St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life: Part II, His Life

St. Seraphim and the Sea of life: Part II, The Life

A BRIEF NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE AND STRUGGLES OF THE SAROV HERMITAGE ELDER, HIEROMONK SERAPHIM, (1) WITH AN APPENDIX OF HIS INSTRUCTIONS.

In honor of the memory of the deeply revered and unforgettable staretz, who struggled tirelessly for 50 years in the Sarov Hermitage, we adjoin a brief account (2) of this ever-memorable ascetic, Hieromonk Seraphim. He was born in Kursk on the 19th of July in the year 1759. His father, Isidor Moshkin, was a Kursk merchant, and his mother was called Agaphia. At holy baptism he was given the name Prokhor. He was three years old when he lost his father. His father had been a church building contractor, who at the end of his life had commenced the construction of a stone temple in Kursk in honor of St. Sergius of Radonezh. But, as he was overtaken by death, he left the completion of the temple in the care of his wife Agaphia, under whose supervision it was completed in the passage of time.

Once, during the construction of this temple, Agaphia went to the top of the building, taking along her son who was then 7 years old. When she reached the top of the church, the child Prokhor withdrew from his mother, and not being careful, he fell from the height of the structure to the ground. His mother ran down in fear, thinking she would find him already dead. But to her amazement and joy, she found him standing on the ground entirely unharmed. In this, the pious mother recognized a special action of the foreknowledge of God that had preserved the child. And with tears she gave thanks for this to the Lord God.

At the age of 10 the child Prokhor was given over to instruction in grammar, reading and writing. He was diligent and showed a keen mind. A burning desire was kindled in Prokhor to devote himself to the struggles of the monastic life. Thus, in the 18th year from his birth, having obtained an official discharge, (3) he left his home, possessions, and mother, and set out on his way. Before choosing a monastery for himself, he went to Kiev in order to venerate the relics of the God-pleasers. Upon entering the holy Pechersk Lavra he fell to the ground with tears before the sacred miraculous icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Likewise with fervent prayer, he prostrated himself at the shrines of Saint Anthony, Saint Theodosius, and the remainder of the God-pleasers who rest there. He begged them to please guide him on the way to salvation and to point out the place where he should conduct his monastic life. As he prepared to fast, (4) Prokhor partook of the holy, Divine Mysteries of Christ.

Upon learning that not far from the Lavra, in the Kitaevski Monastery, there was a Recluse named Dositheus, leading a God-pleasing life, who had the gift of insight, he immediately hastened there. Having been given access to the blessed recluse, he fell at the feet of the elder-ascetic and kissed them. Prokhor revealed to him his burning desire for the monastic life and begged a blessing. The discerning elder perceiving in him the grace of God, extolled his intention, blessed him, and indicated the place for him to reside – the Sarov Hermitage. He said to him, “Child of God, go and abide there! This place will be your salvation.” The young Prokhor was consoled by this counsel. His soul burned with heavenly rapture before beginning the monastic life. Upon receiving the blessing of the Elder Dositheus he left the Lavra. Having placed all his hope on the saving will of God and on the protection of the Mother of God, he safely reached the God-preserved Sarov Hermitage, as if God Himself had designated for him to pursue the monastic life.

In the year 1778, with the help of God, he arrived at this Habitation. He entered its gates with joy, as though the finger of God had pointed it out to him. The elder-abbot, Pachomius, received him there with love and enrolled him among the novices. He passed through diverse obediences, and he would arrive earlier than all at the church services. In the year 1786, on August 13th, the Abbot Pachomius tonsured him into monasticism; he was given the name Seraphim.

Having received this new, Angelic name, he turned his eyes away so as not to look upon anything vain. Through love, with a most ardent flame of zeal he began to concern himself with drawing nearer to the Lord Whose name was unceasingly in his heart and upon his lips. In December of the year 1786 he was ordained hierodeacon by the Right Reverend Victor, Bishop of Vladimir and Murom. Having received this order, as a servant of the altar he carefully pursued perfect purity in soul and body by increasing his zeal and earnestness for the Lord God and His Holy Church. Thus he continued to serve at Liturgy daily for five years, communing of the Holy Mysteries every day. Being fortified by this sanctification, he strained every nerve to contend in further struggles. He exercised himself in contemplation of God, unceasing glorification of God, and reading Divine books. Thereby having his mind cleansed of passions, he repeatedly was deemed worthy of spiritual visions. (5) His whole life was consecrated to prayer for the salvation of his neighbor. On September 2nd of the year 1793, under Abbot Pachomius, the Right Reverend Theophile, Bishop of Tambov and Penzen, ordained him a hieromonk. Receiving this increase of the grace of the Holy Spirit with yet greater love and burning faith, he set himself to struggle for the sake of the Lord God, making an ascent to Him in his heart.

