Prelest (from Russian: прелесть - charm, seduction, Greek: πλάνη - plani), also known as: spiritual delusion, spiritual deception, delusion, illusion, – according to Holy Fathers of Eastern Orthodox Church, a false spiritual state, a spiritual illness, "a wounding of human nature by falsehood" (St. Ignatius Brianchaninov). The concept of prelest should not be confused with somatic mental illness of any kind, prelest is rather a spiritual illness, an illness of the soul in its personal relation to God, an illness that originates from vainglory, pride and demonic suggestion and that is cured by humility and Holy Sacraments.
Different kinds of prelest are described by many Holy Fathers, including the Fathers of Philokalia: Saint Gregory of Sinai, Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint Symeon the Metaphrast, Saint Symeon the New Theologian and others.
To a modern reader, this subject is particularly well and clearly described in the writings of St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov), in which he relentlessly kept the tradition of the Holy Fathers.
General prelest and prelest proper
According to Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov, "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".
Archbishop Theophan of Poltava clarifies this notion: "Briefly, the difference between 'general prelest' and prelest in the particular sense of the word can, on the basis of the above, be expressed thus. General prelest is forgetting and not noticing one's sinfulness. That which we call prelest proper is attributing to oneself righteousness when it does not actually exist. If a man thinks he is righteous, then his righteousness is not divine, but diabolical, foreign to the grace of God and to humility. One should recall the famous saying of Abba Poemen the Great: 'I prefer a man who sins and repents to one who does not sin and does not repent. The first has good thoughts, for he admits that he is sinful. But the second has false, soul-destroying thoughts, for he imagines himself to be righteous' (Bp. Ignatius, Patericon, 75)".
Prelest in the New Testament
In the scene of temptation in the desert, the Devil tries to delude Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 4:1–11).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Lord Jesus Christ says about false miracles (Matthew 7:21–23).
Also Lord Jesus says about prelest and false prophets (Matthew 24:4–5, Matthew 24:11).
In Acts 16:16–18, Apostle Paul expels the spirit of false prophecy.
In 1 John 4:1, Apostle John writes about false prophets and trust to spirits.
In 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, Apostle Paul writes about false visions.
In 1 Timothy 2:14, Apostle Paul mentions the deception of Adam and Eve.
In 1 Timothy 6:20, Apostle Paul advices to avoid delusion - "oppositions of science falsely so called".
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov notes that there are two distinct kinds of prelest:
- self-conseit (pride, arrogance) – the person attributes to himself dignity before God that he does not have.
- imagination – the person imagines in himself or outside something that does not exist. This kind of delusion includes false way of prayer (with imagination of Heaven, Lord Jesus Christ, Angels, Saints) and real visions on the same subject originating from the demons.
Prelest and insanity
According to St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, St. Gregory of Sinai, St. Symeon the New Theologian, Valaam Elder Schema-Abbot John (Alexeev) and other ascetics, second kind of prelest very often leads to insanity. The first kind sometimes does not result is a mental disease, but the person cannot achieve salvation being in a state of one of the seven deadly sins - pride.
According to the Holy Fathers, false visions are associated with pride. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says that those people, who want to see visions, and whose mind was not renewed and recreated by the Holy Spirit, are filled with pride. Archimandrite Seraphim (Alexiev) says: "Where there is pride and at the same time one has a vision - it can not be from God, but by all means - from the evil one."
Romanian elder Cleopa (Ilie) specifies 7 ways of falling into delusion of false visions and dreams:
- Weak and inexperienced mind;
- Reckless zeal;
- Following own will and concealment of thoughts in confession;
- Not knowing self and the Divine Scriptures.
If the person who saw a vision is humble, he rejects the vision as elder Cleopa also writes in his book "On dreams and visions", providing examples of different Saints from the Patericon.
