Posted by: Shawn Ragan | June 9, 2008

Prelest

Spiritual deception is the wounding of human nature by falsehood. Spiritual deception is the state of all men without exception, and it has been made possible by the fall of our original parents. All of us are subject to spiritual deception. Awareness of this fact is the greatest protection against it. Likewise, the greatest spiritual deception of all is to consider oneself free from it. We are all deceived, all deluded; we all find ourselves in a condition of falsehood; we all need to be liberated by the Truth. The Truth is our Lord Jesus Christ.

-Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, 19th century Russia

There have been times in my years pastoring when I found it difficult to pray.  Sometimes it was easier, but there were periods…dry periods…when prayer was a struggle and a battle I continually lost.  There were a variety of reasons for this…some of it was the “guilt” based theology so often part of the Western view of God, some of it was my own spiritual dryness – while I was a pastor, I had no one pastoring me, and some of it was my real lack of understanding of how to pray and what prayer really was.

I always knew I should pray, and that as a pastor I needed to pray – a lot.  I also knew I should fast, and that as the pastor of this church I needed to fast.  Knowing those things did not make it any easier, and I found that over the first six years of pastoring my fasting was almost non-existent, and my prayers, as I said, went through great dry spells.

One of the early things I learned in my journey towards Orthodoxy was the value and importance of prayer.  In Orthodoxy, prayer and fasting (and almsgiving) are called to the front.  The faithful are called to prayer several times a day (the Didache, a 1st century Christian manual, calls Christians to say the “Our Father,” aka the Lord’s Prayer, three times per day).  Fasting also makes up part of this Christian life, and during the average week Orthodox will fast two days per week (this is also spoken of in the Didache).  Fasting and prayer are understood and practiced differently than they are in the West – and I have no intention of really going into those distinctions, that is best served in a relationship with a spiritual father.  Besides, that’s not the subject of this blog :).

In those first months of visiting with Father Patrick, I received some guidance on prayer and fasting (and almsgiving).  He helped me to begin a prayer rule for my life, and as I began to get a better understanding of what prayer and fasting were, I found myself spiritually drawn to it.  Finally, it seemed, I understood prayer in a way I never had before.

While his counsel (Fr. Patrick’s) was godly and helpful, the zeal I quickly formed was not.  Again, I ventured into an area I was completely ill-equipped for and, since I was still only beginning my journey towards Orthodoxy, it was an area I was venturing into in large parts on my own, without direct spiritual guidance.

I still operated from the old Protestant adage, that if saying prayers for ten minutes at a time is good, then 30 minutes will be super-good.  It is interesting that what I seem to have observed is that spiritual fathers often need to slow us down and stop us from doing more than we are able.

In many ways, my new prayer life was very good.  I was praying at least every morning and evening, and I tried to incorporate midday prayers as often as I could.  The prayers of the Church and of the Saints gave me the words I had been so desperately seeking, and those words began to form me and work in my life.  After praying these prayers for a year and a half, I can say I love them more today than I did then.  But that’s today, let me rewind a year and a few months.

Last year, 2007, was my first Lent…it was not my first Pascha (that was saved for this year with my wife 🙂 and it was awesome!).  It was also during a time when I was really beginning to pray.  I wanted, in my zeal, more prayer books – longer prayer books.  I bought some prayer books and began to pray Apodiknon (Compline – and after dinner prayer service).  This lasted about 40 minutes, but there was a spot you could add a canon or an akathist hymn into it.  Well, if I could make it longer, all the better.  I bought an Akathist book, and with the canons or akathists, my evening prayers could easily last well over an hour.

I was praying 2-3 times a day, and during Lent of last year I moved up to fasting two times per week (Orthodox fasting, not Protestant fasting).  I was beginning to feel pretty good about myself.  In fact, I began to look at others and think: “I pray 2-3 times per day.  Hmmm.  I bet they don’t,” and “I fast twice a week…I bet they never fast.”  (Am I beginning to sound like the Pharisee in Luke in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican?).  I began to feel real good about my prayer life, and the crazy thing was the better I felt about it the easier it became.  The easier it became the better I felt about it and the better I thought I was.

