Prelest... Some Holy Week explorations

From Pavel Florensky, Iconostasis

"Prelest, however, is entirely different. Here, the deluded self does not seek superficial satisfaction of this or that passions but - far more dangerously - it imagines itself to be moving along the perpendicular  to the sensory world, withdrawn from it. Thus the spirits who inhabit the boundary and who are, then, nourished by the soul's own troubled, unsatisfied passions - that soul already burning with the fires of Hell. The soul closes into itself and then all occasion is gone wherein the soul could - with intense agony - awaken once more into the consciousness: the encounter with the objective world of God's creation.

Prelest, of course, brings images that stir the passions in us,But our real danger lies not in the passions but in our appraisal of them. For we may, if caught in prelest, take the passions as something directly opposite to what they really are. Usually we would see our sinful passions as a dangerous weakness, thereby finding the humility that heals us of them. In prelest-stirred passions, however, we see them as attained spirituality,  as sacred energy, salvation, and holiness. Thus, where ordinarily we would seek to break the grip of our sinful passions - even if our attempts were weak and futile - in prelest, driven by spiritual conceit, spiritual sensuality, and (above all) spiritual pride, we seek to tighten the knots that bind us. AN ordinary sinner knows he is falling away fromGod; a soul in prelest thinks he is drawing closer to Him, and while angering Him thinks he is gladdening Him.

Such a disastrous confusion occurs in us because we confuse the images of ascent with the images of descent. We may put the whole matter this way: the vision that appears to us on the boundary of worlds may be wither 1) the absence of the reality of the visible world; that is, an incomprehensible sign of our own inner emptiness, our own prelest-impassioned banishing of God's objective reality; and then, inhabiting he neat, empty rooms of our own sou, we will find those masks of reality that are the total renunciation of the real world; or the vision may be 2) the presence of the superior reality of the spiritual world.

In this sense, then, ascetic self-purification also has for us the same double significance. When spiritual neatness becomes an end in itself, then Pharisaic self-consciousness arises and , inevitably, self-admiration. In such asceticism the soul becomes empty and, freeing itself from all earthly attachments, grows still emptier; then finding this growing emptiness ever more intolerable, one's nature invites into the emptiness those spiritual forces that prompted the whole Pharisaic practice of self-purification in the first place, those greedy, twisted, and radically impure forces. Our Saviour talks precisely of such self-centred asceticism in His parable about the swept room...

Thus, what was self-consciously intended issues finally in its direct opposite.This occurs because the man assures himself and others that he himself, in his innermost heart, is really good - that all his mistakes and transgressions are somehow accidents, mere phenomena and not essentialities, things that somehow just happened; and that all he spiritually needs to do is tidy up the room a bit. Such a man is wholly desensitized to his own radically flawed will, inevitably seeing his actions as arising from outside God and solely from his own efforts; hence, he exhibits the complacency of spiritual self-satisfaction.

But if you continually acknowledge your sinfulness, you never have the time to think whether or not you - in your own eyes are spiritually 'tidied up'; instead your soul hungers and thirsts for God, trembling in fear at the spiritual catastrophe of being without Him; and thus your own real concern becomes no longer yourself but that which is the most objective of all: God; and hat you genuinely now want is not a clean inner room to congratulate yourself about but - in tears - for God to visit the room of your soul, this even hastily picked up place, God who can with a word transform a tiny hut, even a hovel, into a splendid palace chamber. With this direction for your inner life, a vision will come to you, not when by your own will, you are attempting to override the given boundaries of your spiritual growth, exceeding the measure of what is open to you: instead, it will come when - mysteriously, incomprehensibly - your soul has been lifted into the invisible world by itself, by the very power of that world itself, and then...the heavenly vision will appear in your soul, the visible image of the highest realm, given to you as both reminder and the revelatory 'news' of eternity and as teacher of the way to incarnate the invisible in the daylight consciousness of your entire life. Such a vision is more objective than the objectivities of earth. far weightier and realer than they, for it is the fulcrum of all our earthly creativity, the crystal wherein - conformed to its own crystalline laws - is crystallised out our earthly experience, thereby becoming in its total structure a symbol of the spiritual world." p.48-50

Redemption is messy. Holy Week presents a very messy picture. Torture, mob rule, scapegoating, betrayal, cowardice, terror, self-righteous indignation, hubris, condemnation, expediency, collusion, corruption, hate, spite... the list goes on and one. All of the debased passions of humanity bundled together in a splurge of corrosive evil laced with the stink of death and decay. We can see everything which Florensky is describing here, especially in the dynamic of religious leaders and those elevated with spiritual authority, be they apostles or high priests. Christ's Passion is the vortex of these spiritual powers which seek to annihilate humanity for all time, to suck creation into the oblivion of hell. It is the Via Crucis.

If we apply the insights of Florensky, what do we see? Obviously there are the Pharisees, the High Priest, the Sanhedrin. Jesus singles these characters out for criticism, as concerned with external, legal righteousness rather than living according to the essence and spirit of the Law. Here the powers of the Jewish religion, the priests of its central temple cult and the lawyers and rabbis with their preoccupation with the words of the community's religious texts. In the Passion they gather together in various roles, as accusers, judges, arbitrators, executioners. They scheme to get Jesus arrested and convicted according to the letter of the Law, both Jewish and Roman. And they are blind to what they are doing. They are bundled along, a morass of seething angst, resentment and vindictiveness, who hand over the Messiah to the occupying power as a matter of expediency, in order to get round the very Law they are invoking to bring about  Christ's condemnation.

They are also the one's whipping up the crowd to demand an injustice: the release of Barabas and the condemnation of Christ. Entrusted with keeping order within the community as custodians of the Law, they invoke chaos by stirring up the crowd to hate and fury, easy political moves but with devastating consequences. Pilate faces a near riot, which could easily have resulted in Pilate unleashing a terrible military response costing many, many lives and even pre-empted the crushing of the Jews as was to happen in AD70. Instead, as the Chief Priest inadvertently prophesied, it was better for one my to die on behalf of the people.

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