Discernment of grace and prelest

Discernment (discretion, discrimination)  is the highest virtue. Many Holy Fathers reached love but did not reach discernment to a large extent. But, nevertheless, they are called saints. Discernment is the child of humility and of many tens of years of fighting with passions. St Theophan the Recluse writes: "whoever wants to know more precisely what discernment of thoughts is, let him read the book of answers by Barsanuphius and John, the clairvoyant recluses. Concerning any deed, thoughts can double and triple - which should we follow? If a passionate thought appeared as it is in comparison with a non-passionate one, then it would be easy to determine; but as a rule, in one who has begun to pay attention to himself, passionate thoughts do not appear in their own form, but always under a plausible cover. That is why there is always a danger of acting as though it were good, but meanwhile it will be out of passion. In the aforementioned book, all kinds of cases are discussed by the God-enlightened mind of the perspicacious elders; there is presented a detailed teaching of how to discern the judgments of the truth of God in this respect.".

The Hermit could not Distinguish his Own Thoughts from those of the Enemy

St. Leo of Optina (1768 - 1841)

Elder Fr. Leonid answering questions from Alexey Polikarpovich Bochkov, later Antony, Hegumen of the Cheremenetsky monastery.

6. How do we know which thoughts are actually ours and which are from the devil?

I was told by a hermit of Konevets that while he practiced the noetic prayer for a long time, he could not distinguish his own thoughts from ones of the enemy. The enemy when drawing your thought to something, does not say to you, ‘Go, do this and that,’ but as if thinks for you, and tells you with your thought, ‘I want to do this and that; I believe that this is useful, and this is harmful; I have decided to do this and that.’ And all these things are often not yours, but the thoughts of the enemy, covered by your or his self. You think they are your thoughts. No, you are only listening to the enemy's suggestions [Those who heed their salvation should remember this carefully].

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Elder Ephraim on Spiritual Delusion (video)

How we can distinguish when the Devil wants to deceive us? (at 52:17)

Whenever the devil tries to trick you to things that maybe that was a good sign from Jesus and that really was and was the devil, how can you easily distinguish between the two?

The way to distinguish whether or not these spiritual experiences are from the Lord or from the devil is to see what results of them are, what the fruits of them are in our lives. If the experience that we had is from the Lord, accompanied it will be with humility, peace in our soul, and certain spiritual blessings and fruits that come from that: we feel that it is from the Lord. If on the other hand, if there is something from the devil, the results will be different: there will be an uneasiness about it, there will be a discomfort, there will be a spiritual unrest that will be created by the activity of the devil in our lives and of course that sometimes leads to pride. So when we are not sure about a spiritual experience is to whether or not it is from the devil or not or whether it is from the Lord, we are to go for insurance to our spiritual guide, our spiritual father. We do this in order to check ourselves out. We need to go to somebody who help us make this discernment, to find out whether is something of the Lord. If we only depend on ourselves, if we make our own judgment on this, if we in a sense draw our own conclusions about the validity of the experience, we can easily fool ourselves, thinking that this is from the God while in reality it is not from the God, it could be from the devil. That requires a tremendous amount of spiritual discernment in order to be able to make distinction which one is from the devil and which from the Lord.

Elder Silouan about Discretion (Discernment)

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). "Saint Silouan, the Athonite". Part II. Works of Elder Silouan

Saint Silouan the Athonite

If you see a light either within or outside yourself, do not trust it, if you have not got together with this light in your heart adoration to God and love for your neighbour; but have no fear either, just humble yourself, and this light will disappear.

If you see some vision, image, or a dream, give no trust to it, for if it is from Our Lord, then the Lord will give you understanding. The soul that does not know the savour of the Holy Spirit is unable to understand the origin of a vision. The Enemy gives some kind of sweetness mixed with vain self-satisfaction to the soul, and that is how you can understand it is a delusion.

The Fathers say that if a vision is provoked by the Enemy, the soul experiences a certain confusion. But only a humble man, who does not judge himself to be worthy of visions, experiences turmoil or fear under the action of the Enemy; but a vain man may experience neither fear nor even the least distress, for he desires to have visions and judges himself to be worthy of them, and for this reason the Enemy deceives him easily.

What is in heaven is known by the Holy Spirit, what is on earth, by intelligence; whoever tries to know God by the ways of intelligence is in delusion, for God cannot be truly known except by the Holy Spirit.