Since he had had an inclination for the solitary life and a love of perfect stillness from the time of his entrance into the monastery, his longing was to devote himself entirely to the anchoretic life. Therefore he began to ask the Superior, Hieromonk Isaiah, to bless him for the desert life and solitude, in imitation of the hermits of old. (6) Once he received the blessing from the Superior, in the year 1794, with unutterable zeal and joy he withdrew to a desert cell. It was located about 5 versts (7) from the monastery, in the forest near the River Sarov, on a hill. Upon entering the eremitical life, his bodily exercises consisted of the cultivation of beds for planting potatoes and other vegetables, and in the preparation of firewood to warm his cell. He saturated his soul with the reading of the Holy Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments, and the works of John Climacus, Ephraim the Syrian, and Isaac the Syrian, and the Philokalia. His rule in the wilderness was such that every day he would read several sections from the Gospel and Apostle. (8) He did not neglect to serve by himself any of the services, except the Divine Liturgy, according to the Church rubrics, (9) without any altering. In addition to this, he said prayers and read the Psalter in strict accordance with the rule bequeathed by an angel to Pachomius the Great. His sleep was very brief. The brethren would often find him deep in the thought of God. He would meet them with merely one bow, preserving strict stillness.

Father Seraphim always came to the monastery on the eves of Sundays and Feast Days. Here he attended Vespers and the All-night Vigil, and communed of the Holy Mysteries at the early Liturgy. After Liturgy, until Vespers, he received in his monastery cell the brethren who came to him for the profit of their souls. He gave profitable counsel
to the elders, but to the younger ones he gave fatherly instruction. At the time of Vespers he took bread for the week and returned to his hermitage cell. He had the custom to always come to the Cloister for the first week of the Holy Great Fast. For the whole week until Saturday he would taste nothing; he did not ask that food should be brought to him.

While living in the desert he was gripped by such a love for self-restraint that he asked the Superior for a blessing to be nourished only with the potatoes and the other vegetables that he cultivated near his cell. Since then he fed himself for three years with only potatoes, vegetables, and herbs. Certain brothers of the Cloister wanted to live together with him, but being unable to bear the burden of the desert life and his great labors, they returned again to the Monastery. During his desert life, to those brethren from the monastery who came to visit him and receive profitable counsels from him, he gave instruction in conformity to the needs of each. But at other times, desiring to preserve stillness, he withdrew from those who came.

The enemy from time immemorial, the devil, could not bear to see the valiant labors of the elder and made various temptations for him – by day, and especially at night, during the hours he stood for prayer. It would visibly appear to him that the four sides of his cell would completely fall apart, and wild beasts with a fearful roar would approach him from all sides. At times an open coffin would appear before him with the dead rising from it. At other times the enemy so terribly attacked him that he would lift him up in the air and so powerfully throw him to the ground that if it were not for the help of God his bones would have been broken from these blows. He always defeated such temptations and onslaughts of the enemy through the power and sign of the precious and Life-creating Cross of the Lord. Finally, through the help of God, he utterly prevailed, so that in his stillness he was at peace. Therefore, to those who asked his advice on passing through the desert life he would say that the one living in the desert must be as though crucified on the cross. He said that those living in the monastery oppose adversarial forces as if they were pigeons, but in the desert as if lions and leopards. He blessed no one to be secluded in the desert alone, but he recommended to some to depart to the desert struggles with two or three like-minded brothers. Thus they would be able to strengthen one another with counsels, and mutually comfort themselves through saving conversation.

In how many ways did the devil not strive to hinder this valiant ascetic in his course and to drive him away from his life of solitude! Nevertheless, all of the devil’s efforts remained in vain; by using such temptations he was not able to succeed at all. On the contrary, being himself vanquished by the hermit, the devil departed in shame. When the devil himself was not able to cause damage to the steadfast hermit in any way, he used against him the instrument of evil people. In the year 1804, three neighboring peasants came to the elder. He was in the forest chopping firewood. They came near to him and demanded money, saying that the people who come to him bring money. He answered them, “I do not take anything from anyone.” But not believing his words, they set out to forcibly seize from him what they had asked. At first one of them struck the Elder on the head so hard that blood flowed from his mouth and ears. Then they beat him with fierce blows, each in whatever way he could – one with the butt of an ax, another with a log, and the third kicked with his feet, until they counted him as already dead. After this inhuman deed they searched everywhere in the cell, but finding nothing they departed.

From these vicious blows the Elder was barely able to come to his senses. On the following day, with great effort he came to the Cloister all covered with wounds. He was all bloodstained, his hair was ruffled and mixed with dirt, his hands bruised, his mouth clotted with blood, and a few of his teeth were broken. The brethren, shocked to see him in such a pitiful condition, asked what had happened to him. He asked them to call the Abbot to come, and to him Fr. Seraphim explained everything that had happened. This unfortunate event brought the Abbot as well as the brethren to sadness. While recovering from his wounds Father Seraphim remained in the Cloister, taking advantage of the earnestness of the brethren. The peasants who pummeled him were soon discovered, but the good-natured Elder having forgiven them, begged the Superior that he not at all call them to account. He argued that it would be better to expel him from the monastery rather than to bring upon them any offense. Thus he was propitious, pardoning his enemies who wronged him. But the righteousness of God did not delay to visit and overtake the evildoers. Fire soon destroyed their dwellings, and being brought to their senses by this, on their own they came to Father Seraphim with remorse for the evil they had done, and with tears begged of him forgiveness and prayers.

