Just yesterday I came across a very good quote from Met Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of ROCOR in his lectures on the Mystery of Repentance. These words of his on the subject of prelest, or spiritual delusion, are words that are very helpful to keep in mind in the context of the present discussion. This is a condition we should familiarize ourselves with, not so that we can accuse others of it, but in order to ensure that we ourselves are not deceived either by our own experiences or phenomena manifested by others.
"Weak faith and carelessness are expressions of people’s irreligion, but even a pious person is not protected from spiritual sickness if he does not have a wise guide, either a living person or a spiritual writer. This sickness is called prelest, or spiritual delusion, imagining oneself to be near to God and to the realm of the divine and supernatural. Even zealous ascetics in monasteries are sometimes subject to this delusion, but of course, lay people who are zealous in outward ascetic struggles undergo it much more frequently. Surpassing their acquaintainces in feats of prayer and fasting, they imagine that they are seers of divine visions, or at least of dreams inspired by grace. In all events in their lives they see special, intentional directions from God or their Guardian Angel, and then they start imagining that they are God’s elect, and not infrequently try to foretell the future. The Holy Fathers armed themselves against nothing so fiercely as against this sickness — spiritual delusion.
"Prelest endangers a man’s soul if it lurks in him alone; but it is dangerous and imperilling also for the whole of local church life, if a whole society is seized in its grasp, if it makes its appearance anywhere as a spiritual epidemic and the life of a whole parish or diocese is oriented entirely towards it."
I also recently was reading the life of St. Ambrose of Optina and came across the following story which should also cause us to think very soberly about this subject:
”At the end of the 1820’s or beginning of the 30’s, [St.] Leonid [of Optina] visited the Sophroniev Hermitage. At that time Hieroschemamonk Theodosius was living there in seclusion (in the orchard). Many people considered him to be a spiritual man and clairvoyant because he had foretold the War of 1812 and several other occurrences. [St.] Leonid found his state dubious. After speaking with the recluse, the Elder asked him how he was able to foretell the future. The recluse replied that the Holy Spirit made the future known to him; and to the Elder’s question about the manner in which He made this known, he explained that the Holy Spirit appeared to him in the form of some type of dove and spoke to him in a human voice. [St.] Leonid, seeing clearly in this the delusion of the enemy, began to warn the recluse that one should not believe this sort of thing. But the recluse was offended and indignantly retorted to the Elder, ‘I thought that you, like the others, wanted to derive profit from me, but you came to teach me!’ [St.] Leonid withdrew and said to the abbot when he was leaving the Monastery: ‘Watch out for your holy recluse; do not let anything happen to him.’ [St.] Leonid had hardly journeyed as far as Orel when he learned that Fr. Theodosius had hanged himself.”
Fr. Theodosius’ arrogant and prideful response to St. Leonid demonstrated his spiritual state, as pride is the chief ingredient of spiritual delusion. This is why Met Anthony (Khrapovitsky) stated in the same article:
”In order to open the eyes of a person who has fallen or is falling into delusion, you must show him examples of this fatal sickness taken from the above-mentioned books, and also of its invariable sign — disturbance and even irritability in the face of accusations.”
Again, I am not attempting to “diagnose” this layperson who is part of the parish in question, but only to point out the importance of sobriety is such cases, and if a hermit who is living a seemingly holy life can fall into such a demonic state, how much more susceptible to deception are those living in the world who are not under strict obedience to a holy elder! People flocked to Fr. Theodosius from all around because his predictions came true. The fact that his “prophecies” came true deceived many into thinking that he had a “true” gift of prophecy from the Holy Spirit, when in fact it was all a deception from the demons.
As a general rule, it seems that unless a person is virtuous and has conquered the passions, unless a person is exceedingly meek and humble in the face of criticism and rebuke, and unless that person is under strict obedience and careful observation by a patristically-minded and discerning spiritual father, we should in all probability flee from them lest we ourselves fall into deception.