This book consists of the talks given by Archimandrite Zacharias in Wichita, Kansas, at the 2001 Clergy Brotherhood Retreat of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, at the invitation of Bishop Basil of the Diocese of Mid-America. The talks are supplemented by two lectures given at a oneday conference on monasticism after the Retreat.
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Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou)
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Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist
Essex in England
This book consists of the talks given by Archimandrite Zacharias in Wichita, Kansas, at the 2001 Clergy Brotherhood Retreat of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, at the invitation of Bishop Basil of the Diocese of Mid-America. The talks are supplemented by two lectures given at a oneday conference on monasticism after the Retreat. Each talk was followed by questions and answers which we have included here in the hope that readers will benefit from a greater awareness of the needs and concerns voiced here. Though many of them may be described as local concerns, they are none the less expressive of the realities being faced by the Orthodox Church throughout the world.
Father Zacharias outlines the nature and purpose of human existence, and its restoration in Christ. His approach is centred on the ascetic tradition of the Orthodox Church, with particular reference to the inspired teachings of Saint Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) and Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (1896-1993), founder of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, in England. For those who were not familiar with their writings, Father Zacharias began his talks with a detailed presentation of the lives of these two men.
For purely practical reasons, the numbering of Old Testament passages has been given according to the Massoretic (Hebrew) text, followed by most English translations of the Bible. The Roman numeral LXX is used to draw the reader’s attention to instances where the Septuagint (Greek) text differs from the Massoretic. New Testament quotations are occasionally corrected in favour of a more literal translation of the original Greek.
WHILE THE BLESSED ELDER AND FOUNDER of our monastery, Father Sophrony, was still alive, some of us, his monks, would eagerly seek out an opportunity – ‘in season, out of season’1 – to visit him in order to be edified by his word. Every contact with him was a source of inspiration, and new horizons in life would open up before us. The Elder lived in a little house at the edge of the monastic enclosure. In his last years, he was considerably weakened by old age, and he would only sleep at intervals in an armchair. In our contact and our conversations with the people visiting us it often happened that a question or a problem would arise, and we would run to our Elder asking him for the appropriate answer. We would sometimes find him asleep; then, gently shaking his armchair, we would wake him up. We then presented him the question that had arisen. He would open his eyes and almost immediately the answer would flow from his mouth. It was a marvellous and wondrous event. His voice came from beyond, from heaven. The grace contained in his words would inform and irresistibly convince not only our own hearts, but also the hearts of the people that had sought the will of God, and to whom we transmitted his words.
Living near Father Sophrony, the miracle that impressed me more than anything else was the word of God coming from his mouth, and the energy of grace with which it was loaded. We witnessed so many miracles while he was praying for people, and none of us considered them of great importance, because he himself did not pay attention to them. But what really astonished us all was the word proceeding from his mouth.
On one occasion he prayed twice for an ill person, a man who did not have faith, but was full of doubts. It was his wife and his mother-in-law who had brought him almost by force to the monastery for Father Sophrony to read prayers for him. After he had read the prayers the second time and lifted up his stole from the sick man, he said to him, ‘Look! We are not wonderworkers, we are priests, and pray for the reconciliation of people with God.’ And somehow Father Sophrony was sad and did not want to pray more. Then the man looked at him with a smile, and said, ‘Yes, I am not healed physically, but my soul is healed.’ And indeed, the joy of Father Sophrony at that moment was far greater than when miracles would happen in a visible way at his prayers.
Another time, a man, whose face had been deformed by a stroke, was on his death bed. Taking Father Kyrill, our Abbot, with him, Father Sophrony went and read prayers for this man. When Father Kyrill returned, he said to me in great awe: ‘You know, while παπποῦς (Grandfather – as he called Father Sophrony) was reading the prayer, the face of that man was straightening up.’ And the prophecy of Ezekiel sprang to mind about the dry bones which shall rise and form a skeleton, and be covered with nerves and flesh, the spirit of life returning unto them.2 So even for such physical healings he was not as happy as in the case of that man who cried out that his soul was healed.
Our Elder had one belief and one desire. He was totally convinced that the word of God for our generation was given to his Father in God, St Silouan. He fervently desired, if possible, to make this word known to all the peoples of the earth, for whom the Saint himself had prayed that they may come to know God in the Holy Spirit. He wanted us also to participate in this fervent desire of his, thereby repaying as far as possible our sacred obligation to the Saint. During one of our conversations, he urged me to write down the thoughts that I had occasionally expressed to him concerning the meaning of St Silouan’s words. Rather perplexed, for I was acutely aware of my own poverty and insignificance, I asked him, ‘But Father, what can I write?’ His answer was to be my guiding star. In a decisive tone, he said to me, ‘Repeat what I have said!’ From that moment, I understood a phenomenon which is frequently observed in the history of monasticism.
Each time that in the heart of a holy monk the word of God would be born, and this word would announce the deep judgments of God’s will to the people, then the following generations of monks from that same monastery would repeat the words of that holy Elder. They would analyse his thought and be inspired to elaborate upon his teachings, thus rekindling in the souls of their contemporaries the true faith, which was delivered to the Saints once and for all.3 In this way, they would minister to the word of the Saints, build up the Body of the Church and, at the same time, work out their own salvation. The Monastery of Studion, in Constantinople was for centuries a characteristic example of this phenomenon.
Consequently, the suggestion and request of our Elder Sophrony to occupy ourselves with the word of his holy teacher, Silouan, is both meet and right according to tradition. The only stumbling block is my own unworthiness. The Elder himself, humbly and without doubt, believed that the direct and revelatory word of God was given to St Silouan, whereas he considered his own work to be that of a postman delivering a letter that he has not written himself. He is merely transmitting the word of his Father, a word that deserves the closest attention and profound study, not just in an objective manner, but by living it in a personal way.4
St Silouan’s word gives the answers to the burning issues and impasses of his generation with apostolic conviction. It also defines with Christ-like authority the sure criteria of authentic knowledge of God in the Orthodox Church. For example, he says that the criterion for the presence of the Holy Spirit, the criterion of the truth, is love for one’s enemies.
