“I believe this man is a living saint!”
“Our people are the good guys—those other people are the ones doing wrong!”
What if you believe that someone is not what they appear to be? If you believe that a certain man is a ‘living saint’ and not the ordinary flawed, fallible human being he seems to be? Or if you believe, on the other hand, that someone else is not the wise teacher he claims to be but a wolf in sheep’s clothing? What if you believe that the people in one country are blameless in any conflict, but other people believe that it is the country that you favor that is in the wrong?
How do we come by such beliefs? Sometimes they are first impressions, later to be modified a little—perhaps disappointingly, perhaps shockingly. Sometimes they are born out of long acquaintance or experience. They may be enhanced by our own desire to believe the best of others—out of naivete or willingness to let someone else form our thoughts, because we are too afraid or slothful to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Or on the other hand they may spring from a cynicism in our hearts which likewise comes from the fear of life’s shades of gray. They may come from a partiality for our own heritage and acquaintance, or from resentfulness against some other group or individual for past wrongs, preventing us from looking at all the facts in a clear and evenhanded manner.
Bit by bit, we can slide from ‘believing’ into what we think is ‘knowing’ what is true or factual about various persons or events. If you have ever heard several different people describe what happened in a traffic accident, you will know that these accounts often differ substantially—not necessarily because any of the parties is intentionally lying, but because witnesses are only human. They may have only witnessed a portion of the event; each could only see it from a particular vantage point that may block other important facts. Often they cannot easily recall the order in which things happened.
Before we slide from a passionate belief into an assertion that we know something, we need to stop and have the humility to remember that only God knows all. Truly, we seldom know very much at all about ourselves, let alone about other people or situations in the world around us. But when we become committed to a truth as we believe it to be, we then begin to interpret every possible new fact through the prism of that fundamental belief. As Orthodox Christians, our fundamental beliefs must not be about political philosophies, about ‘sides’ in our community or overseas, or about individuals. The prism through which we must see all things is our Orthodox Faith.
In our Orthodox Faith, we do not declare what we ‘know’ but what we ‘believe’. This is what we do whenever we recite the Creed. This being so, it is dangerous, arrogant and maybe even blasphemous to declare that we ‘know’ certain things in the face of contrary evidence, or to act as if we know.
We can believe passionately, convinced in our own hearts, that some situation or person is not what they appear; indeed, sometimes things are not what they appear. Yet we must beware of stepping over the line to say ‘we know!’ That is what the Fathers call prelest, and Lent is here to help us guard against it.
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov teaches, “All of us are subject to spiritual deception. Awareness of this fact is the greatest protection against it. Likewise, the greatest spiritual deception of all is to consider oneself free from it. We are all deceived, all deluded; we all find ourselves in a condition of falsehood; we all need to be liberated by the Truth. The Truth is our Lord Jesus Christ (Jn. 8:32-14:6). Let us assimilate that Truth by faith in it; let us cry out in prayer to this Truth, and it will draw us out of the abyss of demonic deception and self-delusion.”
‘Put not your trust in princes and sons of men, in whom there is no salvation,’ we sing every week. Like witnesses to a traffic accident, we are limited and fallible, and cannot live without believing whatever incomplete version of events we were able to observe. The foolish choice is to not sit lightly on that belief and to refuse to hear other points of view. Prelest is to believe in our own belief the way we would believe in Our Lord.