St Ignatius (Brianchaninov). "On Prelest". Seeing One's Sin.
That frightening time will come, that frightening hour will approach when all my sins will appear uncovered before God the judge, before his angels, before all mankind. I foretaste the state of my soul in this terrible hour, and I am filled with horror. Under the influence of this vivid and strong foretaste, I hurry with trepidation to plunge deeply into myself, to examine myself, to inspect the book of my conscience for the sins of deed, word, and thought that are written within.
Books that have been left a long time unread in cabinets become filled with dust and can be eaten away by moth. If someone tries to read such a book, he finds it quite difficult to make out the words. This is my conscience. It has long remained uninspected; it can hardly even be opened. Having opened and read it, I do not find the contentment I expected. Only my grievous sins are clearly written. The smaller sins, which are very many, have been almost completely effaced. And now, I can hardly make out what was written.
God, God alone can return clarity to the faded words and deliver man from an evil conscience (Heb.10:22) God alone can give a man the vision of his own sins. Only through God, can man see his sin and the fall that is the germ, the seed, the summation of all human transgressions.
Having called on God's mercy and power with ardent prayer, wise fasting and the sorrow and groaning of the heart, once again I open the book of my conscience. Once again I look at the number and quality of my sins. Once again I examine the consequences of the sins I have committed.
I see: 'For my wickednesses are gone over my head; like a sore burden have they become too heavy for me... yeah, they are more in number than the hairs of my head' (Psalm 37:5, 39:13 LXX). What is the consequence of my sinfulness? 'Innumerable troubles are come about me; my sins have taken such hold upon me, that I am not able to look up... and my heart hath failed me' (Psalm 39:13 LXX). The consequences of a sinful life are the blindness of mind and the hardening and insensibility of the heart. The mind of a confirmed sinner sees neither good nor evil. His heart loses its spiritual senses. If, after having left his sinful life, this person turns to pious labours, his heart, as though foreign to him, does not sympathize with his striving toward God.
When the action of divine grace reveals to the ascetic the multitude of his sins, then it is impossible for him not to become extremely perplexed and be plunged into deep sorrow. 'My heart is troubled' at the vision of my sins, 'my strength hath failed me, and the light of my eyes, even that is gone from me. For my loins are filled with sores'; that is, my life is full of troubles from habitual sin that forces me to sin anew. 'My wounds stink, and are corrupt, because of my foolishness'; that is, the sinful passions have become habits and have terribly harmed me because of my inattentive life. 'There is no soundness in my flesh', no healing possible from my personal exertions, for my entire nature is stricken and infected with sin (Psalm 37:11, 6, 8 LXX).
By admitting my sins, by repenting of them, by confessing them, by regretting them, I cast their multitude into the abyss of God's mercy. To avoid sin in the future, watch closely, having descended deep into yourself, how sin acts against me, how it approaches me, and what it says to me.
It approaches me like a thief. Its face is hidden; his words were softer than oil (Psalm 54:22 LXX); it speaks lies to me when it offers me iniquity. Its mouth is filled with poison. Its tongue is a death-dealing stinger.
'Take pleasure in it!' quietly and cajolingly whispers sin. 'Why should pleasure be forbidden to you? Enjoy! What sin is there in that?' And it offers you - the villain! - transgression of the commandments of the All-holy God.
I should pay no attention to sin's words. I know that sin is a thief and a murderer. But some kind of inexplicable weakness of will defeats me! I listen to the words of sin and I gaze at the forbidden fruit. In vain does my conscience remind me that to eat of this fruit is to taste the death.
If there is no forbidden fruit before my eye, then immediately it draws itself in my imagination vividly, as though with the hand of enchantment.
The emotions of my heart incline towards this seductive painting, as to a harlot. Her external beauty is captivating, and she radiates temptation; she is dressed in precious and shining attire; her lethal infection is carefully hidden. Sin seeks a sacrifice of the heart when the body cannot bring itself, in lieu of the actual object.