St Silouan was truly a God-inspired servant of the word of Christ. The main source that informs us about his life and teaching is the book Saint Silouan the Athonite by Father Sophrony. From the very first page, this book draws attention to and poses the question about the meaning of life in all its depth and tragic gravity. It reveals the inscrutable abyss of our God’s judgments on the one hand, and on the other, the impossibility for man in his present state to fathom the divine will and conform to the pre-eternal design of the Holy Trinity concerning him. According to the testimony of his closest disciple, St Silouan’s exterior life does not rouse any particular interest. A few events prior to his becoming a monk bear witness to his dynamic character, his religious profundity and his healthy constitution. Otherwise, his life passed almost unnoticed. Even during his monastic years, comparatively few people recognised him for what he was. But blessed Silouan was an event so magnificent that he attracted God’s attention, and the love of all the Saints in heaven. His whole being – soul, mind and body – became a scented vessel, full of the grace of the Holy Spirit. His heart was like a beautiful garden, full of flowers, in the depth of which the Lord was well-pleased to have a luminous and beloved dwelling.
St Silouan was born in 1866 in the village of Shovsk, which was in the district of Lebedinsk in the province of Tambov. He came from a rather wealthy peasant family, which had been freed from serfdom but a few decades earlier. He arrived on Mount Athos in 1892, and received the monastic tonsure in the Monastery of the Holy Great Martyr Panteleimon in 1896. He became a great-schema monk in 1911. He fulfilled various obediences in the monastery ‘of his repentance’, where he also served as a steward for many years. There he led the ascetic life for forty-six years. The greatest spiritual event of his life was the vision of the living Christ, Whom he was counted worthy to behold six months after his entry into the monastery. During those months, he had given himself over with great ardour to unceasing and agonising prayer. This vision filled both his heart and his whole body with the strength of the Holy Spirit, and illumined his mind with the knowledge of the great mystery of Christ. In the ensuing long years of his life, he tirelessly and ceaselessly witnessed to the fact that ‘God is love’5 – indescribable and infinite love. Full of days, and replete with peace and the grace of God, he departed to the Lord in 1938.
By God’s providence, Father Sophrony also dwelt in the same monastery for about fourteen years. During the final years of St Silouan’s life, especially from 1931 until the day of his repose, it happened that Father Sophrony was his closest disciple and certainly the one most able to relate the Saint’s life. He assumed this undertaking after much thought and hesitation. Father Sophrony’s exclusive aim in portraying the spiritual life of the Saint was to benefit the faithful, for in the person of the Saint the most precious aspects of the mystery of our faith were recapitulated. As the Elder mentions, it was in fear that he presented this testimony. Just as all the works of the Lord are awesome and wonderful, so is a spiritual witness awesome and wonderful, and one needs readiness for struggle and self-denial in order to be able to receive this testimony. Our God is a difficult God, because He offers a cross; but that cross is the expression of His love ‘unto the end’.6 And precisely for this reason His love is so unbearable to this world.
St Silouan came from a pious family that was full of the spirit of evangelical love. This spirit also marked his own life. Nevertheless he did not escape the temptations of the spirit of this world, nor the errors of youth. Two events contributed to his turning to repentance. The first was when he heard an account of the life and miracles of a Russian Saint, John Sezenov (1791–1839). When he heard the story of the Saint’s life, his faith was rekindled at the following thought, ‘If he was a holy man, it means that God is here with us, so there is no point in me going off to search for Him.’7 This thought was given him by God in order to dispel the doubts concerning God’s existence that had been instilled into him by a travelling book-peddler, when he was but four years old. Thus he regained his faith, ardently clung to the memory of God and prayed with many tears. It was during this time that the desire for the monastic life was born in his heart. His father, though, advised him to wait for a while, and enter a monastery after finishing his military service. In the meantime, he remained in this unusual state of grace for three months.
Thereafter, this first grace of God’s calling departed, and Simeon (Silouan’s name in the world) returned to the worldly ways of the youth of his village. It was then that God allowed him to fall into two grave sins for which he later repented all his life. Thus did the clamour of youth and the haze of despondency begin to drown the first summons to the monastic life, and he lost the grace that initially visited him.
But God, Who had chosen him, foreseeing his grateful fidelity, called him again, this time by means of a vision. As his biographer, the Elder Sophrony, relates, after one of those days of careless living, having fallen asleep, he dreamt that he saw a snake crawl down his throat. Feeling utterly appalled, he jumped up, whereupon he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Just as you found it loathsome to swallow a snake in your dream, so I find your ways ugly to look upon.’8 This voice was unusual and extraordinarily sweet. St Silouan was convinced beyond doubt that it was the voice of the Blessed Virgin. This voice, with its beauty, meekness and unutterable sweetness, transmitted to the youth the energy of divine grace, which overwhelmed him and shook him to the core of his being. To the end of his life he gave thanks to the Mother of God who did not despise him in his sinful state, but deigned to come to him herself and to lift him from his fall. He attributed the fact that he had not been deemed worthy of seeing the Mother of God to the state of impurity that possessed him at that time.
This new calling, which occurred a short while before his military service, decisively determined the course of his future. He radically changed his life. He felt deeply ashamed about his past, and this shame was transformed into the most powerful and ardent repentance before God. We see the same phenomenon in the sacrament of confession: the more shame we feel when we strip ourselves naked before God, the more strength is given to us to overcome sin and the passions.