As he revealed to one of the brethren after some time, he received healing from the blows through the intercession of the Mother of God. With the return of his bodily strength he asked the Superior permission to return to his hermitage cell. The Superior, in accordance with the counsel of the brethren, tried to persuade him to always remain in the monastery, fearing further similar incidents. But he answered that he was not afraid of such attacks. For he had made up his mind to endure every affront, whatsoever might happen, in imitation of the martyrs who suffered for our Lord Jesus Christ. Fearing only the spiritual bandits, he unceasingly held in remembrance the words of the Savior: “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mat. 10:28). The Superior, seeing the firmness of his soul, let him go to pursue his desire and he returned to his desert cell.
(to be continued)

1. This text was published in 1884, nineteen years before the canonization of St. Seraphim.
2. This text is the final section of a book entitled The Community of the Sarov Hermitage and the Memorable Monks that Struggled Therein.
3. This was a governmental exemption from all social responsibilities to the country, which was a prerequisite for one pursuing the monastic life.
4. There are two words in Russian which can be translated “fast.” One is “post,” the other is “govet”; it is the latter which is used in this case. “Post” is restricted to temperance or abstinence in food, whereas “govet” includes the whole of the preparation for Holy Communion. In its original usage, govet implied one would be withdrawing to a monastery for a time of retreat for the purpose of preparation for the Sacrament.
5. This does not necessarily mean that the saint was actually seeing something with his physical eyes. The Russian word here for “visions” is “videnii,” which is equivalent to the Greek, “theoria.” Concerning “theoria” a prominent Athonite elder of the 20th century, Joseph the Heyschast, has written: “This does not mean seeing lights, phantasies, and images, but it means clarity of the nous [mind] , clearness of thoughts, and depth of cognition” (Monastic Wisdom, The Letters of Joseph the Hesychast, [Florence, Arizona: St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, 1998], pg.45).
6. This was after the death of Abbot Pachomius, a mentor whom St. Seraphim had greatly respected and loved.
7. This is a unit of measure equal to 3500 feet.
8. These are daily readings from the Gospels and Acts or Epistles as set by the Orthodox Church.
9. Rubrics are sets of rules established to promote good order in church institutions.

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life

There is a hymn of the Orthodox Church which begins: “Beholding the sea of life surging with the storm of temptations, I run to Thy calm haven”. This hymn has perhaps been quite applicable to mankind throughout the history of the Church; however, today it seems more applicable than ever. As a priest-monk, lately, all I seem to be hearing from people is turbulence, whether it is in their personal lives, or the world at large, or even in the Orthodox Church itself. St. Seraphim of Sarov (who was commemorated earlier this month, January 2nd /15th Old Calendar) is a prime example among the saints of one who ran to the calm haven of rest in God. How did he find this “rest in God”?

About fifteen years ago I helped to translate a brief life of the saint and a collection of his instructions on the spiritual life. These comprised one section of a book of a collection of the lives and teachings of Elders of the Sarov Monastery. In stumbling through the Russian original I believed I had chanced upon something of great value. It appeared to clearly emphasize the prime ascetic tools employed by St. Seraphim and which, in turn, brought him abundant grace of the Holy Spirit: separation from the world, prayer, silence, heedfulness to oneself, stillness, and – in short – interior work. This is how he found “rest in God”. I spoke to resident bishop about the book, and he gave his blessing for the translation. It was published at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in a small pamphlet entitled, In the Footsteps of a Saint. It is now out of print and, being the copyright holder, I will, over the next few months, be serializing the publication here. We will follow the order of the pamphlet beginning with the Introduction, then the Life, and conclude with the Instructions. Through the prayers of St. Seraphim may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us.

INTRODUCTION

Our venerable father, St. Seraphim of Sarov, is probably the most beloved saint in the Russian Church, and one of the most widely known and loved in the Orthodox world. Why is this so? What qualities did he possess that have made him so prominent? More precisely, what made St. Seraphim a saint? What was his way? These are some of the questions we hope to address in this introduction. We will start by asking some more questions: What is a saint? What did a saint offer to those who lived in his time and knew him personally? Even more, what does a saint transmit to those who come after him – those who partake of the legacy of his life and teachings? A saint is a divine revelation; a saint is a manifestation of divinity. In a saint we have something of an encounter with God. Yet how can this be? It is because, by virtue of the Incarnation, God has made our human nature a vessel of his divinity, we have the ability “of experiencing the energies of divine influences organically.” (1) In his epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul writes of our Lord Jesus Christ: “For it pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell” (Col. 1:19). (2) Again, a little further on in the same epistle, he says more explicitly: “For in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9).

In the person of our Lord Jesus Christ the fullness of the divine nature dwelt in the earthen vessel of our humanity. He has united our feeble, created human nature to His omnipotent, uncreated Divine nature – a union of the two natures in the one Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because we possess the same human nature that the Son of God assimilated and deified, a similar union takes places in us; it is that our human nature has been given, as a gift of grace, the capability to participate in the Divine nature (II Pet. 1:4). It is in this process of deification that man has been given the possibility “of experiencing the energies of divine influences organically.” A saint, then, is one who develops this capacity of human nature to its utmost, becoming a pure vessel of Divine grace. The Holy Spirit dwells abundantly in him, and being thus inwardly united with God, the saint lives by the Spirit of God. He thinks, speaks, and acts in conformity and unity with the Holy Spirit of God that dwells within him. His being exists in synergy with God; “in the whole of their being they bear – dwelling and abiding within them – the God in Whom they believe.” (3) Therefore as stated above, a saint is a divine revelation, a saint is a manifestation of divinity.