Elder Joseph the Hesychast says that true visions are always preceded or followed by very intense suffering and sorrows and are given by God only as a consolation. Even if the vision is true, it is very difficult to withstand the fight with thoughts and not to get proud of the fact of the vision. "What happens after that? A person becomes the mock of the demons. They fool him with writings and visions, with dreams and revelations, with symbols and numbers, with oracles and a heap of superstitions." Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain tells a story about a woman who had one true vision. Then the Devil suggested her a thought that she was chosen by God and she believed it. Then the demons started to torment her with different visions and revelations. In the end, she had another true vision and was told to write to elder Paisios so that he could help her. So elder Paisios says that out of all her visions, only 2 were from God.
False visions as any demonic action can be very harmful to the soul. Elder Daniel Katounakiotis writes in a letter about one hierodeacon by the name of Ierotheos who had a lot of visions. Even though he confessed everything, nobody of the confessors understood that this was a delusion. Then elder Sava advised him how to find out the truth. When the delusion was revealed and when the visions ceased after repeated exorcism, the injury to the soul of Ierotheos remained very serious and later he broke all monastic vows.
Sometimes the demons can "help" a deluded person. This "help" can include either advices about certain things, even theological and very complicated, or can take the form of false spiritual gifts: false healing ability, false clairvoyance, false gift of prophecy, false unceasing prayer, false power over demons, false reading of thoughts, false dispassion etc. The term "false" here means "not Divine". An inexperienced person, not knowing enough about true Divine gifts, can easily accept such false gift as being Divine. Usually, such false gifts or "help" are sent to an already conceited person, i. e. being in prelest of the first kind. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh recalls that when he was young, he had an ability to read thoughts of other people. Once he asked God: "If this gift is not from You, dispel it". And this ability immediately disappeared. It is very difficult for a conceited person to decline such gift, to consider oneself unworthy of receiving it and ask God to take the gift away. If these false gifts are accepted by the deluded person, it can lead him into demon possession or suicide.
Trust in dreams
A rather dangerous kind of prelest is trust in dreams. The Holy Fathers say that we should never pay attention to them because they may originate from the demons. St. John Climacus says: "The devils of vainglory do their prophecies in dreams. They guess the future and, as part of their deceit, they inform us of it so that we are astonished to discover our visions coming true. Indeed we get carried away with the notion that we are already close to the gift of foreknowledge." The Wisdom of Sirach reads: "The hopes of a man void of understanding are vain and false: and dreams lift up fools. Whoso regardeth dreams is like him that catcheth at a shadow, and followeth after the wind."(Wisdom of Sirach 34:1-2) "For dreams have deceived many, and they have failed that put their trust in them."(Wisdom of Sirach 34:7) If the person starts to notice dreams, looks for signs about the future in the dreams, the demons can quickly increase his trust to dreams to such extent that will lead to suicide or can turn the person into heresy or other deadly sins.
Passion of teaching
Passion of unauthorized teaching becomes a kind of prelest when the desire of teaching is based on the passion of pride rather than on the wish to share some information with others. Speaking about vainglory, St. John Climacus says: "Ignore him when he tells you to accept the office of bishop or abbot or teacher. It is hard to drive a dog from a butcher's counter." The conceited teacher often does not notice that he causes harm to his students because they do not understand, understand incorrectly or even cannot understand at all some subject, but the teacher does not cease his teaching. Lord Jesus warns against teaching those who are unprepared and cannot understand: "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." (Matthew 7:6). St. John Chrysostom says that the corruption of life is the reason why the teaching is not understood. The same idea is expressed by Apostle Paul: "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2:14)
Elder Joseph the Hesychast writes that when one passionate person starts to teach another passionate person, the first one immediately loses the grace because God gives the privilege of teaching only when the teacher achieved the state of dispassion and contemplation. St. Symeon the New Theologian also says that the teacher should know the subject from experience. Also elder Joseph notes that he witnessed many times that unless God will help with His grace to understand, no human efforts alone can make the teaching successful. St. Innocent of Alaska writes that only the one who have plenty of faith and love can have a mouth and wisdom, which all hearts of the listeners shall not be able to resist.
Also, in James 3:1, Apostle warns against unauthorized teaching. Archbishop Averky (Taushev) in his analysis of James 3:1 says that one should start teaching with the great caution and distrust to oneself.
