The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’. Let everyone who listens answer ‘Come’. Then let all who are thirsty come: all who want it may have the water of life, and have it free.
It is well known fact that the dogmas of the Christian Church were formulated as a response to the heresies which kept arising from time to time and threatened to seduce many. It is only my subjective perception but it looks to me that the bigger and grander the heresies were the more revelational were the dogmas and the more symbolic was their language. The more primitive and smaller were the heresies the less general and more detailed, the more human so to speak, was the dogmatic response of the Church. By no means am I attempting to make a theological point here, I am speaking only about my subjective perception. For instance, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary has always appeared to me as a somewhat awkward attempt to define something that one should not even try to – and this is while I do agree with the truth expressed by that dogma, that the Virgin Mary must be free from the consequences of the original sin to become the Mother of Jesus Christ; it is the precise definition of “how exactly and when it was achieved” that makes me feel somewhat uneasy. Nevertheless, while feeling that it is somewhat inappropriate to define God’s action in too many details and by far too human reasoning I understand that it was a necessary response to the Protestant views of the Virgin Mary which are totally contrary to the understanding of the Undivided Church.
Interestingly, in their inter-confessional dialog the Eastern Orthodox often list this very refusal to penetrate too deeply, with the polluted and crude humane mind, into the mysteries of God as one of the reasons for their rejection of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (to me it is the most convincing reason because the Orthodox Church shares the thought about the necessity of some purifying action of God to prepare the Virgin for her conception of Christ but refuses to formulate “when and how”). The Orthodox characteristically claim to be less speculative in their theology, i.e. more willing to bow down before the enigma of the God’s ways and to stay in respectable silence.
Those claims of spiritual modesty popped up in my mind after someone recently asked my opinion about the trilogy ‘Spanish Mystics’ by the Russian writer Dmitry Merzhkovsky. Although I was very much taken by the literature of the Silver Age when I was a teenager I have not read Merezhkovky so I looked into his ‘Trilogy’; this essay is the result.
Merezhkovsky in his works attempts to convey and explain what happens between a soul of a mystic and God. No, wrong – he is not attempting, he seems to claim that he knows it very well, “first hand”. However, his work and its origins will be discussed later. The reading of ‘Trilogy’ was just a trigger.
The more absurd the heresy the more likely it is that the dogmatic response to it would retain some flavour of its absurdity. This is the analogy; while I feel the necessity to respond to these absurd Orthodox ideas about Catholic mystics I understand that my response will inevitably retain the absurdity and shamelessness of its address. Indeed, it is shameful to chew the intimate details someone’s mystical experience and one who attempts to defend a mystic is unavoidably pulled into the shameless conversation. With all this in a mind I will proceed nevertheless.
I have already discussed in my paper ‘Palamism and the Person of Christ’ the phenomenon of the total disapproval, by the Orthodox Church, of the spiritual practices of the Catholic Church, especially the mystical experiences of its saints. Numerous Orthodox writers and preachers, including saints, condemn Catholic mysticism as dangerous spiritual delusion; broadly speaking, according to them the Catholic mystics are the victims of the delusion created by their pride (usually males) or/ and their misplaced libido (usually females). At the very best they mistake their hysteria for God’s communication; at the worst – the devil for Christ. This is the dry, unanimated “general opinion” of the Church which takes much more vigorous and wild forms when expressed by many individual Orthodox writers or Orthodox participants in the inter-confessional forums online.
Somehow the subject of the Catholic mystics is usually the last, unbeatable card which an Orthodox inevitably triumphantly throws on a table, somewhere between the Filioque and papal infallibility. It is irrelevant how the discussion began – the topic of the sexually frustrated and deluded Catholic saints must surface. I admit this law of necessity has appeared to me as very enigmatic and absurd for many years. Indeed, what is the connection between the private vision of some obscure female Catholic saint and the topic of Filioque? On the surface there is none indeed. However, if one recalls that the Orthodox Church holds the view that the Catholic Church, because it “broke off” the Universal Church in 1054 and also because it rejected the Palamist dogma about uncreated energies of God, has no experiential knowledge of God = no true mystical experience = no true dogmas the mocking of the Catholic mystics make some sense, in principal. The focus of this paper is not the Orthodox thesis about the false nature of the Catholic mystical experience though but about the manner it is commonly expressed because, I believe, this very manner gives more information about the reasons behind it than the thesis itself. Here somehow Orthodox self-restraint and modesty entirely disappear giving way to strangely adolescent behaviour. The most intimate words of the Catholic saints addressed to Christ are pulled out, gluttonously chewed, twisted, laughed at, etc. Typically, an Orthodox critic does not read the whole book of a mystic in a question; he or she learns them via the quotes from an Orthodox writer. To give an example of the level of discussion, one of the most frequently quoted text if of the Russian Orthodox philosopher and philologist A.F. Losev maintains that the piety of the Catholic female mystics is nothing else but contractions of their wombs in an orgasm induced by “a prayer” while the men engaged in equally hysterical acts like imaginary drinking the milk from the Virgin Mary’s breasts. Here is the point when the apology is risking to become as shameless as the words of the attackers but it is necessary to provide the reader with examples otherwise they may think that an author is overreacting.
