St Macarius of Optina Letters. Letters to laity. Letter 445
Highly esteemed in the Lord N.N.,
I have received your letter, which was sent in March of this year, and I am astonished, indeed, that not knowing me at all you should choose to describe to me your strange experiences, and ask my advice about all your doubts. I, knowing myself being both physically and spiritually weak, should prefer to refuse to talk about things so difficult and high for me. I was going to refuse to answer your questions; but considering your faith with which you seek advice and feeling sorry about your condition in the past and in the present, which you described, I dared to write you (after having taken counsel with our fathers since God is known to have placed the right word of guidance even in the mouth of dumb beasts). I will try to give you some relevant passages of the teaching of the Holy Fathers, and will try to represent actions of the enemy’s deception in order to warn you not to follow it although it may falsely look like the truth.
By the way, you yourself once had mentioned your suspicions of having strayed into the enemy’s nets. In the light of knowledge of the Holy Fathers you would see that more clear and embrace this truth, then, leaving the lies, follow cautiously the doctrine of the Holy Fathers. Here are some passages I have prepared for you.
The spiritual deception, according to Gregory of Sinai (Philokalia, part 132; in the Russian Philokalia Vol.5, P.233) has two reasons from the men’s side: pride and sinful life, for this reasons a man is made a laughing stock for spiritual enemies. God permits this temptation in order that man should come to his senses, do penance and change his ways if he wants.
According to your letter, I conclude that the first snare of the deception was laid for you in 1853, in the town of T., when you were recovering from an illness: you were visited by the illusion that as you looked at the icons they changed, until one day rosy rings, detaching themselves from the icon of our Lady, entered your heart bringing with them the firm conviction that you had been granted the pardon of your sins. On the authority of the Fathers, I can assure you that the moment you accepted this as a true revelation, you fell into the net of the enemy. All that followed was merely a result of this event.
No demon can represent the true image of the Lord Christ as Barsanuphius the Great rightly affirms in his book, answer 413; but they can make deception by creating a form of an ordinary man. This must have happened in your apparition of our Lady and Child, and others on the icons.
St Barsanuphius also tells us in the same Answer 413 that devils are incapable of evoking the Holy Cross even in a man’s dreams; and Holy Church proclaims in songs: “In Thy Cross, O Lord, hast thou given us a sure weapon; a mighty weapon against our enemy; who shudders, trembles, and creeps away, wounded at the awful sight.” Therefore, your vision of the Metropolitan with Gospels and Cross in hand, and of the host of devils who, clutching your head, made the sign of the cross with it on the floor at his feet, can be nothing but an illusion, for the enemy fears the Cross. But God let the devil take possession of your mind, and the devil, while actually showing you some other figure, suggested that it was the Cross. All this he does to bring you more confusion.
The same applies to your illusion of someone repeating after you the words of your prayer. Several stories of the Fathers (in Synaxarium) make it quite clear that no devil can say the Jesus Prayer which (according to John Climacus, The Ladder, Step 21, § 7, p.142 ) is the strongest weapon against them. You write, they repeat the words of this prayer after you, however, it is nothing but illusion: they simply make indistinct noises, and only suggest to you that these are the words of this prayer. They do this in order to prove to you that they do not fear it, but you should not trust them. On the whole, you should know that the Fathers insist that forms, color, light, singing, and smells, both good and bad, etc. are demonic delusions (See St Simeon the New Theologian on the first way of prayer, St Peter Damascene on seven deeds, Sts. Callistus and Ignatius, chapter 73 etc. (in Philokalia) – the editor)
The second snare of deception was laid for you when, wearied by the devil’s conjuring tricks and jogging in the mail coach, you pondered the evil of your life and longed for reconciliation with all whom you had injured and all who were proving hostile towards you. Suddenly you felt a stream of sweet joy flow into your breast. Inexperienced as you are, you assumed this also to be true, not an illusion. Soon you were so entangled in this kind of temptation that you came to the very brink of madness (as you noticed yourself). I think God, in His great mercy, prevented your reason from completely foundering only because you had strayed not willfully, but from lack of experience.
