Illusion that Occur Within

A Hymn to the Theotokos

The Son Who is glorified together with the Father and the Spirit in the highest by the Seraphim desiring to renew the first-created man, wholly and ineffably emptied Himself in thy womb, O all-hymned Theotokos.  Dawning forth from Thee He enlightened the whole world.  He delivered the nature of man from the madness of idolatry, and He deified it, and led it up to heaven: Christ-God, the Savior of our souls. (from the Octoechos Tone 4, Small Vespers, Aposticha Theotokion)

 Illusions that occur within

This post will be a continuation of the January 3rd post “Experience of Grace”.  What I write here is limited to my reaction to what I have learned from either my reading or encounters with others.  So, I will share some thoughts as I am able, and I believe I should label my subject at hand, “Illusions that Occur Within”.  This, as in the above mentioned post, will be centered around what one experiences in prayer.  I think a lot of people are concerned with feelings in prayer, especially experiencing warmth in or around the heart, so I will begin speaking about this.  And then, in continuing, I will express a brief reaction the Charismatics, Pentecostals, and exercises of  New Age type meditation.

St. Theophan the Recluse writes of various feelings of warmth one may experience in prayer:

Experienced Fathers make a strict distinction between the three kinds of warmth: physical warmth, which is straightforward and comes as a result of concentrating our powers in the region of the heart by attention and exertion; lustful bodily warmth, which is sometimes produced by the enemy; and spiritual warmth, which is sober and pure. This last is of two kinds: natural–the result of combining the mind with the heart——and grace—given. Experience teaches us how to distinguish each kind. This warmth is full of sweetness and so we long to keep it, both for the sake of the sweetness itself, and because it brings right harmony to everything within. But whoever strives to maintain and increase this warmth for the sake of its sweetness alone, will develop in himself a kind of spiritual hedonism. Therefore those who practice sobriety pay no attention to this sweetness. (The Art of Prayer, An Orthodox Anthology, p. 160)

In more detail St. Ignatius Brianchaninov writes concerning natural warmth:

In the case of special material exertion to acquire the prayer of the heart, a warmth begins to act in the heart. This warmth is the direct result of such an effort. Every member of the human body that is subjected to friction gets heated. The same thing happens in the case of the heart under long and constant strain. The warmth which appears as a result of vigorous, material exertion is also material.  It is a warmth of the flesh and blood in the realm of our fallen nature. (On the Prayer of Jesus, pp. 90-91)

It is possible, then, that a “warmth” may develop in or around the heart. This occurs naturally and is on the physical plane. There is nothing wrong if this “warmth” appears, and St. Ignatius may sound negative in saying that it belongs to “our fallen nature”, but he states this because we are in a fallen state in this world.  So, if such a warmth does develop, one should accept it with abandonment, that is, to let it come and go without attachment or thinking about it.  This “warmth,” however, can be of profit only in that it can help us to set our attention within ourselves.  As we have seen, it is a great error, if, in the enjoyment of this warmth, we imagine it to be all that matters, without bothering about reverent feelings or remembrance of God.  It would be worse to accept this warmth as something spiritual, for one can thereby lay oneself open to greater and greater temptations of the enemy.  In fact, if, when we pray, our attention is within ourselves, then we would not be conscious of this “warmth,” though it be present.

St. Theophan continues to write of the experience of warmth in the person who perseveres in a life of prayer:

The spiritual world is open to him who lives within himself. By remaining within and gazing upon this vision of the other world, we arouse a sense of warmth in our spiritual feelings: and conversely, this sense of spiritual warmth enables us to dwell within, and awakens our awareness of the inner spiritual realm. The spiritual life matures by the mutual action of both these things—inwardness and warmth. He who lives in spiritual feeling and warmth of heart has his spirit bound and tied, but the spirit of a man who lacks this warmth will wander.  Therefore, so as to further constant inwardness, strive after warmth of heart; but strive also, through intense effort, to enter and remain within. That is why he who seeks to remain collected only in mind—without warmth of heart—strives in vain: in a moment everything is dispersed. And so it is no wonder that, in spite of all their education, scientists constantly miss the truth—it is because they work only with their head. (The Art of Prayer, An Orthodox Anthology, p. 161)

This spiritual warmth spoken of here by St. Theophan is on a natural level as he explained earlier in speaking of spiritual warmth, which is sober and pure and of two kinds: “natural–the result of combining the mind with the heart—and grace-given”.    This is to “worship in spirit” as was spoken of in the November 21st  post with the title, “Worship in Spirit and Truth”.  But what about the grace-given warmth?  The Elder John of Valaamo gives us an answer as he thus writes to a nun:  

