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Traps for the Unaware Convert


The Gospels give us the commandment to love God ‘with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength’ (Mk. 12, 33 and 12, 30, see also Matt. 22, 37). This commandment may make us think that what is meant is simply a full commitment to God, that it means that we are called on to love God with our bodies, our minds, our souls and our hearts. But in what sense and how? Here new converts, unguided and unaware, often through no fault of their own, face many temptations.

With all the Strength: Physical Delusion

We first sense the world with the five senses of our bodies. They provide the most basic and primitive perceptions of ourselves and of the world, as we can see with new-born babes. Our bodies also provide the most obvious and basic sources of temptation in this world, through abusing the eating, drinking, sleeping and sexual functions. This stage of temptation generally involves married laity and married clergy.

For example, most people will cite as their reason for not going to Church something connected with their bodily needs or rather wants. ‘I have to go to work, I need the money, I’ve no time for that, I’m too tired, I’m busy in the house, I have to do the cooking, I had too much to eat, I got drunk the night before’ etc etc. All of these excuses prioritise the physical and deprioritise the spiritual (prayer, fasting, abstinence, the sacraments), that is, ascetic and sacramental life. And yet in the Gospels we are called to put the kingdom of God first, if our lives are not to become disordered (Matt. 6, 33).

Putting the kingdom of God first does not mean that we should behave as mean-minded and killjoy Calvinists, who wish to destroy the physical and mutilate the body. We are not old-time Scotsmen who put salt in their porridge so that it tasted bad. Rather the physical, our bodily strength, is here to be used to glorify God and help our fellow-men. Thus, our eating and drinking are regulated by the Church through fasting, our sleeping by spiritual vigilance, our sexual desires by fasting, abstinence, prostrations and marriage, which is a sacrament of the Church. God made the world and ‘it was good’. Then the Fall took place. Our task now is to redeem, transfigure and channel the material to what it was before the Fall, not to destroy it. For it is not the material that is bad, it is the use that we make of the material, which can be bad.

Thus, our bodies can be worked and used to glorify God, becoming refined containers for ascetic discipline and spiritual beauty, and, through our children, sources of the righteousness of tomorrow. Although we are incarnate in this world and have to use our bodies for God and not destroy them through abusing them, we have to realise too that the physical is ultimately an illusion. The bodies of the most beautiful man and woman in the world will one day rot and be consumed by worms, like all other bodies - except those of the saints. The spirit of non-acquisition, with its prayer and fasting, is the true remedy for this disease of physical and material delusion, which is called materialism, the worship of matter, of the physical.

With all the Understanding: Intellectual Delusion

If we have first realised that the physical is ultimately an illusion, we can pass on to the next stage of divesting ourselves of our self-delusion. This stage is the intellectual stage, that of the mind. It should be noted that this stage, unlike the first stage, which is universal and often takes decades to overcome, is not obligatory. Not all have to pass through this stage, although in modern societies where the conditioning of ‘education’ is so important, most do have to bear this additional burden. It must also be said that this stage may follow the next stage, in other words, depending on the individual, either intellectual or emotional delusions may follow physical delusions.

This stage is the intellectual, or more exactly, pseudo-intellectual one. Here we learn to renounce our own wills, our own thoughts. We have to understand that it is not those who have the correct opinions who will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but those who have acquired the mercy and grace of God through humility. Those who fall into this temptation are often puffed up, pretentious, vain in mind. This temptation is particularly common among men. They have read books, therefore they foolishly think that they are superior to others. This is utter delusion. They have yet to understand that the mind is not ours, but God’s, that we have to fill it with thoughts from God, not from the self, which are thoughts of self-love and self-flattery. As the Apostle says: ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies (I Cor 8, 1. See also Col. 2, 18)

Those who fall into this temptation may fall into quoting in self-justification. This reflex comes from the old Protestant reflex of quoting chapter and verse at others, using the Scriptures to belittle and bully others. It is common among Protestants and Charismatics, but it is also the case of those who are new to the Church, who may start quoting the Church Fathers or else the canons. The temptation here is to show a lack of compassion and love towards others, in the attempt to boost feelings of illusory superiority. Often those who fall into this temptation will experience hardness of heart, they may fall into the rigid pride of conservatism and puritanism, pride of mind.

They may also hold monasticism to be the only valid way in the Orthodox world, even though they themselves do not and cannot live in a monastic way. Fundamental monastic obedience is quite beyond them. They may often and aggressively declare to others, ‘you are not Orthodox’, proving their total lack of simple Christian humility. Their pharisaic censoriousness and judgementalism, failing to see the wood for the trees, forgetting the Gospel of Love in favour of manmade rules, ‘the typikon and the canons’, confusing the means with the end, may bring them into sexual falls. Two notable cases of this sort, tainted with hypocritical puritanism, that we have met both involved homosexuality. In general, the failure to pass through this stage will inevitably bring us back to the first stage, that of temptation through overeating (obesity), drinking (alcohol), excessive sleep and rest (sloth) or else, as we have noted above, sexual temptations.