In his Step 7, John Climacus says, “Reject with your right hand, the hand of humility, all streams of joy. Lest, since you are unworthy, this joy prove a temptation, and lead you to mistake the wolf for the shepherd.” (Comp.: The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7, § 57, p. 85). The very thing had happened to you. Also other situations, including that one, when, meditating a Scripture text (I have set the Lord always before me: because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved, Ps.16:8), you felt a blow on your right shoulder succeeded by joy, mean the same thing, although you consider it to be a right one according to your opinion. The Apostle says that real spiritual joy is ‘fruit of the spirit’ (Gal.5:22), to be attained only near the summit of the way, in peace, after all evil habits and thoughts are overcome, all passions conquered, and reconciliation with God is reached.
Hence, in your actual condition, you cannot possibly assume any streams of spiritual joy. St John Climacus says: 'During temptation I have felt that this wolf was producing incomprehensible joy, tears and consolation in my soul, but I was really being deceived (by the demon of fornication when I so childishly thought to have fruit from this and not harm.’ (The Ladder, Step 15, § 42, p.119)
As you advance in spiritual reading of the Holy Fathers and learn some about the unseen warfare, the enemies invent more subtle forms of spiritual deception. As you say among other things, you often sense the presence of Jesus Christ in your room; then, filled with a joyous tremor, you fall on the ground at His feet. Your descriptions show that you imagine you see Him as a physical form, physically present in your room. If it is so, it is the most dangerous illusion, and dangerous it is to prostrate to the feet of your vision. Then you describe the same visions of the presence of your guardian angel and of the saints, which you pray to.
Beware to trust these illusions: St. Paul says that Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14), of course, in order to tempt those who are unexperienced in spiritual life. The Fathers forbid strictly to beginners to place any faith in such illusions without great discussion with the experienced monks; but it is particularly dangerous in your situation.
St Gregory of Sinai in Chapter 7 (in Philokalia) says: ‘For your part, if you are rightly cultivating stillness and aspiring to be with God, and you see something either sensory or noetic, within or without, be it even an image of Christ or of an angel or of some saint, or you imagine you see a light in your intellect and give it a specific form, you should never entertain it. For the intellect itself naturally possesses an imaginative power and in those, who do not keep a strict watch over it, can easily produce, to its own hurt, whatever forms and images it wants to. In this way the recollection of things good or evil can suddenly imprint images on the intellect's perceptive faculty and so induce it to entertain fantasies, thus making whoever this happens to a daydreamer rather than a hesychast. Be careful, therefore, not to entertain and readily give assent to anything even if it be good, before questioning those with spiritual experience and investigating it thoroughly, so as not to come to any harm. Always be suspicious of it and keep your intellect free from colors, forms and images. For it has often happened that things sent by God to test our free will, to see which way it inclines and to act as a spur to our efforts, have in fact had bad consequences. For when we see something, whether with mind or senses - even if this thing be from God - and then readily entertain it without consulting those experienced in such matters, we are easily deceived, or will be in the future, because of our gullibility. A novice should pay close attention solely to the activity of his heart, because this is not led astray. Everything else he must reject until the passions are quietened. For God does not censure those who out of fear of being deluded pay strict attention to themselves, even though this means that they refuse to entertain what He sends them until they have questioned others and made careful enquiry. Indeed, He is more likely to praise their prudence (See: Philokalia in Russian translation, Vol.5, pp.242-243).
You also say that with the eye of faith you can now see our Lord sitting on the right hand of the Father. Do not indulge this illusion either. The vision of this glory can only be bestowed on those who have conquered all passions and have attained to purity of heart. John Climacus writes, ‘Do not strive after sight before your hour for seeing has come; but let it approach unbidden, attracted by the goodness of your humility. Then will it blend with you in all purity, for ever and ever’ (Ladder of Divine Ascent. Step 7, Homily 68. § 58. P. 85). Describing the first form of the Jesus Prayer, Simeon the New Theologian unequivocally states that untrue visions lead man into the devil’s clutches (See: St Simeon the New Theologian. Works. Vol.2. P.181)
Also Isaac the Syrian in Homily 2 (p.14) (in the edition 2006 see p.21), describing the second form, writes, ‘God’s grace comes of itself without any ambitious striving on our part. It will only come to the heart that is pure.’ And, ‘should the apple of thine eye be unclean, dare not to raise it; attempt not to gaze at the ball of the sun; lest thy temerity deprive thee even of the limited sight, acquired through simple faith, humility, penance, and other lowly acts and works; lest thy temerity be punished and thou fall headlong into the outer darkness, as those who dare to come to the wedding not having a wedding garment.’
