In this post have decided to make a diversion from the letters of St. Amvrossy of Optina. Today is the 25th anniversary of the repose of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) the founder of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England. He is well known as the author of the life of his elder, St. Silouan the Athonite. There are half a dozen or so other books of his that have been translated into English. I’ve had the blessing of staying 18 days at his monastery in 1983 and I believe he was similar in character to St. Amvrossy whose letters I am now interrupting. St. Amvrossy had a lively character and was a big talker as he himself stated. In his biography by John Dunlop he is spoken of as having a gift of love. In my small experience of Fr. Sophrony I must say that I believe this description could fit him. If this is inaccurate and offends either Fr. Sophrony or his community I beg forgiveness. Now I will go on to reminisce .
It was at the evening meal on my first day at the monastery that I first set eyes upon Fr. Sophrony. At that time there was a hieromonk visiting from Greece, Fr. Paul, who was a disciple of Fr. Sophrony during the period he lived as a hermit on the Holy Mountain. At the conclusion of the meal Fr. Paul was telling stories of those days, there was a good deal of joking and all were laughing. There was one thing unique and exceptional about Fr. Sophrony. You could visibly see with your eyes that he remained in a state of peace even while he laughed.
During the meals there was reading as is normal in monasteries and occasionally Fr. Sophrony would interrupt the reading and make comments. A book was being read which commented on “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. In a quote it spoke of a monk who “shone in obedience”. When Fr. Sophrony heard these words he stopped the reading and took it to mean that the obedient man would shine with the uncreated Light. The reader told him that in English this could mean “excel” and not literally “to shine”. He had one of the monks look up the passage in Greek and it was “excel”. Nevertheless, Fr. Sophrony went on to extol the virtue of obedience and he insisted that the obedient man will shine with the uncreated Light.
At another time he commented on psychology. I do not remember details but he spoke of Freud having some misconceptions. He went on to state: “Psychology is not profitable for those in the Church. A spiritual father helps those who come to him because he has gone through similar struggles and has learned from what he has suffered.”
I did have the opportunity to speak with him and beforehand the abbot, Fr. Kyril, read to him a letter I had written. Fr. Sophrony began by asking, “Where did you study psychology?” I said I had one semester in college. I had a number of questions along the lines of the ways in which the demonic powers tempt us. I had quotes from some fathers who appeared to contradict each other. He commented saying that various fathers write out of their own experience which although similar are not exactly the same. He pointed out: “You are too concerned with analyzing and although some fathers have done this and even become saints it was not the way for St. Silouan and not the way for us. The way for me is straight ahead.” I will illustrate this in other words of my own. If we make a habit of analyzing every temptation that comes our way. Where did it come from and why? How do I combat this one in particular? etc… I can wind up mentally exhausting and dispersing my mind. However, if I forget it, look straight ahead towards Christ and pray, especially the Jesus Prayer, I escape the temptation and move closer towards a state of remembrance of God.
A few more fragments of what I remember, he said: “Strive for tears for when there are tears the mind and the heart are united. I am a person, you are a person, he is a person (he was speaking of the abbot who was also present), the way for no two people is exactly the same. Strive to find the way for you.”
I questioning what he meant by “living the liturgy” which he mentions in his writings I said, “Do you mean sacrifice.” He replied, “The Orthodox Liturgy is much more grandeur than sacrifice.” As he put his right hand on his forehead and then stretched it our full length he continued, “Think of the prophets…”. I do not recall a word for word quote but what he said reminded me of the Anaphora in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. It was a short history of salvation which is the deification of man and our lives should be lived as a consequence of this. He seemed to be enraptured at the thought of what God has done for us.
One of the last things he said was, “Seek humility the Holy Spirit loves the humble soul.” As he said this he stretched out both arms straight ahead across the desk where he sat, pointed his gaze a little above me and gently shut his eyes. He obviously knew what he was speaking of from experience and he words, of course, made a deep impression on me.
Now a few things which occurred while I was there:
A few days after my arrival I was helping with some work walking around the church with a wheel barrel. Fr. Sophrony was walking towards me accompanied by one of the sisters. Suddenly he stopped stared at me, put his right hand over his heart, smile and slightly bowed his head. There was such love in his expression as I had never before seen coupled with joy. I felt like I saw a living icon of the father who runs out to see the lost son as we read of in the Gospel. Simultaneously a peace flowed from him that entered into the depths of my heart.
In coming to the meals Fr. Sophrony was accompanied by one young novice. He would enter the dining hall and walk around the tables set up in the shape of a horseshoe. There were several occasions while doing this he put his right hand over his heart and smiled. Everyone was in a state of awe, the whole room was filled with absolute silence and stillness, he had an expression of love which was even greater than what was mentioned above. He seemed to be sick with love. The atmosphere around him changed, he appeared to be enveloped in some force, some power.
May God grant rest to the soul of his ever-memorable servant Archimandrite Sophrony.