Sin acts in me through sinful thoughts, through sinful emotions of the heart and body - through the body's senses and through the imagination.
What conclusion can I make after seeing myself thus? Only one - in me, in my entire being, sinful damage abides, which sympathizes and aids the sin that attacks me from without. I am like a prisoner and everyone who wishes can grab the prisoner and lead him wherever he wants, because the prisoner, being bound in chains, has no ability to resist.
Once, sin even infiltrated sublime Eden. There it offered my ancestors to eat of the forbidden fruit. There it seduced them, and the seduced were struck down with eternal death. And I, their descendant, contently hear the same proposition from sin, and I their descendant, am constantly seduced and destroyed by sin.
Adam and Eve were immediately cast out of Eden after sinning, from the garden into the country of woe (Gen 3:23-24). I was born in this country of sorrow and calamity. But this does not justify me; the Redeemer has brought down Eden to me and planted it in my heart. And yet I banished Eden from my heart, because I sinned. Now my heart is confusion of good and evil; now it is a battle field of good against evil. Now my heart is filled with tortures, the foretaste of hell's eternal pain.
In myself I see the proof that I am the son of Adam. I keep his inclination to sin; I agree with the proposition of the enticer, though I know with conviction that he offers me a lie and that he prepares to murder me.
In vain do I begin to blame my forefathers for the sin I inherited from them, for I have been freed from sinful bondage by the Redeemer, and now I fall into sin not from constraint, but willingly.
My forefathers once transgressed a single command of God, but I, though I am in the bosom of the Church of Christ, constantly violate all the divine commandments of Christ, my God and my Saviour.
How my soul is disturbed by anger and remembrance of evils! In my imagination, a knife glints over the head of my enemy and my heart revels in the satisfaction of revenge, even committed by the imagination. Or I imagine piles of cold coins at my feet! Immediately majestic palaces, gardens draw themselves in my imagination, all sorts of objects of luxury, sensuality, pride that can be bought with gold and for which reason sin-loving man so readily worship this idol, for it is a means to the satisfaction of all earthly desires. Or I am enticed by honors and power! I am drawn and absorbed by reveries of ruling people and nations, of earthly profits gained from it, and perishable glory for myself. Or my imagination conjures up realistic visions of tables with steaming and pleasant-smelling food. How pitifully and comically I find pleasure in these enticements that present themselves to my imagination! Or I suddenly imagine myself to be righteous or, more specifically, my heart flatters itself by forcibly trying to assimilate righteousness to itself. My heart flatters itself and worries about human praise and how to attract more of it!
The passion quarrel over me, and I am constantly passed along from one to another. They confuse me and harass me.
And I do not see my own pitiable condition. My mind is shrouded by an impenetrable curtain of darkness; my heart is crushed by a heavy stone of unfeeling.
Will my mind awaken and will it desire to turn to the good? My heart resists it, having grown used to sinful pleasures. My body resists it, having hoarded bestial desires. I have even lost the understanding that my body, created for eternity, is capable of divine desires and movements and that bestial striving is a sickness that infected it after the Fall.
The heterogeneous parts that make up my being - my mind, heart, and body - are fragmented, separated. They are in discord and oppose one another. They only act in a fleeting harmony, which is abhorrent to God, when they work together for sin.
This is my state! It is the death of the soul while the body still lives. But I am content with my state! I am content not because of humility, but because of my blindness, because of the hardness of my heart. My soul does not even know it is dead, and neither does the body, though it is parted from the soul by death.
If only I would feel my death, then I would remain in constant repentance! If only I would feel my death, then I would work towards my resurrection!
But I am occupied entirely with the cares of the world, and little do I care for my spiritual calamity! I cruelly judge the slightest sins of my neighbours; yet I am filled with sin, blinded by it, transformed into a pillar of salt like Lot's wife, incapable of any spiritual movement.
