Before concluding, there is one final, yet very important point which makes St. Silouan’s teaching so relevant for today. And this is the special emphasis he places on the theme of depression and despair within the spiritual struggle. Interestingly enough, this warning against the danger of depression and despair was written probably around the early 1930s.
As Orthodox believers, we must be fully aware of the many dangers that await us as we progress by God’s grace in our spiritual lives. And according to our Orthodox teaching, the dangers of depression and despair are among the most fatal.
While other Fathers have written on this same theme of despair, which is sometimes translated into English as ‘despondency’ or ‘faint-heartedness,’ and our Church even mentions the spiritual danger of despair at the beginning of the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim, “Lord, take from me the spirit of sloth and despair,” St. Silouan offers a special perspective. To a world over-whelmed with depression and despair, St. Silouan provides a clear message of hope.
He teaches that in order to prevent the onslaught of despair, it is crucial to recall constantly the unconditional compassion, the mercy, and the love of our Lord. Only in this way can we control the different degrees of despair that we will definitely encounter as we progress in the spiritual life.
We must be very careful when dealing with despair. It is one of the chief devices of the devil, who exploits it, in coaxing us to abandon our pursuit of the life in Christ. Despair is basically a sign of a lack of faith. It is a loss of hope. It is a forgetfulness of the mercy of God.
This sharp contrast between faith and despair is illustrated when comparing the persons of the Apostle Peter and Judas Iscariot. Judas may be seen as the epitome of despair. He could not bring himself to seek mercy for his betrayal of the Lord, and in the end, he had to hang himself. The Apostle Peter on the other hand, although he denied the Lord after His arrest—not once but three times—still trusted in the compassion of Christ, and he was forgiven. He went on to serve the Lord as one of the chief Apostles of His Holy Church.
No matter how bad things may seem, and regardless of how distanced we may feel from the grace of God, it is essential that we never lose hope as did Judas. Those deep and dark moments of depression and despair will certainly pass away, even though they may seem to last forever. It is Christ Who is in complete control of His creation and not the evil one, as he would have us think. The Lord in His mercy cares for all of His creation, and He beholds every struggle of all His children: whether it is despair due to addictions of whatever kind, whether our own or our loved ones; or despair due to the loss of a loved one; or despair due to a divorce, or other family problems; or an illness, of any kind, whether physical or psychological, etc.
St. Silouan alludes to this, and speaking from his own personal experience of despair, he encourages his reader, “To all who may find themselves in the [same] misfortune which overtook me, I now write: Stand fast; hope firmly in God, and the enemy will not keep ground. By the grace of God I know that the Lord mercifully cares for us, and not one prayer … is lost with God.”
We must always remember that even during the most intense trials of our spiritual struggle, the consolation of Christ awaits close by. During those turbulent times when we are driven to the brink of defeat by despair, the soothing solace of our Lord looms near. It is interesting to note that Elder Sophrony emphasizes that this comfort can come ‘suddenly’.
Despair, when defeated by the power of prayer, is not only followed by divine consolation, but it can actually lead to great joy, light and new life in Christ.
There is, then, in the teachings of the Church Fathers and St. Silouan in particular, a type of ‘spiritual despair’ which is very common and even unavoidable in the spiritual struggle. We will all have to encounter it in our spiritual lives, especially the further one advances. The more progress we make, the more ‘testing’ we undergo, and only in this way do we continually grow in our spiritual lives, and actually grow closer to Christ and personally come to know His rich mercy and compassion.
The depth of despair engulfing our world today is overwhelming. The great revolutions in science and technology, as well as the philosophical and ethical liberation of the ‘post-Christian’ world, seem to deepen man’s overall sense of hopelessness and despair, rather than aiding to relieve it.
Many are astonished at the decline in the overall moral and spiritual fabric of our society. The commonly accepted ethical standards of yesterday have now been lost forever. Every segment of our society seems to be affected by these tremendous upheavals, and as a result, many of us find ourselves falling into despair.
This, then, is why St. Silouan’s teaching is attracting so much attention today. He provides hope to a world drowning in depression and despair. He offers guidance and direction to a world lost in delusion and spiritual confusion.
St. Silouan of Mount Athos stands among the long line of spiritual elders of the Orthodox Church. Not only is he a twentieth-century saint who experienced the heights of Orthodox spiritual life, but he presents these truths with a simplicity that makes his teaching accessible to all. As a result of his great love for God and his fellow man, he was able to feel, relate and respond, in his own unique way, to the inner pain and personal agony of contemporary man.
His teaching is a treasury of Orthodox spiritual life marked by Christ-like humility, love, and compassion for all humankind. Not only his writings, but indeed his entire life may be viewed as one great prayer, offered from a contrite and humbled heart.
The life of contemporary man, however, cannot be characterized in terms of such humility. As a result, the love of many has grown cold, and thus, prayer on earth has become anemic.
Herein lies the significance of St. Silouan’s teaching for today. To a world thirsting for the meaning of human existence, St. Silouan speaks of the Truth of Christ. In an age where world peace is sought through the means of a ‘New World Order’, St. Silouan’s message of inner spiritual peace is especially important. The peace of which he speaks differs greatly from any political kind of world peace. St. Silouan experienced the true, inner peace of Christ.
The message of St. Silouan is of interest to all people, regardless of their various backgrounds. His teaching tears down all social and ethnic barriers. Whether we are Romanian, Bulgarian, Syrian, or Serb, whether American, African, Ukranian, or Greek, St. Silouan speaks to us all. He was of Russian heritage, yet at the same time, he was thoroughly Athonite; and he embodied that rare ‘pan-Orthodox’ ethos which in itself transcends all ethnic borders.
St. Silouan was a simple man with a simple message. He spoke of love for all mankind, and of prayer for the salvation of the entire human race. St. Silouan used to say, “I want only one thing: to pray for all men as I pray for myself.”
This is the outcome of his true love for Christ.
Read the entire St. Silouan series by Dr. Harry Boosalis:
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