What can we learn from Archimandrite Sophrony?
In my last post I wrote of personal reminisces of Fr. Sophrony, so it seems natural to say something about what I have learned from him and his spiritual children. I will primarily refer to writings of Fr. Sophrony and his spiritual son Fr. Zachariah. I want to make it clear that I am only expressing one facet of the legacy he has passed on. Now I will repeat the title: What can we learn from Archimandrite Sophrony? I believe the answer can be expressed with a brief question which may appear very simple, yet is quite intricate and delicate: Who is Christ? Since most of what follows will be quotes from the above mentioned fathers, I will be bold and say that I believe my answer will be in unity with their thought.
Let us start with another related question: “What does Christ come to be for an Orthodox ascetic?” When the Orthodox ascetic speaks about who Christ is, He is not expressing an individual opinion, but something that is in harmony with the mind of the Church. This is because he is expressing Tradition. For an ascetic, Tradition is not merely concepts that are handed down. Tradition is also lived. So then, what is expressed is something that is not merely studied intellectually, but is also put into practice by one who struggles to live the Orthodox ascetic life.
St. John the Theologian answers our aforementioned question with these few words: Christ “is the propitiation for our sins”. (cf. I John 2:2). This is experienced in the life of one who repents in an Orthodox manner. And since it is the monastic life that is totally devoted to repentance, I will begin to explain this by referring to the monastic order.
“The aim of a monastic is to become like Christ, so that he may become an intercessor for the world.” These words of instruction were related to me by a monk at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, when I first entered upon the monastic life. But the monastic life is traditionally spoken of as a life of repentance, and a monk often speaks of his monastery as the “monastery of his repentance”. Why then did this father say the above? “To become like Christ” is personal repentance, while to “become an intercessor for the world” is universal repentance.
“Personal repentance” and “universal repentance” are terms I borrowed from Fr. Sophrony. For a brief explanation of these two forms of repentance, I will move on to the writings of Fr. Sophrony:
When an ascetic withdraws from the world, to start with, his attention is concentrated on the first commandment, and on his own personal repentance, thus giving an impression of egoism. Later, when repentance attains a certain degree of fullness, and grace touches his soul, he begins to feel Christ-like love in his soul spilling out on all humanity. Then, though living in the desert, and not seeing the world with his bodily eyes, he sees it in spirit, and then lives in depth the world’s sufferings, for he lives them with a Christian consciousness of the unique character and great eternal worth of every human being. Wherever man may betake himself, whatever desert he may retire to, if he treads the path of real life in God, he will live the tragedy of the world. (Saint Silouan the Athonite, Archimandrite Sophrony, p.227)
Fr. Zachariah, a spiritual son of Fr. Sophrony, writes that,
No one is from the beginning a temple of God and whole, ‘for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23). It is impossible for man to be connected with God the Saviour unless he approaches Him as one ‘having need of a physician’ (cf. Luke 5:31)… Jesus Christ is the only true and righteous Advocate Whom ‘we have with the Father’ (IJohn 2:1), Who alone is able to heal and liberate us from every sin and unrighteousness. (Man the Target of God, Archimandrite Zachariah, p.216)
It is not only forgiveness of acts of sins that we stand in need of, but also ongoing repentance and purification from the effects of sin upon our human nature. In Orthodoxy we see sin not merely as specific acts, but also a disease of the soul. So we are in need of healing and regeneration which takes place through personal repentance. Fr. Zachariah goes on to speak of the healing of the soul and consequent growth in Christ which generates universal repentance, as follows:
The traces of the presence of Christ are impressed on the heart, until they reach a certain fulness, in which the likeness of the Heavenly Man, the New Adam is formed. Thus the image of man, which has been in the mind of God from before the foundation of the world (cf. Eph. 1:4), ‘the express image’ (Heb. 1:3) of our Lord Jesus Christ, is manifested in the heart. The illumination of grace is now at work to enlarge the heart of man to embrace heaven and earth, and as another Adam, to present before God every creature in his prayer of intercession. (ibid. p. 222)
And a few days before his death, Fr. Sophrony, expressed four points in the presence of two of his monks; two are listed here, both of which show another facet of all this, and amplifies it:
The content of the person of Christ is His self-emptying love unto the end, by which He accomplished the salvation of the world.
Man likewise proves himself a person when he acquires love for God to the point of self-hatred, pure prayer which accompanies this, and prayer for the world similar to Christ’s prayer at Gethsemane. (ibid. p. 147)
“Christ’s prayer at Gethsemane”, let me say something about this in the words of Fr. Sophrony:
When, as I have said, a shadow of a likeness to the Gethsemane prayer is granted him, man then transcends the boundaries of his individuality and enters into a new form of being—personal being in the likeness of Christ. By participating in the sufferings of His Divine love, we too, in spirit, can experience a little of His death and of the power of His resurrection. “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death” (in deep prayer for the world and consuming desire for the salvation of all) “we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom.6:5). When it is given to us from on High to enter this new sphere of Being, we arrive at “the ends of the world” (I Cor. 10:11) and pass into the light of Divine Eternity. (His Life is Mine, Archimandrite Sophrony, p. 95)
So then, he who truly repents in an Orthodox sense, will experience this in himself in some degree. For him Christ “is the propitiation for our sins”, He is the One Who through “self-emptying love unto the end, accomplished the salvation of the world”. For him Christ is the One Who, not only through the physical pain in His human nature on the Cross, but also by His prayer of “His Divine love” in Gethsemane, suffered for all mankind. This is Who he sees Christ as, because it is what he sees coming to life in his own heart.
Let’s end with that which Fr. Sophrony continued to say immediately after the above:
And every man on whom God has bestowed the rare and dread privilege of knowing to a minute degree the agony of Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane will stumble on, slowly and painfully, to a cogent awareness of the resurrection of his own soul and a perception of Christ’s undeniable, ineluctable victory. He will know “that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). And his spirit within him will whisper: My Lord and my God…Now, O Christ, by the gift of Thy love which passeth all understanding I, too, have crossed from death into life…