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Attitude Toward "Spiritual" Experiences

HAVING LITTLE OR NO FOUNDATION in the genuine sources of Christian spiritual experience - the Holy Mysteries of the Church, and the spiritual teaching handed down by the Holy Fathers from Christ and His Apostles-the followers of the "charismatic" movement have no means of distinguishing the grace of God from its counterfeit. All "charismatic" writers show, to a lesser or greater degree, a lack of caution and discrimination toward the experiences they have. Some Catholic Pentecostals, to be sure, "exorcise satan" before asking for "Baptism in the Spirit"; but the efficacy of this act, as will soon be evident from their own testimony, is similar to that of the Jews in the Acts (19:15), to whose "exorcism" the evil spirit replied: "Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?" St. John Cassian, the great 5th-century Orthodox father of the West, who wrote with great discernment on the working of the Holy Spirit in his Conference on "Divine Gifts," notes that "sometimes the demons [work miracles] in order to lift into pride the man who believes himself to possess the miraculous gift, and so prepare him for a more miraculous fall. They pretend that they are being burnt up and driven out from the bodies where they were dwelling through the holiness of people whom truly they know to be unholy... In the Gospel we read: There shall arise false Christs and false prophets" [12].

The 18th-century Swedish "visionary," Emanuel Swedenborg - who was a strange forerunner of today's occult and "spiritual" revival- had extensive experience with spiritual beings, whom he frequently saw and communicated with. He distinguished two kinds of spirits, the "good" and the "evil"; his experience has been recently confirmed by the findings of a clinical psychologist in his work with "hallucinating" patients in a state mental hospital in Ukiah, California. This psychologist took seriously the voices heard by his patients and undertook a series of "dialogues" with them (through the intermediary of the patients themselves). He concluded, like Swedenborg, that there are two very different kinds of "beings" who have entered into contact with the patients: the "higher" and the "lower." In his own words: "Lower-order voices are similar to drunken bums at a bar who like to tease and torment just for the fun of it. They suggest lewd acts and then scold the patient for considering them. They find a weak point of conscience and work on it interminably...The vocabulary and range of ideas of the lower order is limited, but they have a persistent will to destroy...They work on every weakness and belief, claim awesome powers, lie, make promises, and then undermine the patient's will... All of the lower order are irreligious or anti-religious... To one person they appeared as conventional devils and referred to themselves as demons."

"In direct contrast stand the rarer higher-order hallucinations... This contrast may be illustrated by the experience of one man. He had heard the lower order arguing for a long while about how they would murder him. But he also had a light come to him at night, like the sun. He knew it was a different order because the light respected his freedom and would withdraw if it frightened him... When the man was encouraged to approach his friendly sun he entered a world of powerful numinous experiences... [Once] a very powerful and impressive Christ-like figure appeared... Some patients experience both the higher and lower orders at various times and feel caught between a private heaven and hell. Many only know the attacks of the lower order. The higher order claims power over the lower order and, indeed, shows it at times, but not enough to give peace of mind to most patients... The higher order appeared strangely gifted, sensitive, wise, and religious" [13].

Any reader of the Orthodox Lives of Saints and other spiritual literature knows that all of these spirits‹both "good" and "evil," the "lower" with the "higher" - are equally demons, and that the discernment between true good spirits (angels) and these evil spirits cannot be made on the basis of onešs own feelings or impressions. The widespread practice of "exorcism" in "charismatic" circles offers no guarantee whatever that evil spirits are actually being driven out; exorcisms are also very common (and seemingly successful) among primitive shamans,14 who also recognize that there are different kinds of spirits - which are all, however, equally demons, whether they seem to flee when exorcised or come when invoked to give shamanistic powers.