Regarding the teaching in the church, the rule 64 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council reads: "That a layman must not publicly make a speech or teach, thus investing himself with the dignity of a teacher, but, instead, must submit to the ordinance handed down by the Lord, and to open his ear wide to them who have received the grace of teaching ability, and to be taught by them the divine facts thoroughly. <...> If anyone be caught disobeying the present Canon, let him be excommunicated for forty days." The interpretation of this canon then reads: "But if any layman chance to be experienced in discourse and modest in manner, he is not prohibited from answering and teaching in private those asking questions, as Zonaras states, and ch. 32 of Book VIII of the Apostolic Injunctions declare. For they shall be, it says, all taught of God: in which manner Apollos spoke, and taught the facts about the Lord, and in spite of the fact that he only knew the baptism of the Lord (Acts 28:25), and Aquilas and Priscilla, who taught the same Apollos the way of God more exactly".
Prelest and Jesus prayer
Many Orthodox Holy Fathers and modern ascetics wrote about the dangers of wrong practice of the Jesus Prayer and prayer in general: Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov, Saint Theophan the Recluse, Saint Ambrosius of Optina, Saint Macarius of Optina, elder Joseph the Hesychast, Vallam elder John (Alexeev) and others.
Professor of the Moscow Theological Academy A.I. Osipov analyzes the teaching on the prayer by St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) and points out that the prayer should have three properties: attention, reverence, repentance. Also humility should be the basis of the prayer as St. Ignatius says: "Today I read the declaration of St. Sisoes the Great, which I always particularly liked. A monk said to him: 'I am in constant memory of God'. St. Sisoes responded to him: 'That is not great; it will be great when you consider yourself to be worse than any creature.' St. Sisoes continues: constant memory of God is a very elevated activity!! However, this height is very dangerous, when the ladder to it is not founded on the solid rock of humility".
If at least one of the following meet:
- the person prays without keeping the attention in the words of the prayer and imagines heavenly hosts, Lord Jesus,
- the person does not use the prayer for repentance but seeks for some "spiritual feelings",
- the person does not truly repent of some sins, e.g. lives in licentiousness,
he can fall into prelest.
St. Ignatius tells a story about proper way of the prayer. A monk came to him from Mount Athos. This monk did not need warm clothes in winter because of internal heat in the body caused by the prayer and was wearing chains. At first, St. Ignatius thought that this is a true ascetic and wanted to hear something useful from him about the prayer. But then he found out that the monk uses wrong way of prayer with exaltation and imagination. St. Ignatius gingerly asked the monk to try to keep the mind in the words of the prayer. That was enough to cure him. All his visions disappeared and he could not make them return. When the monk returned later, he no longer looked conceited. He took off the chains and could not do without warm clothes.
St. Ambrose of Optina several times wrote in his letters that for a beginner, especially without an experienced mentor, it is much safer to start with audible verbal prayer rather with purely noetic (silent) one because many people who prayed with noetic prayer, were mentally deranged, while St. Ambrose does not know any examples of people falling into prelest with verbal prayer.
Also it is very important to confess frequently, including the confession of thoughts, as elder Joseph the Hesychast notes: "I have never seen a soul make progress in the prayer without frankly confessing secret thoughts".
False unceasing prayer
Sometimes, very rarely, God gives some humble and pious individuals, who reached the highest degree of purification from passions, a gift of unceasing heart prayer. That is one of the greatest blessing from God that a person can receive. Many people, practicing the Jesus prayer, would like to receive such gift. But if the person is conceited, he may get a similar gift from the demons or may confuse the Divine gift with something natural.
Archimandrite Raphael (Karelin) writes about Saint Seraphim (Romantsov), elder of the Glinsk monastery, and about importance of obedience which is required to receive the Divine grace. Once Fr. Seraphim spoke to a nun who thought of herself as having an unceasing prayer. She lived in the mountains and severely fasted. Fr. Seraphim said: "Once a day, you have to have a hot meal". She stared at Father Seraphim: "Do I have to waste the time and distract the mind from the prayer to prepare lunch?" Fr. Seraphim widely crossed himself: "Cross my heart, that you do not have any prayer and never had it". When she left, Fr. Seraphim said, "She did not understand anything. The one, who gave her the schema, he was in prelest himself. Poor soul, how much struggles she will have!"
