|The Church of Saint Silouan the Athonite in Essex, England, built by Elder Sophrony.|
Being confronted for years with a man like Saint Silouan, who brought within him "both God and humanity", as you said, must open uncommon perspectives. And some of the meetings with him must have been very enlightening.
Elder Sophrony: I had questions deep within me that turned into puzzlement and I presented them to him and he helped me more than anyone in answering them. Three times a day in the prayers of the Church we ask that God would grant "this day" or "this evening to be kept without sin". So I asked him:
"How, while living in this world, which is hopelessly dynamic and steeped in despair, can we live without sinning? How can we avoid sin?"
I also asked him other questions, like:
"How can we be sure that the spirit that acts in us is the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father?"
"What condition of the spirit shows us that we are truly the image of the Living God?"
How did he respond to these questions?
Elder Sophrony: I have not retained all the answers, nor have I practiced everything I learned from the Elder, which is why I don't have the right to address these issues, but with the help of prayer I will tell you a few things he taught me.
As to the first point, "how can we avoid sin," Christ revealed this mystery in the holy life of Elder Silouan with His prescription: "Keep your mind in Hades and despair not." As soon as I heard from the mouth of the Elder that Christ Himself indicated to him how he could defeat sin, my appreciation for him and my absolute belief in his sanctity convinced me that this expression had really come from Christ Himself. And I tried to apply this principle in my own life.
The spirit of it comes from the fear when one sees the holiness of God and the realization at the same time of our own complete unworthiness to ever unite with such a God. Knowing that we are under the bondage of our sins, brings us to despair. Then our prayer is filed with tears. When we thus condemn ourselves to Hades, we strip ourselves of everything transitory, since only eternity stretches before us. Sin is imprisoned, it has halted. There is no more pride, nor hatred, nor fear, nor the quest for glory, wealth or power. The only danger is falling into eternal despair. Yet when we arrive at this point we stop, "and despair not." Then, if we continue, conscious of our unworthiness, being in a condition of our spirit that corresponds to reality, we allow the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father to create a relationship with our heart.
Then, reading the Gospels very carefully, I noticed some similarity between the command of the Lord to Saint Silouan and His behavior on earth. Christ never sinned: "For the ruler of the world is coming, and he has nothing in Me" (Jn. 14:30). Although there is no identity between Him and us, but without a doubt there is an analogy. The entire life of Christ, as truly the Son of Man, by which He is perfectly similar to us, so that Satan could even tempt Him, shows us how it is possible to overcome all sin. "Because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted" (Heb. 2:18). Following his teachings and example we realize we are redeemed from the power of our sinful passions within us - pride and despair leave our hearts. We know, according to the writings of the Elder, that when he did what he was advised to do by Christ, his spirit entered into the realm of pure prayer and the Spirit of God testified in his heart concerning his salvation and gave him the experience of a form of the resurrection.
"Keep your mind in Hades and despair not."
This is the primary path that leads people to divine holiness.
Let's now turn to my second question: How can we be sure that the spirit acting within us is really the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, and not something else? Saint John the Theologian urges us to be careful: "Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirit to see if it is of God" (1 Jn. 4:1). This is of vital importance for all of us. According to the teachings of Saint Silouan, he was given the Holy Spirit to know the divinity of Christ; he came to know God in the Holy Spirit. The consubstantiality of the Son and the Holy Spirit is more noticeable from the fact that the Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, truly visited his soul, and the soul experiences the entire content of the commandments of Christ. For this reason, if the spirit that exists within us is in full accordance with the commands of the Gospel, then it is truly the Holy Spirit. This is how the Son and the Holy Spirit bear witness reciprocally to each other. The Holy Spirit is the Light of eternal life; the breath of the Holy Spirit within us is the power of divine love that inspires in the soul a deep compassion for all, including enemies. And the soul feels this noble love full of compassion for their enemies through the power of the Holy Spirit as a completely natural state into which fades each internal struggle and where divine harmony reigns.
As long as a person lives enslaved to death, they remain unable to love those who endanger their lives and their well-being. Therefore, love for enemies, the love that Christ teaches us, the love for which Elder Silouan speaks, is a passage from death to eternal life, through which the soul ensures the final victory of Christ's love.
The image of God in people varies. The creative ability of people is a dimension that manifests itself in different areas and sectors of culture, civilization, art, science, etc. This creative ability is not limited, but continues to exceed the visible and transitory in its efforts to reach the beginning of it all - God the Creator.
