Understanding of delusion among the Holy Fathers

St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) (1807-1867) clearly explained the teaching of the Holy Fathers about delusion for the modern readers. This teaching is summarized in the article about St. Ignatius in the Orthodox Encyclopedia as follows:
St. Ignatius believed that the main danger in the spiritual life is falling into delusion. The saint devoted large portion of his works to analysis of this phenomenon. By definition of St. Ignatius, "delusion is the wounding of human nature by falsehood" (On the Jesus Prayer: Conversation of an elder with a disciple // Complete set of works Vol. 1. P. 212). The devil used lies to tempt Adam and Eve already in the Paradise. Progenitors of the human race considered false words of the tempter to be true and doubted the words of God. As a result, they broke the commandment given by God and fell away from the source of life. Being affected by sin, human nature in the descendants of Adam and Eve was more eager to the evil than to the good, taking pleasure from communicating with the evil. Such deception is caused by the fact that the strength of the human soul - will, feeling, mind - are perverted by sin. "We are born such”, St. Ignatius said, “We can not be others: because all of us, without exception, are in a state of self-delusion and demonic deception" (Ibid, pp. 213). Lord Jesus Christ saved people from this deception, which all the mankind succumbed to. Lord Jesus, who himself is the Truth (cf. Jn 14: 6) proclaimed this truth to the world. The freedom is given to persons to obey either God or the devil that tempts each person. "He is trying to seduce and deceive us, basing on our state of self-delusion; he sets in motion our passions - these painful craving; he makes their adverse claims look like plausibility, increasingly inclines us to the satisfaction of the passions"(Ibid, pp. 214). Those who do not resist the temptation using the teachings of the Gospel, according to St. Ignatius, become totally subordinate to the devil and go from self-deception to the state of demonic delusion.

St. Ignatius believed that there are different kinds of delusion corresponding to passions, by which they are generated. Pride is an indication of any kind of delusion. "Terrible pride, like the pride of demons”, St. Ignatius wrote, “is the main feature of those who assimilated one or another delusion" (Ibid, pp. 233). All sorts of delusion are associated with prayer. They "arise from the fact that repentance is not the foundation of prayer" (Ibid. 215), and are reduced to two main ones, "occurring because of improper action of the mind, or the wrong action of the heart" (Ibid pp. 239). The first kind of the delusion is that "the praying person uses the power of imagination to make up the dreams or pictures, borrowing them, apparently, from the Holy Scriptures, but in fact from his own state ..." (Ibid, pp. 216). St. Ignatius called such prayer dreamy and considered it "the influence of Satan". Such prayer is usually associated with the appearance of visions, light, smelling fragrance, hearing voices, and so on. Another more extensive kind of delusion is connected to this one; St. Ignatius called it "conceit". A person in this state does not excite the imagination, but he focuses on the experience of a variety of "heart sensations" and erroneously attributes them to the action of grace. Dreaminess also operates in such a man, but "acts solely in the abstract field" (Ibid, pp. 232). The deluded person makes up "false spiritual state, close fellowship with Jesus, the inner conversation with Him, the mysterious revelation, voices of pleasure ..." (Ibid). In addition to striving for grace feelings, people exposed to this error have a high opinion of themselves and attribute to themselves the gifts of grace and spiritual virtues, " they seem to be intoxicated with themselves, with their state of self-delusion, seeing it as the state of grace" (Ibid, pp. 230) . On this basis, St. Ignatius believes that heresies, schisms, impiety, blasphemy originated from this "conceit" (Ibid, pp. 235). Interconnection of both types of delusion is that the mind and the heart, not purified from the passions and not renovated by the Holy Spirit, aspire to see God and to experience His presence in the soul, but, not being able to this, make up imaginary grace gifts for the purpose of enjoyment. Thus, such states "are the actions of subtle vanity and lust" (Ibid, pp. 233).

The only way to avoid delusion is repentant arrangement of the soul, i.e. permanent contrition of the heart, because the commandment of repentance accommodates all the other commandments of God (Ibid, pp. 228). Only those who walk the path of repentance gradually acquire gifts of grace, which the deluded persons try to find prematurely. Genuine gracious revelation has different nature than it is imagined by the carnal man. Likewise, the true senses of grace have nothing to do with the experience of the deluded persons and come with purification of the soul through repentance.

Kinds of delusion:

Spiritual Discernment in the Orthodox Tradition

Nun Macaria. "The Angel of Light and Spiritual Discernment in the Orthodox Tradition" –an Epiphany Journal Reprint.