Those words are extreme, a typical discussion usually circles around St Teresa of Avila with her vision of the seraphim piercing her heart with a fiery arrow and her words addressed to Christ before her death “Oh my Lord, and my Spouse, the desired hour is now come wherein I shall pass out of this exile, and my soul shall enjoy in Thy company what it hath so earnestly longed for.” An Orthodox is shocked with the word “spouse”; the discussion quickly turns to the details of the “vision of the seraphim” and inevitably the words of Merezhkovsky are quoted, that “If a non-pious, but experienced in love woman saw her in that moment she would understand or think she that she understands what all that means, she only would be surprised that there is no man with Teresa”. All such Orthodox sees is the word “spouse” full of sexual connotations stirred by the description of Merezhkovsky; the word “my soul shall enjoy…” is being ignored. This is by the way how a Catholic usually answers an Orthodox, by pointing out that Christ is the Spouse of St Teresa’s soul; that the relationship is of the spirit. This usually does not work though. An Orthodox is ashamed by what he reads but nevertheless not ashamed enough to stop talking about it in public, with dirty giggles.
I have no intention to address the adolescent immaturity of Orthodox comments on this matter. I think if a person is mature in his relationship with the other sex then, even if he disapproves of mystical experiences like that one he would never salivate over them using them as a kind of spiritual porn. One may say that the mystics wrote about their experiences themselves and thus sanctioned the discussion. They did indeed, and often, as St Teresa of Avila, by the order of their confessors and for the narrow circle of the monastics of their order and those others who are interested in a personal relationship with God. They certainly did not write them for adolescents.
The comparison with an adolescent is quite apt I think, not only because the immaturity of the comments but because of the similarity of what is hiding behind it. An adolescent is mocking the sexual relationship of others because he does not have his own and because he has no idea what can be behind the stupid act he mocks and desires at the same time. It is counterproductive to try to convince most Orthodox that the various expressions of utmost delight often exhibited by the Catholic mystics, their insistence on referring to Our Lord as their Bridegroom and Spouse, their speaking about their relationship with Him as they are speaking about being passionately in love with someone are “metaphorical” or “symbolic” if “symbolic” is understood as “far away from the reality”. It is counterproductive because it is simply not true. Our Lord, for a Catholic mystic, is indeed the Bridegroom and the Source of all delight and life. This is the ground reality which the sobs and moans of St Teresa in ecstasy (and of others) convey. There is nothing shameful about it: the shame is in a mind of a beholder (peeping through the door) as we shall see.
This “yes” to the reality of the utmost intimacy between God the Person and the those who wish to be with Him appears to be that curtain in the Temple which was torn in halves. It immediately reveals not only the emotional immaturity of the accusers but also their ignorance of the teaching of the Scriptures on this topic, of the experiences of their own saints written before the Schism and, especially sad, their lack of the intimate experience of God, promised to every Christian.
First of all, to mock love – any love is sick. Human beings tend to find excuse for silly, irrational, even plain bad behaviour of someone in love. The romantic love between man and woman is still perceived in the West as an ideal and a dream because it is a universal model of the unconditional acceptance and earthly fulfilment and Russia, a Western country because its culture has Western roots, does not differ from the West here – if anything Russians have always claimed that they are “far more romantic than Westerners”. However, as soon as it becomes clear that a human being in question is in love with Christ and, worse even, expresses his love freely, the respectful attitude changes, even to the extreme shown here. Even if one thinks that a certain Catholic saint loves Christ “in a too humane way”, i.e. with all “symptoms” of falling in love which everyone knows – so what? Why is it permissible to talk non-stop about a human object of a love and burn with a desire to be with her and fall into ecstasy when the desire is fulfilled but very wrong – if an object of love is the Son of God? – So wrong that one feels free to mock a saint, not noticing that by doing so he mocks God as well. Usually, after some consideration, such people say that God is offended by an attitude to Him as if He was a human being. How one can “defend the dignity of God” by mocking and polluting God’s very gift, the ability to love? – I have no idea but it seems to me that such an argument betrays the attitude of such people to the love between the sexes as something inferior, something shameful and dirty otherwise I cannot understand how this love can in their eyes offend God if He calls Himself the Spouse of Israel.
It is such a common place that it needs to be mentioned only cursory: ‘Song of Songs’ is the heart of the Old Testament, the Bridegroom there is interpreted by Christian theologians as Christ and the Bride – as the Church and each soul; the relationship between God and a human are expressed in the terms of marriage; the baptism of every Christian is betrothal to Him personally; the whole life of every Christian is supposed to be the striving for consummation of the mystical marriage between them and Him, etc. In one of the Psalms the author faints because of his longing for God, not just in his soul but in his body as well. God promises Israel to espouse her in love and that “she will know Him as Husband” in the books of Prophets; the apostle Paul writes that all will know Him, as we are all known to Him, in the Biblical sense of those words. Thus when a Catholic mystic exclaims “Oh my Love, my Bridegroom, You have just came to me [in Holy Communion] and yet You are leaving me already – I cannot endure it” he is not only living the Scripture through, he embodies it.
