There is a powerful word in the wisdom of the Orthodox Faith that acts as a real warning to you and me. It is the word “prelest.” It literally means “the state of spiritual delusion or deception.” This is a great spiritual illness in the teaching of the Church and is to be recognized and dealt with as quickly and as often as possible in relationship to a spiritual father.
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov said “The source of self-delusion and demonic deception is the false thought” So, the spiritual illness of prelest, as all spiritual illnesses, begins in the mind. The mind is the first battleground for the soul because thoughts, when left to mature, always end up showing up in our actions, attitudes, and choices. But the wisdom of the Church concerning prelest isn’t just “bad thinking.” It goes much deeper than that. Prelest is the life of the mind that pridefully assumes I know myself, when, in fact, I don’t know myself at all because I’ve trusted in my own ideas about myself. This life of the mind leads to the prideful lie that I am complete within myself and don’t need anyone else. That prideful and vain narcissism is at the heart of human suffering and evil.
Look at our lesson today in Colossians 2:13-20:
Brethren, you who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, Christ made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him. Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?
The believers in Colosse were in great danger to prelest because some false teachers had come among them and attempted to pervert the Orthodox Christian message they had first embraced. These false teachers wanted to “complicate” the Orthodox Faith by getting these believers to become enamored by teachings about “angels” and all the dead end distractions of a faith that had lost its focus on Jesus Christ.
But Paul insists they refocus their faith to avoid falling into this distracted trap that would only make them “proud” of the “deep knowledge” they obtained about all these other ideas concerning angels or visions that all too often lead to a spiritual pride about how holy we are!
It reminds me of a story I heard about a man who had a powerful dream about some spiritual thing. He shared it with a trusted priest, and the priest immediately saw the danger to the man. He told the man “Don’t tell anyone else about this dream.” Let this dream, if it truly is from God, transform your life so that what others see isn’t some spiritual dreamer, but a changed life.”
Paul tells the Colossians that we are always in danger of forgetting that all the elements of our faith are meant to reinforce our devotion for Christ. If we allow the evil one to con us into getting focused on this or that “festival” or “new moon” or “sabbath,” we run the risk of becoming gripped by the spiritual pride (prelest) of our piety and the “correctness” of our religion. When that happens, disaster is at the door. Being gripped by such an out of focus faith means we are still enslaved to the temporary and unprepared for the eternal.
So, Today, haven’t you ever wondered why our modern age is so gripped by confusion? We’re confused about gender. We’re confused about relationships. We’re confused about politics and society. All of this confusion flows from prelest, the spiritual pride that I define myself by myself. It’s a dead end and always will be. The freedom offered to you by a focused life on Jesus Christ places everything in life in the Light of being Orthodox on Purpose!