Today we will continue with the writings of a more recent "Desert Father," namely St. Theophan the Recluse, a Russian father of the 19th century who lived in the frozen deserts of the Russian north. Although he is a modern saint in chronological terms, he is spiritually at one with the ancient Desert Fathers of Egypt and Palestine. Today’s theme is very important in these times of intellectual confusion, namely “Illusion.” Much of St. Theophanís teachings come to us in the form of letters he wrote to lay persons so his advice is very practical and down-to-earth for those who are trying to grow spiritually. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from St. Theophan.
BEGIN: The true beginning of prayer is warmth of heart, which scorches the passions and fills the soul with joy and gladness, strengthening the heart with an unshakeable love and with a firm assurance that leaves no room for doubt. The Fathers say that whatever enters the soul, whether visible or invisible, is not from God so long as the heart is in doubt about it and so does not accept it: in such cases, it is something that comes from the enemy. In the same way if you see your mind attracted by some invisible force to wander outside or to soar on high, do not trust it and do not allow the mind to be enticed by it; but immediately force your mind to continue with its proper work. Whatever is of God comes by itself, says St. Isaac, whilst you are ignorant even of the time of its coming. Thus the enemy tries to produce an illusion of some spiritual experience within us, offering us a mirage instead of the real thing - unruly burning instead of true spiritual warmth, and instead of joy, irrational excitement and physical pleasure which in turn give rise to pride and conceit - and he even succeeds in concealing himself from the inexperienced behind such seducements, so that they think his diabolic illusion is really the working of grace. Yet time, experience, and feeling will reveal him to those who are not altogether ignorant of his evil wiles. “The palate discriminates between different foods,” say the Scriptures. In the same way spiritual taste shows all things as they are, without any illusion. (from St. Gregory of
-- To make progress in prayer and to escape from illusion, self-denial is needed, which teachers us that nothing should be sought in prayer except attention. The work of prayer will become more simple and easy. Temptations will also become less strong, although they always accompany any endeavor. St. Nil Sorski and other Holy Fathers tell us that powerful temptations coming from the devil - temptations far beyond our strength - attack us if we seek to experience in ourselves the fruits of prayer of the heart prematurely. We seek these fruits too soon because - unknown to ourselves - we suffer from an exaggerated opinion of our own abilities, and from conceit masquerading as zeal. (from Bishop Ignatii)
-- Many people understand about the ultimate effects of illusion, for these are clearly manifest. What is more important is to learn how this illusion originally arises. It starts from a false thought, which serves as the foundation of all the delusions and all the disastrous infirmities that afflict the soul. A false thought in the mind already contains the whole structure of illusion, just as a seed sown in the earth contains the whole plant which will grow out of it. (from Bishop Ignatii)
-- If a man holds fast to tears of contrition, to prevent himself being carried away by the joy which he experiences in prayer, and so forming a high opinion of himself, then he possesses a mighty weapon against the enemy. He who preserves this joyful sorrow will escape all harm. True prayer, free from illusion, is prayer in which spiritual warmth, coupled with the Jesus Prayer, brings fire into the depths of our heart and burns up the passions like tares. Such prayer brings gladness and peace to the soul, and comes neither from right nor left, nor even from above, but wells up in the heart like a spring of water from the life-giving Spirit. This kind of prayer and this alone should you love and seek to keep in your heart, always preserving your mind from dreaming. Fear nothing once you have it, for He who said, “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid” (Matthew 14:27), is Himself with us. Whoever is attuned to this inner harmony and lives righteously and sinlessly, who has turned his back upon sycophancy and arrogance, will stand firm and suffer no ill even if a whole army of devils rises against him and brings innumerable temptations.
-- You ask why illusion comes during the practice of the Jesus Prayer? (NOTE: The “Jesus Prayer” is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”) It comes not from the prayer itself but from the manner in which it is practised - and here we should observe the directions prescribed in the “Philokalia.” These directions should be followed under the eye of a teacher who knows the correct way of performing the Prayer. But if anyone tries to practice it by himself, merely from descriptions in books, he cannot escape illusion. In any description only an external outline of the work is given: a book cannot provide all the detailed advice which is supplied by the “staretz,” who understands the inner state that should accompany the Prayer, and so can watch over the beginner and give him the further guidance that he needs. He who practices this method of prayer without a guide to help him, is of course left with only the external activity and the various physical exercises. He conscientiously performs everything laid down in the books about the posture of the body, breathing, and looking into the heart. But since methods of this kind naturally lead to a certain degree of concentrated attention and warmth, whoever does not have by him a reliable judge, capable of explaining to him the nature of the change that has taken place in him, may come to imagine that this limited warmth is indeed what he is seeking and that grace has descended upon him, whereas in fact it is not there as yet. And so he begins to think that he possesses grace, without actually having it. Such is the nature of illusion; and this illusion will thereupon distort all the subsequent course of his inner life. That is why nowadays we find the “startsi” (Russian plural of “staretz”) advising people not to undertake these physical methods at all, because of the danger involved in them. By themselves they cannot give anything of grace, for grace is not connected with external exercises, but comes down only into the inner being: on the other hand, the proper inner state will attract the action of grace even without such methods.
This proper inner state consists in practicing the Jesus Prayer in such a way that we walk in God’s presence: at the same time we must kindle to fervor within ourselves the feelings of adoration and the fear of God, ceasing to pander to ourselves in anything, listening to our conscience always and in everything, keeping it unpolluted and at peace, and placing the whole of our life, both inner and outer, in God’s hands. When these spiritual elements are present, the grace of God, coming in its own time and absorbing them all into one, kindles from them the spiritual fire which is the token of the presence of grace in the heart. If we follow this way, it is difficult to fall into self-conceit. But even so it is better to have a guide whom we meet personally and who can see our face and hear our voice; for these two things reveal what is within. END
From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 264 - 269.