To that an Orthodox typically say that one should not dare to express oneself that way because it is offensive to God. ‘Song of Songs’, according to them, is a symbol. However, the symbol has always the reality in it and never renders it “unreal”; it conveys something more than is in itself. God cannot describe His love for human beings in spousal terms and then say that He meant the love between friends because if it was so why not to use “friends” as the symbol? Obviously, the various details are not to be understood unrealistically in an anthropomorphic way but the fact is that the Christian God somehow insists on consummation of His marriage with all humanity and every single willing soul, whatever that means. It may not look like a human marriage outwardly but the essence it is the same total mutual surrender in passionate love, mutual belonging, “one flesh” – but much more. The spousal union, being the closest union of spirit, soul, and flesh is the pale approximation of what is to happen between God and a soul. Then if a mystic is fully human, still fully embodied, how he or she can express their love for God and experience of His love otherwise than in the terms of earthly love? – These terms, by the way, are sanctified by God Himself.
It is a very dangerous practice to always understand the words of God only “symbolically” = metaphorically, without testing the reality they convey. An example: the words of Our Lord about the Eucharist “this is my Body… this is my Blood… who does not eat and drink them has no eternal life”. The bread looks like bread and wine – as wine but they are His Body and Blood. Would any Orthodox dare to say that they are not? Then what grounds do they have to deny the reality of the mystical marriage between a Catholic mystic and Christ? Because of the ecstasy which too much reminds them of erotic ecstasy? But then how awful it is to eat the human flesh if one believes that the Eucharistic bread is the flesh of Christ; “eating” here somehow is sanctified by the fact that it is the flesh of Christ is consumed. The same is with the mystical marriage; even if one considers the “moans of ecstasy” to be “inappropriate” or “too humane” or even “unclean” they are sanctified by Christ who caused them.
It seems to me that the Orthodox miss the central point of that mysticism, that the sole purpose of the mystic is the direct experience of God the Person, “to know and to become known” that is possible only through love. The “inappropriate” moans of utmost delight and pleasure of the Catholic mystics are their response to the response of Christ to them, any response, any manifestation of His presence. The ecstasy is caused not by physical pleasure but by the joy of the spirit which is receiving a response from the object of love, the Divine Person to their human person. And, if God is Love, then the lightest touch of God (of a human spirit) is a pleasure so sublime to a human being that it may sometimes be felt in the body as well; this fact is well-known but this bodily delight is absolutely not important compare to the encounter of the Person of Christ. However, since the mystic is embodied and lives on earth he or she cannot express the delight of love otherwise but in a way human beings express the delight of mutual love. This is the naked truth apparent from the writings of the mystics of the undivided Church. Here is the full cycle: God declares the spousal love for a human being and this is the mystery; mystics experience this love as spousal and this is the mystery. It is not that “awful that” which Orthodox writers mock and are frightened of: Catholics do not imagine that they experience sexual intimacy with Our Lord. It simply happened that the utmost pleasure in truly holy sexual intimacy between humans, i.e. in mutual love derives not just from a physical act but from a total mutual surrender of bodies and wills. In the case with God the total mutual surrender of the wills also takes place. If the spirit is so much more than a body and if this spirit is God then how incomparably more pleasurable such surrender must be? – The surrender which can be expressed, in approximation, by the language of mutual belonging in love.
And here is a very important point which cannot be stressed too much, the whole purpose of this article. The responses of the Catholic mystics to God, spoken and written, are their responses to the reality of the Son of Man responding to them. It is nothing more than the proof that it is possible for humans already now to perceive God and commune with Him, in mutual love. Most Orthodox insist it is only possible for saints – but the saints do not moan if they are Orthodox (wrong, it is easy to verify by the writings of the early Eastern saints) – they sit still, silent and motionless. Some communications with God indeed leave a person in such calm state and some not; it is just like this in the case of human communication. It is not so important though. The insistence that the human body should not react to the “touch” of God when the spirit is being touched by Him appears to me to be the denial of the body altogether. This is not Christianity. And further, since we now perceive reality through our senses, to deny the legitimacy of the perception of God through the senses (even if we speak about contemplative prayer because the body = the nervous system still perceives what happens) is to deny the reality of God to humans and to deny His desire to deal with us even now. This is very anti-Gospel, anti-Scripture, anti-everything of the real Church tradition.
Perhaps this ability to experience passionate love for Him, to utter unthinkable words like “I desire You, please give me Yourself wholly now otherwise I will die” (from some of mystics in ecstatic prayer) is given by God to a human being, the dust so that a human being was able to lift up his eyes and look into the face of the Son of God? Because, soberly speaking, there is nothing more insane for the dust to do than to desire to possess the Son of God, God Himself. And yet it is possible to desire this, precisely because He wills that the dust would express its desire be loved and have enough strength to pursue God and because God desires to be loved by the dust. God and a human being are equal only on that needle point of their mutual desire; this is something that the Catholic Spanish mystics understood very well. And the desire of God is implanted in us by God so it is holy, even if a person makes a fool of himself beating his breast publically, out of this desire.