One should not strive for tender feeling and tears, but when they come of themselves, tenderness and warmth of heart, stop and wait until they have passed.  But you must not think that you have received something great.  It is the natural result of concentration, but it is no demonic deception either.  I will say this too just in case: if the warmth spreads over your whole body, it is not due to the blood; it is spiritual.  Then tears begin to pour in streams and people seem simply angelic. (Christ is in our Midst, p. 97)

One last comment should be made concerning this issue of spiritual feelings which have been mentioned in some of the quotes above.  By spiritual feelings we should be thinking first of all of humility, contrition and then love.  These are more crucial than any feeling of warmth, and I put love last, because without humility, love can become polluted. 

Although the subject of this post is chapter is “Illusions that Occur Within”, I think it is also good to say something more general about illusions and we could define this as accepting that which is actually false as reality.  So, I find it necessary to speak of certain erroneous “spiritualities” which are quite prevalent in America today.  In the nature of man there seems to be a desire to explore the unknown, the mysterious.  The history of mankind proves to us that we have a yearning for something above this world.  Indeed, man, being a creature of God, has a yearning for the Supreme Being although all do not have the fullness of truth.  Perhaps it is this natural yearning that causes so many today to seek fulfillment in the various meditation and prayer groups both inside and outside of Christianity.  But what would the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox say to such?  The late elder of the Holy Mountain, Joseph the Younger, gives us an answer.  Conveying to us the teaching on prayer of his spiritual father—Joseph the Hesychast—he writes concerning such:

We the unworthy, by expressing whatever we have heard and saw from the ever-memorable Elder—the extent and broadness of one’s spiritual perfection in Christ—we remind you that this is not very easy to be put into practice offhand by anyone.  And I bring this up specifically because of the “trend” of these days wherein many consider themselves to have the boldness to talk about mental prayer, about Uncreated Light, about deification and the like. People who are ignorant, uninitiated and inexperienced in the Christian faith and life of the Holy Fathers, fabricate delusions, based upon mere knowledge, rather than living experience.

The Christian reality is not magic, nor yoga, nor any other method foreign to or even opposed to Christianity.  Christianity is not the exercise of experimental movements and mental imagery, with the goal of provoking a result, an imagination or illusion as if this is indeed a vision of God. God is not looked upon from afar; instead He lives within purified souls and He becomes perceivable through His uncreated energies. (This, and the followings excerpts, are from: Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Struggles-Experiences-Teachings, by Elder Joseph,  pp. 203-4, The translation here offered was done from the Greek previously to the publication of the book in English)

There are indeed, many today who claim to be inspired, many who promise infallible methods of contemplation with quick results and boast of consolations which, on the physical plane, are natural to man. But here the Elder exposes their spiritual immaturity and continues to tell us what true Christianity is:

To begin with, the rightful Christian is based on Christ’s commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all the soul, and with all thy mind….and thy neighbor as thyself”(Matt. 22.37,39).  Parallel to this he detests with all his strength the comprehensive evil and its father the Devil “with perfect hatred” (Ps. 139.22) and he urges himself—with soul and body—in the practical application of these.  By persevering with much humility and fear in this confession man meets the revealed God by Whose grace he was able to accomplish these.  “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I and my Father will come and make our dwelling in him” (John 14.21), said the Lord.  Those who rightly believe “suffer” this divine communion and they feel organically the energies of divine influences as long as with all their being they contain God dwelling and abiding within them, in Whom they believe in and Whom they worship. “As God said, ‘I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (IICor. 6.16), and again, “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Is. 62.5).

After years of perseverance in ascetic labor when the “old man” has been crucified to a sufficient degree a transformation begins to take place in a man. The grace of the Holy Spirit blossoms forth within, a man can “feel organically the energies of divine influences.”  Man can perceive God acting within him and he participates in this Divine action.  Concluding this issue Joseph the Younger says:

We purposely made this little deviation, for the sake of those who are inattentive and ignorant to the truth of the faith through which Divine Grace visits the man who believes and repents in an Orthodox manner.  Divine Grace transfers him “from death to life” (John 5.24), and reveals to him all her mysteries not simply theoretically, as to an observer, but hypostatically  and organically transforming him “from one degree of glory to another; for this is from the Lord Who is the Spirit” (IICor. 3:18).

One of the monks of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in England once made a comment applicable to our subject: “Sobriety born of contrition makes one a master of himself”.  So then, in short, the experience of the grace of God that we should look for in prayer is contrite repentance.  This is in harmony with the first words of our Lord’s preaching: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.