With this repentance, he received a new outlook on life and the world, which manifested itself in his attitude towards all things. He became deeply aware of the fleetingness of the visible world, and of the importance of eternity as the true destiny of our temporary existence. This outlook could be clearly seen in his conversations and in his behaviour as a whole with the people around him. During one of the village fêtes, as Father Sophrony relates, Simeon noticed a middleaged fellow villager who was playing the accordion and dancing. This made an impression on him and drawing him aside he asked him, ‘How can you play and dance like that, Stepan – didn’t you once kill someone?’ He had indeed killed a man in a drunken brawl. Stepan answered, ‘When I was serving my sentence I prayed and prayed, begging God to forgive me. And He did. That is why I can now play and be happy.’9 Simeon, who was himself burdened by the guilt of his own sins, understood how one can ask God for forgiveness and obtain it, as Stepan did. This event confirmed him further in his own personal repentance.
While he was in this ardent state of repentance, he joined the army and his term went smoothly. He proved himself to be conscientious, kind and willing. He became a pleasant, amiable and precious counsellor to his companions. His mind, though, was preoccupied by the Last Judgment, and his care was how to please the Lord, Who was increasingly revealing to him the vanity of this world. Towards the end of his military service, he went to visit St John of Kronstadt in order to ask for his prayers and blessing for the future. The Saint was absent and Simeon left him a note with but a few words: ‘Batioushka,10 I want to become a monk. Pray that the world does not hold me back.’11 He returned to his barracks and, as he himself professed, from the very next day he felt the flames of hell roaring round him.
While in this state, he arrived on Mount Athos and entered the Russian Monastery of St Panteleimon. There Simeon began his new life and his struggle for eternal salvation. He spent his first few days in complete silence, recalling and writing down all his sins in order to make a general confession, as was the Athonite custom and practice. The tormenting awareness of hell which accompanied him, together with the grace from the sacrament of confession, engendered in the soul of the young novice an unrestrainable and ardent repentance. After his confession the confessor encouraged him to rejoice for the forgiveness he had received, and for the new life which the Lord had given him on Mount Athos, that ‘haven of salvation’.12 Inexperienced as he was, Simeon accepted the advice of the confessor with simplicity and faith, and delivered himself to the joy of his new life. He did not realise that the spiritual warrior must be temperate even in his joy, and so it was not long before he lost the spiritual intensity of prayer that he had been given since his visit to Kronstadt. He was assaulted by carnal thoughts, and his mind was assailed by seductive images. Passionate thoughts suggested to him: ‘Return to the world and get married.’ When he confessed, his confessor told him, ‘Never let your mind linger on such suggestive thoughts as those, and if they come – drive them away at once.’13 (Father Sophrony would often repeat to us: ‘Do not surrender your mind to the thought!’ It was like a slogan.) The first fall in thought made brother Simeon soberly watchful for the rest of his life. He was so shaken by this event that from that day, during the forty-six years of monastic life, not once did he ever accept a single carnal thought. The awareness of human frailty and the possibility of perdition, even in the monastery, was a precious lesson for him. What shook him more than anything was the enormous contrast between the state of grace which he had experienced and the fall, even though only in mind. Yet again the enemy took advantage of Simeon’s bitter remorse for his ‘slip’ by suggesting to him that he should depart into the desert in order to find salvation more easily. However, he understood the deception of this thought, and in the depths of his soul he firmly said to himself: ‘I will die here for my sins.’14 Man is strong when he makes such a decision. The greatest gift we have is to be able to die properly, in the right way.
Steadily and with time, Brother Simeon was taught the spiritual science of the monastic tradition of Athos, which is permeated by the unceasing remembrance of God. This tradition is cultivated daily in the life of the monks through the rich programme of work, services, vigils, confession, Communion, and by words of instruction from the Abbot, the confessors, and generally from all the advanced ascetics in the monastery. The Jesus Prayer has the most prominent place in the rule of life of the monks. Simeon was also struggling to acquire this interior prayer, which can be said everywhere and at all times. His biographer mentions that after three weeks, while praying before the icon of the Mother of God, the prayer entered his heart and continued there day and night, of its own accord. This unceasing invocation of the Name of Jesus delighted his soul and gave him the strength to be diligent in obedience and to fulfil with exactitude all the labours that constitute the monastic way of life. Nevertheless, he was not yet able to remain steadfast in grace, and sometimes vacillated between thoughts of vainglory and despair.
One night, after the vision of a strange light that had filled his cell, and even his chest, devils began to appear to him. Naïve and inexperienced as he was, he would converse with them as with ordinary people. These demonic assaults increased. Sometimes the demons would say to him that he was holy and other times that he would not be saved. Once, the novice Simeon asked one of these demons: ‘Why do you contradict yourselves, sometimes saying to me that I am holy, and at other times that I shall not be saved?’ The devil mockingly answered him: ‘We never tell the truth.’15
The novice Simeon gave himself over to extreme asceticism, and prayed with great zeal and ardour in order to resist the demonic assaults which tormented his soul. He slept a total of two hours in the twenty-four hour cycle, and that in snatches of fifteen to twenty minutes, while sitting on a backless stool. He observed great abstinence in food. He was immersed in a deep and prolonged mourning that reached the boundaries of despair. He was further burdened by a heavy and tiresome obedience at the mill, which he carried out with diligence.