I have not inherited repentance, for as yet I do not see my own sin. I do not see my sin because I am still enthralled to sin. He who takes pleasure in sin and allows himself to taste of sin - even in thought or with a mere sympathetic inclination toward sin in the heart - cannot see his own sin.
Only he who has definitely decided to cut off any friendship with the sin can see his own sin. Only he who has stood watch all night at the gates of his house with a naked sword in hand - the word of God - and who repels and cuts sin down with this sword, in whatever form it approaches him - can know his own sin.
Whoever will do this great deed - to begin war against sin, forcefully repelling his mind, heart, and body from it - to him will God give a great gift - to see his own sin.
Blessed is the soul that seen sin nesting inside itself! Blessed is the soul that has seen within itself the fall of the forefathers, the decrepitude of the old Adam. Such seeing of one's own sins is spiritual sight, the sight of a mind healed of blindness by God's grace. The Holy Eastern Church teaches us to ask for this seeking of our own sins with fasting and with prayer on bended knees.
Blessed is the soul that constantly learns the law of God! In it, the soul can see the image and the beauty of the New Man and can use him as a ruler by which to see and measure its own shortcomings.
Blessed is the soul that has bought the field of repentance, cry like a child before God. Do not ask anything of God if you can help it; instead, commit yourself with self-rejection to his will.
Understand palpably that you are a creature, and God is the Creator. Give yourself completely into the will of the Creator and bring to Him only your tears, as a child. Bring Him a silent heart that is ready to follow His will and be impressed with the stamp of his will.
If, in your spiritual infancy, you cannot plunge into prayerful silence and weeping before God, then utter before Him a humble prayer for the forgiveness of sin and the healing from sinful passions, these terrifying moral illnesses that are formed from the willful repetition of sins over the course of a very long time.
Blessed is the soul that has acknowledged itself completely unworthy of God, that has condemned itself as accursed and sinful! It is on the path to salvation; there is no self-delusion in such a soul.
On the contrary, whoever considers himself ready to accept grace, whoever considers himself worthy of God, who expects and asks for His mystical visitation, whoever says that he is ready to accept, hear, and even see the Lord - that person lies to himself and flatters himself. He has only reached the heights of pride, from which he will fall into the dark abyss of destruction (St Isaac the Syrian, Homily 50). All those who have prized themselves higher than God fall into that pit, all those who have shamefully dared to consider themselves worthy of God. Such men have in their delusion and arrogance said to God, 'O Lord, speak, for Your servant hears' (1 Sam 3:9).
The young prophet Samuel heard the voice of the Lord calling to him and, not acknowledging himself worthy of conversation with the Lord, came before his elderly mentor and asked him for instructions concerning his behaviour. Samuel heard the same voice calling a second time and again assumed it was his teacher. Then the elderly teacher understood that the voice calling Samuel was the voice of God. He commanded the youth to answer the voice that calls him thus: 'O Lord, speak, for Your servant hears.'
The sensual and arrogant dreamer dares to say the same as Samuel, though no one has called him! Drunk on his own vain self-opinion, he invents voices and consolations for himself that only flatter his arrogant heart. He only lies to himself and his gullible followers.
In the text of a Western author hot-blood, self-esteem and self-delusion are so prominent that we should make a quotation (Imitatio Christi, Russian translation: “Podrazhanie”, Moscow edition, 1834, book 3, chapter 2).  "Speak, Lord, For Thy servant heareth." I am Thy servant; O give me understanding, that I may know Thy testimonies. Incline my heart unto the words of Thy mouth." "Let thy speech distil as the dew." The children of Israel spake in old time to Moses, "Speak thou unto us and we will hear, but let nor the Lord speak unto us lest we die." Not thus, O Lord, not thus do I pray, but rather with Samuel the prophet, I beseech Thee humbly and earnestly, "Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth." Let not Moses speak to me, nor any prophet, but rather speak Thou, O Lord, who didst inspire and illuminate all the prophets; for Thou alone without them canst perfectly fill me with knowledge, whilst they without Thee shall profit nothing. They can indeed utter words, but they give not the spirit. They speak with exceeding beauty, but when Thou art silent they kindle not the heart. They give us scriptures, but Thou makest known the sense thereof. They bring us mysteries, but Thou revealest the things which are signified. They utter commandments, but Thou helpest to the fulfilling of them. They show the way, but Thou givest strengh for the journey. They act only outwardly, but Thou dost instruct and enlighten the heart. They water, but Thou givest the increase. The cry with words, but Thou givest understanding to the hearer.