It was a mistake for you to practice mental prayer and prayer of the heart. All this is beyond your strength, outside the scope of your capacities, incompatible with your circumstances. Such practices require the strictest purity of intention towards God, men, and even things. Besides, as Simeon the New Theologian writes on the third form of the Prayer (See: St Simeon the New Theologian. Works. Vol. 2. Homily 68. P.183-185), an experienced spiritual teacher is needed. To crown it all, you are threatened by a spiritual calamity.
The great ascetic who practiced this noetic prayer, St Gregory of Sinai, writes in ‘Philokalia’ in Chapter 7: ‘It is not in the least strange that beginners should be deceived even after making great efforts, for this has happened to many who have sought God, both now and in the past. Mindfulness of God, or noetic prayer, is superior to all other activities. Indeed, being love for God, it is the chief virtue. But a person who is brazen and shameless in his approach to God, and who is over-zealous in his efforts to converse with Him in purity and to possess Him inwardly, is easily destroyed by the demons if they are given license to attack him; for in rashly and presumptuously striving prematurely to attain what is beyond his present capacity, he becomes a victim of his own arrogance. The Lord in His compassion often prevents us from succumbing to temptation when He sees us aspiring over-confidently to attain what is still beyond our powers, for in this way He gives each of us the opportunity of discovering his own presumption and so of repenting of his own accord before making himself the butt of demons as well as of other people's ridicule or pity. Especially is this the case when we try to accomplish this task with patience and contrition; for we stand in need of much sorrow and lamentation, of solitude, deprivation of all things, hardship and humility, and - most important of all for its marvelous effects - of guidance and obedience; for otherwise we might unknowingly reap thorns instead of wheat, gall instead of sweetness, ruin instead of salvation. Only the strong and the perfect can continuously fight alone with the demons, wielding against them the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. The weak and beginners escape death by taking refuge in flight, reverently and with fear withdrawing from the battle rather than risking their life prematurely ’ (See: Philokalia in the Russian translation, Vol.5.P.241-242).
Another point of the utmost importance is that you have still been harassed by an asmodeus or the demon of lust (Tobit, 3); this obstacle is of great importance in our practices of the noetical and cordial prayer, and especially when they are beyond our abilities and capacities. In the foreword to Philotheus of Sinai ‘Spiritual Chapters’ is written: ‘How easily the sensation of heat, caused by prayer, can turn to sexual lust, setting the blind heart on fire, filling the mind with the smoke of lascivious images and thoughts, and causing flesh to yearn for the touch of flesh.’ Also, St Callistus the Patriarch says: ‘The first thing that starts in the body are some movements, like itching under one’s skin; also some warmth from the kidney arises, like a belt. All this comes from this natural asceticism. If someone is proud of having that as being from God’s grace and not from natural reasons, he is undoubtedly in a sort of spiritual delusion. Also another warmth comes from the heart, and if one’s mind deepens into carnal thoughts, then it is the absolute delusion.’
Because of all this, I strongly advise you to stop all practice of the noetic prayer. Instead, read or recite, under the direction of your confessor, psalms, penitential canons, litanies and so on. Go to church as frequently as possible; live humbly, according to the admonitions of your conscience; and carefully, according to the commandments of our Lord. In other words, lead the life of an ordinary, God-fearing member of the Christian laity.
You also write that you have long ago given up eating meat. Since, in your case, this is one more occasion for pride, it is not good. Read, in the life of John Climacus, how he always ate, if only a little, of all food permitted by the monastic rule, filing down thereby the horn of self-importance (See: Ladder, Short Life of Abba John, p.VI). I advise you for the God’s sake, to eat meat whenever your family and all God-fearing men do; that is on any day except Wednesdays and Fridays and the days and weeks specially appointed by the Church for fasting; eat with moderation, of course, humbling your pride thoughts, which give you false ideas about sanctity – God forbid!
You must not get into debt in order to increase the amount of your charity! Nothing of the kind is mentioned in any book recommended by the Church even for very charitable people. In the Old Testament we read: Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it.” (comp. Proverbs 3,27). Also you have to take into the consideration the situation of your own family in order not to bring it into difficulties with unreasonable and thoughtless charity. As to Barsanuphius the Great, he insists in Answers 629 and 630, (see also Answers 626 – 628) that even the rich (to say nothing about common people) should practice particular discretion in matters of charity, so as not to expose themselves to twofold dangers, both inner and external. So far, you shall suspend your wish to be a monk, until God shows you that this may be His wish. Sometime later, when your children are well established; and if your wife then consents to enter a convent, you will have to provide her maintenance. Nuns in convents live at their own expense.
