October 5, 2015

An Interview With Elder Sophrony About Saint Silouan the Athonite (3 of 4)

Would you like to speak to us about your relationship with Saint Silouan? When and how did it begin?

Elder Sophrony: I had regular contact with him for about eight years, until his death in 1938. Before, I always nurtured respect for him, but I never approached him. Our first true meeting took place on Pascha in 1931. On the second day of Pascha I received into my small cell in the Monastery the monk Vladimir, an educated man, an engineer, who lived in the wilderness. Our conversation was quite merry and this is what he told me: "Fr. Sophrony, tell me, how can someone be saved?" At that moment I had brought hot water into my cell and I offered him tea as if I was serving an ambassador, and I told him: "Hold on to the brink of despair, and when it passes, and you have no more strength, retire and have a cup of tea." I said this without really understanding it. But when he left me he went to visit Elder Silouan. I don't know what they said. The next day, the third day of Pascha, an incident occurred that was the beginning of my relationship with the Elder. I descended from the large building to the courtyard of the Monastery when the Elder entered the door. I always had a feeling of reverence for him, and out of deep respect for him I made room for him to pass, but he came directly to me and said:

"Did Fr. Vladimir perhaps come to see you yesterday?"

"Did I do something wrong?"

"No, but that is not at his level. Come and we will talk about it."

Why did I say this to Fr. Vladimir? I lived in the Monastery, immersed in despair about the world, after the war. I had left France (in 1925) with the feeling that all of France was immersed in a deep despair. What was this deep despair? People can no longer believe in the Resurrection. Therefore they doubt even themselves, for their survival, for their useless struggle. And this tortured me. I had given up art to become a monk on Mount Athos, but I was experiencing this form of despair. I spoke these words to Fr. Vladimir, because this desperation had just subsided within me, and my prayer was losing its intensity. As soon as I calmed, I did not experience this calmness as a happy life, but as death. Once this despair ceased within me, I lost the sense of the existence of the eternal Being. I could not get out of this paradox. This is why I said to Fr. Vladimir: "Hold on to the brink of despair." It was my way of expressing it, but I did not understand the meaning. And my Elder explained it to me in the hope I would understand it. He found a certain analogy - not a similarity, but an analogy - with "Keep your mind in Hades and despair not." After that I visited him quite often and, depending on how much our obediences allowed us, our discussions were sometimes protracted. As I am not a writer and do not want to write stories, I have written down only what I remember with certainty.

Can these words, "Keep your mind in Hades and despair not," be applied by all people?

Elder Sophrony: For those who do not have experience in the ascetic life, it's a long shot! A long shot! Having not lived deep in Hades many times, they cannot put this formula into practice, "Keep your mind in Hades," because they have not experienced it! The Hades of Silouan was infinitely more profound than the one we somehow imagine in our time! When he wrote, "eternal loss was a reality," he lived one hour of his life in Hades. Then he was rewarded with the experience of the vision of Christ. And then he began to pray for the entire world as for himself. But we cannot follow his example like this, for each of us to imitate him, except through asceticism. The ascetic world knows no higher authority than that given to Silouan by Christ. Arriving at this point we reach two extremes: the Kingdom and Hades. But Hades no longer has dominion over a person, to have authority over them. God is omnipresent, without being divided. However, this is not possible for people who have no experience of the suffering of Hades. They can reach a similar state, but not completely identical.

What does the phrase mean: "To pray for the whole world is to spill your blood?"

Elder Sophrony: It is the heart that suffers, it is not in the words. The secret is there: Wherever the heart is, there is joy and light; then the nous unites with the heart, but the heart is full of pain, as if blood is coming out of the heart. This is what I have come to understand: When we pray like this for the whole of humanity, this is a sign that a human person, a personality, has been given the grace to experience the following: They can bring within themselves both God and all of humanity. Both God and all of humanity is the content of the life of that person. To live in a Christian manner is to broaden the content of your life in an unprecedented way!

Translated by John Sanidopoulos.