This is all a gift of God that becomes accessible to all of us beginning with the sacrament of Baptism. This grace that we receive at our Baptism continues to abide in us, yet it often lies dormant within us because of sin. Through repentance, however, this grace becomes active and living within us in proportion to the degree of purification from the effects of sin upon their human nature. The action of the grace of God can become so powerful within a person that it becomes the primary condition of his or her soul. Abiding in the grace of God becomes a permanent state of existence, with the only exception being a temporary withdrawal by God of His grace as a test – that is, as a means of instruction. The working of the Holy Spirit becomes so strong that His action is clearly manifest even to others. Such is the state that the saints have attained, and this is why numberless multitudes have flocked to them.

The Church services often describe the saints as radiant beams of light illumining the world – for they were pure vessels through which divine grace brightly shone like beams of light. In them something of the invisible God was clearly seen. They breathed the Spirit of God and shone with divine virtues, deeply touching the hearts of the faithful. Indeed, they radiated divine virtues to the souls of those who came in contact with them. To encounter a saint is to enter into an experience of the grace of God. St. Seraphim of Sarov was an extraordinary example of such a person. In the gospel we read: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it gives light unto all that are in the house” (Mat. 5:14-15). This is what the saints achieve. This is what comes to pass when one lives the ascetical tradition of the Church in its fullness.

Central to the Christian life is ongoing repentance, and the saints are those who repent thoroughly and completely. Repentance in the Orthodox Church has various shades of meanings. The Greek word “metanoia” literally means a change of mind, implying what the holy Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: “be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The equivalent word in Slavonic – “pokaianie” – implies to be wretched, to mourn and lament – to be filled with tears. In conjunction with the disposition of one’s heart, and effort of free will, this “spirit of repentance” acts in varying degrees. In some people it acts temporarily according to the sins they have committed. There is confession, the resolve to change, remorse, and maybe some act of penance. However, in others this “spirit of repentance” acts systematically, remaining upon one, leading him from one degree of purification to another. Then, continuing on, this “spirit” – which is an action of the grace of God – leads one from one degree of enlightenment to another. Perhaps we could presume to say that the latter is what the Apostle Paul wrote of to the Corinthians: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord” (IICor. 3:18). This is what the whole of the monastic life is geared to; this is the process which the monastic saints undergo. This was the experience of St. Seraphim.

In the lives of saints we read how a number of them in their early years of ascetic training and upbringing visited various elders, seeking to learn their ascetic practices and in what virtues they abounded, so as to absorb from them personally what they could to assist themselves in the acquisition of these virtues. They did not seek to excel in every virtue but rather to apply to themselves the knowledge they acquired to help them pursue the virtues to which they were naturally inclined. It is this example we must follow as we look at the life and teaching of St. Seraphim. What do we see specifically in St. Seraphim? What can we learn from his experience and his particular path to holiness? Today St. Seraphim is especially remembered for the manner in which he has been said to have often greeted those who came to him – that is, with the Paschal greeting: “My joy! Christ is risen!” His renowned conversation with Nicholas Motovilov is also often in the forefront of our minds when we think of this saint. It is in this exchange – which was made public only around the time of his canonization – that he explains the aim of the Christian life: the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. (4)

Yet for the monks who lived with him, and the multitudes who saw him at the Sarov Hermitage, what was he like? His biographer notes, “The special qualities of his conversation and conduct were love and wisdom that proceeds from humility…he embraced all with love. He bowed to the ground before all.” Again the peace he acquired is often referred to and this he also urged others to seek, as he was know to say: “Acquire the spirit of peace and thousands round you will be saved.” So then, humility, peace, love, and resurrectional joy – these are the spiritual fruits that shone forth especially clearly in our beloved and venerable Father Seraphim.

The lives of the saints and their teachings are a guide and rule for us by which we can order our own lives. As we observe the path to holiness trod by different saints, we can use the same ascetic practices or tools which they made use of on their particular path. We can employ those we are moved to follow according to the measure of our ability. We can implement the same tools the saints employed in order to reach the aim of our Christian life – which is, as St. Seraphim tells us, the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit. In addition, we can say that in the end it is divine virtues or the fruits of the Spirit that we hope for. The Apostle Paul writes of these in his epistle to the Galatians, in a passage which is read in the Church services for most of the monastic saints: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (5:22-23).

So now, for us, in our day and age, what can we learn from the way of St. Seraphim, from his path to holiness? Today’s world, more than ever, is full of noise, entertainment, and seemingly endless distractions which, although they may not bring any acute, immediate harm, deaden the soul little by little. Therefore they are often unnoticed, imperceptibly rendering the soul cold towards God, and this state comes to be accepted as the norm. We need to be concentrated within, but these things disperse us outside ourselves; yet most people in this state are ignorant of the fact that they have been thrown off track. Because of this, such distracting temptations are more dangerous than those which are more obviously sinful.