All this is possible only if there is a very close relationship of a soul with the Son of Man. In this respect I agree with the Orthodox: it is vulgar, rude, and unthinkable to call Christ “my Beloved” by one who does not know Him. The mystics, Catholic and Orthodox, knew: only an intimate knowledge of Him can enable a person to utter those words. I conclude that those Orthodox who mock the very possibility of relating to Christ as the Beloved simply do not know Him. This I think is the key to the phenomenon of the endless mocking of the Catholic saints. As it was mentioned before, I consider the doctrine of St Gregory Palamas about uncreated energies to be the real cause of this. A consciousness which is used to deal with an impersonal energy of [supposedly] Christ cannot accommodate the highly personal words of the mystics of the Church which teaches that it is possible to commune with God Himself through the Person of Jesus Christ, the Beloved. Indeed, the word “Beloved” cannot be applied to the impersonal energy. From here follows the need to mock that which the Orthodox is robbed of by Palamism.
All the above would never be written for the sake of commenting on that Orthodox attitude to Catholic mystics which does not deserve more attention than the giggling comments of adolescent boys over a naked sculpture. There is always a chance that a spiritual adolescent may decide to read the original of what was written by an erotically preoccupied Catholic and find (probably to his disappointment), zero of that awful thing, having sex with God.
I did not know, until I looked into Merezhkovsky’s ‘Trilogy’, that the approval of Catholic mystics can be far worse than slandering them. If a straightforward Orthodox rages against his self-construct, the “sexual relationship with God” and affirms that it is disgusting (I agree), Merezhkovky affirms that very self-construct. It is instructive to read this writer because his very defence of a sexual relationship with the deity shows the groundlessness of the Orthodox accusation of Catholics. To prove his case he makes the Catholic saints, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross into, decadent figures at the mercy of the earthly passions. St John of the Cross is “devil-like”, doomed to be alone by some “evil sorcery”. The “main drama of St Teresa”, according to Merezhkovky, was her inability to understand whether she was giving herself to Christ or to devil, sexually. The author has no comment on it but from his style that is typical of the Russian Silver Age, i.e. flirting with demonic, one may conclude that he approves in either case. The author somehow gives everything and everyone the taste of decay. For example, speaking about the monastery of Incarnation where St Teresa spent her first twenty years of monastic life, he speaks about the rays of sun which even in the noon are barely able to penetrate the cypresses’ foliage, falling like bleak moonlight. The trees produce a funerary incense smell; under them and above the lilies and narcissuses the butterflies are fluttering, but not colourful – black, totally black, huge black butterflies. That was particularly astonishing to read because I visited St Teresa’s monastery very recently; it looked – not even in the noon but in the advanced evening – very bright, lively, a joyous place which reminded me of Sergiev Posad, a grand monastery town near Moscow. Merezhkovsky paints both saints as the priests of the secret cult of “Godspousness”, this is the term he uses (“Bogosupruzhestvo” in Russian) and claims that humanity had possessed the knowledge of this mystery even before Christianity, for example, in Ancient Egypt, in Dionysian mysteries and so on; the two Spanish mystics “rediscovered” it but, alas, it was forgotten again soon after they died (apart from some isolated cases of revival by some individuals like with St Teresa of the Child Jesus). Naturally, there is very little about Christ and nothing – about Christ as He is known by the Church, i.e. the true Christ of the Gospels, sacraments, and private experiences of believers. This is not at all a coincidence, despite the fact that for both saints Christ the Person was absolutely everything and it is impossible to write about them without constantly referring to Christ – the real Christ.
The ‘Trilogy’ is unmistakably Gnostic/ occult and this is why it would not stand the presence of the real Christ, this is why Merezhkovsky had to swap the real Lord with some demonic figure in whom good and bad are blurred. He does it not so much directly but by blurring the boundaries between good and evil everywhere in the novel. It is very instructive to consider here at full length the famous [among the Orthodox] and unfortunate quote about St Teresa in ecstasy:
“One who tears a human being apart, a torturer” – is the name of God (sic!) in ancient mysteries, terrible for all apart from those who are being tortured: the ancient priestesses of Dionysus, “ecstatics” know that, although only dimly – St Teresa knows it more clearly – that those caresses-wounds, those kisses-tearing-apart of divine love are sweeter than anything else; better to suffer and die with Him than to be in a state of bliss without Him. “Oh Lord, to suffer with You or to die for You” prays Teresa and falls down exhausted, and under those caresses her eyes are rolling up, her breathing is becoming faster and faster, her body is contracting in convulsions. If a non-pious, but experienced in love woman saw her in that moment she would understand or think that she understands what all that means, she only would be surprised that there is no man with Teresa; and if that woman was experienced in sorcery she would think that with Teresa is, instead of a man, that unclean spirit whom sorcerers and witches call “Incubus” (sic!)”
