A hymn to the Mother of God
O exceeding great wonder! A Virgin giveth birth, and He that is born is God, Who was before the ages. The birth is extraordinary, and that which is accomplished surpasseth nature. O fearful mystery! Though perceived, it remaineth ineffable, and though seen, it is not comprehended. Blessed art thou, O immaculate Maiden, daughter of Adam, who art seen to be Mother of Good the Most High. Do thou entreat Him that our souls be saved. (The Dogmatic of Small Vespers in Tone 3—The Pentecostarion, p. 155, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachusetts, 1990)
St. Silouan the Athonite
On the 24th of this month we commemorate St. Silouan the Athonite; therefore, this post will center around his life experience and writings, reflecting on what he offered to us. Once in a talk Archimandrite Zachariah—a monk of the monastery founded by St. Silouan’s biographer, Archimandrite Sophrony—said that a saint is a sign to the people of his generation. St. Silouan reposed 74 years ago in 1938, his writings were first published in the Russian language in France in the mid 1950’s, and have since been translated and published in many languages. So then, what does St. Silouan have to offer to us? What is it of the teachings of Christ and the Church that he especially brings to our attention?
I bring to mind three extraordinary experiences in his life which have something vital for us. One is the revelation of the love of God which coincided, as an interior experience, along with his vision of Christ while still a novice. Secondly are the words our Lord spoke to him while he was at prayer with a desperate struggle against intrusive thoughts and a demonic appearance. Lastly is the experience of the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking within him, and bearing witness to the purity of the Mother of God. It is this latter that I would like to speak of first.
I believe that our Lord, in His foreknowledge and providential care for us, in the twentieth century choose to use St. Silouan to give us an undeniable proof of the sinlessness of His all-pure Mother. St. Silouan gives evidence of this as he writes:
In church I was listening to a reading from the Prophet Isaiah, and at the words, “Wash you make you clean,” I reflected, “Maybe the Mother of God sinned at one time or another, if only in thought.” And, marvelous to relate, in unison with my prayer a voice sounded in my heart, saying clearly, “The Mother of God never sinned even in thought.” Thus did the Holy Spirit bear witness in my heart to her purity. (St. Silouan the Athonite, Archimandrite Sophrony, pp. 391-2)
It is sad to admit that in the Orthodox Church, in the past century and carrying over to our day, some have expressed doubt and questioned the sinlessness of the Theotokos. I choose not to argue this point but simply repeat: “Our Lord, in His foreknowledge and providential care for us, in the twentieth century choose to use St. Silouan to give us an undeniable proof of the sinlessness of His all-pure Mother”. The Holy Spirit Himself, through St. Silouan, bears witness to this. So then, if anyone would argue the point, I advise such as follows: Go to your icon corner, call upon the Holy Spirit and argue with Him; for It is He Who has borne witness.
By continuing I will now speak of the second experience of St. Silouan mentioned above in which our Lord spoke to him. It was 15 years after the Lord had appeared to him while still a novice that he was struggling to pray with a pure mind and—as Archimandrite Sophrony relates: “At last he rose up from his stool , intending to bow down and worship, when he saw a gigantic devil standing in front of the ikon, waiting to be worshipped. Meanwhile, the cell filled with other evil spirits.” (ibid. p.42)
St. Silouan prayed,
‘Lord, Thou seest that I desire to pray to Thee with a pure mind but the devils will not let me. Instruct me, what must I do to stop them hindering me?
And in his soul he heard,
‘The proud always suffer from devils.’
‘Lord,’ said Silouan, ‘teach me what I must do that my soul may become humble.’
Once more he heard in his heart God’s answer,
‘Keep thy mind in hell and despair not.’ (Ibid).
Concerning this brief exchange, St. Silouan’s biographer, Archimandrite Sophrony comments:
What was the essence of God’s prescription to Father Silouan?
It was not an abstract intellectual disclosure but an intimation which existentially revealed to his soul that the root of all sin, the seed of death is pride: that God is humility, and therefore the man who would ‘put on’ (cf. Rom.13:14; Gal. 3:27) God must learn to be humble. (ibid. 43)
This prescription of our Lord to St. Silouan of a method for the acquisition of humility is not for everyone. Archimandrite Sophrony writes that only few can follow such a path as it would lead many to despair; but to acquire humility is indispensable for all. So let us consider various ways of acquiring humility.
While once speaking of the path of St. Silouan leading many to despair Archimandrite Zachariah offered another way of acquiring humility. He simply said, “To thank God for all the blessings He gives us and consider oneself unworthy”.
St. Silouan writes: “There are many kinds of humility. One man is obedient, and has nothing but blame for himself; and this is humility. Another repents of his sins and considers himself loathsome in the sight of God—and that is humility”. (Ibid. p.310)
When he was questioned about humility the contemporary Elder Elias of Optina advised: “Be well acquainted with your sins and weaknesses”.
Again, so as not to be led to despair by such practices the Elder Ephraim of St. Anthony’s said, “One must realize that their sins are a thing of the past which God is leading them out of”.
All the above could be said to be an ascetic or human humility for it is founded primarily on the ascetic’s efforts. But there is another humility that St. Silouan and Archimandrite Sophrony have written of which is a divine humility. The latter actually wanted his spiritual children to write or speak about the subject of ascetic and divine humility.
