edition of Bishop Ignatius' writings.)

 

What does it mean to say "we are all in prelest"? Archbp. Theophan

     You write, "When I was reading the writings of Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, the following questions came to mind: On page 230 it is written that we are all in prelest; why then, when someone speaks of 'a man in prelest', is this attributed a special meaning? and how should one treat such a person?

      In order to understand the expression "we are all in prelest," it is necessary to consider the following. The ancient ascetics regarded "repentance or lamentation of one's sins" as their primary ascetic labor. Many of their sayings concerning this have come down to us. I will cite a few of these in confirmation of [Bishop Ignatius'] writings.

      "A brother said to Abba Sisoes: I perceive that the remembrance of God (mental prayer) ever abides in me. The elder said: It is not so extraordinary that your mind is constantly turned toward God; what is extraordinary is when a person considers himself the worst of all creatures" (Ignatius Brianchaninov, Patericon, 4).

      "When Abba Arsenius the Great passed away, and St. Poemen heard of his repose, he shed abundant tears and said: Blessed are you, Abba Arsenius, because you wept over yourself during this life! One cannot help but weep, either here according to his own will, or against his will in the torments of hell" (Patericon, 29).

     The more advanced a man is in holiness, the deeper is his awareness of his own sinfulness. Conversely, the less refined a man is, the weaker is his awareness of his own sinfulness. In the majority of people Such an awareness is altogether absent. This is why they do not understand the ascetic labor of repentance and do not feel any need for it. Because they do not understand this labor and feel no need to repent, one may say that all such people are in prelest. And inasmuch as we have but a limited awareness of our sinfulness, one may say that we are all in prelest !

Sophia 11/23/1927

 

What constitutes "prelest proper"?

     ..St. Isaac the Syrian wrote about this kind of prelest: "The effect of the cross is twofold; the duality of its nature divides it into two parts, One consists in endurin~ sorrows of the flesh which are brought about by the action of the excitable part of the soul, and this part is called activity. The other part lies in the finer workings of the mind and in divine meditation, as well as in attending to prayer, etc.; it is accomplished by means of the desiring part of the soul and is called contemplation. The part of the soul by dint of its zeal, while the second part is the activity of soulful love, in other words, natural desire, which enlightens the rational part of the soul. Every man who, before perfectly mastering the first part, switches to the second, attracted out of weakness--to say nothing of laziness, is overtaken by God's wrath because he did not first mortify his members which are upon the earth (Col. 3:5). In other words, he did not cure his thoughts of infirmities by patiently bearing the cross, but rather dared in his mind to envision the glory of the cross" (Word 55).

     It is evident from these words of Isaac the Syrian that what we call prelest proper exists when a man starts trying to live above his capabilities. Without having cleansed himself of passions, he strives for a life of contemplation and dreams of the delights of spiritual grace. Thus the wrath of God befalls a man; because he thinks too highly of himself, God's grace is withdrawn from him and he falls under the influence of the evil one who actively begins to tickle his vainglory with lofty contemplation and [spiritual] delights...

    Briefly, the difference between "general prelest" and prelest in the particular sense of the word can, on the basis of the above. be expressed thus. General prelest is forgetting and not noticing one's sinfulness. That which we call prelest proper is attributing to oneself righteousness when it does not actually exist. If a man thinks he is righteous, then his righteousness is not divine, but diabolical, foreign to the grace of God and to humility. One should recall the famous saying of Abba Poemen the Great: "I prefer a man who sins and repents to one who does not sin and does not repent. The first has good thoughts, for he admits that he is sinful. But the second has false, soul-destroying thoughts, for he imagines himself to be righteous" (Bp. Ignatius, Patericon, 75).

Sophia, 11/24/1927 

(Archbishop Theophan's letters translated from the Russian by Antonina Janda)

[OA/_private/oabot.htm]