May 21, 2014

Elder Sophrony on the Lowest and Loftiest Spiritual States

By Elder Sophrony Sakharov

Of the spiritual states of the Christian and, more especially perhaps, of the monk, the lowest is "outer darkness" (Matt. 8:12) and the loftiest - "the kingdom of God comes with power" (Mk. 9:1). Complacent narrow-mindedness prevents an enormous number of people from accepting real Christianity, and even alienates them. But it is still possible in our time, too, to find ascetics striving for sanctity whose experience approaches the universal. They have suffered the agony of mental see-sawing; tortures of conscience because of their depravity and iniquity before God; soul-destroying uncertainty and dolorous combat with the passions. They have known the torments of hell, the blackness of despair, the fetters of death dealing despondency, the anguish that defies description and the distress of being forsaken by God. The ascetic who has sought and found true repentance will similarly be familiar with numerous categories of spiritual joy and peace, of inspired faith and healing hope. The fire of Divine love touches the heart and mind of him who prays and with it a vision of the unfading Light of the "city to come" (cf. Heb. 13:14). Refined by fasting and prayer, the heart through grace becomes clairvoyant when the depths of fellow souls are revealed to it. Attention is not stayed on other aspects of intuition. Generally, to begin with, comes the grace of "mindfulness of death". This is an especial state when eternity knocks at the heart living in the darkness of sin. Here the Divine Spirit, still unrecognized, still unknown and concealing itself, imparts to the spirit a vision, difficult to explain, of the outside world - the world, the whole of cosmic being, stamped from the very outset with the seal of corruption, where all is meaningless, engulfed in the shadow of death.

The Gospel word becomes intelligible to the experienced Christian. What used to seem contradictory is now revealed as Divine universality, as sacred Mystery, secret since the foundation of the world. The contrast between this new understanding and our preceding blindness is too vast to be explained in our words. The spirit arrives at two frontiers - of hell and the Kingdom - between which the whole spiritual life of the reasoning individual oscillates.

When his spirit is contracted within, either from sheer exhaustion or because of the heavenly glory that has come to him, the Christian's prayer is like lightning cutting from end to end through the universe in a single flash. Freed from the power of all that is ephemeral, the spirit is transported to the immutable world. Deathly suffering meets with unendurable bliss.

Man for long cannot tolerate such extremes, which are accorded to only a few, and only once. But the experience for a tiny instant reveals such spheres of Being, which people generally never even suspect. Their hearts are closed to the holy Life of God.

From the book We Shall See Him As He Is (Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex, 1988) pp. 99-100.