13 July 2009

Renewal and Prelest

I remember talking with an Eastern Orthodox brother about the Charismatic Renewal and he referred to it as "Prelest". That there are no shortcuts in the spiritual life, so the idea of "baptism in the Holy Spirit" and speaking in tongues was delusion.

This Russian Orthodox word "Prelest" is often translated into English as spiritual deception, illusion, or delusion. It is the opposite of spiritual sobriety or watchfulness.

General Prelest is to think that you have no sin or need for forgiveness. Like the pharisee you see yourself as righteous before God based on your own efforts. The reality is that without Christ you are nothing. As you truly grow in holiness you become more aware of your sinfulness.

The Eastern fathers often speak of a particular Prelest that happens when you "live beyond your capabilities". This is someone who hasn't been cleansed of passions yet strives for a life of contemplation and desires the delights of spiritual grace. This spiritual "eagerness" leads to demonic exploitation of these desires. This person imagines that they are near to God and in a higher dimension of spirituality.

Seraphim of Sarov warned that "Surpassing their acquaintances in struggles of prayer and fasting, they imagine that they are seers of divine visions, or at least of dreams inspired by grace. In every event of their lives, they see special intentional directions from God or their guardian angel. And then they start imagining that they are God's elect, and often try to foretell the future."

The possibility of falling into Prelest is the leading cause of Eastern reluctance to the Charismatic Renewal. "The monks on Athos don't speak in tongues, so how could Nick the usher?"

I've been around the Charismatic movement since I was in diapers and will admit there were ups and downs in the last four decades. Mistakes and mis-steps have been made and some people do swim out over their heads and get into trouble.

The best safeguard against Prelest, according to Eastern writers, is to have a good spiritual director. If you are accountable to a priest or other elder in the Lord you are less likely to fall into error.

And that is exactly what the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church did. Those who had experienced this new outpouring of the Holy Spirit went to the Church hierarchy for guidance and clarification. In their wisdom the Pope along with many cardinals and bishops recognized the "new Pentecost" that they were praying for.

My experience in the Orthodox church showed me a different reaction. Suspicious bishops "disciplined" priests who encouraged Charismatic experience. Lay people who experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit had their enthusiasm "bridled".

Direct access to the Holy Spirit? That's something you earn by fleeing the world and living a life of strict asceticism--even then there are no guarantees. Illumination is a reward--no shortcuts!

This rigid thinking has led to a quenching of the Spirit. Like the pharisees they only expect God to act in a certain way according to established rules. Anything outside of those rules is suspicious, delusional, or even heresy.

It's all based on fear. Fear of prelest, fear of diluting or destroying tradition, fear of losing ethnic identity, fear of "ecumenism".

We are so fortunate in the Catholic Church to have a shepherd that encourages all the faithful to experience the baptism in the Holy Spirit (May 2008). We have a growing Charismatic presence that compliments and enhances our ancient rituals and devotions.

Pray for our brothers and sisters of the East that they would overcome fear and re-discover the joy and freedom found in the Holy Spirit.

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