Hieromartyr Bishop Arsenius (Zhadanovsky). "Spiritual Diary".
Not only the people indulging in vices and passions are in the enemy's nets, are the accomplices of the enemy of our salvation, but those who set themselves the task to live piously are not left alone by the same enemy; he is trying to lure these Christians in his nets too, but rather based on their piety - that is, he involves them into so-called prelest, or spiritual delusion. Prelest is a perverted, wrong disposition, supposedly high, spiritual, but in fact false, deceptive, fake, sham, - this is the internal state of our hearts, of which the Apostle Paul says that one can only have a form of godliness, but be denying the power thereof.
Yet everyone in his feeble, sinful nature is more or less susceptible to this delusion. You thought that you said well, did well - that is delusion. You were dreaming about your talents, abilities - again delusion. Accepted praise, took a delight in it - and that is delusion too. The Holy Fathers distinguish two kinds of spiritual delusion in its extreme development. The first kind is when a person begins to imagine that he saw the Lord, the Mother of God, Angels, spirits, and considers himself worthy of such visions. The second kind of prelest is when a person has a high opinion of himself, thinking that he lives a high spiritual life, that he fasts a lot, he is a clairvoyant person, a miracle worker, that he is able to perform great ascetic feats, that he is destined to teach and guide people. This kind of delusion is called “conceit”, because in this case the person conceited opinion about himself.
Every kind of spiritual delusion is, however, the most pernicious state of our spirit. It is based on the spiritual pride of a man, that is, on the very sin with which the first angel fell. That is why Satan is so anxious to draw all servants of God into spiritual pride. Spiritual pride is his own sin. On becoming proud, Satan was evicted from the Lord and brought down to hell. The same fall awaits us all if we will be drawn into spiritual delusion, God forbid! The life experience and the writings of the spiritual fathers give many examples of that; notably, those who fall in the delusion of seeing spirits usually face a shameful disgrace, and the second ones, having a fancy about themselves, face moral degradation and often even suicide.
Let us give examples of both cases. One monk prayed in a cell, and it starts to seem to him that an angel goes out from the icon and says to him: if you want to be dispassionate, burn out your eyes with the fire from the icon lamp, so that you do not have to see the bustle of the world. And the deluded monk does it: burns one eye, then the voice is repeated, and tells him to burn out the other eye; but the monk comes to reason: a thought comes to him that he, a sinful, feeble man, can suffer from sins even without eyes if the Lord does not help him. And as soon as the monk humbly thought this way about himself, the delusion of his perfection quickly dissipated in him, and with it, the vision disappeared, and he heard only like loud laughter far away and smelled an extraordinary stench.
There is a vast multitude of cases of moral degradation and suicide because of spiritual delusion, when a person is self-conceited. There are sectarians, so-called Khlysts, etc., which fall exactly into this devilish delusion and – do you know how they end sometimes? – they end with moral degradation, depravity. For example, for Khlysts, the so-called “radenie” (rejoicing) was proven to end often with group fornication. Or here is another example. One woman told us: "Currently I have strong fleshly lusts which began after my fall, whereas before the fall I was religious, frequently attending church, confessing and taking the Communion". - "And say, before the fall, when you were religious, did you dream about yourself?" - "Yes, it happened. I used to pray long time in the night and imagined myself: how happy I am - I pray and I have no sin, while, perhaps, that very night so much debauchery is committed, and I took pleasure in the thought of my purity". - "So that's the reason of your fall: it is spiritual pride, or the so-called prelest."
A schemamonk lived in a desert hut. He was notable for the rigorous way of life and was respected for this among the brethren. One day he came to the abbot and told him that he was caught up into heaven, but, unfortunately, could only see there himself and none of the brethren. The abbot in his simplicity did not pay attention to the fact that spiritual delusion started in this monk, called the brethren and, telling them about the vision of the schemamonk, urged them to live virtuously and not to be denied the heaven. But what happened then to the schemamonk who considered only himself worthy of the heaven and no one of the brethren? Some time later he was found hanged himself in his cell. The matter is that one who falls into spiritual delusion, being deprived of the grace of God, sometimes begins to feel a terrible sadness, depression, despair, which tempt to commit suicide, and sometimes the enemy of the human race suggests that suicide. For example, one deluded hermit fancied that it is good for him to crucify himself on the cross, following the example of Christ the Savior, another thought that the words of Scripture might fulfill for him: For he shall give his angels charge over thee... They shall bear thee up in their hands (Ps. 91:11-12), and that he once, proving the correctness of his religious beliefs, rushes out of the window, stating that he would remain unharmed in the fall, but, unfortunately, he smashes himself up.
Yes, those who wish to live the spiritual life must carefully beware of delusion. At the same time, you should remember that prelest often begins imperceptibly for yourself. God forbid you imagine anything lofty about yourself, that you, for example, stand out from others, that they are astonished at your deeds, that you influence people, etc. To succumb to this feeling means to open the door to delusion, which will then develop rapidly, and, behold, you will soon imagine that you are already surrounded by radiance, that you cast out demons, and it will come out in such a way that you will elevate yourself into a special person, a messenger of God, a Spirit bearing person, a miracle worker, etc. To avoid this spiritual delusion, we should firmly remember that only the feeling of repentance, humility, combined with the fear of God, creates a healthy spiritual disposition in us, and saves us.
True, such a disposition is not easily achieved. We sometimes want to be remorseful, to humble ourselves, but self-conceit struggles with us. Let it fight with us, but we will still relentlessly seek repentance and humility, we will pray, reproach ourselves, cry that we have no repentance. Always remember that a humble feeling can be achieved only through sweat and labor. And until we break through the walls of pride, conceit, there is no salvation for us. Let us educate our hearts in such a way that all our deeds seem insignificant to us and that they are needed to blot out our unthinkable spiritual filth. Then we will not notice them and enjoy them, but we will consider them small and meaningless.
Also keep this feeling in your heart: everything good that you do, you do not in order to deserve a crown from the Lord, to be among the firsts for Him, because then you will always be in danger of imagining that you seem to have already worked hard enough and deserved a reward, but because you must work so as not to grieve the Lord, your Benefactor, must work for the salvation of the soul. And know: if we have such a disposition, then we develop a strong sensitivity to our sins, so that any sinful spot will seem to us already a heavy and deeply grievous matter for the Lord. And since you will never be able to get rid of these sinful specks – sinful thoughts and feelings – then your hope only in the Lord, Who alone can clean all your filth, will develop and strengthen by itself, while you will see yourself as an unworthy slave, weak and infirm one.