A Conversation with Elder Sophrony  — Part 2

A Conversation with Elder Sophrony — Part 2


Read part 1 here

A.E.: Your book, St. Silouan the Athonite, was the reason that many people came to the Holy Mountain to become monks. And throughout Europe, the book led many heterodox to Orthodoxy.

E.S.: It can also help people in Russia, because they have completely lost the ascetic culture. Seventy years of captivity…

A.E.: A number of Russian bishops came to Vatopedi and told us that the Russians are pious, but because of their persecutions they don’t have an inner life.

E.S.: They lost asceticism and this can help. The Roman Catholics, as I have heard for many years, from the time I began to do philological studies and have had contact with them, have said that the Orthodox Church cannot say that it is, “the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” It isn’t catholic, it’s a part of them, how can we express it, they [the Orthodox] are ethnic bodies who live with hatred among themselves.

A.E.: Unfortunately, that’s what they say.

E.S.: And I… and I…

A.E.: You prove the opposite, though.

E.S.: Twelve monastics, twelve nationalities. Patriarch Athenagoras the First understood this idea as well. He had a great deal of experience, which was why I was bold and asked that our holy monastery be a dependency of St. Paul’s Monastery [on Mount Athos]. And he, through the other Athenagoras (of London), said, “tell Sophrony to give me…to send me a request for Stavropegic status.”

A.E.: And, that Stavropegic status was granted so easily, is an indication that God wanted this monastery to be established. It is also very encouraging that you are directly connected to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

E.S.: …and from my writings, as some people have said, it seems that monasticism is not human, but is a call from God. And if some read this book, they will say that it is not monks who choose this path by human means, but it is a call from God. From this perspective, the book may be theological, the theology, that is to say, that accompanies the asceticism of the Orthodox ascetic. This is why the references in the book are only made to Holy Scripture. And thank you very much for your letter regarding the book. I’ll tell you why. Few people are able to understand this book. Even on the Holy Mountain, where Silouan lived for nearly half a century, few understood the spiritual height of the Elder. They had such fear…but also such boldness for the love of God! He did not speak openly about his spiritual condition, but hid.

A.E.: They didn’t understand him…those who lived alongside St. Silouan in the monastery did not understand him, and some spoke ironically about him. Unfortunately, they did not understand with whom they were dealing. Which is also why we don’t have his relics, you took some, though he was such a great Saint.

E.S.: Me, sinner that I was—lost that is to say, he was very beneficent to me…. He was the greatest gift of divine providence that God gave to me…

A.E.: Because He knew that you would make good use of it, that’s why He showed it to you. And, humanly, you are the reason that St. Silouan’s legacy has shone forth. And he waits for you in heaven with open arms.

E.S.: I don’t have him…

A.E.: That’s the way it is…

E.S.: Why? Why don’t I have him? Because many have told me that they have prayed to Silouan and their request was immediately fulfilled. Many times Athonites have also experienced something similar, his quick response to their prayers suggests to them that he was a Saint.

[One of the other monks from Essex then speaks]: Elder, may I say something?

E.S.: Certainly…but ask the holy abbot.

[Monk]: Your monk, Fr. Silouan, was at Koutloumousiou the day after the celebration, during Matins, and a thought came into his head, “I wonder if St. Silouan has the ability to pray for us?” And as soon as Fr. Silouan thought this, that same moment, Fr. Athanasius from Simonopetra came up to him and said, “You know, Fr. Silouan, I have a relic of St. Silouan, which is not only fragrant, but one time it even gushed myrrh. And Fr. Silouan replied to him, ‘God gave me the answer almost immediately, because I was just wondering if St. Silouan could hear our prayers.’”

E.S.: The writing of his biography was not a human work. It was his own work…and when the Archbishop of Cyprus ordained our beloved spiritual father, Fr. Zacharias, hierodeacon, he was asked to give a word. And he prayed to Silouan. He sat and immediately wrote, what can I tell you? Something that supersedes human measure. His answer and aid came immediately.

A.E.: And you, Elder, you must have had personal experience with the boldness of St. Silouan.

E.S.: Let me tell you, holy abbot, the story of this boldness. On the second day of Pascha [Monday of Bright Week], in either 1930 or 1931, an educated Russian hermit monk, he was an engineer, came to visit me in my cell at the Monastery of St. Panteleimon’s. “Fr. Sophrony, how will we be saved?” I loved this person. He was a very gentle and sweet person, but also very clever. I prepared him a cup of tea, gave it to him, and told him, “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.”