In his long years of solitude and silence St. Seraphim was enkindled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Then the Mother of God Herself called him out of this solitude, so that the light of Christ in him might shine upon others. And indeed, he radiated a divine peace into the souls of others like beams of light, bringing warmth and comfort. It is St. Seraphim’s inner peace and stillness that would seem to be most needful for us today. As we have already mentioned, we live in a world that is generally high-paced, and permeated with constant noise. The distractions with which Christians are bombarded in a normal day from the surrounding society – especially the media – are numerous, and most of them are outright evil. All these destroy one’s ability to keep watch over oneself and to keep God in mind. To help us in our struggles in such an environment our Venerable Father Seraphim bequeaths to us these prime ascetic tools: separation from the world, prayer, silence, heedfulness to oneself, stillness, and in short, interior work. These exercises are what the saint himself practiced diligently and exemplified par excellence in his path to holiness, and his instructions bear witness to his manner of life. We too, in order to step back from the flood of the temptations of today’s world, in his our measure and according to our life’s circumstances need to implement these tools.

Here is offered the first English translation of a brief life of St. Seraphim along with a short collection of his spiritual instructions, as they appear in the book entitled The Community of the Sarov Hermitage and the Memorable Monks that Struggled Therein, published in Russian in 1884 by the Sarov Hermitage. This was the fourth edition of this work – an expansion and revision of earlier versions. Although this life and this collection of spiritual instructions are both quite brief, they make quite clear the path to holiness that St. Seraphim followed, and they reveal the core of his teachings to monastics, and to all those who seek to tread upon his path. May they inspire and aid us as we seek to follow in his footsteps, and so, through the prayers of our Venerable and God-bearing Father, St. Seraphim, may we “become still and know God” (Psalm 45:11).

1. The Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Struggles – Experiences – Teachings, Elder Joseph, trans. Elizabeth Theokritoff, (Mount Athos:The Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopedi, 1999), pg. 204.
2. King James Version; with the exception of the Psalter this version will be used for Scriptural quotations unless otherwise indicated.
3. The Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Struggles – Experiences – Teachings, pg. 204
4. An English translation of this conversation by Sergei Arhipov is found in The Joy of the Holy, Saint Seraphim and Orthodox Spiritual Life, Harry M. Boosalis, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1993.

Contend earnestly for the faith

“Contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 1:3)

“The sin of Adam is becoming full”. These words are an opinion expressed by Hieromonk Raphael (Noika). Hieromonk Raphael was mentored for many years at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Essex in England under the direction of Archimandrite Sophrony. Again, I repeat: “The sin of Adam is becoming full”. It was in the year 2001 when Father Raphael recognized this, so then, how much more is it true now. The evil effect of sin is increasingly infecting man and there is a worldwide distortion of the reasoning of mankind. We find ourselves surrounded with this, and little-by-little, the Church is lured into the mindset of this world. How can we guard ourselves from this? In one word: Faith. Another monk of St. John the Baptist Monastery, Archimandrite Zachariah, has written something very awesome concerning faith. I need not say anything myself, but I will continue with a long quote from Father Zachariah’s book, Remember Thy First Love.1

If we are to belong to the Church of Christ, the new creation, we need the gift of faith. This gift is the most important of the many gifts which the Holy Spirit bestows upon the members of the Body of Christ. Our gift of faith will attach us to this glorious Body, the Church, of which Christ Himself is the head, and will allow us to enter into communion with the abundance of divine life that flows from the Head of this Body into its members. In this wise, we, small and weak members though we be, become, through our communion in the Body of the Lord Jesus, partakers of the gifts of the strong members of this Body—the Saints, who dwell both on earth and in heaven.

Thus we are able to grow strong and overcome sin, and to become rich even though we are poor. We are regenerated, and in our turn become precious in the sight of God. But if we live negligently in the Church of Christ we fail to be in harmony with the life of this Body, we fail to honour the gift contained within it—the Holy Spirit—and we become a burden to all its other members, that is, our brethren in Christ. It is therefore, infinitely important that we discover and explore our gift of faith so that in due time it may bear such fruit as will sustain both our own life and that of our brethren.

At first, our faith is necessarily immature and needs to grow and develop within us. This first faith involves the turning of our whole being toward God; it orientates our spirit towards the One God Who is without beginning. Our faith, then, gradually enters upon an intermediate stage, which consists of hoping and trusting in God, particularly in situations where humanly speaking everything seems to be without hope. And eventually, we grow into a more perfect form of faith: the disposition of the soul is now stable, and she begins to live the words of the Apostle: ‘For unto you it is given not only to believe on Christ, but also to suffer for his sake.’

We should add, however, that our faith is not simply an inner matter; it always reflects the times we live in as Christians. The Fathers of the fourth century—a time of great flowering for the Church—repeatedly said that the Christians of the last times would neither have the strength to endure ascetic hardship nor be able to perform the godly works of the Fathers of old. But they added that those who would succeed in simply keeping the faith would be more greatly glorified in heaven than those Fathers who had worked miracles and even raised the dead to life. In other words, it is the privilege of our time to preserve the fullness of our faith, and this requires a greater measure of grace than that by which our Fathers raised the dead. The Lord Himself asked, ‘When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?’ His words reflect the same thing: if faith be found among men at His Second Coming, this will be something very great indeed. We see that God judges us with respect to the generation in which we live. Father Sophrony would say we are all leaves on the same tree of humanity and nothing can separate us from the life of this tree. So if our time is characterized by a general falling away from the faith of our fathers, our success in preserving it will be the more sublime because of the apostasy surrounding us.