Therefore let not Moses speak to me, but Thou, O Lord my God, Eternal Truth; lest I die and bring forth no fruit, being outwardly admonished, but not enkindled within; lest the word heard but not followed, known but not loved, believed but not obeyed, rise up against me in the judgment. "Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth;" "Thou hast the words of eternal life." Speak unto me for some consolation unto my soul, for the amendment of my whole life, and for the praise and glory and eternal honour of Thy Name.”
What a daring eloquence that can easily shock a true orthodox soul! There is no repentance! There is no spiritual humility! The author is aimed to unite with God in the most intimate way. Such is the mood of all Western ascetic writers. One of them when expressing his wrong understanding of the veneration of Mother of God, concludes his ecstatic speech in such a way: “Therefore, let us embrace Mother of God!” This mood is opposite to the mood that the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church teaches her children. The mood of the Eastern Church is quite different, as She shows it her hymns: ‘Were not Thy saints our intercessors, O Lord, and Thy goodness pitying us, how could we have dared to praise Thee, O Savior, Whom the angels bless ceaselessly? Wherefore, O Thou Who knowest the secret things of the heart, spare our souls. (Troparia of the Great Compline).
Here is another hymn that Church sings: ‘Let us, sinful and humbled, now earnestly run to the Mother of God, and let us fall down in repentance, crying from the depth of our soul: O Lady, help, have compassion on us! Make haste, we are perishing from the multitude of our sins. Turn not Thy servants empty away, for we have thee as our only hope.’ Those who are not nurtured by traditional Orthodox spirituality cannot understand the state of demonic self-delusion, considering it as a work of grace. The translator of “Imitatio” from Latin into Russian added his own notes in the end to educate the reader. He considers the picture of self-delusion in book 3, chapter 2, to be eloquent, he strongly advises to bring oneself into this state before any pious reading. It is evident that here is an example of Protestant freedom of explaining the Scripture without consulting the Holy Fathers and tradition of the Church.
O child of the Eastern Church, the only Holy and True Church! In your unseen labours, be guided by the instructions of the Holy Fathers of your Church. They all, in one voice, tell you to turn away from any vision, any voices within or without, until you are renewed by the palpable action of the Holy Spirit, for otherwise you will fall to self-delusion (St Gregory of Sinai. About self-delusion, etc. Philokalia, part 1; Stt Kallistos and Ignatios Xanthopouli chapters 73, Philokalia, part 2).
Let us preserve our minds free of visions; let us reject all images and fantasies that approach, because through them truth will be replaced by a fall. Clothed with repentance, stand with fear and reverence before the great God Who has the power to purify you of your sins and to renew you by His all-holy Spirit. The Spirit Who will come 'will guide you into all truth' (John 16:13).
The only emotion required by the soul that approaches the Lord with the intention of receiving forgiveness of sins is sorrow and repentance. This is 'that good part' (Luke 10:42)! If you have chosen it, 'it will not be taken away' from you! Do not exchange this treasure for empty, delusional, forced, falsely gracious emotions. Do not destroy yourself by flattering yourself.