Simeon patiently suffered this trial for six months. The terror of eternal perdition and the horror of despair crushed him all the more. Sitting in his cell before Vespers, in utter despair he thought: ‘God is inexorable. He will not be moved by entreaty.’ Following this dangerous thought, he felt completely forsaken, and his soul was plunged into the darkness of an indescribable agony. He remained in this state for about an hour. After a while, he made his way to Vespers in the church of the Holy Prophet Elijah, which was close to the mill. Although he was crushed by agonising pain, he found the strength to utter, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner.’ He then saw the living Christ to the right of the Royal Doors, in the place of the icon of the Saviour. As we see in the life of our Lord, utter, extreme self-emptying can change to a divine state: on the Cross the Lord said, ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’,16 and in the next moment He said to the thief, ‘Verily I say unto thee, to day shalt thou be with me in paradise.’17
The Lord appeared to the young novice in a manner surpassing all understanding, and his whole being, even his body, was filled with the fire of the grace of the Holy Spirit – that fire which the Lord brought down to earth with His coming.18 The vision lasted but a second, yet it exhausted Simeon. The brief description of the vision of Christ by St Silouan reminds us of the way events are described in the Gospel. The Transfiguration on Mount Tabor is one of the greatest appearances of God in holy history, and yet it is described with astounding simplicity. Moreover, all the Gospel narratives of the parables and Christ’s teachings are expressed with this sobriety. In the Gospel there is no room for imagination, because the events described surpass anything that man can imagine. The imagination is annulled by the power of the Spirit of God, which is active, and is ‘able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think’, says St Paul.19 Where the Kingdom of God is revealed in power, there imagination ceases to operate, since there is nothing greater than that. The Gospels are indeed very sober and simple accounts of this happening.
But however brief and simple it may seem, the description of St Silouan’s vision, as a spiritual event, surpasses anything the created mind could conceive. What he experienced then is beyond words. According to the perceptive testimony of his biographer, this event verily constituted the true spiritual rebirth of the Saint. This was accomplished through his illumination by the divine light and by the rapture of his spirit ‘into heaven, where he heard ineffable words’.20 Henceforth, Silouan could never forget the serene, meek and humble gaze of Christ, all-forgiving and boundlessly loving, Who is replete with inexpressible joy, and attracts man’s entire being to Himself.
Elder Sophrony marvels how during the vision, Simeon, simple and guileless as he was, immediately recognised both Christ, Who had appeared to him, and the Holy Spirit, Who acted within him. In his writings, he never ceases to repeat that he recognised Christ by the Holy Spirit, that he beheld God in the Holy Spirit. He certified that, when the Lord appears to the soul, she cannot but recognise in His Person both her Creator and her God.21
Father Sophrony used to tell us that the proof of the authenticity of St Silouan’s vision was that immediately after the vision this illiterate peasant, who may have never seen a world map, began to pray for the whole world. And not just automatically, as the peasants in the East usually do: when they start the meal, they thank God for what He has provided for them, and beg Him that no one in the whole world be deprived of His bounties. It is common in the East to hear the old people say, ‘Save my children and all the children of the world.’ Their prayer embraces the whole world. I used to hear this kind of prayer very often in my childhood. But Father Sophrony says that with St Silouan, after he beheld Christ, it was a more intentional and ardent prayer, as an urgency of his spirit. Indeed, when one receives a divine vision, there is a communion of states: the state of Christ was imparted to St Silouan when the Lord appeared unto him. And as Christ is the New Adam, bearing in himself the whole of humanity, and intercedes before the Father for the whole Adam, he who receives His state – at the moment of the vision – cannot but have the same spirit and the same prayer.
The appearance of Christ to Simeon was undoubtedly the greatest and most important event of his life. It could only have had a radical influence on the rest of his life. It is very important to meet the Lord even once, for Christ is the way, the truth and the life.22 Now Simeon knew what and Whom to seek, and in what manner.
From the Saint’s writings we learn that the moment when God appeared to him, the Holy Spirit bore witness to salvation in his heart. His whole being was informed of the forgiveness of his sins. The previous experience of the flames and torments of hell was now turned into Paschal spiritual joy and delight. Simeon’s kenosis before the vision was replaced with the wealth of divine love. He lived that great and blessed peace, the peace of reconciliation with God. Grace filled his soul and his body, and his heart could accommodate all men with ease.23 (In Greek, forgiveness, συγχώρησις means to be contained together in the heart. This comes from the word συγχωρῶ, which is made up of the verb χωρῶ, meaning to occupy a space or place, and the prefix συν, which simply means together with; and so συγχώρησις conveys the notion of being together in the same place, that is to say, in the heart.) Simeon’s body felt weightless; his mind was illumined and became familiar with the mysteries of the word of God.24 His insatiable dialogue with God was brimming with sweetness and his compassion overflowed in ardent prayer for the whole world: ‘I pray Thee, O merciful Lord, for all the peoples of the earth, that they may come to know Thee by the Holy Spirit.’25 He prayed that every mortal soul be given the same and equal portion of the divine inheritance that had befallen him. Like the Lord during the Last Supper, Simeon was full of grief for the world. In the Gospel there is one phrase which reveals what the Lord was constantly consumed with: ‘O righteous Father, and the world hath not known thee.’26 Sometime later, when Simeon was serving in the refectory, a similar grace to the first visited him, but somewhat less strongly; thereafter its energy gradually began to diminish. The memory of Christ’s visitation together with the consciousness that it engendered in his soul remained in his mind, but the sensation of peace and joy that his heart experienced now receded, giving way to the fear of abandonment.27
After the lightning flash of divinity, the darkness of this present life becomes even more impenetrable and agonizing. Simeon began to seek ways of restoring himself to the grace he had known. However, this restoration cannot be achieved by man’s own strength: ‘It is the gift of God,’ as St Paul says.28 Together with an intensified spiritual struggle on all the levels of his life, the young monk turned to the counsels of his spiritual father and to the ascetical writings of the Holy Fathers. It was then that he became aware that he had been made worthy of a rare gift, but he could not understand why his mind, which had been enlightened by the boundless light of the knowledge of God, was now darkened again by demonic apparitions. These had ceased for a while after the visitation of the Lord. So why this change, especially now that he was struggling to the extreme to keep the commandments?