If you see demons by your spirit, humble yourself and try not to see them, but go without delay to the confessor or to the elder to which you entrusted yourself. Tell everything to your confessor and then the Lord will have compassion on you and you will escape delusion. But if you think that in the domain of the spiritual life you see further than your confessor, if in confession you stop telling him what happens to you, then by that pride you will certainly experience some delusion, by God’s will, in order to give you instruction.

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About Discernment of Thoughts

Saints Barsanuphius the Great and John the Prophet. "Letters".

St Barsanuphius the Great (6th cent.)

Note: English translation and letter numbering is from the translation by John Chryssavgis. The numbering in the English and Russian translations are different.

(There are 15 letters in this article; 6 more letters on discernment are in False Visions, and also there is Letter 421)

Letter 124
Question from a monk named Theodore to the Great Old Man: 'How can I know which thoughts are from God, which are natural and which are from the demons?" Response by Barsanuphius.

My child, Theodore, when you ask a question, you should understand what you are asking and prepare yourself for work. For it is written: "Do not be haughty, but give yourselves to humble tasks."(Rom 12.16) Your questions, brother, belong to someone with high measures. Therefore, unless the inner eye is purified by means of much sweat, you cannot be detached from thorns and prickles in order to seize the grape that strengthens and gladdens the heart. If one does not reach this measure, then one is unable to discern whether one is ridiculed and deceived by the demons in trusting them. For they transform matters as they desire, especially for those who are not familiar with their tricks. Therefore, beloved one, hope in the Lord, "and he shall give you the desires of your heart."(Ps 36.4) Cut off your own will, and in all things say to the Lord: "Not as I want, but as you want,"(Mt 26.39) and then he shall treat you in accordance with his mercy.

Child, listen to the way of discerning the three thoughts, about which you have inquired. When your thought suggests that you are doing something according to the will of God, and you find joy in the matter but also find affliction resisting you, learn that this is from God and struggle to endure, according to the words of Paul: "I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified";(1 Cor 9.27) so just fulfill the will of God.

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.

Discernment Is Born of Humility

Saint Peter of Damaskos. Book1. A Treasury of Divine Knowledge. From Philokalia, Vol. 3.

St Peter of Damaskos (12th cent.)

If by the grace of God you have received the gift of discrimination, you should in great humility do everything you can to guard it, so that you do nothing without it. Otherwise you will bring on yourself greater chastisement by sinning knowingly because of your negligence. If you have not received this gift you should not think, say or do anything without consulting others about it, and without a basis of firm faith and pure prayer. Without such faith and such prayer you will never truly achieve discrimination.

Discrimination is born of humility. On its possessor it confers spiritual insight, as both Moses and St John Klimakos say: such a man foresees the hidden designs of the enemy and foils them before they are put into operation. It is as David states: ‘And my eyes looked down upon my enemies’ (Ps. 14:7. LXX). Discrimination is characterized by an unerring recognition of what is good and what is not, and the knowledge of the will of God in all that one does. Spiritual insight is characterized, first, by awareness of one’s own failings before they issue in outward actions, as well as of the stealthy tricks of the demons; and, second, by the knowledge of the mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures and in sensible creation.

Saint Theophan the Recluse on Discernment

Selected psalms interpreted by Saint Theophan the Recluse.

St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894)

The truth of God is the commandments: the decisions of the truth of God are God's judgments and determinations of what, when and how things should be done in order to serve the cause of salvation and pleasing God, and not ruin it. This is determined by the well-known "reasoning" of the holy fathers. This is the second requirement for success in the work of God.

This reasoning, or the ability to determine how best to act in which case, is not acquired suddenly, but gradually. At first, he who approaches the way of God usually does not reason himself, but asks everything from those who know how to reason, as it happens in all worldly affairs and undertakings. But then, with strict attention, which was suggested in the previous verse, and with experiments in leadership, deeds after deeds, successfully completed, give the soul the habit of determining something by itself. This skill grows along with the progress of life and is finally established; internal rightness is acquired, which directly and correctly determines what and how to do; the right spirit is renewed in the womb, that is, in a purified heart.

Confusion is the Sign of Devil’s Presence

Extracts from the Life of Elder Ignatius the Blind, the Athonite (1827-7.11.1927).

Elder Ignatius the Blind, the Athonite (1827 - 7.11.1927)

Devil also tempted spiritual children of Elder Ignatius. One of them heard very late in the night somebody knocking at the door and a gentle voice saying: ‘My child, do get up! Go down and enter the church. My everburning lamp has blown out.’ The disciple got up, went to the church and saw that it was true that the lamp at the icon of the Mother of God blew out. He lighted it, prayed and got back to the cell. He decided not to say anything to the Elder about this, as he believed it was not a sin. But the Elder saw all this through. He forced the disciple to own up and asked him afterwards, ‘What feeling did you have when lighting the lamp?’ ‘Joy and gratitude’, said he. ‘What else?’ the Elder persevered. ‘There was a kind of worry and confusion’, the disciple specified. ‘That’s the main feature of devil’s presence,’ the Elder said.

