On Pride: The Demonic Stronghold

The characteristics of pride

One of the foremost experts on the depths of the human spirit, St. Isaac the Syrian, says in his 41st homily: “The one who has come to a realization of his sin is higher than the one who raises the dead through prayer; whoever has been able to see his own self is higher than the one who has been granted the vision of angels.” It is for the purpose of self-knowledge that we will examine the matter we have stated in the title.

Pride, and egotism, and vanity, to which we can add – haughtiness, arrogance, conceit – are all different varieties of one basic manifestation – “turning towards oneself.” Out of all these words two have the most concrete meaning: vanity and pride; according to the “Ladder” they are like youth and man, seed and bread, beginning and end. Priest Alexander Elchaninov

Priest Alexander Elchaninov

The symptoms of vanity, this initial sin: intolerance of criticism, a thirst for praise, a search for easy paths, constant orientation upon others – what will they say? how will it appear? what will they think? Vanity sees an approaching audience from afar and makes the wrathful – affectionate, the irresponsible – serious, the distracted – concentrated, gluttons – temperate, and so on – all of this while there are observers around..

The same orientation upon an audience explains the sin of self-justification, which often creeps unnoticeably even into our confession: “I am no more sinful than the rest…. only insignificant sins…. I have not killed anyone or stolen anything.”

The demon of vanity is overjoyed, says St. John of the Ladder, seeing our virtues increase: the more successes we have, the more food for vanity. “When I keep fast, I am vain; when I hide my spiritual labors – I am vain over my piety. If I dress pleasingly, I am vain, and if I put on old clothes, I become even vainer. If I begin to speak – I am consumed by vanity, if I keep silent – I become still vainer. No matter how you turn this prickly plant – it always has its thorns sticking upward.” As soon as a kind feeling or a sincere movement arises in a man’s heart, immediately there appears a vain backward look at oneself, and thus – these most precious movements of the soul disappear, melt like snow under the sun. They melt, which means they die; which means that because of vanity the best in us dies; thus we kill ourselves with vanity and we replace a real, simple and good life with phantoms.

Increasing vanity gives rise to pride.

Pride is supreme self-confidence, rejecting all that is not of itself, it is a source of rage, cruelty and malice, a refusal to accept God’s help, a “demonic stronghold.” It is an “iron curtain” between ourselves and God (Abba Pimen); it is an enmity towards God, the origin of all sin, it is present in every sin. Every sin constitutes a willing yielding of oneself to one’s vice, a conscious flouting of God’s law, an audacity against God, although “the one who is subject to pride is desperately in need of God, for no man can save such a one” (“The Ladder”).

Where does this vice came from? How does it begin? What does it feed on? Through what stages does it pass in its development? What are the characteristics by which one can recognize it?

The latter is particularly important, because a proud person usually does not see his sin. A wise elder once counseled one of his monastics to shun pride, but the latter, blinded by his intellect, replied: “Forgive me, father, but there is absolutely no pride in me.” The wise elder said to him: “There is no better proof of your pride, child, than such an answer!”

In any case, if a person finds it hard to ask forgiveness of others, if he is easily offended and mistrustful, if he is rancorous and judgmental of others, – all of these are undoubtedly signs of pride.

In the “Homily against pagans” of Saint Athanasius the Great there are the following words: “Men have fallen into self-desire, preferring to contemplate themselves rather than divinity.” This brief definition reveals the essence of pride: man, for whom until now the center and the object of desire was God, has turned away from Him, has fallen into “self-desire,” has come to love himself more than God, has preferred self-contemplation to divine contemplation.

In our life this turning towards “self-contemplation” and “self-desire” has become part of our nature and can often be seen in the mighty instinct for self-preservation, both in our earthly and our spiritual life.

Just as a cancerous growth often begins with a bruise or a continuous irritation of a certain spot, so the spiritual illness of pride often begins either with a sudden shock (for example, due to some calamity), or from a continuous massaging of one’s ego due to success, good fortune, the constant exhibition of one’s talents, etc.