Seeking for a solution to his problem, Simeon visited the Elder Anatoly at the Old Russikon which is situated in the forest, an hour’s walk away from the Monastery of St Panteleimon. After listening to the novice’s life story and to what he had suffered from the demons, the Elder counselled him and instructed him in the art of spiritual vigilance, which the novice did not yet possess. However, he failed to conceal his amazement, and at the end of his instructive words, he exclaimed, ‘If you are like this now, what will you be by the time you are an old man!’29 This word of the Elder threw the young novice into the most subtle, the most complicated and difficult spiritual combat of vainglory. Vainglory and pride bring about every spiritual calamity and downfall. Now the eyes of the left hand of the young monk had been opened and beheld the gifts the right hand of the Lord bestows. The Desert Fathers used to say that if we praise our brother in an untimely way, out of season, it is like delivering him to the demons; it needs a lot of discernment to praise someone. We praise people when we want to encourage them, to support them, if they are in difficulty or crushed, but we need to be careful with monks. Do not praise monks. They are more vulnerable than others.
Thus Simeon found himself delivered once again into the unequal combat with the demons. Grace retreated, his heart grew cold, prayer lost its ardour, his mind was scattered and passionate thoughts began to assail him anew. The soul that has contemplated eternity, the heart that has tasted of the sweetness of the Holy Spirit, the mind that has known purity, no longer wants to give in to impure thoughts. But how is this to be managed? The long period of alternating between grace and abandonment had now begun. Simeon was tonsured a monk and was trained in the difficult science of spiritual warfare, more especially in vigilance and the guarding of the mind from the suggestions of the enemy. Neither the gift of unceasing prayer which he possessed, nor the grace of the vision of Christ could lead him directly to perfection. His nature had to be transformed, in order to be permanently established in a state of grace and dispassion. At the moment of the Transfiguration the Holy Apostles fell down to the ground, but after Pentecost they were standing upright and conversingwith the Lord in the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, Simeon valiantly immersed himself in a life of deliberate spiritual striving, whose main concern and purpose was the acquisition of grace. However, because he had come to know God in the Holy Spirit and had been lifted up to contemplation of the world of the eternal Light, and then lost that grace, he now found himself in such a state, that someone who lacks such experience could not even imagine it. The suffering and sorrow of his soul surpassed any description. His pain was of a metaphysical nature. He was ready to deliver himself up to every struggle and hardship, even unto death, in order to regain that lost treasure, and to stand firmly in the wondrous grace of the revelation entrusted to him. Words cannot convey the agony of even a single night of that wrestling for grace. Silouan himself confidentially said to his disciple, ‘If in the beginning the Lord had not given me to know how much He loves man, I could not have survived one of those nights, and yet they were legion.’30 In The Ladder of St John we observe the same spiritual phenomenon in the case of the ‘prisoners’.31 How amazingly valiant they were in their repentance! For they had seen God’s Light and fallen from it; therefore this kind of repentance was not planned by themselves but it was prompted by the unbearable pain of this loss. We cannot plan our spiritual life. All we do is give ourselves to God, and His providence makes a plan for us. Indeed, it was providence that thrust them into that struggle.
Silouan’s titanic battle against the evil spirits lasted fifteen years, and it led him to utter repentance like that of Adam, and to extreme despair. Then the Lord intervened and saved him by giving him a word. Father Sophrony relates Silouan’s own story as follows:
It was fifteen years after the Lord had appeared to him, and Silouan was engaged in one of these nocturnal struggles with devils which so tormented him. No matter how he tried, he could not pray with a pure mind. At last he rose from his stool, intending to bow down and worship, when he saw a gigantic devil standing in front of the ikon, waiting to be worshipped. Meanwhile, the cell filled with other evil spirits. Father Silouan sat down again, and with bowed head and aching heart, he prayed, ‘Lord, Thou seest that I desire to pray to Thee with a pure mind but the devils will not let me. Instruct me, what must I do to stop them hindering me?’
And in his soul he heard,
‘The proud always suffer from devils.’
‘Lord,’ said Silouan, ‘teach me what I must do that my soul may become humble.’
Once more, his heart heard God’s answer,
‘Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.’32
This brief discourse with God during prayer was a new, extremely important event in Silouan’s life. The Lord’s word to Silouan: ‘Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not’, however paradoxical it may seem, brought to him spiritual victory. He himself attests to this: ‘I began to do as the Lord told me, and my mind was cleansed, and the Spirit witnessed to salvation.’33 The divine state is transmitted to man not only when he has a divine vision, but also when he hears the word of God. That is why the Lord said to the Jews, ‘How can you claim to know anything about immortal life if you have not seen the shape of God and heard His voice?’34 So, seeing God’s shape and hearing His voice both transmit to man the knowledge of eternal life.
The Lord proposed the vision of hell to Silouan, and he immediately appeared to possess a great science which restored his life, enriching him with grace and knowledge of God. He was given the means by which the soul is humbled, the heart made contrite, evil thoughts vanquished, and the mind cleansed, and thus grace found room in his soul. The descent to hell is the humble way which Christ Himself walked voluntarily and without sin. Thus, by obeying this word of the Lord, Silouan put himself in His humble way, became His companion on the way, and was taught Christlike humility. Following the Lord, he successfully passed over from the oppressive domination of the passions to the freedom of the Spirit of God, from death to life. Fifteen years before, God had shown the Person of His Son to Silouan and had concluded a covenant of love with him. Now, beholding the faithfulness of His servant, He made His word resound in his heart so as to establish him in the Lord’s humble way, the way which leads to abundance of life.35
Thus, seeing the glorified ‘shape of the Father’ and hearing ‘His meek voice’ are the two most important events in Silouan’s life. And the Lord assures us that this is knowledge of eternal life. All the subsequent writings of the Saint are but an expression of the experience and of the way of life inspired by these two crucial events.