Here the author has it all. Because in his book he does not deny that St Teresa indeed was communicating with Christ, implicitly it means that Christ is that perversion, “a torturer” described by Merezhkovsky. He makes his deadly cocktail mixing true facts and lies, for example by taking the real words of the St Teresa, “Oh Lord, to suffer with You or to die for You” which she said after the awfulness of the price of the Atonement was suddenly revealed to her in contemplation; this is the very normal desire of a Christian who discovers that his own suffering for the sake of the Lord brings him or her closer to Him; the wish for martyrdom is also not such a rarity among saintly people. But Merezhkovsky attributes those words to sexual excitement. Next, he describes a supposed ecstasy which in his description looks like orgasm – in the light of what he wrote immediately before, that sex with the “tearing apart deity” is entirely logical. The last phrase reveals the mechanics of the work of this sophisticated blur which is quite difficult to put into words but I will attempt to do so because it is very important.
If a reader concludes that here is indeed a Catholic perversion and Teresa is with a demon then this conclusion is overthrown by the whole book, the author of which maintains that Teresa is a saint. If a reader concludes that she is with Christ he will have to accept the fake Christ, the torturer who engages in sadistic acts with his followers. If the reader, appalled, again attempts to think that this is not Christianity Merezhkovsky will present him with the “Godspouseness” that is known from ancient times and also to Christian allusions, albeit chosen twisted ones, to the ‘Song of Songs’ to do the trick. The real words of the saints, the real facts of their lives and also the quotes from the Gospels are juxtapositioned, subtly changed, and interpreted according to his entirely occult thinking. As a result of that, the reader may lose the “taste of reality” and even be seduced into a rotten version of Christianity in which to be with Christ means torture and death – after all, the author plays on the dark primary strings of the soul, the desire of some “unimaginable in its power and pleasure sexual act”.
I cannot help but think how reminiscent it may appear of the words of so many mystics, Catholic and Orthodox, that the pleasure which the righteous will experience in the Kingdom of Heaven – the foretaste of which a mystic experiences already now – is beyond any imagination. Is the reader appalled by such an analogy? – Rightly so because it is yet another example of how the evil mocks God.
Those who have some knowledge of the Gnostic/ occult literature would immediately recognize their flavour in the ‘Trilogy’ of Merzhkovsky. The typical features of Gnostic/ occult doctrines, such as “secret” teaching, preoccupation with “the mystery of sex”, the denial of the uniqueness of Christ and Christian revelation, disgust for the Church and “historical Christianity”, slips of a language (like a reference of Merezhkovsky to the Holy Trinity as “Three” or comparison of the fair complexion of St Teresa with the Communal Host), darkness, torture, futility, blurring and doubling of contours are all there, and they transform into decadent and demonic the Christian mystical theology which the author superficially uses as the material for a collage. Had I read his ‘Trilogy’ before I read the works of St Teresa and St John I would almost certainly never touch them. Thankfully, I did read them first and was able to recognize a fake. Still, I admit, I was irrationally scared for some time because that masterful combination of all that for a Christian is holy – Our Lord, love for Him and His love for each of us, the desire to be with Him – with the evil darkness triggered the fear of a fatal mistake which would cost salvation. This dark, paralysing fear of a shadow, of something inevitable is the worst poison of such books. The reader, especially if he (as I) in the past brushed with the occult may start irrationally agonizing: what if one must pay this terrible price for the intimacy with Our Lord? Not the price of martyrdom but the price of the communion [imaginary] with the shadow of evil which falls from the Christ of the decadents and Gnostics. This fear, totally irrational by itself still has a meaning – it adequately conveys the reality of what Merezhkovsky and others like him offer, if one goes for their “god” = demon. What is very useful here though is that, as depicted by him, “sex with god” makes the Orthodox accusation of Catholic mystics of that perversion even more nonsensical. While attempting to prove the contrary it demonstrates that, to put it bluntly, it is impossible to have sexual or other kind of willing intercourse with a demon and desperately desire to be with Christ. It is impossible to engage in intimacy with a demon and call him “my Lord Jesus Christ”. But, according to the Orthodox writers, it is possible – through some fatal mistake if one, being unworthy, goes for Christ, so to speak. And this is where Merezhkovsky and Orthodoxy meet: in the blurred area of fear, enjoyed or scared of.
Any Orthodox who wishes to engage in a serious spiritual practice at some point discovers the “theology of fear”. It is essentially the endless warnings against “spiritual delusion” (prelest), that is falling for the lies presented by the evil spirits. They range from the humble deceptions of thoughts and feelings to the grand deceptions in visions. The scariest thing among them is the appearance of an angel of Satan in the semblance of Christ causing the believer to bow down to him. As a result of such action the believer runs insane, dies, or even loses his soul. The teaching says that if a believer was humble then he would never bow down to the supposed Christ because he would know that he is not worthy of such a visit.
By no means am I saying that the fear of delusion is the only thing that one finds in the teaching of Orthodox spiritual practise; it is actually comparatively late thought mostly spread in the “neo-hesychastic” circles of those who wish to practise the ‘Jesus Prayer’ strenuously. Unfortunately, because the practise derives from Athonite monasticism, and such circles are considered by many to be “advanced” on the way to God, therefore their opinion tends to have more weight than that of others. At the same time, it is common place to say that the sign of the cross and the Name of the Lord are the best tools against the devil. The problem is that this true and positive statement does not cancel the other, that one can encounter the devil while calling “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God…”– both lines of thought somehow exist together peacefully.
