Extractions from the Letters of Saint Elder Macarius of Optina.
It is dangerous to assume that our dreams are revelations: this leads to spiritual pride. Ponder calmly: is it likely that a heart and mind, both fully under the influence of all the wildest human passions, can truly mirror divine revelations? Does not such an assumption betray undue reliance on your own worthiness? For who can esteem himself worthy of such grace? 
You yourself have perfectly described the reason of your woe. First, your education. This, although Christian in theory, did not lead you to a Christian life in practice. Secondly, your early life ran exceptionally smoothly, without any of those temptations and afflictions which-when wrestled with or accepted in the right way-can make true Christians of us. Indeed, when you were a child and when you first grew up, worldlings showered on you much flattery, adulation, and praise. Thus encouraged and helped, unhealthy illusions concerning your importance, superiority, and goodness steadily poisoned your heart, so that even before the cruder passions beset you, pride and a hard self-esteem had built up a sound foundation for your woes.
God resists the proud; He allows them to be humbled by manifold chastisements and by the scorching torments of passion. Your insisting on separation from your first husband was a proof of the hold lusts and passions had gained over you. And, although the situation which naturally ensued could not flatter your pride, it was your pride that had forced the situation.
Then the tentacles of chastisement closed around you! Not only did the fires of a stricken conscience torment you, but, gradually, trifling worries, pin-pricks, annoyances accumulated into a great weight that crushed you, and flattened you out. Still wishing to stamp your will on all around you, you grew agitated and distressed. This agitation and distress, far from acting as a balm to your passions, exasperated them until, at last, your suspicions and jealousy affected your mind.
When your mental balance was once again restored, peace did not return to the home. Far from it. Family quarrels and complications thickened, and now your husband, grown weary, suggests your trying a change, trying to live abroad. With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again (Matt. 7:2).
But do not think, because of all this, that God has forsaken you. No, for whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth (Heb. 12:6). Only mind you accept His will humbly, gratefully, peacefully, considering all this, and even greater miseries, nothing but your due. And carefully guard against judging any of those who cause you suffering: they are the weapons of God, working for your betterment and salvation. Remember constantly how far you have drifted from love of God and love of your neighbor. Love of God is manifest in obedience to His commandments; love of our neighbor in love of our enemies. Whosoever is wanting in either of these, is equally far from love of God.
But no matter how little you love God, He still loves you; loves you so much that He showers all this grief and pain on you, making your punishment in this world so great that it may perhaps suffice to amend you, and make unnecessary the dread punishments of the next. These others you may be spared!
Your past and present torments and sufferings are poured down upon you to test your faith and steel it; they also work to curb your lusts and passions. Humble yourself. God succours the humble. Judgment of others, insistence on their shortcomings, can only increase the bitterness of your sorrow. Choose the better part.
Since you ask my advice on your going abroad I must tell you that I find it unnecessary, and that I fail to see how it can be profitable. Particularly now, after your last talk with your father-in-law. Your husband’s parents would clearly prefer you to stay at home; on condition, of course, that you change your behavior, your attitude to things, and your temper of mind. In this I entirely support them. My reasons therefore I have already put before you: your betterment. Staying at home and humbling yourself is the best means thereto. 
3. Illusions on Prayer
It is admirable that you should be reading the Fathers. Bear in mind, however, that their writing is like a thick forest: venturing there unprotected, without knowledge and without guidance, we easily go astray and may even run into grave dangers. Many readers have erred from undue self-assurance; whoever attempts a shortcut to the higher life, and sets out wilfully to acquire and appropriate visions and other spiritual joys, calls down on himself the divine wrath.
It is not permitted that we indulge a lust of the mind for the glories of the cross. We must not even aspire to them without having first patiently conquered the baser portion of our soul on the way of the Passion, the way to Calvary, the road of supreme agony. Isaac the Syrian says, “Do not imagine that you have left the thicket of passions behind you, until you are well within the walls of the citadel of humility.”‘ Read Callistus and Ignatius.” Humility, even without works, brings forgiveness. But works without humility are quite useless.
Keep to your rule of prayer as rigorously as you would expect any other woman to do, surrounded by her family and living in the world. And see to it, that your prayer is that of the publican, not that of the pharisee.
Keep your conscience keen and bright, and refrain from hankering after, or expecting, consolation. Leave that to God. He knows when, where, and how to give it you. 