But we must be resolute: either we live according to our faith or we do not. The Book of Revelation says we must not allow ourselves to loiter, to become lukewarm in the false security of a kind of middle ground. In our day, we are witnessing a dynamic increase of evil, and we find ourselves caught in a surge of iniquity even as it gathers force. As Christians we must place ourselves in a different, indeed contrary, dynamic increase which grows not away from but towards God, so that evil itself will spur us on to do good. Father Sophrony had the gift of discerning God’s purposes when people asked him how to cope with distressing situations: he knew that even the most tragic circumstances can have great spiritual benefits hidden within them. But we are wholly responsible for the direction we choose to follow, we can either remain inert and lifeless, or we can engage with the dynamic increase of life in God. (pp. 17-9)

So this is how Father Zachariah speaks of faith. His words are not a mere intellectual definition but they speak of a faith active in the heart and are full of inspiration. He was inspired; such words are born in the heart of man who is in a prayerful state of abiding in God. And so, as we find ourselves in a frightful atmosphere where “the sin of Adam is becoming full”, his words motivate us to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3). May God grant us a living faith which is active in the heart, through the prayers of our Holy Fathers. Amen.

1. This is available from Mount Tabor Publishing, http://www.mounthabor.com

Abbot Gregory of Docheiariou

 

Abbot Gregory of Docheiariou Monastery on the Holy Mountain

I apologize to my readers for taking such a long break since my last post.  In October I had the blessing to visit the Holy Mountain; however, being away for seventeen days has set me back with my needs and responsibilities here at the monastey.  The day I departed from the Holy Mountain, October 23rd, I heard the news of the passing away of Elder Gregory, the Abbot of Docheiariou Monastery.   He was 76 years old and had been suffering from cancer and diabetes for many years.  I had visited Docheiariou Monastery several times, and once had a short conversation with Elder Gregory so I would like to share some of my experience with you now.

My first visit to the Holy Mountain was in the winter of 1986.  At that time I spent several days at Docheiariou and was there for the feast of the Three Hierarchs (January 29th or February 12th on the Old Calendar).  When I arrived at the monastery, there were only a few monks present as most of the fathers, including Elder Gregory, were out working in their olive orchard.   An English-speaking monk I encountered there told me a little bit about Elder Gregory (even at that time, he mentioned that the community was worried about the health of their Elder because of his diabetes).  Elder Gregory began monastic life with the Elder Amphilochius (recently canonized in the Church) on Patmos.  When the Elder Gregory – who was a novice at that time – came to him, Saint Amphilochius said to him: “Someday you will rule over your brethren.”  Sometime after the death of Saint Amphilochius, Elder Gregory left Patmos with a group of fathers because Patmos, as the place of the Revelation to St. John the Theologian, had become too much of a tourist attraction.  They went to the Holy Mountain which at that time had a number of monasteries which had dwindled in numbers and were in a state of decline.  Elder Gregory with his group was offered one of two monasteries,  Xeropotamo – which was known as having the largest existing piece of the Cross of our Lord – or Docheiariou  –  which had the wonderworking icon of the Theotokos called, “Quick to Hear”.  As we know already, they choose, Docheiariou with the icon of the Theotokos.

Elder Gregory was a hard-working, practical man.  As I said, when I arrived he was out working with the brotherhood.  Vespers and Compline were served only with a few monks.  The work group brought food for dinner and came back late.  One monk read compline while the others continued working.  This was not the norm but rather an exception in order to meet a temporary need.  The father who spoke with me warned me that I might hear someone shouting during the services the next morning.  This would be Elder Gregory since he would often rebuke some of the monks during the services in order to humble them.  He would say, “We do not go to church to pray, we go to church to make ‘a joyful noise unto God’” (see Psa. 94:1).  He did not like for his monks to be late to the services; if anyone was quite late (he had a certain designed point) they would have to sit separately at the dining hall and would be deprived of certain extra foods above the main dish.  As a rule of prayer they would do 600 Jesus Prayers which would take about half an hour.  The fathers went to confession every Saturday and received Holy Communion on Sunday.

From my conversation with Elder Gregory:

Question: When people come to me as a confessor, what does the Lord
expect for me to do for them?

The Elder’s answer:

Before you say anything to them you must cry within yourself.   For example, say the Lord’s Prayer, or call on the name of the Lord Jesus, or call out to the Panagia and the saints.  Afterwards you should say that which comes to your conscience, into your heart.  But all that you say must be according to the Orthodox teaching. In the Orthodox Church everything is a tradition, a living tradition, so you will not get much help through reading books.  And when you give advice to another person it is not only what you say that matters but how you say it.  Guidance is also a tradition.  If someone has not been living in such a tradition it is difficult to undertake the activity of counseling.  But if there is a tradition from an elder, one can even say things that are very strict to another yet he can cover them in such a way—a protecting way—that he who hears can accept them very easily.  But for someone who has no tradition, even though he may give some advice about very little matters it will not be accepted by the one seeking counsel. As one has learned from his elder so must he teach.  Because in this world people cannot practice everything precisely we must make economia—this is what we need to learn from our elder.   As for the people they must do what they can, to make them do precisely what we would like is very difficult.  You must say to the people the precise meaning of the faith, and what they can do, they will do.  If, for instance, it is one, or two, or five that they accomplish don’t worry; but if they do nothing, then you must worry.  We should never concentrate on the weaknesses of people; rather we must always speak to them of the preciseness of the faith which has been the same throughout the ages.  For example, during Great Lent we should encourage the people to fast in order to eliminate the passions of the body.  If they do this for a week or two weeks it is good, but if they persevere throughout the fast, excellent!  However, if they do much, do not pat them on the back and lead them to pride.  Likewise we should not cause them to be cast down if they only do a little.  Do not comment on the quantity if it is only a little and do not admonish them a lot.  It is their struggle that should be commended, and that which should disappoint us when it is absent.  According to the teaching of St. John the Theologian holiness does not mean to not sin, but rather to struggle, to fight against sin.