The Catholic mystics and saints including both of the Spanish mystics discussed here also explicitly warn the reader about the danger of harm from the evil. St John of the Cross is the severest in this respect; he advises to pay as little attention as possible to visions and similar kinds of manifestation not just because they can be induced by a demon but also because one can misinterpret/misuse even the vision from God. However, he adds that God gives such visions for the purpose of making a person attached to Him, to induce in him love and piety so it is permissible to recall such manifestations for the very sake of stirring piety and love for God, if the recollection produces that effect. The important thing for me here is that the Catholic saints do not say that one who makes a mistake, being deceived by devil, would die/lose his soul forever. And another, even more important point: St John demands that one must put aside absolutely everything for the sake of obtaining the union with Christ, even the highly pleasurable “spiritual delights” during a prayer because there is always a great danger to become attached to those “delights” (or anything else) instead of Jesus Christ, and this will impede the union with Him. The safest path is with the eyes always fixed on the face of Christ, without attention to anything else. Hence it is not the demon that is the most dangerous for a Christian but his own failure to seek the Lord only.
It is a very comforting thought I think because it does not put a person in a “no-win” situation. According to the Orthodox, whatever intentions a person has, whatever he does “if he goes too far” in his quest for communion with Jesus Christ he will be almost certainly deceived by the devil and this will be the end of him. The most dangers are ascribed to the Jesus Prayer, and the worst possible cases of deception causing the eternal loss of a soul are somehow connected, in the popular stories, with that practice. It is considered to be the most powerful and “this is why it attracts the attacks of demons”. There is no space here to go into a detailed investigation of what is usually said about ‘Jesus Prayer’; the most often given and soundest reason is that a person progresses so fast with the aid of that practise that he becomes very proud and thus an easy victim of demonic deception. But isn’t it true about any Christian ascetic practice which can be turned into temptation and sin? In any case, what I wish to stress here is that in an impressionable mind the fear of the situation “I am calling my Lord, by His name, to come to me and instead of Him comes the devil” is forged. By the way, it is exactly the reply the Orthodox give to the Catholic argument that their saints communicated with God “How do they know with whom they communicated?”
If it is so then any prayer is intrinsically dangerous because who knows who can answer and if someone answers who can say who is he? – Apparently, there are no criteria. Such a thought is truly scary because it renders the Christian a helpless toy of the forces of both good and bad. Good because God apparently is indifferent to those who are trying to establish a contact with Him; even more – He is a deceiver as well because by allowing the devil to use His name and appearance he joins with the devil in mocking those who believe in God. This is just as bad as the “Christ” of Merezhkovsky.
It is safer not to engage with Christ personally altogether then, not to call Him and just to sit in apathy. However, my suspicion is that the devil is not likely to routinely appear when one calls on Christ; even if he does he can deceive a Christian only if a Christian calls on Christ not for His sake but because he only wants so-called “spiritual delights”. It is logical to conclude then that the danger of mistaking the devil for Christ exists only for those whose purpose is not the Person of Christ but something else. I conclude this because I have faith that Our Lord is compassionate and merciful therefore He would protect those who are faithful to Him; even if they become victims of a mistake He will not allow them to perish, this is my firm hope. A Christian can be seduced by many other, more mundane, things which often pass unnoticed and this is why they are more likely to be chosen by the devil as a tool of deception. In any case, it does not make sense for Our Lord to insist that we must follow Him but do nothing to protect us from deception of the devil if we follow His call. To think this would be to attribute deception and mockery to the Son of God and that is blasphemy.
The outcome of the all-consuming fear of deception, uncertainty of criteria, and blurring the boundaries between good and evil is the implication that anyone who claims to be in close communion with Christ is almost certainly deluded or possessed. Stripped of various pious nonsense like fake humility (“how can I desire Our Lord if I am such sinner” is a good example) it means that, paradoxically, the Orthodox Church implicitly denies the possibility of close communion with Our Lord to its members or anyone else.
Hence, as always, any question of Christian life find the answer in the Person of Our Lord.
The Church, in His Person, has tools for discerning whether a person has the spirit of Christ or of a demon or whether their visions are divine or demonic. In the first case a person is humble, willingly subjects himself and his visions to the judgement of the Church, loves his neighbours and longs for the union with Christ, especially in Holy Communion. In the second case a person is extremely proud, thinks that his revelation is truer than the dogmas of the Church, cannot stand others and the Holy Communion. All those criteria are about Christ: whether or not a person wishes to be with Him, tries to imitate Him, loves Him and others through Him and so on. This is nothing else but the result of progressive imprinting of the image of Christ on one who attempts to follow Him. It is the growing likeness of His Person in the person of a believer.
To sum it up, it is impossible “to be in intimate relationship with a demon” and not to partake the spirit of the demon like hatred for the Church, its teaching and its sacraments. It is impossible to have an intimate communion with a demon and to desire intimate communion with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The spirits of Christ and of Satan cannot be mixed.