Once more I must repeat myself: your facile assumption that sensations of bodily warmth, experienced during prayer, are sure signs of special grace, is wrong. They are nothing of the kind, and the assumption that they are is a temptation of the devil. Accept what comes your way with abandonment, and leave it at that, and do not jump to conclusions. 
I am astonished, indeed, that not knowing me at all you should choose to describe to me your strange experiences, and ask me to allay your doubts, solve your problems, and give you counsel. Quite frankly, I should much prefer to refuse. Physically weak, sluggish of mind, conscious moreover of having but little insight of soul, how could I find any justification for taking upon me to give advice in such a case as yours?
But I am profoundly touched by your simple faith in direction, and my heart is wrung with compassion for the great dangers you run, the fierce torments you so vividly describe. I have therefore taken counsel with our wisest Fathers and (since God is known to have placed the right word of guidance even in the mouth of dumb beasts) I will try to direct you towards what I take to be the relevant passages in the ancient teaching of our Eastern Fathers, and will strive to warn you against the subtle temptations which lead men like you to think they are glimpsing in visions nothing less than the ineffable truth. By the way, you yourself once mention your suspicions of having strayed into the enemy’s nets. Any knowledge of the Fathers would change suspicion to certitude.
According to Gregory of Sinai, this kind of temptation -visions seemingly true but actually false and craftily conjured up by the wily tempter-besets us whenever we strive wilfully to master the great art, before having uprooted pride in the heart’s labyrinth, and while our ordinary life is still reeking with sin. God permits this temptation in order that man should come to his senses, do penance and change his ways. But he is left free to do so or not. Realize the full implication of this most important fact: he is left free!
On the strength of your letter, I conclude that the first snare was laid for you in 1853, in the town of T., when you were recovering from a serious illness: you were several times 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 revelation, and ascribed a moral value to the experience, you fell into the clutches of the devil. All that followed was merely a result of this fall.
Barsanuphius the Great rightly affirms that no devil can conjure forth the form of our Lord; but he says they can easily suggest to the gullible beginner that any kind of form they may have conjured forth actually is our Lord. This must have happened in your apparition of our Lady and Child; but, proud and blind with sin, you failed to see through the trick.
Barsanuphius also tells us that the devil is incapable of evoking the Holy Cross in a man’s dreams; and Holy Church proclaims in song: “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 aweful 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. The devil fears the Cross but, for your sins and because of your pride, God let him take possession of your fancy, and the devil, while actually showing you some other figure, suggested that it was the Cross. All this he does so as to heighten your confusion.
The same applies to your illusion of devils mockingly repeating after you the words of your prayer. Several of the Fathers make it quite clear that no devil can say the Jesus Prayer which, according to John Climacus, is a potent weapon against them. Therefore, you may be sure that in all such cases, they simply make indistinct noises, and only suggest to you that these are the words of the Prayer. The devils do this in order to prove to you that they fear nothing, which is a lie you must learn to see through. On the whole, the Fathers insist that forms, color, light, singing, and smells-both good and bad-are so many illusions spun by the tempter.
The second snare was laid for you when, wearied by the devil’s conjuring tricks, and jogging along a tedious road in your barouche, you gloomily 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. I think God, in His great mercy, prevented your reason from completely foundering only because you had strayed not wilfully, but from lack of experience.
In the seventh Rung, 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.” You are constantly mistaking the one for the other. You do so even in the case which you confidently take to be a real experience: when, meditating a text, you felt a blow on your shoulder succeeded by waves of joy that completely engulfed you.
The Apostle says that real spiritual joy is one of the rarest fruits of the spirit, to be attained only near the summit of the way, 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 that any streams of joy that flow into you or submerge you, no matter how sweet, come from heaven or that you are already partly living there. On this read John Climacus, Rung 15.
As you advance in prayer and spiritual reading, the tempter incessantly warring against you invents more subtle forms of guile. You say that, lately, you often sense the presence of our Lord in your room; then, filled with a joyous tremor, you must 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: a most dangerous illusion! So are those which you describe as the presence of your guardian angel and of this or that saint, and all you say of your intercourse with them. St. Paul says that Satan can fashion himself into an Angel of Light. Satan does this in order to confuse and confound the inexperienced, and the Fathers are emphatic in guarding beginners against placing any faith at all in such illusions. It is particularly dangerous for you. Read Gregory of Sinai, Chapter 7.
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.”
Describing the first form of the Jesus Prayer, Simeon the New Theologian unequivocally states that untrue visions lead man into the devil’s clutches. And Isaac the Syrian, 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.”
