September 29, 2015

An Interview With Elder Sophrony About Saint Silouan the Athonite (1 of 4)

Elder Sophrony (standing) with Saint Silouan (sitting)

Elder Sophrony (+ 1993) considered it his greatest blessing from God for having met and come to know Saint Silouan (+ 1938). In the interview below, which was done it seems shortly after the canonization of Saint Silouan, the theologian of the uncreated light, Elder Sophrony, analyzes with unique depth and clarity the central points of the teachings of Saint Silouan.

Elder Sophrony: As one Greek theologian writes, we are accustomed to praying to Saint Silouan as a saint, but this official Act of the Church, of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, now gives us the ability to do this not only with our hearts and in secret, but openly and publicly.

And the church of your monastery is dedicated to St. Silouan?

Elder Sophrony: It is the first one, yes! [he laughs happily]. It is not completed, but the greater part is already done. We are waiting for the Patriarchate to send us a Metropolitan from the Throne to inaugurate it, or even if the Patriarch himself wants to come, because many love Silouan to such an extent, that in his paschal message the Patriarch referred to the words of the Elder: "Keep your mind in Hades, and despair not!" Now he is well known. For if he himself did not respond to a large number of people who prayed to him, then his numbering among the saints would not have been accomplished. Often he presented himself as a mediator and people always were astonished at the speed their prayers were answered.

Do you have an example?

Elder Sophrony: You know we have many, but now I don't know how to record them. We have to ask these people to write us, because if we do it, we may make up stories.

But do you have testimony of the mediation of Saint Silouan?

Elder Sophrony: I am a nothing! Perhaps in the sense that something impossible, such as the establishment of a monastery, became a reality. Is it possible today to establish a monastery? The earth no longer produces monastics! People are not so positively inclined towards this lifestyle. I don't know ... the struggle is very great ... it was difficult ... we barely had anything. We ate potatoes and nettles. And now we're exhausted. This is not a complaint, but this monastery was given to us not without many trials. And the foundation of this monastery is him, Silouan.

And God allowed you to live up to now, to feel the joy of the canonization of your spiritual father!

Elder Sophrony: According to doctors, I should not have lived. For some time now my body should have disintegrated into the earth. You know, the Act of his being numbered among the saints highlights very important points: it speaks of his "apostolic and prophetic teachings" and it gives the command "in the Holy Spirit" to ascribe to him this sacred honor, or in the exact expression, "we exhort in the Holy Spirit."

To commemorate him every year?

Elder Sophrony: Yes, they use this expression in the official Act. It is a very important expression. Father Maxime Gimenez, from Chevetogne, wrote in the Irenikon that the words Christ gave Silouan benefited many people in a positive and salvific way. He notes this in his review of my book We Shall See Him As He Is. Are you scandalized or not?

By this title? No!

Elder Sophrony: This title was given by Fr. Symeon, not me. But the issue is that we all have this desire, like Moses, to see God as He is! It is perfectly natural, and in this book I express the view that we cannot succeed in this unless we live in accord with the commandments, because the commandments of Christ cannot be different from the essence of God Himself. Do you understand? For example, in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the Evangelist writes: "You have heard that it was said... I say unto you...." "You have heard that it was said, love your neighbor and hate your enemies. I say unto you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." And further, "Bless those who curse you," etc. "Be perfect, as your Father Who is in the heavens is perfect."

How is this possible?

Elder Sophrony: If it was not possible, it would not be presented in Holy Scripture. But at this point it is good to understand theologically, what is the difference between deified human beings and God Himself. It is important! Through deification, man, the human person, the human being, receives the content of the life of God, but through grace and not by creating it. What does "creating it" mean? We say in the Symbol of Faith, "Creator of heaven and earth," nevertheless we remain creatures. We cannot be God because we are not "creators"...

But gods by grace!

Elder Sophrony: According to grace! That is, we can communicate with divine life and it is given through grace, although we remain created beings. We do not become creators of this world. We partake of divine life by grace and even to similarity, but we do not create it. Saint Silouan left us very rich theological material. There are issues in the theology of Silouan that nobody has recorded in the past in the same way.

For example?

Elder Sophrony: He says that there are two forms of humility: one is ascetic humility through repentance ("I am the worst of all"), and the other is the divine Humility of Christ. That is, he describes the nature of God which cannot be described. I have never encountered this distinction between ascetic humility and the humility ascribed to God as part of His character. Another example: No one can love all of creation and pray for all of creation, unless it is done in the Holy Spirit. And to pray for one's enemies is a characteristic of those who are carriers of the Holy Spirit. For this reason he says that those who do not love their enemies do not yet know God as we should know Him. Observe this point. Why does he express it like this? There is nothing similar to it in any patristic text.

It is certain that Saint Silouan was a saint who is registered in the chorus, in the tradition of the great spiritual Orthodox fathers, but he lived and expressed what he experienced in a completely original way. Moreover he writes about this extremely deeply with very simple words. What you say on this issue is very important and very enlightening.

Elder Sophrony: What is remarkable is that he speaks about this in a completely natural way. From where does this come? From the appearance of Christ in the beginning of his life! In the beginning of his monastic life, when after a trial he saw his eternal loss, for an hour. He went to the church and offered these words: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!" And Christ appeared to him as if He was among the Living. Well! I never doubted in my mind the truth of this appearance of Christ to Silouan. Why? Because he was a simple man - a soldier - right? Immediately after he completed his military service, he went to the Holy Mountain, and saw this! But where is the proof that this is true? In that he began to pray for the entire world with his entire being! If this man, who was so simple, began to pray in this way, what does this mean? What is the evidence that he was truly praying? By his tears, with his entire being, he would pray for the salvation of the world.

This love, this compassion for the world, can it be a certification of the appearance of the Living Christ?

Elder Sophrony: It means that Christ truly appeared to him and that he recognized Him in the Holy Spirit, as he himself describes, that the Spirit was within his entire being: in his spirit, in his nous, in his intellect, in his heart, in his body. Why afterwards did he pray, "Lord, may the whole world know you through the Holy Spirit?" From where did this prayer come from? It was the result, the fruit, of this appearance. It was a moment so powerful, as he writes, that if it was extended he would not have remained alive. But the fire of the Holy Spirit filled him most fully. Hence his ideas about the humility of Christ, his prayers for the entire world, were the consequence of this authentic appearance of Christ before him. We can judge this by the result.

I also want to say that it is an exceptional case that he spoke of these things like an apostolic theologian, like Saint John the Theologian spoke. Theology was the state of his being. Not academic knowledge. However, if you carefully read the book Saint Silouan the Athonite, you will see that it is a theological book with very simple expressions. I never had any doubt that he saw Christ in the Holy Spirit, in His Divinity, because he says, when such a light appears, we cannot acknowledge Him but as God. Like the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.

I am telling you this, to draw your attention on a few essential points, of very deep importance, of a theology that is truly evangelical, just as Saint John the Theologian writes in completely simple words. It is that which I call: theology as prayer, or as the content of prayer and as the condition of our heart. The most obvious example of this theology are the epistles of John the Theologian. Theology as prayer is the Anaphora of the Liturgy, especially of Basil the Great, a very brief anaphora with a comprehensive form, and it is nothing but theology, but we present it as a prayer. Prayer takes this form, theology takes this form.

Translated by John Sanidopoulos.