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True Discernment Comes from True Humility

Saint John Cassian. "Conferences".

St John Cassian (4th-5th cent.)

The Second Conference of Abbot Moses. On Discretion.

Chapter X. The answer how true discretion may be gained.

THEN MOSES: True discretion, said he, is only secured by true humility. And of this humility the first proof is given by reserving everything (not only what you do but also what you think), for the scrutiny of the elders, so as not to trust at all in your own judgment but to acquiesce in their decisions in all points, and to acknowledge what ought to be considered good or bad by their traditions.[99] And this habit will not only teach a young man to walk in the right path through the true way of discretion, but will also keep him unhurt by all the crafts and deceits of the enemy. For a man cannot possibly be deceived, who lives not by his own judgment but according to the example of the elders, nor will our crafty foe be able to abuse the ignorance of one who is not accustomed from false modesty to conceal all the thoughts which rise in his heart, but either checks them or suffers them to remain, in accordance with the ripened judgment of the elders. For a wrong thought is enfeebled at the moment that it is discovered: and even before the sentence of discretion has been given, the foul serpent is by the power of confession dragged out, so to speak, from his dark under-ground cavern, and in some sense shown up and sent away in disgrace. For evil thoughts will hold sway in us just so long as they are hidden in the heart: and that you may gather still more effectually the power of this judgment I will tell you what Abbot Serapion did,[100] and what he used often to tell to the younger brethren for their edification.

St Leo Understood that the “Foreseeing” Monk is in a Devilish Delusion

From the Life of St Leo of Optina

Elder Leo of Optina (1768 - 1841)

As an example of a spiritual discernment, the following story is given. At the end of the 20s or at the beginning of the 30s, the Elder Fr. Leonid visited the Sofronieva Hermitage in Putivl District, Kursk Province. At that time, Hieroschemamonk Theodosius lived there in a hermitage in the garden, and many considered him a spiritual and clairvoyant man, because he predicted in his time the Patriotic War of 1812 and some other events. Fr Leonid found his spiritual condition questionable. After talking with the hermit, the Elder asked him, how he knew and foretold the future. The hermit answered that the Holy Spirit disclosed him the future. When further asked by the Elder, in what way did He disclose it, he explained that the Holy Spirit appeared to him in the form of a dove and spoke to him with a human voice. Seeing that this was an obvious delusion of the enemy, Fr. Leonid began to warn the recluse that such things should not be trusted. But he was offended, and with indignation objected to the Elder, “I thought that you, like the others, wanted to get useful things from me, and you came to teach me!” After that, the Elder Fr. Leonid withdrew and, leaving the monastery, said to the abbot, “Take care of your holy recluse, lest anything bad happens to him.” Barely had Fr. Leonid reached Oryol, when he learned there that poor Theodosius had hanged himself. From this, we may conclude that although this hermit was in the delusion of the enemy, the mercy of God did not entirely depart from him. However, when he rejected the benevolent warning of the wise and experienced Elder, the Lord forsook him, and he died such a horrible death.

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The Ladder about Discernment

St. John of Sinai. "The Ladder of Divine Ascent". Step 26.

St John of Sinai (6th-7th cent.)

On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues

1. Discernment in beginners is true knowledge of themselves; in intermediate souls it is a spiritual sense that faultlessly distinguishes what is truly good from what is of nature and opposed to it; and in the perfect it is the knowledge which they possess by divine illumination, and which can enlighten with its lamp what is dark in others. Or perhaps, generally speaking, discernment is, and is recognized as, the assured understanding of the divine will on all occasions, in every place and in all matters; and it is only found in those who are pure in heart, and in body and in mouth.

2. He who has piously destroyed within him the three passions [gluttony, cupidity, vainglory] has destroyed the five [lust, anger, despair, despondency, pride (St. Gregory of Sinai, ch. 91)] too; but he who has been negligent about the former will not conquer even one passion.

3. Discernment is undefiled conscience and purity of feeling.

4. Let no one on seeing or hearing something supernatural in the monastic way of life fall into unbelief out of ignorance; for where the supernatural God dwells, much that is supernatural happens.

5. Every satanic conflict in us comes from these three generic causes: either from negligence, or from pride, or from the envy of the demons. The first is pitiable, the second is disastrous, but the third is blessed.