'If some Fathers,' said St Isaac the Syrian, 'wrote to explain what is purity of the soul, what is health for the soul, what is dispassion, what is spiritual vision, then they wrote it not so that we would seek these too early or with expectation. For the scriptures say, 'The kingdom of God does not come with observation' (Luke 17:20). Those who have such expectations have only acquired pride and the fall... Seeking the exalted gifts of God with expectation is rejected by the Church of God. This is not a sign of love for God; this is a spiritual sickness' (St Isaac the Syrian, Homily 55).
All the saints have admitted that they were unworthy of God. By this, they have shown their worthiness, which can only be found in humility (St Isaac the Syrian, Homily 56).
All those who are self-deluded consider themselves to be worthy of God. By this, they have revealed the pride and demonic delusion that have enveloped their souls. Some of them accepted the demons who appeared before them in the form of angels and followed them. To others, the demons appeared in their proper form and pretended to be defeated by their prayer, leading the false ascetics to an exalted self-opinion. Others incited their imagination, warmed their blood, forcibly produced within themselves certain movements of the nerves, and considered this to be the pleasures of God's grace. By this, they fell into self-delusion, into complete darkness, and have been ranked, according to their spirits, among the rejected spirits of darkness.
If you have the need to speak with yourself, then offer self-condemnation, no flattery, to yourself. Bitter medicine is helpful in our fallen state. Those who flatter themselves have already received their reward on this earth - their self-delusion, as well as the praise and love of the world that hates God. Those who flatter themselves should expect nothing in eternity except condemnation.
'My sin is ever before me,' said St David (Psalm 50:5 LXX). His sin was an object of constant scrutiny, 'For I will confess my wickedness, and be sorry for my sin' (Psalm 37:19 LXX).
The holy David condemned himself and denounced his own sin, even after the sin was forgiven and the gifts of the Holy Spirit were returned to him. This was not enough. He condemned his own sin and confessed it for the entire cosmos to hear (Psalm 50, LXX).
When the Holy Fathers of the Eastern Church, especially the desert ascetics, achieved the heights of spiritual ascesis, all their labours flowed together into a single stream of repentance. Repentance embraced their entire life, their entire activity. This was the consequence of their seeing their own sins.
A certain great father was asked what is the essence of the work of a solitary monk. He answered: "Your mortified soul is laid bare before your gaze, and you are asking me what your work should be?' (St Isaac the Syrian). Tears are the essential task of a true ascetic of Christ; tears, from the moment he begins his labours to the time of the completion of his labours.
Seeing one's own sins and the repentance that comes of such vision - this is a labour that has no end on this earth. The vision of sin inspires repentance. Repentance gives purification. The gradually purified eye of the mind begins to see even more shortcomings and scars in man's entire being, which he previously, in his darkness, did not even notice.
Lord! Give us the gift of seeing our own sins, so that our mind, drawn completely to our own faults, ceases to see the sins of others. Thereby, we will see all neigbours as good. Let our heart abandon the pernicious attention to shortcomings of our neighbours, and let all our cares be united in a single desire to acquire the purity and sanctity that You have commanded and prepared for us. Help us, who have defiled our spiritual clothing, to whiten them once again. They have already been washed clean once by the waters of baptism, but they now require, after defilement, to be washed clean by streams of repentant tears. Grant us to see, in the light of Your grace, the many sicknesses that live within us and destroy all spiritual movements in the heart, instead inspiring in it sinful movements of the flesh, so hostile to the kingdom of God.
Give us the great gift of repentance, preceded and birthed by that greater gift - the vision of our own sins. Protect us by these great gifts from the abyss of self-delusion that opens up in the soul from the action of unnoticed and unacknowledged sensuality and vanity. Preserve us by these great gifts on our path to You, and let us reach You, Who calls repentant sinners and rejects self-admitted righteous ones. And we will eternally praise You in eternal blessedness, the Only true God, the Redeemer of the imprisoned, the Saviour of the lost. Amen.
 The English quotation follows: Thomas A Kempis. The imitation of Christ. Transl.by William Beham. Standard E-books. 1999.
 Here ref. to Word 21, is evidently, erroneous (Translator note).