The Russian word prelest is the most important new word I've learned in twenty years. Like the word beloving years ago, it has not only been convicting but liberating. It has enabled me to comprehend decades of puzzlement as I struggled with ecclesiastical conflicts encountered as a truth seeker while growing up in an institutional [Mormon] church.
Thanks to Pavel Florensky's Iconostasis, written in 1922, but brought to my attention only last year (2008) by Fr. John Hennies of OCA Saint Dimitri of Rostov parish, most of the puzzlement over these conflicts began to dissolve.
The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) has recently emerged from 30 years of being gripped by prelest at its highest ecclesiastical levels. Sister American Orthodox churches such as the Antiochian Orthodox are currently facing a similar struggle as are also main line Protestant and Restoration Christian churches, including the Mormons in Salt Lake City and elsewhere.
I did a Google search on the word and found:
The term prelest is a Russian word which has come into English usage for lack of a precise equivalent, although it is often translated as "spiritual delusion ," "spiritual deception," or "illusion," and accepting a delusion for reality in contrast to spiritual sobriety.
A key ("aha") phrase in Florensky's book for me was:
An ordinary sinner knows he is falling away from God; [whereas] a soul in prelest thinks it is drawing ever closer to Him, and while angering Him thinks he is gladdening Him…
June 20, 2009
Mark Hooker said...
Did you know that in the Russian translations of The Lord of the Rings, Gollum calls the One Ring Моя Прелесссссть? While this is a reasonable translation of "My Precious", the first meaning of прелесть kicks in in the context of the One Ring, and it becomes a thing of Deceitful Beauty. Now that's a really subtle philosophical statement, if I ever saw one. I may have to write an article about it.
June 21, 2009
I think you have put your finger on something!! Serious Soviets were of necessity more aware of the power of words. Where was it I read in one of your things that the Soviets experienced literature as weapon?
June 21, 2009
Mark Hooker said...
Yes, they understood the power of the word. People look at me like I'm crazy when I start spouting Goebbels about propaganda, but he knew what he was talking about: a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth. He knew what he was talking about with regard to forming public opinion. It was just that his philosophy was a bit over the top with regards to a few other things. And I've known some Russians who were masters at bending words. Literature as a weapon: you must be referring to "The Military Uses of Literature," by yours truly.
June 21, 2009
Yes, Mark. That is where I saw it. Thanks for the nudge. I went back and read that article more carefully. I'll have to read it again.
On August 11, 2009
After several more email exchanges, Mark Hooker expanded on the meaning of "prelest'" and sent this revision:
by Mark T. Hooker
My precious is the name given to the One Ring by two of the ring-bearers: Gollum and Bilbo. In "The Preface" to The Lord of the Rings, the narrator says: "It was the one thing he [Gollum] loved, his 'precious', and he talked to it, even when it was not with him." (P.32-33) In his confrontation with Gandalf about the Ring, Bilbo says: "It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious." (F.59)
The signification of this name in this context seems unambiguous, and, therefore, it should not be a challenge to translators. Despite the availability of other choices, the majority of the Russian translators used моя прелес-с-сть! (moya preles-s-st'!) as the translation of my precisoussss!. In the theosophical context of The Lord of the Rings, however, the Russian word прелесть (prelest') takes on another meaning.
In the Russian Orthodox Church, the word prelest' is used as the translation of the Greek word plani. There is no comparable concept in English, so the Russian word prelest (прелесть) has become a loanword in English to represent this concept in English-language Orthodox-Christian discussions. The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) webSite translates prelest as "'spiritual delusion,' 'spiritual deception,' or 'illusion,' accepting a delusion for reality in contrast to spiritual sobriety.
Prelest is rarely a point of discussion in Roman Catholic theosophical writing. The only mention of plani (prelest) in New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia, is found in the translation of "On Inconstancy of Mind, and Spiritual Wickedness" by St. John Cassian (ca. 360 – 435), one of the "Desert Fathers," recognized by both the Western and Eastern Churches.
The Russian Orthodox Saint Ignatii Brianchaninov (1807-1867) writes that "The means whereby the fallen angel brought ruin upon the human race was falsehood (Genesis 3:13). For this reason did the Lord call the devil 'a liar, and the father of lies …, a murderer from the beginning' (John 8:44). … The beginning of evil is in the false thought."
The context is clearly present in The Lord of the Rings to support a Russian Orthodox interpretation of the word prelest in its theosophical meaning. The story of the One Ring is full of lies and deception. It begins, for example, with Sauron's deceit and betrayal of the Elven Smiths at a time when "he was not yet evil to behold" (F.318). Gandalf says that "Gollum is a liar" who had fabricated a tale to cover up his murder of Déagol, whom he had killed to get the Ring. (F.89). The narrator in "The Prologue" informs the reader that Bilbo "had not told the truth" about how he got the Ring. (P.35) Saruman had a "power over the minds of others … There are not many in Middle-earth that I should say were safe, if they were left alone to talk with him." (T.219)
The One Ring (My Prelest) is easily identifiable as the portal between the worlds of the seen and the unseen. Gandalf tells Frodo that while he wore the One Ring, he was "half in the wraith-world," and the Black Riders might have seized him. "You [Frodo] could see them, and they [the Black Riders] could see you," says Gandalf. (F.293)
A Russian Orthodox reader, therefore, could easily see the sobriquet моя прелесть (moya prelest) as a speaking name for the One Ring, indicative of the spiritual distortion field of prelest cast by it that makes Gollum, Bilbo and Frodo yearn to have it, and lie/break their oath to keep it. Because Gandalf and Galladriel recognize dangers of the spiritual distortion field of prelest cast by the One Ring (F.95, F.473), the Russian Orthodox reader might, therefore, be led to assume that they are in actuality Russian Orthodox ascetics, or angels who had not fallen.
Tom Bombadil, the only character in The Lord of the Rings not affected by the spiritual distortion field of prelest cast by the One Ring (F.185), remains as enigmatic to the Russian Orthodox reader as to the Western reader. The only logical explanations of his indifference to the One Ring point to a higher power than the ascetics, or angels.
Ironically, the Russian Orthodox Church would most likely consider Tolkien—a devout Catholic—to be caught up in the spiritual self-deception of prelest, because Saint Ignatii Brianchaninov said that "from the time that it [the Western Church] fell into papism (с того времени как она [Западная Церковь] впала в папизм)" [i.e. from the time that the Western Church elevated the Bishop of Rome to Pontiff], its saints and theologians have all suffered from prelest, and are the "unfortunate victims of self-deception (несчастные жертвы самообольщения)". Tolkien, therefore, as someone who followed the teachings of the Catholic Church, would consequently also be in prelest.
Tolkien himself liked "to wring the juice out of a single sentence, or explore the implications of one word," and would have most likely been interested in the implications of the word prelest in the Russian context of his Legendarium, but I suspect that his rejection of an allegorical interpretation of The Lord of the Rings would have made him prefer one of the less theosophically loaded translations for my precioussss!.