The Lord said, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’36 In the case of Silouan, the authenticity of the vision of Christ can be seen in the pattern of his thoughts, and in the fruits he bore in his spiritual life. He was almost illiterate, and yet after the vision he began to pray with tears for the whole world as for himself. Perhaps he had never even seen a map of the world. This signifies that at the time of the vision, the state of Christ – the ‘New Adam’ Who bears within Him the whole of humanity – and His Spirit Who wants all men to be saved, were transmitted to him. This is the apostolic enlargement of the heart and prayer imparted to Christ’s genuine disciples. Throughout the rest of his life the Saint will now cry out: ‘I pray Thee, O merciful Lord, for all the peoples of the earth, that they may come to know Thee by the Holy Spirit.’37 This state came to him as a surprise. (At the Last Judgment we shall all have a surprise: the righteous will have one surprise, and the sinners quite another.38 St Silouan said, ‘I began to beseech God for forgiveness and He granted me not only forgiveness but also the Holy Spirit, and in the Holy Spirit I knew God.’)39
For one small act of repentance he was given to know the great love and boundless goodness of Christ; his soul was captivated in the remembrance of the meek and humble Lord,40 and this would no longer allow him rest on earth. This ‘worm’ of God would eat away his insides, until it totally assimilated him to the Beloved; for just as there is a bad ‘worm’ of hell,41 so there is a good ‘worm’ of God. Till the end of his days, the Saint would pray: ‘O Lord, send down Thy Holy Spirit on earth that all nations may know Thee, and learn Thy Love.’42 During the vision he was given to know the indescribable humility of Christ, thus finding the humble way of the Lord and receiving a truly prophetic state:
Thou, O Lord, shewest me Thy glory because Thou lovest Thy creature, but do Thou give me tears and the power to thank Thee. To Thee belongeth glory in heaven and on earth, but as for me – I must weep for my sins.43
These words remind us of the heavy sighing of the heart of the prophets upon beholding the glory of the Lord. Let us mention only two examples: the word of the Prophet Daniel, ‘O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto Thee, but unto us shame of face’,44 and the sigh of Isaiah, ‘Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.’45
With simplicity and rather naïvely, St Silouan said that before the vision of the Lord he did not even know about the Holy Spirit.46 But later he confirms that the Holy Spirit bears witness in a perceptible manner to man’s salvation in both soul and body, prompting an unbearable yearning for God.47 This yearning detaches the soul from the earth.48 At the time of the vision, St Silouan was taught Christ’s love for enemies, and that this love is the infallible criterion of the presence of the Holy Spirit and of the knowledge of God in man.
The words of Christ addressed to Silouan’s soul, ‘Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not’, fifteen years after the vision of the Lord, gave him the means by which to preserve grace, to be delivered from the repugnant sight of the demons, to overcome the pride of the life according to the flesh, and place himself continually in the way of Christ, following Him wherever He goeth, even to hell. By condemning himself to hell without despairing, he could remain at the extreme limits of ascetical humility and yearn continually for the indescribable humility of Christ which he had known at the time of the vision. By so doing, he was able to give ever expanding space in his soul to the Holy Spirit, for Him to come and dwell within him. Indeed, St Silouan distinguished between two kinds of humility: ascetical humility – the highest form of which is when man considers himself ‘the worst of all human beings’;49 and divine or charismatic humility – ‘the humility of Christ’, which he knew at the moment of the vision of Christ.50
After these two great events in the life of Silouan, he was steadily led by the Holy Spirit towards perfection. The words preserved in his notes, written towards the end of his life, are given directly by the Holy Spirit. Silouan witnessed to this during his encounter with the ascetic Stratonicos. When he asked, ‘How do the perfect speak?’ he himself gave the answer: ‘The perfect never say anything of themselves... They only say what the Spirit inspires them to say.’51 This is truly a great saying.
The word of Silouan is the fruit of a heart on fire with the grace of the Holy Spirit. His word is meek, sweet and acts therapeutically on the soul that receives it. For this reason, in her hymnography, the Church calls Silouan ‘most comforting of divines’ and conformed in heart to the meek and humble Christ, his ‘Teacher in the way of humility’.52
Elder Sophrony was of the same spirit, and had gained a similar experience in the spiritual life as his Father in God, St Silouan. Divine providence revealed this kinship through the manner in which they met and became acquainted. Here is a summary of that meeting. Father Sophrony had already lived about five years in the Monastery of St Panteleimon before becoming personally acquainted with the Saint. He was ordained deacon by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich of Ochrid in 1930 at the Old Russikon. On the way to the Old Russikon, St Silouan and Bishop Nikolai were walking together, and Father Sophrony followed them. But it was some time after his ordination that he spoke with St Silouan for the first time. As a deacon, each time he would cense the monks in church, he would feel awe and shame when censing the Saint.
(Bishop Nikolai was a great friend of St Silouan and often visited him. Father Sophrony told us that once St Silouan happened to have the obedience to work in the bookshop. On one occasion Bishop Nikolai bought many books and asked Silouan to help him to put them into his bag. In this way he made St Silouan handle every book. St Silouan realised what the Bishop was doing and felt uncomfortable. So, while he was doing as Bishop Nikolai had asked, he pointed to the Homilies of St Makarios and remarked: ‘Here is a great Father, his homilies are full of grace.’ To which Bishop Nikolai replied, ‘Nowadays, there are also Fathers equal to St Makarios’. And St Silouan later admitted, ‘I felt terribly uncomfortable after his word’, for he realised that the Bishop was speaking about him.
