Quoted below is a long paragraph from Elder Sophrony’s book, His Life is Mine. Because it is a little difficult to understand, I want to unpack it for you.
Elder Sophrony seems to be saying that in our longing for God, we may experience many kinds of consolation that cause us to feel the love and nearness of God; however, we must be careful not to trust in these experiences–our trust must be in God alone. Even the Mother of God, Elder Sophrony points out, went to Elizabeth to have confirmed for her the message of the Archangel Gabriel and St. Paul, to whom Christ appeared, submitted his Gospel to the Church hierarchy in Jerusalem–twice. Self-confidence is the enemy of humility, and humility is the first rung on the ladder of divine ascent.
The soul knows but cannot contain Him, and therein lies her pain. Our days are filled with longing to penetrate into the Divine sphere with every fibre of our being. Our prayer must be ardent, and many-sided is the experience that may be given. In our hearts, subjectively, it would seem—to judge by the love whose touch we feel—that the experience cannot be open to doubt. But despite the all-embracing surge of this love, despite the light in which it appears, it would not only be wrong but dangerous to rely exclusively on it. From Sacred Writ we know that the most pure Virgin Mary hurried off to her cousin Elisabeth to hear from her lips whether the revelation was true that she had received—of a son to be born to her who should be great and should be called the Son of God the Highest; and whose kingdom should have no end (cf. Luke 1.32-33). St Paul, who ‘was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words’ (cf. 2 Cor. 12.4), affords another example. ‘It pleased God … to reveal His Son in me’(Gal. 1.16); nevertheless, he went twice to Jerusalem to submit to Peter and others ‘which were of reputation’ (Gal. 2.1-2) the gospel he was preaching ‘lest by any means [he] should run, or had run in vain’ (Gal. 2.1-2). The history of the Church provides innumerable such instances, and thus we learn to ask those with more experience to judge whether our case is not merely imagination but grace proceeding from on High. We look for reliable witnesses who are to be found only in the Church whose age-old experience is immeasurably richer and more profound than our individual one. Such in the distant past were the apostles who bequeathed to us in gospel and epistle the knowledge which they had received direct from God. They were followed by a succession of fathers (doctors and ascetics) who handed down the centuries, above all, the spirit of life itself, often endorsing their testimony in writing. We believe that at any given historical moment it is possible to find living witnesses; to the end of time mankind will never be bereft of genuine gnosis concerning God. Only after authoritative confirmation may we trust our personal experience, and even then not to excess. Our spirit ought not to slacken in its impulse towards God. And at every step it is essential to remember that self-confident isolation is fraught with the possibility of transgressing against Truth. So we shall not cease to pray diligently to the Holy Spirit that He preserve our foot from the paths of untruth.