Make a rule never to speak to anyone but your confessor of your temptations. Now about your having Holy Communion every six weeks as you say you have lately been doing. If this is under the direction of your confessor, keep doing that. But if it is from your own choice, I should advise you to limit yourself to taking communion during the fasts: the Great Lent twice, St. Peter and Paul Fast and the Dormition Fast one each time, and once or twice during the Nativity Fast according to you situation This will prevent others’ attention centering round you because of your excessive zeal, and will give you less occasion for pride.
It is undoubtedly your duty to teach your family to walk in the fear of the Lord and to instruct them in the ways of a devout life. But do not teach anyone else not under your power, otherwise you only undermine your own labors. And be particularly careful to avoid all discussions; in these you will benefit no one, but may easily do yourself an injury.
You should obtain the knowledge that is needed for your piety from the books which are relevant to your situation and by asking experienced people. Do not dare to begin any dubious thing without the relevant witnesses of the Gospels, Apostles, and the Holy Fathers, and also asking experienced people; you should chose well-known and relevant to your measure of your spiritual age, not the highest of the spiritual life. There are certain steps even in mundane life, remember, you did not come in one day to your present position.
At the end of your letter you say that now, having abandoned the whole of yourself – will, thoughts, heart, soul, body – to God, you are filled with an inexpressible feeling of compassion towards your neighbours. But much of your letter flatly contradicts this! In one place you mention how troubled you are by hatred of one or the other person: in another, how sternly you treat your subordinates, and what a fury possesses you when you admonish them: you even say that such people cannot be otherwise treated.
All of this contradicts the teaching of the Gospel, which is the guide for those who rule their lives in God, having truly abandoned to Him their soul and body. For one thing is to admonish in the spirit of gentleness those who do wrong, and another thing is letting the fury overpowering you, for whatever reason it may be. All that shows the illusion of your opinion that you were abandoned body, soul, heart, and will to God.
In other words, your abandonment is nothing but another form of the same sort of sophisticated spiritual delusion which incites you to refrain from eating meat being a laic, to give in charity more than you can afford, to take communion more often than others, and to attempt forms of cordial and noetic prayer that are beyond you and beyond your everyday situation.
Therefore, should you accept kindly my advice, it is better for you to acknowledge your weakness and to humble yourself, choosing instead of a high and dangerous road the well-known and secure way of salvation, that is also corresponds to your social status, as I have mentioned several times above. The Lord says in the Gospel, “if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17).
The Holy Fathers teach in accordance to this. So, for example, Sts. Callistus and Ignatius say in Philokalia, chapter 73: "With regard to the infallible path to salvation about which you ask, my son, you should know, that there are many ways which lead to life and many which lead to death. Yours in one way which leads to life, the keeping of the commandments of Christ. In these commandments you will find every form of virtue, especially these three: humility, love and mercy. Without these, no one will see the Lord (Heb.12:14). These three things... are invincible weapons which the Holy Trinity has given us against the devil...Let us therefore arm ourselves with these weapons, for whoever girds himself with them is invincible to his enemies’’(See: Philokalia in the Russian translation, vol. 5, p.420-421). And St John of the Ladder says in Step 25: ‘The humility is… the one virtue only which the demons cannot imitate’ (See: Ladder. Step 25, § 18, p.166). About the true love qualities St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians as follows: ‘Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things (1 Cor 13 4-7); St Ephrem adds that the love does not remember any evil. The mercy mentioned by Sts. Callistus and Ignatius, is not the formal charity only, as St Paul shows it to be not perfect in the same chapter: ‘And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing’ (1 Cor 13 3). But, as Nilus of Sora teaches us that the true practice of charity amounts to accepting sorrows, injustice, and persecution. “This charity of the spirit stands as high above bodily charity as soul is raised above flesh (Compare: St Nilus of Sora. About Skete Life, p.61).” About humility, love and charity Sts. Callistus and Ignatius say in same chapter 73, “Let us regard this threefold cord which the Holy Trinity has spun and twisted together as something which is both three and one. It is three in name, or if you like as subsistent entities; but it is one in power and operation, one in its proximity to God, in its gravitation towards him and in its affinity with Him.” (Compare: Russian Philokalia, Vol. 5, p. 421)
I will tell you some more about seemingly good impulses. You mistakenly assume that evil cannot parade under the disguise of impulses which are good and very strong, but the teaching of the Holy Fathers shows the opposite. Isaac the Syrian writes in Chapter 33, “A desire, to all appearances good, comes from the devil, not from God, whenever it does not tally with a man’s unalterable circumstances – outer and inward; it can therefore lead to no good, no matter how much effort he wastes on it.” (See: St Isaac the Syrian, Spiritual and Ascetic Sermons, p.166, in the edition of 2006 see p. 231-232). This happens for the reason being that, when the devil suggests that a man should strive after something that is seemingly good, it is always unattainable (premature or beyond his strength), the devil’s object being to lure man into spending himself in pursuit of illusions so that, while missing his real goal, he should live in agony of heart and in great commotion of soul; and all for an illusion, for nothing. Sometimes, the devil may even use seemingly good intentions to spin a web of most harmful spiritual delusion (idem).