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 exact 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-it should never be undertaken without guidance. Gregory of Sinai” describes the spiritual calamities that await those who rashly tread the sacred path. Another point of the utmost importance is that you have lately been tossed and harassed by sexual lusts. This always happens when our practices of the Prayer are beyond our abilities and capacities. Read, in the foreword to Philotheus of Sinai,” 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.
Because of all this, I strongly advise you to stop all practice of the Jesus 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. I advise you 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, gratefully praising our Lord for earth’s bounty.
Avoid making idols either of things or of practices. And it is perfectly absurd to 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. In the Old Testament we read: Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord thy God which He hath given thee.” This, far from encouraging debts, restrains us from rashly giving away anything that our family requires. As to Barsanuphius the Great, he insists that the rich should practice particular discretion in matters of charity, so as not to expose themselves to twofold dangers, moral as well as material.
So far, there is no point at all in our discussing your wish to be a monk. Leave all thought of that until you can think of it seriously: 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-we can discuss it. But since nuns must keep themselves you will have to provide her with a dowry.
Make a rule never to speak to any one but your confessor either of your illusions or of your temptations. Now about your having communion every six weeks as you say you have lately been doing. If this is under the direction of your confessor, well and good. But if it is from your own choice, I should advise moderation here too. Limit yourself to twice during each of the three lents of Easter, Sts. Peter and Paul” and the Dormition,” and once or twice during Christmas Lent.” Seven or eight times a year is ample for you at present. 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 it is very wrong of you even to attempt to teach or instruct anyone else. When you try to, 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. Try to keep in all things that perfect measure which is the sign of sanctity.
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 all. 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 which not only contradicts your statement but is incompatible with the spirit of the Gospels: for although it is right to admonish those who do wrong, a Christian should do so with the greatest gentleness. As to fury overpowering you, this simply could not be if you were abandoned-body, soul, heart, and will-to God. In other words, your abandonment is nothing but another form of the same illusion which incites you to refrain from eating meat, to give in charity more than you can afford, to communicate more often than other parishioners and the rest of your family, and to attempt forms of prayer that are beyond you.
Callistus and Ignatius write, “Many paths may lead either to salvation or perdition. But one there is which securely leads us heavenward: a life lived according to our Lord’s commandments”;” and so, constantly practice humility, love, and charity, without which none can see God. Nilus of Sora teaches us that the true practice of charity amounts to accepting sorrows, injustice, and persecution. “This-the charity of the spirit-stands as high above bodily charity as soul is raised above flesh.”
You, I see, mistakenly assume that evil cannot parade under the disguise of impulses which are seemingly good. But 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.”
When the devil suggests that a man should strive after something that is seemingly-but only seemingly-good, it is always unattainable, 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 temptations. Gregory of Sinai” and John Climacus both mention this, and the latter remarks that wilful men are in this way often led to ignore the guidance of experienced directors who could have saved them from folly and despair.” Other Fathers stress the extreme difficulty of finding the way between the danger of prematurely aiming too high-or striving after a seeming good-and despondently aiming too low, refraining even from ordinary standards of the Christian life, the life of righteousness. Both temptations, equally dangerous, are snares devised by the devil’s guile.
I should like to add that Isaac the Syrian insists on penitence, necessary alike for those who are conscious of sinning greatly and for those who are not; there is no perfection in any of us here on earth. The true signs of sincere penitence are the taming of the beast of anger, and the abstinence from all condemnation of others. Anger is always a sign of great pride. Our Lord calls him who condemns others, oblivious of his own faults, a hypocrite.
But patience, self-condemnation, and humility guard us against a multitude of temptations and vices.
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 pride, man’s greatest sickness of soul, is humility. Words cannot describe or explain it, but the Fathers say that he who strives hard to live according to the precepts of our Lord, and is fully aware of his own sins, acquires it steadily. Therefore be very careful never to think yourself good, or the least bit better than others. 
You write that, notwithstanding your joy at hearing from me, my letter made you sad for days. This sadness, the devil’s work on the whole, is partly due to your assuming that you had attained to something really worthwhile, whereas you had not: and now, as you put it, perceiving your revolting nakedness you are distressed. To some this sadness might seem good but it is, in reality, a manifestation in you of the Old Adam, the man who, having sinned, could not bear the thought of his nakedness. And yet, is not a man better naked than clothed in filth?