God, who created man in the beginning without the cooperation of man, since then does nothing for man without asking for his cooperation. The natural world is so made that man is constantly faced with problems that must find a solution. But man, in the prospect of truly cooperating with God to create the world, always craves the supreme knowledge of God Himself. Continued progress towards ever greater knowledge of God is an act that is attractive and special. My discussions with Elder Silouan were of course concentrated on prayer and life according to God's will; but my career in the past predisposed me to think of creative work in general and its significance. In my youth, through a Russian painter who later became famous, I was attracted to the idea of genuine creativity, starting with the form of abstract art. This occupied me for two or three years and led to the first theological thought being born in my mind. As each artist understands objective reality through the forms and ways of his art, so my own ideas on abstract art came from life around me. I stared at a man, a house, a plant, a complex mechanism, distorted fleeting shadows that shaky flames of a fire threw on the walls, the ceilings, and adapted them to abstract images, creating in my imagination visual shapes different from everyday reality. In this way I interpreted the instructions of my teacher - not copying natural phenomena, but by recreating pictorial representations. Luckily, I quickly realized that it was not given to me, a man, to create "from non-being" as only God creates. I understood that everything I was creating was determined by something else that already existed. I could not discover a new color or some line that had not been previously somewhere. An abstract image is like a sequence of words, beautiful and coordinated by themselves, but never express a complete thought. Basically, an abstract image represents a split in being, in the void, a return to the state of non-being, from where God called us in the work of His Creation. So I quit my vain attempt to invent something totally new, and the problem of creative work from that time was closely linked in my mind with the knowledge of Being. The entire world, almost every visual representation, was a profound mystery of beauty that exceeded common measures. The light changed to caress and embrace all objects with a halo of glory, as we say, by giving a vital pulse to these, but it was impossible for the artist to capture them with the means at his disposal. Then I was filled with a worship full of respect for the First Artist, the Creator of everything, and a desire to meet Him, to be a disciple to Him, to learn how He creates.
My meetings with the Elder focused my attention on the person of Christ: How did He, the Son, operate? "The Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does" (Jn. 5:19-20). But the Only-begotten Son became the Son of Man, becoming perfectly similar to us. So whatever is said about the Son of Man, in Him the same can be applied to us. So, if the Father loves us, consequently He will show us all the things He does and in what manner He does it. This ultimately means that we are all called to work together in the eternal work of the creation of the Father. It is a characteristic of man to crave perfection, wanting to enter the living stream of divine eternity, where the Christ-Man first went.
Therefore, in terms of creative work, man in the final quest gradually abandons what is transient and relevant in order to reach immortal perfection. On this earth, it is certain that perfection is never absolute. Nevertheless we can call perfect those who only say what has been given them by the Spirit, in imitation of Christ, who says: "I do nothing on My own but speak just what the Father has taught Me" (Jn. 8:28).
The work of creation is greater than anything man can fulfill. Man tends towards this ideal, not passively but with a creative spirit, always remembering to avoid any tendency to create God in his own image.
I was also preoccupied with this problem: How do we, being so narrow and limited, understand correctly that we are the image of almighty God, the God that contains everything and transcends everything? Here Elder Silouan became my salvation. He said to me that if we try sincerely to keep the commandments of Christ, the soul will be filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, and then with a deep love, full of compassion, we pray for the whole world as for ourselves, and we want very strongly the prosperity of every person more than ourselves. He suggested that the prayer of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane included the entire human race, from Adam to the last child born of a woman. The prayer offered by Elder Silouan can undoubtedly be likened to this redemptive prayer of the Lord, and thus exceed the limits of an individual. This prayer is a passage to another dimension - the dimension of personhood/hypostasis - to the likeness of the Hypostasis of the incarnate Word. We know that the measure by which man becomes similar to Christ in this earthly life, he has become divinized and has become a shareholder of the divine life.
Realizing my personal experience that any change in my understanding of the divine Being would inevitably influenced my entire life, he showed me that any confession or form of mysticism has its own particular spirituality. That is why I am absolutely convinced that the character of the ascetic life of Saint Silouan belongs entirely to the Orthodox Church. He wrote himself, when one of the fathers concluded that all heretics will perish: "I do not know about this issue. But I believe only in the Orthodox Church. In this there is the joy of salvation through the humility of Christ." The life of every Christian confession, at all levels, is regulated by the understanding of the Holy Trinity. Differences in theological interpretation of Hypostatic Authority in the Divine Being is the dividing line, the demarcation line, not only between different religions but also between various Christian confessions. Unfortunately, most modern theologians have not yet understood this, although it is the prime key point to resolve.
The wealth and extreme simplicity of the teachings of Saint Silouan has impressed us. We still have much to learn and take from him.
Elder Sophrony: Saint Silouan was a man who had only one vision, inspired by the manifestation of God that shed light on his whole being, without him even asking. When the Lord had appeared, he had felt that God was infinite love, universal love. The Holy Spirit had revealed the Divinity of Christ. The Holy Spirit had taught a humility and a love to such a capacity that it embraced every creature. Night and day he sought to experience again this experience of divine eternity.
The testimony of a man like Saint Silouan, who was completely empty of mental imaginings, the testimony of a man who throughout his life shed the blood of his heart into his prayer for the whole world, can only have a special power and a special significance.
It seems to me that the Elder was as receptive and spontaneous as the first apostles. The fact that he was able to remain untouched by the falseness of modern civilization makes him irresistibly persuasive. Both those who did not know him personally, although you can judge him by his writings, and those who knew him and saw his genuine simplicity and humility were convinced that he was a man of God.
And today the Church proclaimed this certainty.
Elder Sophrony: Elder Silouan kept "his mind in Hades and despaired not." He struggled against "the spirit of the great and mighty, the earthquake and fire" of temptations. And now he speaks through the "still small voice" of the Lord. (see 1 Kings 11-12).
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.
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