Often you are dealing with a so-called “temperamental” individual, passionate, talented, easily fascinated. Such a person is like an erupting volcano, with his ceaseless activity preventing both God and men from getting near to him. He is full of himself, totally absorbed in himself, intoxicated with himself. He does not see or feel anything except his burning talent, from which he derives great enjoyment and satisfaction. One can hardly do anything with such people until they become played out, until the volcano becomes extinguished. Such is the danger of all talented and gifted people. Talent should be balanced by deep spirituality.

Otherwise, in reverse cases, in situations of great sorrow – there is the same result: the person becomes totally absorbed in his misfortune, in his eyes the surrounding world becomes dull and dark; he cannot think or speak of anything except his sorrow; he wallows in it, he finally holds onto it as the only thing left to him, as the only reason in life.

Often this turning towards oneself becomes developed in people who are quiet, submissive, taciturn, whose personal life had been suppressed from childhood, and this “suppressed subjectivity compensates itself by engendering a tendency towards egocentrism” (Jung, “Psychological types”) in the most diverse manifestations: quickness to take offence, mistrust, coquetry, seeking of attention, and even in the form of direct psychoses such as persecution mania, megalomania, etc.

Thus, a concentration upon oneself leads a person away from the world and from God; he becomes chipped off, so-to-speak, from the general tree trunk of world-outlook and turns into a shaving curled around an empty spot.
The progression of the spiritual illness

Let us try to outline the major stages of the development of pride, from slight self-satisfaction to extreme spiritual darkness and total destruction.

At first it is seen as frequent attention to oneself, almost normal, accompanied by a good mood bordering on flippancy. A person is satisfied with himself, laughs a lot, whistles, hums, snaps his fingers. He likes to appear original, to amuse others with paradox and wit; he exhibits unusual tastes, is capricious in food. He willingly gives advice and amicably interferes in the affairs of others; he unconsciously manifests his exclusive interest in himself with the following phrases (interrupting the conversation): “no, let me tell you,” or “no, I know a better story,” or “I have the habit of….,” or “I usually follow the rule of….”.

At the same time he is greatly dependent on the approval of others, depending on which he either blossoms or fades and becomes sour. In general, however, at this stage his mood remains fairly bright. This form of egocentrism is usually characteristic of youth, although it is sometimes seen in adults.

Such a person is lucky if at this stage he encounters serious concerns, especially for others (marriage, a family), a job, a project. Or if he becomes entranced with religious life and, attracted by the beauty of spiritual endeavour, realizes his spiritual poverty and becomes desirous of the aid of grace. If this does not occur, the illness progresses further.

There appears in him a sincere belief in his own superiority. Often this is expressed through irrepressible verbosity. What else is verbosity if not, on the one hand, an absence of modesty, and on the other hand – a delight in one’s own self? The egoistic nature of verbosity is not lessened by instances of discussion of serious topics; a proud person can easily prose on humility and silence, can glorify fasting, can debate on the merits of good works versus prayer.

Self-assurance quickly turns into a passion for ordering others around; such a person imposes his will upon others (but is intolerant of his own will being imposed upon), takes charge of others’ attention, time, efforts, becomes impudent and obnoxious. His affairs are important, the affairs of others are of little value. He tries to do everything, interferes in everything.

At this stage the proud person’s mood begins to spoil. In his aggressiveness he naturally meets with opposition and rebuffs; he becomes irritable, stubborn, peevish; he becomes certain that no one understands him, even his spiritual father; his conflicts with the world increase and the proud person makes a final choice: “I” against others (but not yet against God).

The soul becomes dark and cold, becomes the abode of arrogance, contempt, anger, hate. The mind becomes obscured, the differentiation between good and evil becomes muddled, becomes replaced by the differentiation between “mine” and “not mine.” He escapes from all obedience, is intolerable to all segments of society; his purpose is to propagate his own views, to vanquish and shame others; he hungrily seeks fame, even notoriety, revenging himself upon the world for its lack of acknowledgment. If he is a monk – he leaves his monastery which has become intolerable to him, and seeks his own paths. Occasionally this force of self-assertion is directed towards material acquisition, a career, social and political activity; sometimes, if there is talent, it is directed towards creativity, and in such a case, through pushiness, the proud person can even achieve some measure of success. On these same grounds schisms and heresies are created.