The next day, I ran into Elder Silouan, with whom I had not yet had personal contact, but I could sense his spiritual strength. And he said to me,

“Was Fr. Vladimir with you yesterday?”

I didn’t answer him, that is, I didn’t say, “yes, he was,” rather I said,

“Perhaps I said something wrong?”

Silouan answered, “No, but what you told him was beyond his strength, beyond his measure. Come and let’s talk.”

That’s how he called me to speak with him. And because of this phrase, “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you don’t have any more strength, rest a little and have a cup of tea,” our relationship began, our spiritual connection. Afterwards, I went to the Elder and he taught me regarding, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

A.E.: This is great love of wisdom, Elder.

E.S.: Great love of wisdom…. And you know how I feel, holy abbot? What I suffer because of this? What did the Lord mean with the phrase, “Keep your mind in hell,” which was for Silouan the pronounced removal of grace for a whole hour before the appearance of Christ? He clearly saw his eternal destruction and after this the Lord appears without any word, He didn’t say anything…for a moment. And when this happened, without any word, without words, he began to pray for all humanity and it became a state of being, not a thought, but a state of being. And when the Lord said, “Keep your mind,” Silouan saw Him. This is why it was only Silouan who understood the depths of the word regarding this state. For us self-reproach is appropriate, but not this state. And the conversation, his talk with Christ, was very, how to say it…very brief. This is what he said:

“I see demons.”

“The proud suffer from this.”

“But how can I become humble, Lord?”

“Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

And then He left.

A.E.: This is why, Elder, on Mount Athos Elder Silouan and Elder Joseph the Hesychast are regarded…

E.S.: Ah! He was a soldier of the spirit. One of the seven greatest ascetics that I met in my life.

A.E.: …as the contemporary Elders who re-introduced, through their experiential way of life, the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas to Athonite monasticism.

E.S.: Yes, yes…I had gone two or three times to Elder Joseph, who was still at St. Basil’s. Did you get to meet him?

A.E.: I didn’t meet him. I wasn’t found worthy of meeting him.

E.S.: This state that Silouan experienced is related to the great Fathers of Egypt [the desert fathers]. Abba Poimen, when they told him that he would go to the heavenly kingdom, replied, “Believe me brothers, where Satan was thrown, that’s where I’m going to be thrown.”

A.E.: This is the spirit of the Fathers…

E.S.: And Anthony shared the thought of the shoemaker of Alexandria, “Everyone will be saved, and only I will be damned.” These are states of spiritual struggle.

A.E.: Self-reproach as a state of being.

E.S.: Right…as a state.

A.E.: As a never-ending state.

E.S.: Like theology. Theology is the content of our prayers. And an example of this theology is the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. The whole anaphora is theology and is expressed through prayer. But then theology comes as a state of being. John the Theologian, from an academic point of view, was not a theologian, he says things simply. His theology, however, is a state of being. Whatever he says becomes dogma for everyone. The fathers around us have great devotion for the Elder and somehow, somehow they understand what he was all about.

A.E.: About whom, Elder?

E.S.: About Silouan…he was one of them. And if I take those to my right, or those to my left, it’s the same. In fact, this past Monday I encouraged my brethren to describe in a better way the path of battling against passionate thoughts. Because one of the sisters has written a book on the upbringing of children and though what she writes is simple, they are things that don’t come into our minds. And perhaps it’s necessary to describe the way of battle, for Silouan speaks of these things, but he does not describe how it happens. When the Lord fought with Satan in the desert, there we have some kind of an interpretation of the battle. But what I’m trying to say is that perhaps people need to learn how they can battle against passionate thoughts? I discuss this topic a bit in my book on the Elder…but what do you think? In the first book, I explain that every passionate thought is tied to the earth, with matter, and always takes a certain form, it’s a certain type. And if our heart or word does not accept this form, the passion stops. But sometimes, in the beginning, hand to hand combat needs to take place. People who don’t understand then ask, “But how does this happen?”

A.E.: You did very well to analyze the way this battle works, for you have written about these things in a contemporary manner.

E.S.: I asked my brethren to try to describe it, but it’s dangerous for one to write, do you understand? It’s not an easy thing. This problem needs to be expressed in some way.

A.E.: This is a very subtle issue, Elder.

–To Be Continued—

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