Beguilement in Nicephorus

In his treatise on sobriety, Nicephorus the Solitary says that the method which he will teach has the happy effect of “leading him who practises it, without labour or sweat, into the harbour of passionlessness, freeing him from the fear of prelest or of defeat by the wiles of the devil” (22).

There are several points to note here. First of all, this “passionlessness” which is the goal is not being devoid of feeling. Rather, one comes to have more than feeling than ever. The passions, rather, are disordered and unmanageable emotions. As I explained in Mr Adie’s book, the single greatest difference between “feelings” and “emotions” is that feelings bring me to a sense of my own presence. With feeling, I am aware of myself, here, present, now. Other things will come in, attracted, as it were, by my presence. In particular, what I was unaware of then, was that the first feeling which comes is not a bare sort of “feeling of myself,” but rather a feeling of rightness, in which there is necessarily an element of love – but a love of being. To this can be added a sense of the presence of God.

“Emotions,” on the other hand, not only do they not bring us closer to a balanced consciousness of my own presence, they obliterate all else, all other considerations and concerns. One often regrets one’s emotions, but one can never regret one’s feelings: they do not one any harm, and only bring us closer to reality. That is another sign: feeling brings me to reality, and a sense of my own place within an objective order. Emotions are the badges of subjectivity, and my projection of my partiality, my likes and dislikes, onto the world and the people in it.

To return to Nicephorus’ text, it is simply not true that one can achieve passionlessness without labour or sweat. Gurdjieff said that one has to sweat from one’s heels. And this is the truth. By the end of the treatise, Nicephorus is qualifying this by saying that one must work constantly and with full attention. This all has the effect that one is encouraged, but at the same time, effectively warned that failure to speedily succeed is due to one’s own lacks or limitations. Ouspensky had already noted that the texts (especially The Way of a Pilgrim) have a clear tendency to deliberately talk up the chances of easy results. The way is hard: make no mistake. I recall Mr Adie once saying: “It’s almost impossible, so don’t waste time saying that it is difficult.” However, it is the greatest aim of all – the return to God, and so is worth all the difficulties.

Now we come to the word “prelest.” Here is the note by Kadloubovsky and Palmer (as ever, their commentary is almost as important as the text!):

Prelest (in Russian). The nearest English equivalent seems to be ‘beguilement’ (cf. ‘The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat [Genesis 3:13]). But the meaning of prelest is both wider and more technical. … (Prelest) in general translates the Greek word plane; the latter literally means ‘wandering’ or ‘going astray’ (cf. planos, deceiver, impostor). Prelest is the resulting state in the soul which wanders away from the truth. If we may paraphrase Bishop Ignatiy Brianchaninov (d. 1867), we could define prelest as the corruption of human nature through the acceptance by man of mirages mistaken for truth; we are all in prelest.” (22, n. 8)

By the way, Skeat tells us the basic meaning of “guile” is “deceive.” It is cognate with the word “wile.” The “be” seems to be the prefix which was once used in English to make a verb from a noun.

The significant point is that, once more, we are led to question whether we truly know reality. The relationship with reality is fundamental to the religious and spiritual quests, if only because God is reality. Nicephorus continues:

So let us return to ourselves, brothers, and be filled with disgust and hatred for the counsel of the serpent and of all that crawls on the ground; for it is impossible for us to become reconciled and united with God, if we do not first return to ourselves, as far as it lies within our power, or if we do not enter within ourselves, tearing ourselves … from the whirl of the world with its multitudinous cares … (while we are) striving constantly to keep attention on the kingdom of heaven which is within us (23).

There have been many references in this text to the Gospels, but I have passed over them. However, this one is most significant, for it reflects the Greek text of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. St Luke says that the young man “came to himself.” Nicephorus is therefore drawing a connection between our condition and that of the Prodigal Son.

Nicephorus then speaks of the need to “retune” the mind and the heart. That is, the harmony which we had once known, or at least been entitled to know, has been lost to us. However, it can be recovered. To retune the heart and mind requires one to be able to stand behind or above them. They cannot perform this for themselves. Fortunately for us, there are different levels of the mind. It is the higher levels which will perform this inner work: but the higher levels do not work like the lower. These higher levels accept at once the value of the tradition, for that tradition brings to us the proper attitudes of feeling and mind which are needed to return to God. Perhaps chief among these attitudes is humility.

I have here been rephrasing Nicephorus’ comments at 23-24 in my own terms. But I think that the paraphrase has been fair. Before passing to his second section, the selection from the writings of the Fathers, he says this: “… ascent to contemplation is active life” (24). Note, also, the use of the word ascent. It is not so easy to contemplate: I sit down and decide to do it. An ascent to a higher level is needed just to start, but once there, then, and only then, can we know the truly active life. Next to that life of contemplation, everything else is passive. And that, too, is the truth.

Joseph Azize, 16 August 2017



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