Finally, at the last stage, the person separates from God. If previously he sinned out of mischief and mutiny, now he allows himself everything: sin no longer bothers him but becomes a habit; if he feels easy about anything at this stage, it is his easy relations with the demons and his easy access to dark paths. The state of the soul is dismal, hopeless, totally isolated, but at the same time there is a sincere conviction in the rightness of his path and a feeling of complete safety, despite the fact that he is being rushed on black wings to perdition.

In truth, such a state of mind does not differ greatly from madness.

At this stage the proud person lives in a state of total isolation. Look at how he talks, argues: he either does not hear at all what others say to him, or hears only that which coincides with his own views; if something is said to him contrary to his opinions, he becomes angry as though he were greatly offended, and viciously refutes everything. In those around him he sees only those qualities, which he himself had imposed upon them, so that even in his praises he remains proud, self-centered, impervious to objectivity.

Characteristically the most prevalent forms of psychological illness – megalomania and persecution mania – spring directly from “increased self-awareness” and are totally unthinkable in individuals who are humble, simple and self-sacrificing. Even psychiatrists believe that paranoia is based upon an exaggerated awareness of one’s own self, a hostile attitude towards others, a loss of normal ability for adaptation, an irrationality of beliefs. A classic paranoiac never criticizes himself, in his own eyes he is always right and he is sharply dissatisfied with the people around him and with the conditions of his life.

Here is a perfect illustration of the depth of St. John of the Ladder’s determination: “Pride is extreme poverty of the soul.”

A proud man suffers defeat on all fronts:

Psychologically – anguish, gloom, barrenness.

Morally – solitude, the drying up of love, anger.

Physiologically and pathologically – nervous illness and madness.

From a theological point of view – the death of the soul preceding physical death, the experience of hell while still in this life.

In conclusion it is natural to pose a question: how to struggle against this illness, how to oppose the destruction which threatens those who follow this path? The answer springs from the essence of the question: first of all – humility; then – obedience, in increments – to loved ones, to elders, to the laws of the world, to objective truth, to beauty, to all that is good within us and around us, obedience to the law of God, and finally – obedience to the Church, its rules, its commandments, its mystic sacraments. And to achieve this – follow that which stands at the beginning of the Christian path: “Whosoever wishes to follow Me, must renounce himself.”

Renounce himself…. and must continue renouncing himself every day; every day a person must take upon himself his cross – a cross of enduring affronts, placing oneself last, suffering sorrows and illnesses, silently accepting abuse, offering total and unconditional obedience – immediate, voluntary, joyous, fearless, constant obedience.

And then the path into the kingdom of peace and profoundest wisdom, which destroys all passions, shall become open to him.

Glory be to our God, Who opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble! Protopriest Alezxander Elchaninov.

Distractions During Prayer and the Place of the Heart

By Hieromonk Fr. Alexis (Trader)

Many sincere Christians have experienced distracting thoughts or even bad thoughts during prayer and are naturally distressed when this happens. After all, their intention is to communicate with God, not to talk to themselves about things mundane or even worse!  Some have become so discouraged by such thoughts that they give up on prayer altogether.  And yet, seeking to find the Lord Jesus even when He seems lost in an unruly crowd of our distractions and bad thoughts is very much a part of our struggle as Christians. The presence of these unwanted, yet to be honest, not totally rejected, thoughts, provides us with a wealth of self-knowledge that can also become a source of genuine humility. They show us that our best efforts are not enough without God’s mercy and love coming to us to save us.  They also show us that we are living and searching for God in and with our minds, instead of using that unique instrument with which we can come into contact with God, namely, our heart.

Archimandrite Zacharias has noted, “The great tragedy of our times lies in the fact that we live, speak, think, and even pray to God, outside our heart, outside our Father’s house. And truly our Father’s house is our heart, the place where ‘the spirit of glory and of God’ would find repose, that Christ may ‘be formed in us’.  Indeed, only then can we be made whole, and become hypostases in the image of the true and perfect Hypostasis, the Son and Word of God, Who created and redeemed us by the precious Blood of His ineffable sacrifice.  Yet as long as we are held captive by our passions, which distract our mind from our heart and lure it into the ever-changing and vain world of natural and created things, thus depriving us of all spiritual strength, we will not know the new birth from on High that makes us children of God and gods by grace.”