Question:  How can one help a spiritual child who is insensitive and is not motivated to do anything in the spiritual life?

The Elder’s answer:

They need courage.  The devil makes them feel disappointed in themselves and to think that they are doing nothing.  If they do something, even a very little thing we must show enthusiasm, encourage them, and point out that they did something and say, “See, look what you did.”

Question:  I have heard the expression “holy anger” but I do not understand it.  How does it differ from sinful anger?

The Elder’s answer:

In the beginning when someone is starting in his spiritual life he feels zeal for God and enthusiasm.  For example, if someone blasphemes he is angry within, but this must be restrained.  It is not the true spiritual state.  But if someone is more advanced in the spiritual life then his zeal is very beneficial.  It is good for him and for others.  However  if one’s zeal causes a disturbance in the soul, or causes exhaustion, then it is not from God; but if there is peace then this zeal is from God.  Everyone must have this zeal.  But in the end this means a very strong feeling of love for God.  In the Scriptures it is said that this kind of zeal consumes a person.  This is how we can define zeal: Love for God as the Scripture says with all ones heart and soul.

The Elder concluded our conversation by saying the following:

Learn something else.  This is not only for you but also for the people who are coming to you.   Do not give much importance to everything that passes through your mind, but rather to the perception of the heart, because the heart of man reflects the true spiritual state of the mind.  But a lot of different things, many varied things pass through the mind.  The fathers say that the mind is like air, but the heart reflects the true spiritual state of the mind.

May our Lord give rest to the soul of His newly departed servant, Archimandrite Gregory.

 

 

Man/Woman relationship within marriage

Man/Woman relationship within marriage

Let us begin by referring to the services of the Orthodox Church. In the Sacrament of Marriage (or “The Order of the Crowning”), we see a reference to Ephesians 5:24; ” Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” Some (probably in reaction to feminist attitudes) take this to an extreme so that they liken the submission of a wife to her husband to be like the obedience of a child to his father or servant to his master. However, there is one critical thing that seems to be overlooked and what is that? Married life is community life. This is natural to mankind. One aspect of being created in the image of God, Who is three Persons yet one in Essence, is that man is an ontological community of being, that is, our manner of existence is communal. The former abbot of Simonapetra Monastery on Athos, Elder Aimilianos, was known to advise: “Either join a community or make a community.” What he was implying is that you either become a member of a monastic community or marry and make a family which is also a community. Indeed, we find in a number of times prayers is offered in “The Order of the Crowning” for the “fruit of the womb and the gain of fair children”. In this service we also see prayers for the couple to be granted things as follows: “an indissoluble bond of love”, “love for one another in the bond of peace” and “peace and oneness of mind” (All quotations are from Volume 1 of the four volume set of the “Book of Needs” published by St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, PA). So let us talk about marriage as community life.

I will take a monastery as an example of community life and primarily refer to conversations with an Athonite monk. But keep in mind that the role of the husband/father as an authority figure is like that of the abbot or Elder.

In the Orthodox Church we have two ways of life: married and monastic. If you do not have a monastic calling then normally you would marry. The Church does not like to have unmarried people in the world because a Christian is a part of a community. The married life is a community life and the monastic life is a community life. Christianity is a life of sacrifice. In a community whether monastic or a family we sacrifice; we learn humility by cutting off our will before others and serving them. An unmarried person in the world has a great tendency to live a self-willed and selfish life, living for himself; this is not Orthodoxy. There are also families which can actually be living an idiorythmic life and the same can be true for them.

In a monastery our work is called diaconima which is taken from the word deacon meaning to serve. We do not use the worldly term “work” because those work in the world is primarily for one’s self, for something one wants which is very self-centered. In the monastery we use the word diaconima because we are working for each other and not ourselves–we are serving the community. In this way even eating becomes a liturgical act because you are sustaining yourself in order to serve others. Our program should not be to seek things we want of to have time for ourselves but to help others without any resistance when we are asked. In this way we attain humility, that is, by serving the community. By thus serving the community our diaconima becomes a prayer, whether it be physical work or speaking to a visitor who is in need we are at the same time inwardly moved. And if anything we desire to undertake either disrupts the community or does not benefit the community in any way; but is done only for one’s self, then you only appear to be benefiting yourself but in reality you are not. Then this is not in accordance with God’s will, this is how we can tell if something is in accordance with God’s will: when you benefit others you benefit yourself.

