September 24, 2022

Empirical Theology in the Orthodox Monasteries of Mount Athos According to Saint Silouan the Athonite

 By Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov

In 1932 a Roman Catholic doctor of theology, Father Chr. B., came on a visit [to Mount Athos at the Monastery of Saint Panteleimon]. He and Father V. had many a discussion about life on the Holy Mountain, and one day he asked,

"What books do your monks read?"

"St. John Climacus, St. Abba Dorotheos, Theodore the Studite, St. John Cassian, Ephraim the Syrian, Barsanuphius and John, Makarios the Great, Isaac the Syrian, Simeon the New Theologian, Nicetas Stethatos, Gregory of Sinai, Gregory Palamas, Maximus the Confessor, Hesychius, Diadochus, Nilus and other Fathers from the Philokalia," replied Father V.

"Your monks read those books! ... With us it's only professors who do," said the doctor in open astonishment.

"They're in constant use among our monks," replied Father V. "They read other works, too - the Holy Fathers, and modern ascetics like Bishop Ignatii Brianchaninov, Bishop Theophan the Recluse, St. Nilus Sorsky, Paissy Velichkovsky, John of Kronstadt, and so on."

When Father V. repeated this discussion to Staretz Silouan - whom he deeply respected - the Staretz remarked,

"You could have told the doctor that our monks not only read these books but could themselves write their like ... Monks do not write because there are masses of fine books which satisfy them. But if these books were somehow or other to disappear, then the monks would write new ones."

During his long life on Mt. Athos the Staretz encountered numerous great ascetics, some of whom had experienced the states described by many grand ascetics such as Isaac the Syrian, Makarios the Great and others, so what the Staretz said seems quite natural.

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I remember a certain Orthodox foreigner who came for a long stay in the Monastery. The Staretz made a profound impression on him. He grew fond of him and often went to see him. The other monks knew of this, and one day, meeting the foreigner in a corridor of the Monastery, Hieromonk N. of the Council of Elders, one of the most influential members of the Community, remarked to the visitor,

"I can't understand how a scholar like you can take pleasure in going to see Father Silouan, an illiterate peasant. Haven't we anybody cleverer than that?"

"It needs a 'scholar' to understand Father Silouan," was the rather pained reply.

Why "educated men" revered and went to see Staretz Silouan remained a mystery to this same Father N., and in conversation with Father Methodios, who ran the Monastery bookshop for many years, he remarked,

"I wonder why they go to him. After all, he reads nothing."

"Reads nothing but fulfills everything, while others read a lot and fulfill nothing," was Father Methodios' comment.

From the book St Silouan the Athonite, pp. 71-74.