Distressing distraction in prayer, which sometimes develops into extensive conversations with ourselves, means that we are praying with our minds, but not with our hearts. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I make reference to how we should pray in spite of the distractions and bad thoughts.  “The watchful fathers knew by experience that when the believer’s mind is gathered in the heart and repeats the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’ demonic thoughts, fantasies and illusions are exposed as false and thus can be more easily rejected.  The correct application of this approach known as monologistic prayer entails ‘cognitively’ paying attention to the words of prayer and ‘emotionally’ feeling compunction in the presence of the Lord Jesus.  Attentive and compunctious prayer in turn augments the believer’s yearning for Christ and watchfulness over the thoughts, thereby bringing him clarity of mind.  Although it requires much toil, humility, and even ‘assistance from heaven’, the holy fathers consider this ‘cognitive method’ to be as effective in bridling unruly thoughts as the behavioral technique of not voicing one’s reaction to an insult is successful at stifling anger.”

It is worth noting that demonic thoughts, fantasies and illusions can appear even if someone is praying correctly and in a God-pleasing way. The difference lies in the ease and the speed with which distractions are rejected. The mind is always making associations, churning out thoughts, saying, “Look over here, look over there.” And the mind has an exquisite knowledge of our buttons (which are often our passions) and knows full well which ones to push to get our attention.  When we pray in the heart, though, we can tell from afar the difference between the real  gold of Christ and the fool’s gold of the devil. And so when praying from the heart, we ignore extraneous thoughts with the blink of an eye, and keep looking to the radiant countenance of our compassionate Lord.

The problem is not really distraction in prayer. Distraction is a symptom of our spiritual state. When we find ourselves especially distracted, when conversations in the mind with ourselves are more vociferous than our cry of repentance, we need to humble ourselves and strive again to turn to the Lord with compunction, praying to Him with all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength. Perhaps it might be helpful to recognize that one who engages in prayer, especially during the period of purification from the passions is not going to experience it as all “sweetness and light.”  If that were so, the passions would remain forever hidden and one could hardly make any progress against enemies that remain lurking in the heart.  Rather, it might be beneficial to consider the time of prayer as one’s entrance into the spiritual arena in which the wild beasts of our passions are let loose, in which the devil prowls about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour, and in which the Angels, the Saints, and Christ Himself watch on ready to help us if we call out for help with our entire soul. Prayer introduces the faithful to the battleground for the heart. Let us not grow discouraged by distractions, but take note, and turn to the Lord with increasing fervor. Seeking, always seeking, what the Lord seeks most of all, our heart. The Lord reminds us that trials and temptations will come our way and that includes trials and temptations in Church and at the time of prayer. But He also told His disciples, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” and with it every possible distraction and evil thought arising in our own inner world during the hallowed time of prayer.

Source: Ancient Christian Wisdom

The Problem of Procrastination

By Fr. Alexis (Trader)

In our fast-paced society that prizes productivity and efficiency, procrastination is clearly a problem that can sabotage career and advancement. In a world preoccupied with high stress and low self-esteem, procrastination can be a serious issue contributing to more frequent physical illness as well mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. And even in Christian circles, procrastination can be a spiritual snare, for procrastination in repentance and the keeping of God’s commandments can destroy our very souls. Even though failing to follow through and complete an intended task until the last minute can keep us from our goals at every level, leaving us anxious, depressed and even seemingly far from God, we still procrastinate.

Psychologists often view the problem of procrastination as a problem of disconnect between intention and behavior. For instance, in his thesis entitled “Ruminating About Procrastination,” Brett W. Guidry notes that procrastination is a “delay of some sort, needless, and counterproductive…The idea of delaying an intended behavior seems to be crucial in defining procrastination. Without this intention-behavior gap, it is difficult to claim that procrastination has occurred.” Much like in the Lord’s parable about a certain man with two sons, the procrastinator says to himself, “I go, sir: and went not.” (Matthew  28-30).  In procrastination, the discrepancy between intention and behavior is also experienced as transgression of an inner law that the self has set. Procrastination can be viewed as a personal moral failure often expressed by so-called “should” statements such as, “I should have started this by now” or “I should have already completed this.”  Such realizations not only can lower self-esteem, but also can lead to anxiety, stress, and ensuing health problems.

