Humility Protects Us From Spiritual Deception

Humility Protects Us From Spiritual Deception July 14, 2017

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Lucas van Leyden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Temptation of St. Anthony by Lucas van Leyden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some brothers came to find Abba Anthony to tell him about the visions they were having, and to find out from him if they were true or if they came from the demons. They had a donkey which died on the way. When they reached the place where the old man was, he said to them before they could ask him anything, “How was is that the little donkey died on the way here?” They said, “How do you know about that, Father?” And he told them, “The demons shewed me what happened.” So they said, “That was what we came to question you about, for fear we were being deceived, for we have visions which often turn out to be true.” Thus the old man convinced them, by the example of the donkey, that their visions came from the demons.[1]

Prelest, spiritual deception, is one of the grave dangers which we consistently encounter on the path of salvation. Insofar as our intellect remains darkened by the stain of sin, we find ourselves pulled in by the siren cries of error. What leads us to sin, what pleasure and good which we see in the sin, is the foundation by which sin deludes us, and then whatever comes in accord with that delusion, is able to reinforce it and lead us further astray. We do not need anything external to ourselves to lead us astray: our intellect, darkened by the stain of sin, is able to take its ignorance as the foundation for its reasoning and come to poor conclusions as a result.

Yet, when we have followed some spiritual practice, let in some grace to aid our progress, we find ourselves in a new and improved situation, it is easy to believe we have become enlightened, that our ignorance has dissipated, and that we have become spiritual masters. Pride takes the lead and makes us think we have obtained our desire instead of merely coming across one of the many rest-stops along the road of life. We then think, act, and treat others out of our pride, expecting them to bow down and respect us for our accomplishments. In this fashion, we find ourselves once again turned away from God and turning back to a life of sin, albeit in a manner which is different from the one which we left behind.

Likewise, it is common for those who have gone through some spiritual transformation and development to begin to acquire skills which demonstrate their superiority. Sometimes they have keener insight into the ways of the material world and are able to better help others live and deal with ordinary life; sometimes they gain a greater awareness of the spiritual world around them and are much more likely to encounter and interact with the spiritual forces which guides and directs the material world, and so have a broader understanding of the metaphysical principles of the world and can guide people through such wisdom.

The problem, once again, is that it is easy to take this advance for granted, to use it as a belief that the goal of life has been achieved, nothing more needs to be done, and such persons become rigid in their beliefs and practices and easily turned away from the truth and the good which flows from it. If they have some spiritual insight so that they can detect and encounter the spiritual principles which underlie the world, they must be extremely cautious. If they encounter and see spiritual entities, how will they know whether or not the entity is honest and forthright and working for their good, or demonic and evil, seeking their own destruction? Spiritual manual warns all would-be spiritual masters to take no notice of the supernatural in their lives, indeed, to shrug it off, for if it is of God, the good which is contained in it will be received, and if it is not from God, attachment to it will likely leady someone astray. Those who have become attuned to the spiritual world make themselves better known to those whose existence is in that spiritual world, and so, by calling attention to themselves, are likely to receive that attention from corrupt spirits seeking to use their good attainment for an ill end. Often, as St. Anthony noted in his letters, they do so through making use of the apparent good and holy, subverting it, so that the one led astray will have a difficult time seeing through the deception:

The evil spirits make us zealous for works which we are not able to perform, and cause us to faint in tasks on which we are engaged, and which are profitable for us. Therefore they make us laugh when it is time for weeping, and weep for when it is time for laughter, and simply turn us aside at every time from the right way. And there are many other deceits whereby they make us their slaves, but there is no time to describe all this. [2]

A key to overcoming prelest is humility. We must be willingness to accept that things are often different in reality than they appear to us in our subjectivity. We must not hold on to ourselves and our way of life, our way of thinking, as being the same thing as the absolute truth; we must subject our experience, our thought patterns, our way of life to scrutiny. Likewise, if we experience something which is supernatural, we should test the spirits, and not simply trust them, taking time to ask spiritual authorities what they think in order to help us discern the truth of the matter. Through humility, then, we do not attach great significance to our own thoughts, and are willing to let them and our experiences by judged by others who are not so caught up in the moment as we are that they could see what we do not see and help us overcome any spiritual deception.

St. Anthony, being an experienced spiritual master and mentor, had explored his consciousness, and the spiritual landscape, and through long struggle and accomplishments, had found ways to map it out and help others through his experiences. He had been tried and proven, though of course, he remained throughout his life humble and willing to be tried and proven whenever necessary. His encounters with the spiritual principles of the world gave him the ability to see through the masks of light many put on to hide their interior darkness. He was able to know when someone or something was trying to pretend to be good while seeking the harm of souls. When he learned of these monks who were concerned with their experiences, who were wondering whether or not they were being given visions and revelations from good or evil spirits, he was able to help them because he had encountered these entities, and they were telling him what they were telling these other monks. Anthony, with his experiences, was able to see these beings for what they were: demonic powers seeking to corrupt the souls of anyone who would heed them and follow their advice. For this reason, Anthony was able to relate that to the monks when they arrived to him what he had learned, but unlike the monks, he was able to discern the source and warn them that it was not to be trusted. Indeed, a part of the reason is that Anthony himself did not seek these powers out, but they him, and anyone else who would listen to them. They sought Anthony, hoping to delude him and use him as a reference so they could then continue to deceive the other monks. Anthony’s knowledge of these demonic spirits, of what they showed him, gave credibility to him as he unmasked them. Since they were humble and looking to know the source of their visions, they were not led astray but were able to be guided out spiritual danger.

This, then, should serve as our example when dealing with mystical experiences. If we have some fantastic vision, some exciting spiritual encounter, we should distrust it. If it is something which continues happening to us, we should seek out a spiritual director, and heed their advice; if there is goodness and truth in what we are receiving, our detached humility will only allow us to receive it better;  if there is any deception coming to us, either attached to some real good or creating the illusion of some good, we will not heed it, nor will we be harmed by whatever evil intent lay behind the deception. Truly, humility is the way past prelest. “The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life” (Prov. 22:4 RSV).


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 3.

[2] St. Antony, The Letters of Saint Antony the Great. trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), 19 [Letter VI].


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