Another type of false unceasing prayer is when the person just got used to the repetition of sounds. St. Seraphim (Romantsov) once said to a monk: "You do not have any prayer of Jesus: you just got used to it, as some people get used to the bad language".
Also St. Ambrose of Optina writes in a letter that one person had an unceasing prayer when asleep. And when he listened closer to what his heart was saying, he heard: "Meow" − like a cat but not the Jesus prayer.
Prelest and saints of the Roman Catholic Church
According to Saint Ignatius (Brianchaninov), some of the most respected saints of the Roman Catholic Church who were glorified since it turned to papal supremacy were in a state of prelest and therefore cannot be considered as saints. St. Ignatius provides examples of visions and other mystical experiences of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas à Kempis and compares them with experience of Orthodox saints of the first centuries.
Saint Francis's very life's goal, ("I have labored and want to labor … because this brings honor," "I want to suffer for others and redeem the sins of others"), shows his fall which he himself does not see; it shows his own sins. At the end of his life, he said, "I am not aware of any sin I have committed which I have not redeemed through confession and repentance. His dying words were, 'I have fulfilled what I should have fulfilled."
By comparison, we shall cite the last moments of Saint Sisoes the Great (fifth century):
Surrounded by the brothers at the moment of his death, he was as if talking with invisible beings. The brothers asked him, "Father, tell us, with whom are you speaking?" He answered, "With angels who have come to take me; but I am begging them to leave me for a short time, in order to repent." The brothers knew that Sisoes was perfect in the virtues, and protested, "You have no need to repent, Father." Sisoes answered, "Truly, I do not know if I have even begun to repent."
Sisoes' deep understanding of his own imperfection is the main outstanding trait of all true saints and is the most important sign that their revelations where true.
Russian philosopher A.F. Losev analyzes Western spirituality and in particular, visions of St. Angela of Foligno: "That is not a prayer and talk with God. These are very strong hallucinations on the basis of hysteria i. e. prelest".
Another Russian philosopher M.V. Lodyzhenskii compares Orthodox and Roman Catholic mystics and points at the differences in humility between St. Seraphim of Sarov and St. Francis of Assisi. In his opinion, the reason why St. Francis did not reach the true humility is that Roman Catholic Church at that time did not have the true humility at all. The strongest evidence of the spiritual pride the author finds in the papal supremacy.
New-martyr Mihail Novoselov compares the teaching of St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov), St. Theophan the Recluse, writings of M.V. Lodyzhenskii and the writings of Roman Catholic mystics. He writes that it is enough to read several pages of the writings of the Western mystics, in particular, the writings of St. Teresa of Ávila, to see that they were in prelest.
Father George Macris also compares the mysticism of St. Seraphim of Sarov and St. Francis of Assisi. "The sad fact is that the attainment of a true spiritual relationship with Christ was never a possibility for Francis, for being outside the Church of Christ, it was impossible that he could have received Divine Grace, or any of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. His gifts were from another spirit".
Causes of prelest
According to Saint Gregory of Sinai, there are 3 sources for prelest: "arrogance, the envy of demons, and the divine will that allows us to be tried and corrected. Arrogance arises from superficiality, demonic envy is provoked by our spiritual progress, and the need for correction is the consequence of our sinful way of life. The delusion arising solely from envy and self-conceit is swiftly healed, especially when we humble ourselves. On the other hand, the delusion allowed by God for our correction, when we are handed over to Satan because of our sinfulness, God often permits to continue until our death, if this is needed to efface our sins. Sometimes God hands over even the guiltless to the torment of demons for the sake of their salvation".
If the person conceals sins or thoughts in confession or does not trust to his spiritual father, he also can fall into prelest: "Think in this wise: the Holy Spirit dwells in your confessor, and he will tell you what is right. But if you say to yourself that your confessor lives a careless life, how can the Holy Spirit dwell in him, you will suffer mightily for such thoughts, and the Lord will bring you low, and you are sure to fall into delusion".