Guidry goes on to point out that procrastination represents a breakdown in self-regulation or self-discipline, in part due to the fact that procrastinators are also more impulsive by nature with an inability to stick to a given task. Joseph R. Ferrari examined the relationship between impulsivity and procrastination and found that procrastinators “spend less preparation time on tasks that were likely to succeed and more time on projects likely to fail (Lay, 1990); they also tend to underestimate the time required to complete tasks.”  Ferrari concludes “ frequent procrastination (e.g., indecisiveness and pronounced tendencies to avoid threatening situations) is related to dysfunctional impulsiveness (high speed-high error)… To the extent that these procrastinators possess deficits in cognitive processing abilities, tendencies to speed up and work faster to complete a task by deadline will likely result in poor performance because of the subsequent lack of sufficient time and ability to perform efficiently.”

In other words, procrastination, the guilty feelings about failing to do what we intended to do, arise from poor judgment, poor self-control, and a failure to face squarely our own problems. In spiritual terms, we could say there is a lack of discernment, asceticism, and courage. Procrastinators are like the man who failed to sit down and count the cost like the parable of the man in intending to build a tower (Luke 14:28). They resemble Eve who saw the fruit was pleasant to the eyes, took it and ate it (Genesis 3:6). They view their project or problem, much like the fearful disciples afraid to face a storm or even a young girl warming herself by fire (Mark 14:69). In patristic terms, procrastination involves a kind weakness in the three parts of the soul, the reasoning, the desiring, and the aggressive faculties. In particular, there is a lack of planning in the reasoning faculty, shifting fancies in the desiring faculty, and apprehension in the aggressive faculty. Fortunately, the fathers have time-tested methods for dealing with spiritual sickness in each of these areas.

And the basic method in all cases is prayer. The three-fold ill of procrastination can be healed by actively turning to God on a daily basis, seeking His wisdom, His strength, and His assistance in the tasks of the day. It means asking God’s help to strengthen our good intentions, by faith proceeding to implement those intentions, and by calling on His Name disregarding the distractions and temptations that get in our way. We need to heed our Lord’s words: “And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch,” watching our plans, our desires, and our courage all in the light of His victory over every foe. If we do this in the spiritual life, we can also learn to do it in other areas. Encouraging watchfulness in his monks, Elder Ephraim would urge, “Compel yourselves; say the Prayer; stop idle talk; close your mouths to criticism; place doors and locks against unnecessary words; time passes and does not come back; and woe to us if time goes by without spiritual profit.” Putting first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, let’s first try to be watchful in our spiritual life by turning to God who can then help us overcome this obstacle in all the areas of our life to His glory. Amen

Source: Ancient Christian Wisdom blog

Undue Concern over Others’ Problems

by Archpriest George Morelli Antiochian Archdiocese Ministry of Counseling.

There is a deep chasm between genuine and sincere concern for the
problems that beset others versus undue personal disturbance. One of
the major disaffirmative consequences of an undue concern for others’
problems is that we are not able to focus on fostering our own healthy
physical, psychological or spiritual functioning and wellbeing. This is
often accompanied by our own emotional distress. Furthermore, this then leads to being ineffective in giving others the help they may deservedly need and that we might want to give to them. Irish author, poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), put it this way: “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”1

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“Can There Be Enough of Love?”

The Ministry at Special Department for Children in Mental Health Hospital @ St. Elisabeth Convent, Minsk, Belarus.

It is great, when you see your goal and know you are moving towards it gradually. It is rather difficult to talk
about work that has no tangible results or some obvious fruits.
However, against this background, you realize how important the faith in charitable nature of your work is, as well as love for every person and
hope that the Lord will help anytime. Few know that in the complex of a
Mental Health Hospital, which is located right behind the Convent’s
walls, there is a special department for children, where there are kids
with disabilities, different from those living in the residential institutions nursed by the Convent.

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