I have no desire to convince the reader that the Catholic mystics in question are not possessed – it is plain absurd and they do not need my apologies. However, I still wish to state that according to the criteria above (those are the criteria of the true Christian Church: the Undivided Church, Catholic Church, and the parts of the Orthodox Church which did not partake the poison of the impersonal derived from Palamism) Catholic mystics are actually true saints. It is very telling that, for the purpose of constructing a convincing case of perversion/occultism Merezhkovsky had to omit much of the pivotal facts of St Teresa’s biography, such as that she was the first to doubt her experiences and to submit them to her confessor and to the whole Church; she also maintained that the mystical experiences are not necessary for sanctity at all; she had a very low opinion about herself even in her old age when she was commonly recognized as a holy person and so on; she ceaselessly preached humility as the only reliable way to God etc. Those facts are missing or deliberately twisted by Merezhkovsky because the reality has nothing to do with his version of St Teresa thus he paints St Teresa as “being broken” by the Church, an outsider because she possesses “the secret knowledge of Godspousness”. It is actually typical occult/ Gnostic nonsense because any true Christian mystic typically cannot think of himself outside of the Church, not to mention that the “bridal mysticism” of St Teresa i.e. of ‘Song of Songs’ was known to the Church from its very beginning – but it has nothing to do with “Godspousness” of Merezhkovsky of course. The “Godspousness”, as I understand it, attributes magical/ occult powers to the sexual act between humans and thus proclaims that humans must become sexually intimate with God, and that this is deification. The sexual act of humans is primary, then it is stretched to God. Bridal mysticism speaks about spiritual marriage of God and a soul using human marriage as a symbol. The first attempts to pull down God or better to say not God but demon into the bed, the second raises a human being up into the love of God. The adepts of occult enter into “Godspousness” = occult sex because of the desire for supernatural powers and satisfaction of bodily desires. Mystics seek an intimate union with God out of pure love for the Person of Christ with the only purpose of being with Him, for His own sake. Deification is not the purpose here; it is happening by itself in the process of transformation of the soul into the likeness of Christ whom she loves. But the true loving soul has no concern about anything but being with the Beloved, anywhere, in any state, but with Him.
Here, on this example, is clearly seen how the evil attempt to twist, pollute, and render as “obscene” and “shameful” the most precious revelation about the true nature and purpose of human beings and about the love of God for them. To me the fact that the modern Orthodox, via using Merezhkovky’s text as a tool for mocking the Catholic saints and mystics – the Gnostic/occult text, implicitly joins in, is truly devastating. It would be another matter if, out of some strange ideas, they would simply state that ‘Song of Songs’ is a shameful nonsense, that its numerous commentaries by Orthodox saints are shameful as well, because it would not cause mockery with very far reaching consequences. There is another aspect in all this which bothers me a lot: very well, let us assume for the sake of the exercise that the bride = the Catholic saint is shameful and stupid if she treats Our Lord as her Bridegroom but if we mock her and publically savour what is happening between Him and her we mock Him. It is very easy to understand on the human example: if one sees the couple and thinks that “she” is an idiot but “he”, his close friend whom he holds in a high esteem he would not mock her publically because by doing so he would degrade him. One may say that “the Catholic bride” is only imagining that she has Our Lord as Bridegroom to that I answer that it is not Our Lord’s way to tolerate the mockery of anyone and then, again He actually calls Himself the Bridegroom.
This example is not as stupid as it may appear. If those who mock Catholic mystics had more sense of the real Christ, Christ Incarnated, suffering, responding, loving, angry, with hurt because of human callousness, they would most likely not engage in mockery. It indeed does not go together somehow, to love Christ and to mock those who love Him as well. This proves the point I am trying to make here, that to seduce a Christian into a deviation from the Church teaching one must deprive him of the personal experience of Our Lord, God Incarnate, first. I also think that the mocking of Catholic saints and similar behaviour somehow denies the fact of Incarnation, making out of the Lord a remote deity, uninterested in the affairs of human. It is the removal from Jesus Christ of His Personhood as it was revealed in our world.
Some concluding thoughts about the knowledge of Our Lord
The thesis that only the saints can know Christ and that if a non-saint craves a close intimate relationship with Christ and makes an effort to obtain it he is almost guaranteed to be deceived and perish cannot be the authentic teaching of the Church. First of all, the very purpose of the Church is to prepare a Christian for such intimate relationship and to provide all necessary means for it. We learn to recognize the Lord through listening to the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, by learning about the encounter of the saints of the Church with Him and, the most important, through the Eucharist. “Through” in this case is not an adequate term though because in the Eucharist a Christian partakes the Body and Blood that is Jesus Christ thus he has the closest possible experience of the intimate union with the Lord, His Soul, Spirit, and Body, the total Christ. A simple logic would conclude that such an experiential union with the Lord must enable a Christian at least to some extent to recognize the true Lord and a demonic fake, and thus to remove that all-consuming fear and anxiety. It must be true but only if a person believes that he indeed is united with the risen Lord in communion, meaning with His Person. It is impossible to think about Holy Communion and to leave the Person of Christ out because then immediately horrible questions arise, “what exactly we partake, the flesh only or the divinity; if the flesh only does it make us cannibals; if the divinity and flesh then how” etc – and they indeed kept arising during the whole history of the Church, sometimes creating heresies which typically denied the reality of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Such an approach tears Christ apart. The belief of the ancient Church was that in Holy Communion we are joined with the Lord Himself, His divinity and humanity, and just like in Him divinity and humanity are joined, and how it happens is a mystery. This is indeed the only possible answer because the Lord Himself, the Person holds all these, otherwise impossible to combine, things together and enables us to be united with Him, in faith and love. The truth of this fact, a Christian is supposed to learn experientially. The communion, received as communion with the Person of Christ = Our Lord Himself opens the door for an attachment to Him as real as our attachment to another human being, and even more real than that.