No one will deny that the "charismatic" movement on the whole is firmly oriented against contemporary occultism and satanism. But the more subtle of the evil spirits appear as "angels of light" (2 Cor. 11:14), and a great gift of discernment, together with a deep distrust of all onešs extraordinary "spiritual" experiences, is required if a person is not to be deceived. In the face of the subtle, invisible enemies who wage unseen warfare against the human race, the naively trusting attitude towards their experiences of most people involved in the "charismatic" movement is an open invitation to spiritual deception. One pastor, for example, counsels meditation on Scriptural passages and then writing down any thought "triggered" by the reading: "This is the Holy Spirit's personal message to you" (Christenson, p. 139). But any serious student of Christian spirituality knows that, for example, ŗat the beginning of the monastic life some of the unclean demons instruct [novices] in the interpretation of the Divine Scriptures...gradually deceiving them that they may lead them into heresy and blasphemy" (The Ladder of St. John, Step 26: 152).

Sadly, the attitude of the Orthodox followers of the "charismatic revival" seems no more discerning than that of Catholics and Protestants. They obviously do not know well the Orthodox Fathers or Lives of Saints, and when they do quote a rare Father, it is often out of context (see later concerning St. Seraphim). The "charismatic" appeal is chiefly one to experience. One Orthodox priest writes: "Some have dared to label this experience 'prelest' - spiritual pride. No one who has encountered the Lord in this way could fall into this delusion" (Logos, April, 1972, p. 10). But it is a very rare Orthodox Christian who is capable of distinguishing very subtle forms of spiritual deception (where "pride," for example, may take the form of "humility") solely on the basis of his feeling about them without reference to the patristic tradition; only one who has already fully assimilated the patristic tradition into his own thought and practice and has attained great sanctity can presume to do this.

How is the Orthodox Christian prepared to withstand deception? He has the whole body of God-inspired patristic writings which, together with Holy Scripture, present the judgment of Christ's Church for 1900 years with regard to virtually every conceivable spiritual and pseudo-spiritual experience. Later we shall see that this tradition has a very definite judgment precisely on the chief question the "charismatic" movement raises: concerning the possibility of a new and widespread "outpouring of the Holy Spirit" in the last days. But even before consulting the Fathers on specific questions, the Orthodox Christian is protected against deception by the very knowledge that such deception not only exists, but is everywhere, including within himself. Bishop Ignatius writes: "We are all in deception. The knowledge of this is the greatest preventative against deception. It is the greatest deception to acknowledge oneself to be free of deception." He quotes St. Gregory the Sinaite, who warns us: "It is not a little labor to attain the truth precisely and to make oneself pure of everything that opposes grace; because it is usual for the devil to show his deception, especially to beginners, in the form of truth, giving a spiritual appearance to what is evil." And "God is not angry at him who, fearing deception, watches over himself with extreme caution, even if he should not accept something which is sent from God... On the contrary, God praises such a one for his good sense."

Thus, totally unprepared for spiritual warfare, unaware that there is such a thing as spiritual deception of the most subtle sort (as opposed to obvious forms of occultism), the Catholic or Protestant or uninformed Orthodox Christian goes to a prayer meeting to be "baptized (or filled) with the Holy Spirit." The atmosphere of the meeting is extremely loose, being intentionally left "open" to the activity of some "spirit." Thus do Catholics (who profess to be more cautious than Protestants) describe some of their Pentecostal gatherings: "There seemed to be no barriers, no inhibitions...They sat cross-legged on the floor. Ladies in slacks. White-robed monk. Cigarette smokers. Coffee drinkers. Praying in free-form... It occurred to me that these people were having a good time praying! Is that what they meant by the Holy Spirit dwelling amongst them?" And at another Catholic Pentecostal meeting, "except for the fact that no one was drinking, it seemed like a cocktail party" (Ranaghan, pp. 157, 209). At interdenominational "charismatic" meetings the atmosphere is likewise sufficiently informal that no one is surprised when the "spirit" inspires an elderly woman, in the midst of a fit of general weeping, to stand up and "dance a little jig" (Sherrill, p. 118). To the sober Orthodox Christian, the first thing noticeable about such an atmosphere is its total lack of what he knows in his own Divine services as genuine piety and awe, proceeding from the fear of God. And this first impression is only strikingly confirmed by observation of the truly strange effects which the Pentecostal "spirit" produces when it descends into this loose atmosphere. We shall now examine some of these effects, placing them before the judgment of the Holy Fathers of the Church of Christ.

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