Peter of Damaskos on Discernment

St Peter of Damaskos. "Book II. Twenty-Four Discourses". XI. Discrimination.

St Peter of Damaskos (12th cent.)

It is excellent to seek advice about everything, but only from those with experience. It is dangerous to ask questions of the inexperienced, because they do not possess discrimination. Discrimination knows when the time is ripe, what means to employ, the inner state of the questioner, what level he has reached, his strength, his degree of spiritual knowledge and his intention, as well as God’s purpose and the meaning of each verse of Holy Scripture, and much else besides. Hence he who lacks discrimination may exert himself enormously, but he cannot achieve anything; while the person who possesses it is a guide to the blind and a light to those in darkness (cf.Rom. 2:19). We should refer everything to such a person and accept whatever he says, even if because of our inexperience we do not see its import as well as we would like. Indeed, he who has discrimination is to be recognized in particular from the fact that he is able to communicate the sense of what he says even to those who do not want to know it. For the Spirit searches things out; and God’s presence has the power to persuade even an unwilling intellect to believe. This is what happened in the case of Jonah (cf. Jonah 1:3), Zacharias(cf. Luke 1:18) and - the monk David, once a brigand, whom the angel prevented from saying anything except the psalms that he recited according to his rule of prayer.

How to Acquire Discernment of Thoughts

Evagrius. "On thoughts".

26. How to Acquire the Knowledge of Discernment.

If any of the hermits wishes to receive from the Lord the knowledge of discernment (diakrisis), he should first work eagerly at the commandments that are at hand [in his power], not omitting anything. And so at the time of prayer he should request knowledge from God, who gives generously to all without reproaching; but let him ask without doubting (Jas 1:5), not thrown about by waves of doubt (cf. Mt. 8:24) , and it will be given him (Jas 1:5).

For it is not possible to receive knowledge of even more matters if one has been neglectful of those matters already known otherwise, having transgressed greatly one would be answerable for even more sins.

And it is a blessed thing to serve the knowledge of God, for it is truly dangerous not to do what [such knowledge] advises, and it is blessed to do all that it teaches.

The nous [wanders in] circles when it is impassioned (empathēs) and becomes difficult to restrain when it reflects [within itself] on matters that produce pleasures.

But it ceases to wander when, having attained apatheia, it meets the incorporeal [beings], who fulfill its spiritual desires (epithumias).

HOWEVER, it is impossible to receive knowledge without having made the first, second, and third renunciation[s].

The first renunciation is to voluntarily leave all worldly things for the knowledge of God; the second is the casting aside of evil which occurs through the grace of Christ our Savior and the zeal of the human person; the third renunciation is separation from ignorance concerning those things that are naturally manifested to people in accordance with their state.


God Teaches Us to Be Guided by Those Who Are Advanced on the Way (On Discernment)

Saint John Cassian. "On the Holy Fathers of Sketis And on Discrimination". Written for Abba Leontios. From Philokalia, Vol. 1.

St John Cassian (4th-5th cent.)

'From all that has been said, we may conclude that nothing leads so surely to salvation as to confess our private thoughts to those fathers most graced with the power of discrimination, and in our pursuit of holiness to be guided by them rather than by our own thoughts and judgment. Nor should the fact that we may encounter an elder who is somewhat simple-minded or lacking in experience either prevent us from confessing to the fathers who are truly qualified, or make us despise our ancestral traditions. Many texts from the divine Scriptures make it clear that the fathers did not say these things according to their own-lights, but were inspired by God Himself and by the Scriptures to hand down to their successors the tradition of asking advice from those who had traveled far along the spiritual path. This is borne out especially by the story of the holy Samuel, who from infancy was dedicated by his mother to God and was granted communion with Him. He still did not trust his own thoughts, and in spite of having been called three times by God, he went to the elder, Eli, and was instructed and guided by him about how he should answer God (cf. 1 Sam. 3:9-10). Although God called him personally, none the less He wanted Samuel to receive the guidance and discipline of the elder, so that by means of this example we too might be led towards humility.

How to Obtain Discernment of Spirits

Saint Seraphim of Sarov.

It is very useful to spend time reading the word of God in solitude and to read the whole Bible with understanding. In return for this exercise alone, without the addition of any other virtuous deeds, the Lord grants man His mercy and fills him with the gift of understanding. When a man provides his soul with the word of God, then he is granted the understanding of what is good and what is evil.


Saint Maximos Kavsokalyvites on the Signs of Illusion and Grace

Saint Maximos Kavsokalyvites on Noetic Prayer.

