Conversations with Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. "On Prelest".
Very often, way too often people talk about prelest and use this word with some mysterious expression on their faces because they found this word in the writings of the Holy Fathers, which they should not be reading yet. I remember a very experienced priest telling me, "Do not let people who have not yet matured in Orthodoxy read "Philokalia," because they will think that they already know everything that is described in there in such simple terms. In reality, none of us often has the slightest idea of what is being described there in such simple words." And that takes us to the topic of prelest. People can be charmed by their imagination. They can be deceived. Prelest is derived from the words "flattery, lies." And a deluded man is a man who is imagining something while the real situation is different. That man thinks he knows the secrets of spiritual life, while in reality he only knows something about his emotional life.
There is a wonderful excerpt in Theophan the Recluse’s writings where he doesn’t speak about prelest but rather says that very often we, thanks to prayer, sacraments, deep reflection, and our attempts to live worthy of our Christian calling, start having some unexpected feelings or even corporal experiences – we feel warmth or some light rising in the soul. And he says: all of that is only emotions and corporal experiences. He even says that if during prayer we see some golden light, we should know that that phenomenon is not divine but is of an emotional and corporal nature. For this reason, we should be very cautious in such matters and should live soberly instead of wondering whether it is prelest or not. In other words, we shouldn’t get intoxicated with our desire to live a spiritual life.
Saint Isaac of Syria says: if you see a novice who begins to ascend from earth to heaven, grab him by his legs and throw him to the ground, because if he rises too high, his fall will be ever more painful. Thus, we should learn to live simply and soberly. As one priest told me, where there is simplicity, there are a hundred angels, where there is intricacy, there is none. We fall into prelest because we are lost in contemplation of ourselves. When we pray, fast, read, or have a conversation, we direct our attention to ourselves and think, "What am I like, what is happening in me now, what am I like in God’s eyes?" — but we cannot answer those questions ourselves. We can only say, "If what I am experiencing now is from You, oh Lord, strengthen it; if it is not from You, dispel it."
I can give an example, a personal and very unattractive one. When I was young, I had the ability to read other people's thoughts. And at some point I asked myself: I now have this ability developing within me, and I can even talk at a distance with some people who are of the same kind. And I said, "Lord, if this is from you, keep it and strengthen it, but if this is not from you, dispel it." And at that same moment I lost that ability. I am so thankful that I do not have to ask myself that question — I simply do not have that ability anymore. I am naturally sensitive toward other people, I have some experience in dealing with people, but I do not have that ability that so many psychics and people like them are proud of.
This does not mean that every person with extrasensory perception who experiences or uses that ability derives it from the forces of evil. There are some people who simply have that ability as a natural gift, and there are some who are being used by the dark forces — but that is not the issue. The issue is that we should try not to ascribe supernatural qualities to natural abilities.
As a doctor, I remember being visited by a psychic who told me, "You know, would you like to work together? I have the gift of healing. Would you like me to help you in those situations when you cannot do anything?" I looked at him and didn’t like him too much. I asked him, "And how will you prove it?" He extended his hands, and I felt enveloped in a wave of heat. Then he closed his hand and said, "Can you feel anything?" — "Yes, I feel the heat." He extended his hands again — and I got hit with an icy-cold wave. — "You see what I can do?" Then I asked him, "Tell me, do you heal people for free, out of love for them and God, or do you expect gratuity from them?" — "Oh no, — said he, — I am not going to heal anyone for free." I told him, "That means your gift is not from God, get out of here."
So, there is a boundary here: there are people who have been given one or another gift and use it for their own gain. There are people who are endowed with some kind of gift — be it simply intellect, good singing voice, or anything else — they need to be cautious not to say: "How wonderful I am, I have a great gift!" And you know, often you could replace pride and even foolish vanity with gratitude: if we were grateful for good deeds and gifts that we have, we would be free from prelest.
I'll give you an example. I might already have given it to you at some point. Once, a girl came to me; she was 25-26 years old. She sat on the sofa in front of me, lowered her head and made a horrible face. I said, "What's the matter?" — "Father Anthony, I'm a sinner." — I said, "I have always known that. What's new?" — "I am a sinner." — "So how does your sinfulness manifest itself?" — "Every time I go past a mirror and see my face, I find that I am nice-looking." I looked at her and said, "Indeed, you are nice-looking." — "So does that mean I am lost, does that mean I will not achieve salvation because I am nice-looking?"
I said, "No, quite the contrary. This is what you should do: twice a day, stand in front of the mirror, look at yourself, look at every feature of your face — at the forehead, eyebrows, eyes, nose, lips, cheeks, chin, at your hair — and every time you find that this or that feature is truly lovely and very beautiful, stop and say, "Lord, thank you for granting me this; I myself wouldn’t have been able to make it." And if you learn to thank Him for everything, then gratitude and wonder at God's mercy will be born in you instead of vanity and pride. And then you will touch upon the first beatitude — "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." It belongs to those poor who know that they have nothing of their own and that everything they have has been given to them by God — and that is the Kingdom of God." And then I added, "And when you finish thanking God for your nice-looking face, stop and say, "Lord, forgive me for forcing such an ugly expression on the features that You had created so lovely."
So, I think that given this context of prelest, of our tendency to imagine things about ourselves, be it in prayer or in the gifts of the mind or the heart, we should be searching ourselves. First, we should ask God this question, "Is it from You or not? If not — take it away from me, even if that means I will lose everything." And second, "If it is from You, teach me to be thankful from the bottom of my heart." Then everything will be fine.