We often read the lives of saints or life stories where the Mother of God, Angels or saints appear to people in visions. These appearances are very impressive, and some people may secretly wish to experience something similar to them. However, such phenomena may be fraught with great danger. There are many cases in history when the devil appeared to the holy ascetics in the guise of a radiant angel, causing many to show their spiritual immaturity and fall into self-delusion. It is only by the grace of God that their souls were saved afterwards.
Venerable Isaac of the Caves
Venerable Isaac was one of the first monks in the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra (11th century). Becoming a monk, he wished to lead an edifying life, shutting himself up in a cramped cave, eating one prosphora in two days, praying constantly and only interrupting for a short sleep while sitting.
Having lived this way for 7 years, the ascetic sat down one night to rest after prayer. Suddenly his cell was illuminated with a bright light and many demons appeared to him under the guise of beautiful radiant youths. The false angels pointed to the one of them blazing especially brightly. “Isaac! Here is Christ! Fall down before Him and worship Him.”
Not recognizing the devil’s trick and forgetting to cross himself, the recluse worshipped the imaginary Christ. The demons immediately shouted, “Isaac, you are ours now!” A noise arose in the cave, music began to play and the demons, seizing Isaac, began to dance with him tiring the unfortunate ascetic within an inch of his life, after which they disappeared.
The next day Isaac was found by St Anthony, who brought him prosphora and drink. “Truly, what happened to him is a demonic affair,” the elder said to the brethren, and the monks returned the hermit to the monastery. They took care of him with prayer for 2 years. Isaac gradually came to his senses and eventually healed. He spent many years living with the brethren and carrying difficult obediences. The demons have attacked him more than once, but over time he learned to resist all their intrigues. Then the saint retired into seclusion for the second time and died as an anchoret.
St Nicetas of Novgorod
St Nicetas also lived in the Caves Monastery in the 11th century. He was still a young, spiritually inexperienced novice, but he was already striving for severe asceticism. Not listening to the admonitions of St Nikon, the monastery abbot, Nicetas almost immediately went into seclusion.
Soon the following happened to him: his cave suddenly became filled with a fragrance, and a mysterious voice was heard. Nicetas considered that a divine revelation and exclaimed, “O Lord, manifest yourself to me in a tangible way, so that I can see you!” But the voice answered, “I am sending an angel to you; do everything that he tells you.” Then a demon appeared looking as an angel of God. The naive novice ensnared himself in the trap and immediately bowed to him. Instructed by the demon, Nicetas left prayer and began to read only the Old Testament. Then the “angel”, who was now with him incessantly, began to reveal to him what was happening in the world. People began to flock to the novice, as to a clairvoyant seer.
Noticing that Nicetas avoided speaking about the New Testament, the Caves’ elders realized that he was in self-delusion. The monks came into the hermit’s cave, drove out the devil with prayers and returned Nicetas to the monastery. The rescued saint reverted to a childlike state, forgetting the entire Old Testament and facing the need to learn to read again. When his mind returned to its normal state, Nicetas tearfully repented of his mistake and returned on the righteous path to God, becoming an example of obedience and humility.
Venerable Cyril the Phileot
Venerable Cyril lived in the 11th century near Deris, a city in ancient Thrace (Greece). At the age of thirty, he took upon himself great ascetic deeds for the sake of the Almighty, and later became a monk at the monastery of Christ the Savior near his native village.
St Cyril was 93 years old and on his death bed in a secluded cell, when the devil thought of a way to defeat him. He showed the saint a vision in which the king’s nephew, John Augustus, who often visited the elder, made himself a rich pavilion in their monastery. Then the demon guised as Augustus entered St Cyril’s cell and spoke to him in words darkening the mind of the saint. Finally the demon said, “You know what reverence I have for you. Therefore I want a Liturgy to be celebrated in your cell where you will receive the Holy Communion.” Not realizing what he was saying, the elder replied, “Here is my cell, so do as you like.”
At that moment an altar with an altar table appeared in the monk’s cell as well as a discos, a chalice and veils. Imaginary priests began to celebrate the Liturgy, not a word of which was clear, except for “Amen”. Soon they began communion, in which Augustus participated with his retinue. The saint wondered whether he should join them. Rendering himself unworthy, he reasoned that if there was God’s will, Augustus would call him. The Lord delivered the saint from the enemy’s “communion”, which would drive him completely insane. Finally the evil Liturgy ended, and the false Augustus disappeared in his pavilion.
Exhausted by this vision, St Cyril was soon found by his disciples and brought to sanity with difficulty. Then the saint tearfully repented and received communion of the true Holy Mysteries of Christ. After a while, the demon again came to the elder in the guise of Augustus, but could no longer tempt him.
Such stories clearly show what terrible invisible warfare Christians are engaged in and how skilful the devil is in his wiles. How can we protect ourselves from the temptation of visions? The Holy Fathers teach us to consider ourselves unworthy of them. Venerable Paisios of the Holy Mountain once wisely said, “Even if the vision is from God–we should not accept it the first time. Seeing His creation (man) not accepting the vision, God, in a certain sense, comes to a state of tenderness. After all, such an attitude towards visions shows that a person has humility.“