Concerning this Archmandrite Sophrony instructs us:
There are two kinds of humility: human and divine. The first finds expression in the ascetic’s conviction, ‘I am worse than all other men,’ and lies at the root of our prayer-life in the Name of Christ. Without this humility the second kind, that of Christ and proper to God, will remain forever out of reach. Of this divine humility Staretz Silouan writes:
‘The Lord taught me to stay my mind in hell and not despair. And thus my soul humbles herself; but this is not yet true humility, which there are no words to describe. When the soul approaches the Lord she is afraid; but when she sees the Lord the beauty of His glory fills her with ineffable joy, and in the love of God and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit the earth is quite forgot. This is the paradise of the Lord: all will live in love and there Christ-like humility will make every man happy to see others in greater glory. The humility of Christ dwells in the lowly ones: they are glad to be the least of men. The Lord gave me understanding of this.’ (His Life is Mine, Archimandrite Sophrony, p. 126)
I would like to add a few more words of St. Silouan to this which follow immediately after the above quote of his on humility: “But there is still another humility in the man who has known the Lord in the Holy Spirit. He who has known the Lord in the Holy Spirit has a different understanding and a different perception.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 310)
In order to share one final word on this subject I would like to quote Archimandrite Zachariah. When he was asked, “What is divine humility?” He answered, “To have the imprint of Christ in one’s heart and to see how far away one is from it.”
Finally we will speak about the revelation of the love of God which coincided with St. Silouan’s vision of Christ. At a time while he was in a despairing state of soul he was granted a vision of our Lord as his biographer relates:
The same day, during Vespers in the Church of the holy prophet Elijah (adjoining the mill), to the right of the Royal Doors, by the ikon of the Saviour, he beheld the living Christ.
In a manner passing all understanding the Lord appeared to the young novice whose whole being was filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit—that fire which the Lord brought down to earth with his coming. (Ibid. p. 26)
Later on in life St. Silouan thus writes of this experience:
I brought nothing but sins with me to the Monastery, and I do not know why, when I was still a young novice, the Lord gave me the grace of the Holy Spirit in such abundance that in soul and body, I was filled with this grace, like unto the grace of the Martyrs, and my body longed to suffer for Christ. (ibid. p. 320)
Without a similar experience it is impossible for us to understand what he is speaking of. It is evident, however, that he had an extraordinary, supernatural experience of grace which taught him love for God to the degree that even with his body he longed to suffer for Christ—this again implies an extreme love. Yet this experience did not only stop at love for God but also poured over into love for others as St. Silouan writes elsewhere: “The Lord bestowed the Holy Spirit on the Saints, and in the Holy Spirit they love us. The souls of the Saints know the Lord and His goodness toward man, wherefore their spirits burn with love for the peoples”. (Ibid. p. 395-6)
St. John the Theologian writes: “God is love”. (IJohn 4;16) And so, St. Silouan (by virtue of participation in the Uncreated Divine Energy of God) experienced the love of God for the creation—especially man who was created in the image of God.
While yet a novice St. Silouan had this extraordinary experience of grace. Yet there was still a long process for him to assimilate this so that it would be rooted within and integrated into his being. In proportion to the degree that one repents and the passions are lulled one can assimilate the grace entrusted to them in a spiritual experience such as St. Silouan had. Archimandrite Sophrony writes of this course of action as follows:
The history of the Church together with personal contact with many ascetics has led me to the conclusion that the experience of grace in those who have been granted visitations and visions is only assimilated deeply after years of ascetic endeavour; grace then taking the form of spiritual knowledge that I should prefer to define as “dogmatic consciousness” (but not in the academic sense of the term).
The historical experience of the Church, in which I include the Apostles and the holy Fathers both ancient and modern, makes it possible to calculate this period of assimilation as lasting at least fifteen years. Thus St. Paul’s first epistle (to the Thessalonians) was written some fifteen years after the Lord had appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Often the period lasts twenty, twenty-five, even thirty or more years. The Evangelists and other Apostles wrote their testimonies and epistles long after the Lord’s Ascension. Most of the holy Fathers acquainted the world with their visions and experiences only when their ascetic course was nearing its close. More than thirty years elapsed before the Staretz [Staretz is the Russian for Elder and refers to St. Silouan] set down in writing, with final and mature dogmatic consciousness, his own experience. The assimilation of grace is a lengthy process.
The dogmatic consciousness I have here in mind is the fruit of spiritual experience, independent of the logical brain’s activity. The writings in which the Saints reported their experience were not cast in the form of scholastic dissertations. They were revelations of the soul. Discourse on God and life in God comes about simply, without cogitation, born spontaneously in the soul. (Ibid. pp.185-6)
This is the experience and the process that St. Silouan underwent. As a result of this—as Archimandrite Sophrony writes—he,
Interpreted both the incarnation of God-the-Word and Christ’s whole earthly life as love towards the whole world, though the whole world is totally hostile towards God. Similarly, he knew the Holy Spirit in the love which with its advent drives away all hatred, like light cancelling darkness; in the love which likens man to Christ in the inmost impulses of his soul. And this, according to the Staretz’ teaching is true faith. (ibid. p. 225)
Through the Prayers of St. Silouan may our Lord Jesus Christ grant us to taste and assimilate this grace. Amen.