St Gregory of Sinai in Philokalia, chapter 7, clearly calls this impulse ‘that of the Satan’ (See: Russian Philokalia, Vol.5, p.244) and St John Climacus in Step 26 calls it ‘despising’ ( See: Ladder, Step 26, § 121, p.121). That is because a person being in this condition of self-esteem and self-guidance often is led to ignore the guidance of experienced directors who try to keep him on the way of salvation and save him from dangerous extremities. For Fathers witness that the danger of prematurely aiming too high or striving after a seeming good and despondently aiming too low are snares devised by the devil’s guile.
After all the words I, a sinner, have told you, answering your letter, I must add that, as St Isaac of Syria said, we always need penitence till our death, both righteous and unrighteous ones for there is no perfection in this world. (See: St Isaac the Syrian. Spiritual and ascetic homilies. Homily 71. Page 406. In the edition 2006, p. 558) The main features of sincere repentance are not condemning people and reining one’s anger. St John of the Ladder says in Step 8 that conversion requires great humility, and anger is a sign of every kind of presumption (See: The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 8, § 12. P. 89). The person who condemns others is called by our Lord in the Holy Gospel a hypocrite who cannot notice the beam of his own sins and deficiencies in his own eye and trying to cast out the mote out of his neighbour’s eye (See Mt 7:5).
Both penitence and following the commandments of God start from patience in sorrow which happens, as St Peter of Damascus says (See: St Peter of Damascus. Works. P. 18); and our Lord says in the Holy Gospel: in your patience possess ye your souls (Lk 21:19). You cannot obtain this patience without humility and self-condemnations, which is blaming yourself not others.
Do not be angered by my conclusions: although I can perceive in you a sincere desire to come nearer God, I cannot fail to see clearly how sick your soul is. The best medicine for soul, like for the body, should be chosen considering the roots of diseases. I have mentioned above the words of St Gregory of Sinai that pride and sinful life are the reasons for which a man is made a laughing stock for spiritual enemies (See: Russian Philokalia. Vol. 5 .P.242, 244). Therefore, the best medicine for it is humility and the life according to God’s commandments but not something sophisticated that can bring you to the extreme delusion including a mental illness.
Words cannot describe or explain the true humility, but the Holy Fathers mention the sign of it: a humble person who strives hard to live according to the precepts of our Lord, believes himself to be the worst and more sinful than anybody else. So take care to achieve humility, remembering your sins, and be very careful never to think yourself good, or give place to the very thought that you are bit better than others are.
The great power of humility explained our Lord to St Anthony the Great. When St Anthony saw all the snares of the devil spread out, he sighed and cried out to the God: ‘Who can avoid these?’ And God replied: ‘Humility avoids them. They don’t even touch it’ (See: Abba Dorotheos: Spiritual Discourses and Sayings. Discourse 2. P.64; Apophthegmata Patrum, Chapter 15, § 3. P. 268; Memorable stories. About Abba Anthony, § 7. P.18)
Also, St Isaac the Syrian in Homily 46 says the following: “Humility, even without works, gains forgiveness for many offenses; but without her, works are of no profit to us, and rather prepare for us great evils. May humility make your sins to be forgiven. If we have humility, it makes us sons of God and without works brings us to God, for without humility all our works, and virtues, and deeds are nothing.’ (See: St Isaac the Syrian. Ascetical Homilies. P. 224. (See: St Isaac the Syrian. Spiritual and ascetic homilies. Page 224. In the edition 2006, p. 313)
May our merciful Lord who said ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls’ (Mt 11:29) give you clear mind to follow his veracious way of salvation. Keep praying for you to our good Lord and sincerely wish you health and salvation,
Sinful Hegumen Macarius