For those new to faith, there are three almost inevitable illusions to distract them from what is essential. It is best that they pass through these illusions as speedily as possible. Although, they may not always occur in the exact order given below and although some may pass through one or two of them very quickly, generally there is one where many do get trapped and therefore need and deserve our prayer, help and compassion. These illusions concern firstly our physical appearance, secondly our mental attitude and finally our spiritual direction. What are these illusions exactly?
1.The Illusion of Outward Appearance: The Sect
This is the illusion that in order to be a member of a new faith, some outward change or change of dress must take place. This is common among converts to Hare Krishna or Islam, especially to Sufism, but it can also take place among those new to Orthodox Christianity. Since this may occur among whole groups of individuals, it can give the impression of sects.
Thus, female converts may suddenly begin to grow their hair very long and wear long skirts or dresses. Men may also start to grow their hair long and stop shaving. Both sexes may suddenly begin wearing large crosses, metal or wooden, they may parade titles, dress in black or else wear exaggeratedly poor clothes (the poorer the clothes, usually the richer the individual). Such people may also adopt expressions of false modesty, pain and apparent contrition.
All this is in false imitation of Orthodox monks and nuns or of Orthodox parish priests, who, in any case, as married men and often with secular jobs, may well trim their hair and beards and only wear a cassock (and not necessarily a black one) when at church. Real monastics and priests may well become the victims of the haughtiness of such neophytes who judge by appearance. And yet when was anyone a better Christian because of their physical appearance?
The Cause: The cause is in the illusion that salvation comes from being different or having a ‘better’ or ‘more pious’ appearance than others and that to have such an outward appearance is actually important. This is mere pride and the imps mock.
The Antidote: Obedience. Obey and do as others, giving up self-invented and self-appointed ways. Those who have been in the Church for a long time or grew up in it, do not need to stand out or distinguish themselves from others through externals. The faith should be inside us, not outside us: ‘Behold, the kingdom of God is within you’ (Lk. 17, 21). Follow those, especially the elderly, who were actually brought up in the faith – they have experience, which always outmatches book-learning. Having a job in the ‘real world’ and marriage and children greatly help in overcoming this illusion quickly. Learn how to help others practically and read the lives of the saints.
2.The Illusion of the Mind: Knowledge
This is the illusion of those who ‘know it all’, who are full of themselves and full of self-assurance. Since it is impossible to ‘know it all’, such individuals are often very defensive and self-justifying. These are those who are ‘puffed up’ with knowledge, which is often depressingly futile and pseudo-esoteric, that is, of no interest to anyone else. In reality, the more we know, the more we know the less we know. ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies (I Cor 8, 1).
The Cause: The cause is the illusion that salvation comes from knowledge. This illusion stems from a lack of humility. It is as arbitrary as saying that salvation comes from any other human characteristic, which we may or may not possess, such as build, height, hair or eye colour.
The Antidote: Humility. In reality, salvation is helped not by knowledge, but by inner knowledge, that is, by wisdom. And the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Ps 110, 10). The illiterate fishermen of Galilee caught the world not though being all ‘puffed up’ with knowledge, but through being ‘made wise by the Holy Spirit’. And the Holy Spirit only comes to the humble. Instead of reading books ‘about’ the faith, say your prayers, go to all the services you can and go regularly to confession and communion.
3.The Illusion of the Spirit: The Cult
The third illusion is perhaps the most difficult, because it involves a deeper spiritual delusion, where some can be trapped even for decades. This is to follow a ‘personality’, who is created by being called ‘a spiritual father’, or ‘an elder’. This is flattery and self-flattery. How can we possibly have a ‘spiritual’ father, when we ourselves are not spiritual and any true spiritual father will tell you at once that he is not spiritual either? Such cults will also tend to make great outward display of prayer beads or knots (known in English for some unknown reason as ‘prayer ropes’). In reality, possession and above all use of prayer beads is to be kept a secret, unless we are monastics, in which situation of poverty, obedience and humility they are part of rank and duty.
Deluded individuals may speak of absolute obedience, often to a young, but sometimes to an old, guru (i.e. not to an authentic spiritual father, of whom there are today very few). They may speak of ‘sacrifices’, or of the guru’s ‘legacy’, as though the legacy of the Son of God were not good enough for them. Often they will give the impression that if others are not in their group, this is because they are unworthy, that they are not ‘spiritual enough’, that their own degree of ‘initiation’ is much higher than that of other believers. The demon is laughing at them and at what is in fact their cult, not of God but of man. Let us recall: ‘Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help’ (Ps 145, 3).
The Cause: The cause is the illusion that we think that we are better than others. This too is simple pride.
The Antidote: ‘Poverty in spirit’, that is humility. If we are ‘poor in spirit’, we shall sincerely think that we are worse than others. After all, many others are not even Christians and yet they behave better than us. Although we are supposed to know much, still we sin and with the worst sin of all, the sin of the pride of the pharisee, who sits in judgement over the others, of whose little fingers we are not even worthy. The first step in our salvation is unceasing repentance. Without this we shall never learn realism and sobriety. Read the Scriptures, especially the New Testament and the Psalms.
It is important that neophytes pass through these illusions quickly. If not, they will cause them disillusion and may even lead them to abandon their new faith altogether, before it can take root. We can see that in each case the cause is always the lack of obedience, of humility and of ‘poverty of spirit’. Pride, the chronic lack of humility, is present in every case. For without humility, salvation is impossible. ‘Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 18, 3).
The Twelve Apostles