The knight in John Keats’ poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, with his fatally naive fascination for the supernatural, has much in common with today’s spiritual seeker. The knight is described as being «at-arms,» that is, prepared for battle or for some high adventure. Had he been specifically intent on romance he might have been dressed differently. He was not prepared for the kind of adventure he encountered: he did not recognize the enemy. He had a supernatural vision which was beautiful and enticing but it did not occur to him that such a vision could be harmful. When the true nature of the vision was revealed, it was too late for him. The poet implies that the youth has received a fatal, invisible wound. This fascination with the supernatural and with fair-seeming, hostile spirits was a favorite theme for the Romantic poets, as it is in our time. In both cases there has been a rejection of materialism in favor of the supernatural but without any leavening of discernment. In fact, the contemporary world has no standard or guideline for discernment. It represents a plurality of world views in which the only common understanding is that there is no truth. Even modern Christianity is ill-equipped for this task, cut off as it is from the grace and wisdom of holy Tradition. If we wish to find practical, experiential knowledge of the spiritual world, and in particular about the discernment of spirits, we need to turn to the writings of the Holy Fathers and the Saints of the Orthodox Church. We will find a harmony and consistency in these many voices of experience, from the earliest days of the Church until our own.

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Two Forms and Three Sources of Delusion

Saint Gregory of Sinai. "On Commandments and Doctrines, Warnings and Promises; On Thoughts, Passions and Virtues, and Also on Stillness and Prayer: One Hundred and Thirty-Seven Texts". From Philokalia, Vol. 4.

131. Here something must be said about delusion, so far as this is possible; for, because of its deviousness and the number of ways in which it can ensnare us, few recognize it clearly and for most it is almost inscrutable. Delusion manifests itself or, rather, attacks and invades us in two ways - in the form of mental images and fantasies or in the form of diabolic influence - though its sole cause and origin is always arrogance. The first form is the origin of the second and the second is the origin of a third form - mental derangement. The first form, illusory visions, is caused by self-conceit; for this leads us to invest the divine with some illusory shape, thus deceiving us through mental images and fantasies. This deception in its turn produces blasphemy as well as the fear induced by monstrous apparitions, occurring both when awake and when asleep - a state described as the terror and perturbation of the soul. Thus arrogance is followed by delusion, delusion by blasphemy, blasphemy by fear, fear by terror, and terror by a derangement of the natural state of the mind. This is the first form of delusion, that induced by mental images and fantasies.

The second form, induced by diabolic influence, is as follows. It has its origin in self-indulgence, which in its turn results from so-called natural desire. Self-indulgence begets licentiousness in all its forms of indescribable impurity. By inflaming man's whole nature and clouding his intelligence as a result of its intercourse with spurious images, licentiousness deranges the intellect, searing it into a state of delirium and impelling its victim to utter false prophecies, interpreting the visions and discourses of certain supposed saints, which he claims arc revealed to him when he is intoxicated and befuddled with passion, his whole character perverted and corrupted by demons. Those ignorant of spiritual matters, beguiled by delusion, call such men 'little souls'. These 'little souls' are to be found sitting near the shrines of saints, by whose spirit they claim to be inspired and tested, and whose purported message they proclaim to others. But in truth they should be called possessed by the demons, deceived and enslaved by delusion, and not prophets foretelling what is to happen now and in the future. For the demon of licentiousness himself darkens and deranges their minds, inflaming them with the fire of spiritual lust, conjuring up before them the illusory appearance of saints, and making them hear conversations and see visions. Sometimes the demons themselves appear to them and convulse them with fear. For having harnessed them to the yoke of Belial, the demon of licentiousness drives them on to practice their deceits, so that he may keep them captive and enslaved until death, when he will consign them to hell.

132. Delusion arises in us from three principal sources: arrogance, the envy of demons, and the divine will that allows us to be tried and corrected. Arrogance arises from superficiality, demonic envy is provoked by our spiritual progress, and the need for correction is the consequence of our sinful way of life. The delusion arising solely from envy and self-conceit is swiftly healed, especially when we humble ourselves. On the other hand, the delusion allowed by God for our correction, when we are handed over to Satan because of our sinfulness, God often permits to continue until our death, if this is needed to efface our sins. Sometimes God hands over even the guiltless to the torment of demons for the sake of their salvation. One should also know that the demon of self-conceit himself prophesies in those who are not scrupulously attentive to their hearts.

A Monk Made 3000 Prostrations a Day

Elder Daniel Katounakiotis

Archimandrite Cherubim. "Contemporary Ascetics of Mount Athos".

The Deluded "Super-Ascetic" Who Made 3,000 Prostrations A Day.

When Elder Daniel Katounakiotis (+1929) was in the Russian Monastery, he observed that a certain monk living in asceticism in a kathisma outside the Monastery played a role of a great ascetic. He fasted severely, wore the most wretched clothes, walked around barefoot even in winter, etc. Among other things, while the rule called for 300 prostrations a day, he made 3000. For this reason the other monks marvelled at him.

Elder Daniel, even though he was younger at the time, displayed no enthusiasm. His clear-sighted eyes discerned a situation that was not pleasing to God. He noticed that the door of his kathisma contained an opening which allowed the passers-by to look in and praise his great asceticism.

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