Sts. Maximos and Gregory

A native of Lampsacus on the Hellespont, Saint Maximos became a monk at the age of seventeen. When his spiritual father died, he went on pilgrimage to Constantinople, where he took up the ascesis of folly for Christ, pretending madness in order to conceal his virtues and struggles from the world. He then went to the Great Lavra of St Athanasius on Mount Athos, where he lived as a simple monk in complete obedience.

One day, he was told in a dream to go to the summit of Athos to receive (like Moses) the tablets of the spiritual law. He prayed continuously atop the Holy Mountain for three days, after which the Mother of God appeared to him surrounded by angels. She gave him a miraculous loaf for his sustenance and told him to live in solitude on the wild slopes of Mount Athos. Henceforth he lived apart, barefoot in all weather.

He would build himself crude shelters of branches and brush; after living in one for a short time he would burn it and move to a new place. Thus he received the name Kavsokalyvites "the Hut Burner" from the other monks, who dismissed him as a madman.

Saint Gregory the Sinaite, one of the great Hesychasts, heard of St Maximos, and hurried to meet him. When they met, St Maximos put aside his usual silence at St Gregory's pleading, and they discoursed together for many hours. St Gregory asked St Maximos the story of his life, and Maximos told him of the wonders God had accomplished in him since his youth. He said that one day, when still very young, he was praying with tears before the icon of the Mother of God, and as he bent to venerate it a gentle dew-like warmth suddenly filled his chest and heart, producing abundant compunction; and that since then his nous, stationed unshakeably in his heart, had not ceased to invoke the Name of Jesus and that of the Mother of God with unutterable sweetness.

Never Accept Images without Asking the Experienced

Patriarch Callistus and Ignatius of Xanthopoulos. "Directions to hesychasts, in a hundred chapters".

73. More on imaginings and fantasies of the mind, and on the distinctive Signs of prelest and of truth

The signs of prelest

Keeping silence and wishing to be alone with the one God, if you see something sensory or mental, whether within or without - such as the face of Christ, or of an angel, or the image of a saint, or some radiant image dreamed of by the mind - never accept it, but indignantly refuse to believe in it, even if it is good, until you have questioned someone with experience. Such behaviour is the most practical, profitable and pleasing to God. Always keep your mind empty of colour, image, form, appearance, quality or quantity, solely listening to the words of the prayer, learning from them and pondering over them in an inner movement of the heart, thus following St. John of the Ladder who says: 'The beginning of prayer is to banish oncoming thoughts as soon as they appear. Its middle stage is to keep the mind contained in the words we say or think. The perfection of prayer is ravishment to the Lord' (Ch. 28). St. Nilus speaks of it thus: 'The highest prayer of the perfect is the ravishment of the mind and its total transcendence of everything sensory, when "the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered" (Rom. viii. 26), before God, Who sees our heart like an open book, intimating its desire by the soundless signs written therein. Thus St. Paul was "caught up to the third heaven", "whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell" (2 Cor. xii. 2). Thus "Peter went up upon the housetop to pray" and saw a vision (Acts x. 9 ). The stage of prayer which comes second to this higher prayer, is when the words are pronounced with a contrite mind following the words, conscious of Him to Whom it sends its prayer. But a prayer interrupted by cares of the flesh and mixed with them is far from a level becoming to one who prays.' Abide in this and accept nothing else until your passions are subdued, always questioning the experienced, as has been said. These are the signs of prelest.

How do Saints Tell the Will of God?

Protopriest Konstantin Rovinsky. "Old priest’s conversations with his spiritual children".

Protopriest Konstantin Rovinsky (1862 - 5.9.1942)

About Fr. Alexis Mechev

When everything happened as the Father had said, I asked him once during one of our conversations how he could know exactly the will of God when revealing it to me.

The Father wasn’t a little surprised at my question and answered me: ‘The very first thought that comes to one’s mind after the prayer, comes from God, and one has to follow it [1]. As I noticed that many times and got absolutely sure about this, in certain cases after an ardent prayer, I began to proclaim His will. This was my way with you, too…’

I also heard that from an archbishop, a great man of prayer. He said, when giving me an example, ‘Sometimes, after having prayed, I made my decision to punish a faulty clergyman, but later felt pity for him and didn’t discipline him strictly, which was not good for him, as the future revealed. One must stick to the first thought that comes after one’s prayer.’

[1] The first thought of a person who leads a holy life is meant. St. Alexis (Mechev) was one of such persons. Especially the first thought when the person is asked by another person, not when he thinks something by himself.– Eds.

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