Some years later, when Bishop Nikolai was ill in London, Father Sophrony visited him and asked him, ‘What do you think about the book on Silouan?’ Father Sophrony asked his opinion, because Father Justin Popovich (Bishop Nikolai’s disciple) had written a letter to Father Sophrony, in which he likened the writings of St Silouan to those of St Symeon the New Theologian. Father Sophrony repeated the words of Father Justin to Bishop Nikolai, who remained thoughtful for a while, then he lifted up his head and said, ‘Нет, Нет. No. No. He is greater. When one reads St Symeon the New Theologian, one can sometimes remain with a feeling of despair, whereas St Silouan’s word is always healing.’ Yes, such was the witness of this holy Bishop, Nikolai of Ochrid.)
Let us return to Father Sophrony’s first meeting with St Silouan. A little while after Father Sophrony’s ordination, a hermit monk, Father Vladimir, visited him at the monastery, and they discussed several spiritual issues. Father Vladimir, moved by the conversation and the overall spiritual atmosphere, suddenly asked: ‘Father Sophrony, give me a word for the salvation of my soul!’ The Elder, who was preparing tea for Father Vladimir, without hesitation replied, ‘Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it any more, draw back a little and have a cup of tea’, whereupon he handed him a cup of tea. This word, and especially the energy of grace that it conveyed, struck the hermit who, filled with contrition, departed and went to St Silouan, seeking counsel and confirmation as to the authenticity and safety of this saying. The day after this little meeting, Father Sophrony was descending the outside stairs of the Monastery building on his way to the central court. At the same time, St Silouan was ascending in the opposite direction from the harbour of the Monastery. Normally, they would have met outside the entrance to the church of St Panteleimon. The Elder however, out of respect for St Silouan, changed direction in order to avoid him. But St Silouan, too, changed course, thereby making their meeting in front of the refectory inevitable. And St Silouan asked, ‘Father Sophrony, did Father Vladimir visit you yesterday?’ And Father Sophrony, passing over all the usual phrases of etiquette – the intermediate stages of speech that normally occur at an encounter – simply answered, ‘Was I wrong?’ Similarly, St Silouan said to him, ‘No. But what you said was beyond the measure and strength of the brother. Come tomorrow, and let us speak together.’ And so the Elder visited St Silouan, who related his own life to him. He described to him his fifteen-year struggle against the spirits of wickedness. He confided the revelatory word of Christ to him: ‘Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.’ This word, which was a milestone in the Saint’s spiritual struggle, was in essence the same as the word given by Father Sophrony to Father Vladimir. Through the power of this word he was saved from every demonic assault, and was purified from every thought of pride.
Father Sophrony acquired such faith and reverence for St Silouan that, in spirit, he would even venerate his footprints. As he himself wrote, he believed that the acquaintance and the relationship he had with the Saint was the greatest gift that God had granted him. This historical event was of crucial importance to his later spiritual development and theology. His spiritual relationship with the Saint confirmed him in the spirit of repentance which had so engulfed him at that time. His heart was informed about the truthfulness of the Saint’s teaching, and through unshakeable faith in the word of the Saint he gained stability in his ascetical life, and was led to dispassion. He lived the rest of his days, first in the desert and later in his ministry in the world, bearing witness to the fact that it is only by the voluntary descent into hell, in obedience to the commandment, that the believer can place himself in the humble way of the Lord, learn the indescribable humility of Christ, and be united to Him.
It is evident from the above description of the encounter between the Elder and the Saint that both had the same spirit and experience. Father Sophrony too had known the living God, even from his childhood. He relates: ‘There were occasions when, coming out of church, [rather being carried out of church in someone else’s arms],53 I would see the city [Moscow], then the whole world for me, lit by two kinds of light. Sunlight could not eclipse the presence of another Light [the Uncreated Light].’54 Later on, the year before he entered the Monastery, the Uncreated Light visited him again after Holy Communion, on Easter Saturday. He felt it like the touch of Divine Eternity on his spirit. This heavenly Light remained with him for three days.55 When he had become a monk this same experience was so frequently repeated, even daily, that when the vision died away, he felt it as a fall from true being. The vision of the Uncreated Light would inspire in Elder Sophrony prophetical self-knowledge and acknowledgement of his own sinfulness to the degree that he would regard himself as being worthy of hell, while at the same time the Lord remained for him blessed unto all ages. His spirit, as he himself confesses, would stretch between hell and the Kingdom of heaven; between the awareness of the luciferic darkness within him and the vision of the infinite holiness of our humble God. Moreover, he adds that between these two frontiers of hell and the Kingdom, the whole spiritual life of reasonable and hypostatical beings oscillates.56 In other words, there was no spiritual phenomenon or experience that could surprise him. He knew the whole range of experiences from hell to the eternal Kingdom. I remember the Elder once saying to me, ‘Nothing can surprise me in the spiritual life.’ This reminds us of St Paul’s words: ‘He that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.’57 Possessing the experience of the Uncreated Light, the Elder was driven to repentance with ‘charismatic despair’ which detached him from the perceptible world and rendered him passionless.
For Elder Sophrony, theology is the state of abiding in God. Possessing the experience we have described above, theology was for him the narration of the event of his meeting with Christ at the time when he was caught up and saw the divine Light. According to his writings, ‘authentic theology consists not in the conjectures of man’s reason or the results of critical research, but in the state of the life into which man is brought by the action of the Holy Spirit.’58 Theology is then a gift of the Holy Spirit which rekindles the heart of man. Whoever has acquired this gift becomes ‘as a light in the world, holding forth the word of life’.59 As St Silouan’s word was perfect, for it was given by the Holy Spirit, similarly, the word of his disciple was coming directly from God. He would always ask in prayer and would conceive in his heart a word pleasing to God and salutary to his brethren. For instance, whenever I accompanied him for the few minutes’ walk from his house to the monastery, in order to receive someone who had come to see him, I would try to profit by asking him something about myself, but he would not let me, saying, ‘Ask me no questions now. Now my mind is on that person.’ He was continuously praying that God would bless the meeting with that person. He did not want to be distracted for a single moment.