Orthodox ascetics consider that there are several means to cure prelest:
- Holy Sacraments;
- Prayer without foreign thoughts, especially without imagining Lord Jesus Christ, Angels, Heaven, etc., keeping the attention in the words of the prayer;
- Prayer of other people of the holy life about the deluded person.
- Reading the Holy Scripture;
The first way to cure prelest is the Sacrament of Confession. If the person saw any vision, he should tell it immediately to his spiritual father not concealing anything. Other Sacraments are needed as well, but sometimes deluded persons are forbidden to take the Holy Communion by their spiritual father for some period of time, sometimes rather long (1–3 years). Also in monasteries, sometimes persons in prelest are given ignoble obediences to humble them. Work therapy decreases pride and demonic attacks that cause prelest.
Orthodox saints who were in prelest and recovered
When Saint Niphon, bishop of Cyprus, was an ordinary monk, he was struggling with demons and fell into partial insanity for 4 years but later was cured.
Saint Symeon the Stylite was deluded by demons who showed him a chariot wanting to take him to Heaven as it was with Prophet Elias. The chariot disappeared when St. Symeon wanted to enter it but made the sign of the Cross.
Saint Iakovos worshiped a demon who appeared as Lord Jesus and who disappeared after Iakovos made the sign of the Cross. 
Saint Isaac the Recluse of the Kiev Caves was living in seclusion for 7 years and was deluded by a false vision of Lord Jesus. He was left by demons lying unconscious. Saints Antonius and Theodosius of the Kiev Caves were nursing him and praying about him for 2 years. After that, St. Isaac got better and in the end of his life he received the power over demons.
Saint Nicetas of the Kiev Caves attempted an excessive feat of seclusion without sufficient experience. He was deluded by an "angel" who helped him and gave him a false gift of clairvoyance. When the Holy Fathers of the monastery unraveled the demon tricks and casted the "angel" away, St. Nicetas lost his supernatural abilities and even could not read at all. Later, following the way of humility, St. Nicetas became the Bishop of Novgorod and received the gift of miracleworking.
Saint Theodore and Basil of the Caves suffered heavily from the demon tricks. St. Theodore was deluded by a vision of "angel" and false appearance of a demon in the form of St. Basil and was listening to them. Later, St. Basil brought St. Theodore to reason and convinced that it was a delusion.
Saint Silouan the Athonite was in delusion 2 times as written in the book of elder Sofronii. Once St. Silouan accepted a vision and nobody, whom he asked about it, told him that this was a false vision. "But I was beguiled by vanity and began to see devils again. Then I knew that I had been deceived, and I made full disclosure to my confessor and asked him for his prayers; and because of his prayers I am now saved and ever beseech the Lord to grant me the spirit of humility."
Prelest in the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church
The notion of prelest is used in some of the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church.
In the Akathist to the Mother of God: "For thou hast quenched the furnace of deception" (Ikos 5); "For thou hast trampled on the delusion of error" (Ikos 6).
In the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete: "I lie naked and ashamed, for the beauty of the tree, which I saw in the middle of the garden, deceived me" (Monday, Ode 2); "O God, Trinity yet One, save us from delusion, temptations and misfortune!" (Monday, Ode 3); "But you, my hopeless soul, have rather imitated Esau, surrendering to the crafty evil the beauty you inherited from God. In two ways, works and wisdom, have you been deceived and now is the time for you to change your ways" (Tuesday, Ode 4).
- On Spiritual Deception. Orthodox Life, July-August 1980.
- (French) Jean-Claude Larchet, Thérapeutique des maladies mentales. L’expérience de l’Orient chrétien des premiers siècles (1992, 3rd edition 2008) ISBN 2204045187 (Russian) Жан-Клод Ларше, Исцеление психических болезней. Опыт христианского Востока первых веков
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- Interview with prof. A.I. Osipov. "The Way of a Pilgrim" and Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov’s) Teaching on Prayer".
- Letters of Theophan, Archbishop of Poltava, Letter 31.
- Philokalia, Vol. 4, St. Gregory of Sinai, On Commandments and Doctrines, Warnings and Promises; On Thoughts, Passions and Virtues, and Also on Stillness and Prayer: One Hundred and Thirty-Seven Texts, Ch. 131.
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