There was something happening here, but all of my time in Protestantism had not prepared me for what it was.  I had been disconnected from 2000 years of Christian spirituality and there were things I was unable to recognize.  One of these was something called “prelest.”

Prelest, simply, is spiritual pride and spiritual blindness.  There are lots of things out there that talk about prelest more and give better explanations than I am giving.  Again, I am not trying to be too theological in these blogs.  My point here is to share how it was impacting me.

Did you know that the demons can help give you the strength to pray…they can help give you the strength to fast.  Stories of the Ancient Desert Fathers abound on this topic…I had never really heard it before.  You see, if the prayer or fasting is leading you into pride, then the demons will help you along.  Now the crazy thing about this pride and blindness (after all, what is pride but a blindness to our own true condition), you are blind to it.  I was praying more and more, trying to tack on more and more prayers.  I wanted to keep the fasts very strictly.  And I was becoming even more prideful and judgmental about it.  But I didn’t recognize it.

I recall the story (this is from my recollection) from the Desert Fathers about a Christian who went to the desert to see one of the Fathers, while he was there the Abba told him to do thirty prostrations each day.  He said “Abba, back in the city I do 1000 prostrations with my prayers every day.”  The Abba, being very spiritual and discerning, smiled and said “Go and do 30 a day.”  After being there a week, the man came back and said: “Abba, I don’t understand.  In the city I can do 1000 prostrations every day, but here, I am struggling just to do the 30 you said to do.”  To which the Abba replied: “In the city, the demons helped you, as it led you into pride.  Here, there is no one to see you and the demons have withdrawn their help.”

There are many more stories similar to this one, and many dealing with other elements of prelest and the ways in which demons deceive us and our own pride blinds us.  I don’t have to look back 1500 years, though.  That Lent I learned prelest first hand.  I prayed, but was it on my own ?

When this was revealed to me, my hour and a half long prayers every night disappeared.  It quickly became a struggle to even do the “Our Father.”  Suddenly all of this energy to pray was gone.  Unlike other times in my life, though, I did not have any “dry spell.”  While I missed prayers more than I care to admit, I continued to struggle to pray.  Prayer is a struggle.  It should be, I think.  Crucifying the flesh and its wants and desires for this world is not easy.  With the Christian life, we enter into that struggle.  That struggle should not, can not, be done alone.  We will inevitably get caught up in prelest and commit spiritual suicide (and in some real cases, physical).

P.S.  After this event, I went to Fr. Patrick and asked for a more specific “prayer rule.”  It was far less than my earlier zeal looked for, and far more real in my life.

Another P.S.  According to the Church, everyone is infected with prelest – we are all, in some way, blind to our condition.  But to that general prelest, we also can have more specific instances of prelest (as mine with prayer).  If you think it can’t happen to you, that’s probably because it is happening right now…

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Responses

  1. […] of his latest posts, called “Prelest,” discusses an issue I’ve faced personally as well. Spiritual disciplines, such as […]

  2. Shawn,
    I am glad that I read your article on prelest. I had a similar experience: when I was the rector of St Ignatius Church in Twin Falls, after completing my first reading of a certain book about the Jesus Prayer (a book which is very valuable for anyone, “A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain” by (erstwhile) Archimandrite Hierotheos), I had a very powerful, almost overwhelming experience of spiritual power while saying this Prayer in a certain way. Frankly, I felt like I was entering a Furnace which I was not prepared for. It will have to stand there, since I knew I had to leave that alone.
    Now, I am more careful. As sinful, we strugglers are much better off keeping ourselves strictly under obedience and to learn in a slower, deeper, way.

  3. Welcome to the Arena. Prelest driven spirituality can make us look like and make us believe and others believe we are “saints”. Discerning what is real and what is a facade we are putting forth is hard stuff. If the demons can’t get you with “convert zeal” they will get you another way. Beware. Don’t be proud of your insight and failure. Whatever your weaknesses are the demons can find them, and mostly we are not aware of our weaknesses until we fall.


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