The removal of the Person of Christ from communion immediately renders it “a mere tool” for salvation, still precious but impersonal (thus the possibility of communion with the Living Person is lost/ the direct conscious experience of God Himself by all partaking Christians is lost as well). This is exactly what Palamists teach, that, because a human being can partake only “the uncreated energies of God but not God’s essence”; these Orthodox partake “the divine energies of Christ” via communion but not Christ. And, while this formula may appear to be just an empty intellectual exercise, it effectively removes the very essence of Christian faith, our hope to be joined with Our Lord in a very real sense. However many clever explanation one may try to provide in defence of Palamism, here is the rude reality: one cannot say “I partake the energies of Christ” and maintain that he is united with the Person of Christ. On the other hand, if one says “I partake the Lord” it means that he indeed is united with the Our Lord, God and Man, the Living Person.
As it was mentioned before, the ancient Church has never been preoccupied with the question of spiritual deception nearly as much as the Palamite Orthodox Church. Even the Western medieval church, while paying attention (sometimes unwholesome) to the possibility of possession etc did not do that in a way these Orthodox do; they tended to leave to a human being the ability to reason, think, and discern, with the aid of a personal relationship with Christ. The overwhelming fear of demonic deception under the disguise of the appearance of Our Lord seems to enter the Orthodox Church after St Gregory Palamas. I think there are several reasons to believe that this is not a coincidence, the most important of them is the Palamists’ undermining the reality of the presence of Jesus Christ in the communion as it was understood by the Church before.
A Palamist does not believe that he experiences the Person of Christ because all that he can hope for are “energies”. It is detrimental even on the level of psychology: if one does not believe in the possibility of knowing a person how one can acquire an absolute trust in that person? And yet, such a trust is necessary for Christian life because it gives the believer a strong hope that Christ whom he knows will protect and save him. A Palamist, without the intimate connection with the Person of Christ, is on his own.
Palamists in their prayer practise are concerned with obtaining the vision of uncreated light while a regular Christian is concerned with Christ. Simple logic tells that the “uncreated light”, the supposed attribute of Christ, is much easier to fake by the devil than Christ Himself. It is more difficult to fake a person, especially if one already knows this person to some extent, than to fake the impersonal light. Humans are wired to sense the person as a whole, not his attributes. Perhaps this is why such preoccupation with spiritual delusion?
Deviations from the authentic teaching of the Church about the Person of Christ always go together with perversion of its teaching about Holy Communion. There is no need to repeat what already was said here on this topic in a relation to Palamism. No real Person of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion = no real experience of His Person in the life of a Christian. It means that there no longing, no love, no stupidity, no bridal mysticism caused by the encounter with the Person of Our Lord. It also means no real, infallible, living criteria, the Person of Christ, for discerning spiritual delusion and deviation. A person does not acquire “an instinctive sense” of the Lord which is imprinted by Him in his body, soul, and spirit. Actually, he loses the freedom of one who was bought from slavery by a dear price and returns to the condition of being a slave of men. As a consequence of that, the Church gradually loses the guarantor of her normal existence, the living carriers of the intimate knowledge of Jesus Christ. This is not the matter of the “survival” of the whole Church as such because we were promised that the gates of hell will not overcome it, but the matter of its normal regeneration if her parts become too rotten or dead.
An ordinary Christian, if he knows Christ the Person, is always totally faithful to his Church providing that the Church is faithful to Our Lord. As soon as the Church deviates/ betrays Him a faithful to Christ believer opposes it and thus becomes a guarantor of the Faith, the living carrier of the personal knowledge of Christ. This is how the Church is indestructible, because such dispersed carriers [if they are true] are always in an urgent need to gather and to celebrate the Eucharist. They inevitably are reassembled and joined, pulled together, like metal particles by a magnet, by the necessity to be with the Lord by His grace. This is why the Church cannot cease to exist and the gates of hell will not overcome it. Thus to destroy the Church or, more correctly, to attempt to destroy it, the personal knowledge of Christ must be destroyed or, even better, the possibility of such knowledge prevented. Such knowledge then must be proclaimed “perversion”, delusion, too dangerous to attain.
And this is very close to what the modern Palamist Orthodox Church does, by the means of blurring, scaring, and blaming those who dare to go for it. I only wish that it would be more clear in its logic and proclaim the Catholic Church to be totally possessed by the devil because if one believes that the saints of that Church are communicating with the demons and seduce other believers, that the mystical theology, the fruit of such communications, is a demonic fake, the sacraments are fake and so on one also must be bold and say that such a Church is under the power of the devil because Christ and the devil cannot dwell in the same place and in the same people. And the fact that the poor deluded communicate with the Lord does not matter.