However, we are called to love God with our understanding, that is, with our mind or intellectual faculties. This means purifying our minds, that our minds have inside them something of the compassionate love of God, have charitable thoughts towards others, giving others the benefit of the doubt, never condemning others, but only ourselves. It means never putting our own psychology, the word of our soul, which is always afflicted with the spiritual disease of the Fall, above theology, the Word of God. Humility is the true remedy for this disease of intellectual delusion.

With all the Soul: Emotional Delusion

If we have realised that the intellectual is ultimately an illusion, a process which can take a few weeks or a few decades depending on our weaknesses, we can pass on to this next stage of divesting ourselves of our self-delusion. This means overcoming emotional illusions, renouncing our passionate feelings. As we have said above, this stage may precede the intellectual stage. In other words, depending on the individual, either intellectual or emotional delusions may come after physical delusions.

The danger at this stage is that we confuse our emotions with spiritual reality. In general, this temptation is more common among women, both younger and older. Victims of emotional delusions fail to see that beautiful singing, sweet-smelling incense, priestly clothing, all the aesthetic side of the Church, are only a means to an end. In extreme cases, this temptation can actually lead to people mistaking dreams and ‘visions’ for reality, claiming that they have seen God, the Virgin or the saints. Ascetically, this is commonly called spiritual delusion or illusion (illusio in Latin, prelest in Slavonic, plani in Greek). Although it is particularly ingrained outside the Orthodox Church, that is, outside the sacramental presence of the Holy Spirit, in Roman Catholicism, with its Francises and Teresas and their delusions, and in Protestant revivalism (nowadays called Charismaticism), it can and does affect those who live on the fringes of the Orthodox Church. These, often converts, think that they are Orthodox, but in fact they are not.

Emotional delusions lead very quickly to pseudo-mysticism, a feeling that we are superior to the Church, that our ‘revelations’, always exotic and esoteric, allow us to change the services and Church architecture, tampering with the Tradition. Iconographically, their icons will be ‘soft-focus’ and emotional. These delusions often lead their victims into liberalism, modernism and ecumenism. For the victims of these delusions are actually suffering from delusions similar to those which exist among Non-Orthodox. Therefore they have much in common. As they say: ‘Birds of a feather flock together’. These delusions lead to the pride of those who tell you that, ‘in our Church we do not have the errors of others, we have reformed everything and we do everything properly’. Such arrogant pride often turns its victims into snobs with obvious pretentiousness. Here, the psychic (from the Greek ‘psyche’, meaning soul, the seat of the emotions) is mistaken for the spiritual.

The victims of emotional delusion may often have apparently overcome the physical temptations of the first stage of the Faith, even be apparently ‘advanced’, they may even have an outward experience of monastic life, but they generally give up any authentic monastic life. Some may get married – these are the more worthy examples, because more honest. Others may fall into fornication with mistresses or fall into other sexual, homosexual or, worse still, pedophile scandals. In general, the failure to pass through this stage will inevitably bring us back to the first stage, that of temptation through overeating (obesity), drinking (alcohol), excessive sleep and rest (sloth) or else sexual temptations. We have come across very many instances of emotional delusion, which have all led to great scandal in the Church. Nearly all of them involve or involved monastics.

In reality, we are called to love God with our souls, to purify our souls from our ‘selfness’, from everything that comes from ourselves. This means purifying our souls, not cultivating the images in our souls, which in reality are only reflections of our own passions. Obedience to the Church authorities and the Church Tradition is the true remedy for the disease of emotional delusion.

Conclusion: With all the Heart

A combination of all three above temptations is by far the most dangerous and difficult one to root out. Unfaithfulness of the mind or the feelings leads us back into moral decadence and sexual scandal. Thus, those who combine an intellectual philosophy with aestheticism and emotionalism always fall into physical unfaithfulness. Intellectual and/or emotional delusion bring us to fall back into physical delusion.

It is only when, after decades of struggles, we have overcome the passions afflicting our body, our mind and our souls that we may perhaps arrive at some tiny degree of spiritual purity. It is only then that we can begin to love God ‘with all our hearts’, as Christ commanded us. And it is only then that genuine gifts, such as those given to authentic spiritual fathers and elders, the gift for example of clairvoyance, are given. Only then does spiritual life begin – and not before. As for us who live in the twenty-first century Western world, we are not even on the first rung of the ladder, such is the state of our physical delusion.

Archpriest Andrew Phillips

2/15 October 2009
St Andrew Fool-for-Christ

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