I, for my part, praise the Lord that He should have helped you so completely to accept my advice, based entirely on the teaching of the Fathers. In your circumstances, this gives me great hope that you may soon overcome the host of your illusions.
You ask about the special symptoms of vainglory and pride, and say you can see neither vice in yourself. This is very important, since the very fact that you do not see them proves the grip they have on you: they have formed blind spots in your mind’s eye. In spiritual matters, all that is not illumined by the fair light of humility is obliterated by the dark fumes of pride.
Vainglory and pride are very like each other. But vainglory incites us to show off our piety or intelligence and to put much store by the opinion others hold of us; it makes us love praise and go out of our way to get it, and fills us with false shame; whereas pride is chiefly manifested through anger and embarrassment, through the despising, condemnation, and humiliation of others, and through holding oneself-one’s own actions and achievements-in high esteem. Pride has made great men-men spiritually great-fall very low. All human misfortunes and all un-Christian actions spring from pride; all good comes from humility.
Refrain from seeking out new ways of prayer in the Philocalia: beware lest you fall into new snares from which it may be even more difficult to extricate yourself. Strive after greater simplicity in all things, and seek humility above all else. Pray chiefly that the Lord may help you not to stray from doing His will and that, by means which He alone can know and use, He should show you the right way, and help you to keep it.
You say the enemy still teases you, causing strange noises above your left ear and worrying you in many other ways. This, too, points to your pride; it is, alas, still very strong in you. Therefore I repeat, concentrate on humility. The humble heart conquers enemies, unconquerable to all else. Read Isaac the Syrian, Chapter 72. [446: to the same correspondent as 445]
You write that you are now profoundly distressed whenever you think of your past life, and that you weep a lot.
It is good that you weep; true penitence requires much weeping. But be careful not to assume that your tears, which spring from a disturbance of your passions, are a grace. John Climacus writes in the seventh Rung, “Mind you do not assume that your tears come from the source of light. This can be true only of him whose passions have been swept away.” He also teaches us that tears can have many sources: wrong sorrowing, unquenched vainglory, exasperated lusts and so forth, and that all such tears have little in common with those pure and cleansing tears which wash away sin. He shows too how clever the enemy is in feeding pride on everything; even on the usual signs of humility.
You describe how bitterly you regret the inefficacy of your prayers. Beware: to wish for consolation or revelation in prayer is a sure sign of pride. Pray humbly, in perfect simplicity, seeking salvation only through forgiveness, and having faith that God will extend to you His mercy-as He did to the publican.
Do not juggle with the words of Scripture, stretching them to mean what you want them to. Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? (Rom. 9.20) is in no way applicable to your case. According to John Chrysostom these words only affirm that Christians must not grumble about the outer circumstances of their lives, and must realize that on the Day of Judgment all will answer, as equals, for their misdeeds. There is no occasion to think that God, although He has of course permitted your weaknesses, chose them for you or appointed them. On the contrary, He alone can help you to overcome them; He, who unfailingly helps the humble who repent and are grown acutely conscious of their sins.
As the outcome of a sustained desire and impulse you are now using a prayer of your own, which does not entirely correspond either to your inner make-up or to your circumstances: you pray that you may become truly dead unto the world. But such a prayer is only suitable for religious! You cannot “die unto the world,” simply because of your obligations towards it. Unless you can adjust and adapt your own prayers to your circumstances, you should leave them altogether, and keep to prayers of saintly men. Repeat frequently: Thy will be done, 0 Lord!
The answer to your question, “How can the enemy call forth heavenly odors in a holy shrine?” is that this is sometimes allowed because of a man’s vainglory, selfesteem, and pride. Since such a man seeks consolation, signs of grace and high spiritual gifts, instead of humbly and penitently begging forgiveness and mercy, archtemptations are allowed to come and torment him.
I perceive that you must be reading the Philocalia; but the whole of it is by no means suitable reading for you. Though you may read any of the Fathers on the active life, limit yourself, at present, to John Damascene, John Cassian, and Mark the Ascetic, on spiritual works and the spiritual law. Leave the rest until, with God’s help, you shall have overcome your passions; until, living according to the commandments, you shall have acquired the grace of humility.
Isaac the Syrian says that whoever dares to approach the path of mental prayer before he is practiced in the active path, will be visited by God’s wrath for seeking sweetness out of season;” from which calamity may the dear Lord preserve us! [44^: to the same correspondent as 445 and 446]