A Conversation with Elder Sophrony — Part 1

A Conversation with Elder Sophrony — Part 1

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The abbot of the Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopedi, Archimandrite Ephraim, spoke with Elder Sophrony of blessed memory at the Holy Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England on 20 September 1992.

From this meeting, one is struck by Elder Sophrony’s spirituality and ascetic vision, and can appreciate the value of his contribution to the contemporary life of the Church.

Elder Sophrony: “O Heavenly King and Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things, treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us of all that defileth, and save our souls, oh Thou who are good.” Welcome, holy abbot…

If during our conversation I do anything unusual, please forgive me. These days I don’t hear or see very well.

Archimandrite Ephraim: Considering your age, you’re doing very well.

E.S.: Ninety-six years old…I’ll tell them to bring us the letter from Vatopedi from our archives.

A.E.: Yes, I would like to see it.

E.S.: You know, I’m one of your own.

A.E.: This is a blessing for us.

E.S.: I don’t know. It is a blessing for me, that they gave me leave with such willingness. And circumstances have shown that God blessed it. After I left the Holy Mountain, though, I became very ill. I had a stomach ulcer and I suffered from gastrorrhagia, I was also very poor. I had to undergo a difficult operation, and they had to remove nearly my whole stomach. For twelve years I had great difficulty eating. I got something later on, but it’s fake.

A.E.: It was God’s will, Elder, that you came here.

E.S.: I’ll tell you what, abbot, I’m always afraid to say that something [from God] happens to me, but it seems to me that nothing took place according to how I imagined it, but everything came from God.

A.E.: This is what the conscience of the Church also witnesses to, it seems that it was from God. And that it is a work that has a history behind it. And [this monastery’s] history has been stamped by God, that’s what the facts witness to.

E.S.: Yes, but I am only bold enough to say, “Lord have mercy on me and save me.” Only to a certain extent can I say that it happened according to the providence of God.

A.E.: Elder, your monastery is an oasis in the desert [of a culture] of materialism.

E.S.: We’re just…eh! How can I explain it to you…we’re thankful to those who rule this country, and to the queen, and other officials. But Orthodox life outside of Greece is difficult. Not all of our thought: theological, ascetical…connects with the tradition of the West, with the Catholics and Protestants. But these are the ones who rule this place.

A.E.: From everything I have observed here, Elder, you live wisely. During the years that you have been here, you have acted with great discernment, which is why you’ve been able to help people greatly in hidden ways. And this is a very important thing for a spiritual person.

E.S.: Well…let me tell you. You’re an abbot. And I was, in a certain way, an abbot. And I was always hung from a thread above the abyss, shouting at God for everyone, for everything…because nothing happens by human strength.

A.E.: And I’m sure that you must have had many difficulties here, Elder.

E.S.: Oh…it’s better not to talk about them…. But even this, to a certain extent, is a question for us. Recently, I published a book, a spiritual autobiography [We Shall See Him as He Is].

A.E.: We’ve read it, Elder.

E.S.: Of what interest would a purely factual biography have been? I only recount spiritual events in this book. And the book has appeared, somehow, at just the right time.

A.E.: What you have provided is a living witness.

E.S.: I didn’t write a theological text, I only wrote down my experience, from fear and because I’m bold to say, “Lord have mercy, Lord save me.” But…I don’t understand…. I became ill many times with fatal sicknesses and yet I’m still alive. I don’t know why…

A.E.: The Church needs you, which is why God has extended your life. Your life is a miracle. We are amazed at how you are still living considering the illnesses you have had and still have. Many spiritual people are amazed that you’re still alive.

E.S.: In 1986 they invented a machine that can diagnose cancer and they opened me up and found that I had the worst type of cancer, and they were expecting me to die. There was no chance of an operation, of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or something similar. They left me to waste away…. Six years have passed and I’m living in my seventh year since then, and I don’t know how. After the stomach operation I had, which completely cut up my insides, for twelve years I couldn’t eat. Two years after that, I was a bit better.

A.E.: Your Elder, St. Silouan, wanted you to see his official canonization by the Church.

E.S.: And I don’t know how the providence of Christ made it happen. He placed me at the feet of my Elder. The contemporary spiritual, theological problem concerns the person [πρόσωπο]…I lived completely by revelation. Revelation reveals that “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). If He says, “I am” it means that He is a person. This is why in one of the chapters in the book to which I referred earlier I note that the word “I” has great significance. For it expresses the person. God says, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Science cannot say this. Only revelation can say this. And we need to base ourselves on revelation, which the Lord never refuted…. So, when I sent the book that is right behind you to His All Holiness [the Ecumenical Patriarch], I didn’t want to write a theological textbook, but simply to describe the experience of an Orthodox monk.

A.E.: This book will be very useful, Elder.

E.S.: May God allow it to be so…may God allow it to be so…

A.E.: People today are confused, I would say very confused, and a contemporary, unique Orthodox witness is necessary to wake them up.

E.S.: Yes, I say that, I say it with boldness because it is a fact. This book is not an intellectual contrivance, I refer to actual facts.

A.E.: It’s that fruit of divine grace.

E.S.: It’s from this perspective that I was emboldened to write. Perhaps this autobiography will help someone find the solution to his or her own personal problem.

A.E.: This book has also helped us on the Holy Mountain a great deal.

E.S.: [Elder Sophrony speaks, in turn, of the translation of his book into Modern Greek]…but they have translated it into the simple language, which cannot express subtle meanings.

A.E.: It doesn’t properly express them, Elder, but you need to translate it into Modern Greek because young people don’t know Ancient Greek. You need to make an “Economy,” and give the blessing for your book to be translated into Modern Greek as well, because unfortunately, most young people’s language skills are lacking today.

E.S.: So…if it’s in a good language already, what’s happening with it?

A.E.: It is in a good language, and we want it in this language. But unfortunately, our young people today are not able to understand it.

E.S.: And this translation can be made now.

A.E.: Yes, it can be done.

E.S.: I understand, holy abbot. I wonder, though, if many people understand this book?

A.E.: They don’t understand it in its full depth, but they may not understand it for another reason, because of its language. In our monastery, we have quite a few young monks. The young monks don’t know Greek, even though they are Greek, because unfortunately in Greece various factors have managed to adulterate the Greek language.

E.S.: What I’m trying to say is that this book, by its very nature, because the providence of God lead me to Silouan, is about spiritual practices of the very highest kind. A deeper, more extreme form of asceticism does not exist. And from this, one can discern that it is from God. “Keep your mind in hell and despair not….”

—To be continued—

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