There was only one desire burning within him, that through repentance all may be saved in Christ and by Christ. He was inspired by the aim and grandeur of the spiritual ministry of the word of God, and, in a spirit of repentance and humility, desired to be a ‘fellow worker with God in the creation of immortal gods’.60 He found the work of a spiritual father most creative, because man collaborates with God in the creation of gods.61 When I became a spiritual father he would often say, ‘Do not put your trust in something you have read or in something you once said, even if this may have helped someone. Before you say anything, always bring your mind to your heart, ask God’s blessing, and then speak. Ask for God’s word, and then utter. You must learn this way, otherwise your ministry will be reduced to a halfblind human service.’ He would often say that if we prayed before meeting one another – a priest with a priest, or a person with his spiritual father – then the meeting can be a prophetic one, because God will give utterance. He said, ‘If there is prayer from both sides, from the one who comes and the one who receives him, surely God will speak.’
Elder Sophrony was able to interpret St Silouan because he was of the same spirit. Through his own personal experience, he reads (in Greek ἀνα-γινώσκω), that is to say, he re-cognises (ἀνα-γνωρίζω) the spiritual life of the Saint. In other words, his experience was the repetition of the experience of the Saint. In the life of the Saints, ‘repetition’ or ‘copying’ is the most creative act: it is the mystery of the Tradition in the Holy Spirit. The way to the acquisition of this holy Tradition was first indicated by the great Apostle Paul, ‘Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ.’62
Bishop Basil’s Afterword: We are all sons of the twentieth century and if you noticed, a few moments ago, Father Zacharias very calmly spoke one sentence in which he mentioned four Saints: Elder Sophrony, asked another Saint, Nikolai Velimirovich, what he thought about his own book about another Saint, Silouan, quoting Father Justin Popovich (yet another Saint) – all sons of the twentieth century, commenting on St Silouan. You bring great gifts to us, Father, and this is not to praise you; this is to say that you are a faithful son of Father Sophrony, and for that we are most grateful. You know that the Church understands Tradition (παράδοσις in Greek) as a ‘passing on’ of something unchanged, something very valuable, precious and important, utterly important, from one generation to the next. And we have just received something precious; we are participating in Tradition in a very ‘existential’ way. And we ask God’s blessing upon Father Zacharias, and we thank God Who is ‘wondrous in His saints’.63
1 2 Tim. 4:2.
2 See Ezek. 37:1-14.
3 Cf. Jude 1:3.
4 Cf. Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), Saint Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 1991; repr. ed. St Vladimir’s Seminary
5 1 John 4:8, 16.
6 John 13:1.
7 Archim. Sophrony, Saint Silouan, p. 11.
8 Ibid., p. 15
9 Ibid., p. 16.
10 Russian word for Father.
11 Ibid., p. 19.
12 Ibid., p. 21.
13 Ibid., p. 22.
14 Ibid., p. 22.
15 Cf. ibid., p. 24.
16 Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34.
17 Luke 23:43.
18 See Luke 12:49.
19 Eph. 3:20.
20 Saint Silouan, p. 26.
21 Cf. ibid., p. 26.
22 Cf. John 14:6.
23 Saint Silouan, p. 34.
24 Cf. ibid., p. 35.
25 Ibid., p. 274.
26 John 17:25.
27 Cf. Saint Silouan, p. 35.
28 Eph. 2:8.
29 Saint Silouan, p. 36.
30 Ibid., pp. 41-42.
31 St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachussetts, 1991), Step 5, pp. 54-66.
32 Saint Silouan, p. 42.
33 See ibid., pp. 431-432.
34 Cf. John 5:37.
35 See John 10:10.
36 Matt. 7:20.
37 Saint Silouan, p. 274.
38 See Matt. 25:31-46.
39 Saint Silouan, p. 270.
40 Cf. Matt. 11:29.
41 Cf. Mark 9:44.
42 Saint Silouan, p. 276.
43 Ibid., p. 299.
44 Dan. 9:7 (LXX). We prefer the Septuagint ‘shame of face’ to the Authorized (King James) Version’s phrase, ‘confusion of faces’.
45 Isa. 6:5.
46 Cf. Saint Silouan, p. 320.
47 Cf. ibid., pp. 288, 304, 394.
48 Cf. ibid., p. 287, 301.
49 Ibid., pp. 299.
50 See ibid., pp. 277, 273.
51 Ibid., p. 57.
52 The first phrase comes from the Saint’s Apolytikion or Troparion, found in the Service for Our Holy Father Silouan the Athonite, published by the Holy Monastery of Simonos Petras (Mount Athos, 1991), pp. 2 and 18: ‘As preacher of the Love of Christ, sweetest among divines, art thou given to the world, O thrice-blessed one’. The second phrase comes from an alternative Apolytikion, found on the reverse side of the Saint’s icon, produced by the Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, Essex, England: ‘Through prayer thou didst receive Christ as thy Teacher in the way of humility’.
53 Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), Ὀψόμεθα τὸν Θεὸν καθώς ἐστι, (Ἱερὰ Πατριαρχικὴ καὶ Σταυροπηγιακὴ Μονὴ Τιμίου Προδρόμου, Ἔσσεξ Ἀγγλίας, 1993), p. 56. The phrase between brackets has been omitted in the English version.
54 Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), We Shall See Him as He Is, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 1988), p. 37.
55 Cf. ibid., p. 178.
56 See We Shall See Him as He Is, pp. 100, 202.
57 1 Cor. 2:15.
58 Saint Silouan, p. 170.
59 Phil. 2:15-16.
60 See 1 Cor. 3:9.
61 Cf. Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), On Prayer, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 1996), p. 88.
62 1 Cor. 11:1.
63 Ps. 67:36 (LXX).
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