This Father spoke much about the monastery being a family. He emphasized that although the abbot is a needed authority figure; it is important for him to be a living example of self-sacrifice in order to win the love and respect of the brotherhood. This should not be by force or compulsion but as a voluntary act on their part, a spontaneous response, a mutual exchange of love. He also stated, “In the Orthodox sense of community there are two or more people living in relationship with each other and they must discuss the managing their life and the problems that occur and come to an agreement. There should never be a dictatorship type of relationship where one in authority just says, ‘This is what I have decided. This is the way it is going to be and that’s it!’ As a spiritual father, the abbot or elder of the monastery, has the responsibility of doing what is best for the community as a whole, and so, he should be a facilitator of the good of the whole.” This father spoke of his abbot as having an acute sensitivity to the needs of every particular person that comes before him. He does not expect obedience to be something abstract, an impersonal, lifeless work; rather it is an exercise that depends upon and issues forth from a relationship between two people, a relationship of love.

The role of the husband, as an authority figure in a family is similar to the role of an abbot. While role of the wife is similar to a member of the community who lives a life of sacrifice for others. They are both parents and both are on a level above their children. In this sense equals, but the husband is as the first among equals in regulating the functioning of the family and thus bears the burden of a heavier responsibility.

In conclusion, I want to quote a contemporary Elder who advises married couples as follows: “I tell them to have one contention among themselves. That is, to see who can humble themselves the most and who can do more of the will of the other.”

St. Cosmos of Aetolia and Persecution

St. Cosmos of Aetolia and Persecution

The feast day of St. Cosmos is August 24th or September 6th on the Old Calendar. What follows is a sermon that was delivered on his commemoration earlier this month.

St. Cosmos whose memory we are celebrating was a monk of Philotheou Monastery on the Holy Mountain. He felt a calling to preach to his fellow Greeks who had been spiritually impoverished because of the suppression under the Turkish yoke. With this aim in mind he left his monastery and labored to revive and strengthen the faith of the Orthodox in regions of Greece, Albania and Turkey. For this he is called “Equal to the Aposltes” and the Gospel lesson appointed for his commemoration speaks of the apostles being sent out to preach. This is what St. Cosmas did. But he ended his life as a martyr being hanged on a tree by the Turkish authorities in the year 1779. So in our service books he is named “The holy New Hieromartyr Cosmos of Aetolia, Equal to the Apostles”.

This persecution of those who preach the word of God is nothing new. It has existed before the time of Christ, throughout the history of Israel, and is continually repeated. Our Lord spoke much about this in the Gospels. Let us take for instance the readings of the last two Sundays: the parables of the tenants of the vineyard, and those called to the wedding feast. In both of these our Lord was censuring the Jews of old who persecuted and killed the prophets. For in these parables, the servants of the Lord of the vineyard, and the king who made the wedding feast, were ill treated and some even killed. In the parable of the tenants of the vineyard our Lord went a step further. For He related in what a wicked way the tenants killed the son of the lord of the vineyard. Our Lord was calling to account the Jews of His day and confronted them with their sinfulness by foretelling how they would ill treat Him and put Him to death. And it was only four days after He spoke this parable that they did this.

A little later in the Gospel our Lord He continues to critique the Jewish leaders of His day and foretells the continued persecution which began with the Apostles:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets….Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” (Mat. 23:27-31, 34-5)

We have seen all this come to pass beginning with the Protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen, and next the Apostle James the son of Zebedee. And the Apostle Matthias also ended his life as a martyr in Judea.

Our Lord continued to send His servants to the Rulers and citizens of the Roman Empire, calling them to repentance, and the same rejection prevailed, until the time of St. Constantine the Great. Our Lord speaks about this elsewhere when he says:

“But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.” (Mat. 10:17-21)

And the witness of those persecuted for the truth has continued throughout the whole history of the Church. First the Arian heretics had control in certain areas and persecuted true followers of our Lord. This continues with Julian the Apostate, also during the Christological controversies, and under the Iconoclasts the same is repeated. More recently this occurred during the Turkish yoke as we see with St. Kosmos whom we commemorate today. And finally, it is appalling to think of what happened to our Orthodox brethren behind the iron curtain. The highest single cause of death in the 20th century was the martyrdom of the Orthodox Christians behind that iron curtain.

But what about us today, are we ready for persecution? Will we see this is our lifetime. If we just look at how we see the world changing we would have to say, “Yes”. In the context of being asked about the last days before His return our Lord again repeats such warnings:

“Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” (Mat. 24:9-13)

But what can we do? How can we be prepared? We need to carry out the commandments of our Lord and the ascetic teachings of the Church with an aim in mind. And what should our goal be? Well, the Apostle Paul gives us a good answer: “to have Christ dwell in our hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:17). Faith must not be in our head but living within our hearts. We need faith that is not only the intellectual confession of beliefs, but as I said, a faith in the heart. There was a recent Elder Gabriel in Georgia who said that in the last days those who have their faith only in their head and not in their heart will follow the antichrist. In order to acquire and nourish this faith in the heart, we need to pray with our whole heart. In 2010 in an interview entitled: “ The truth about the times—Spirituality of the end of times”, the Romanian Archimandrite Justin Parvu says the following about prayer:

It is very important to know how to pray. Many times even we, the monks in the monasteries pray, but we only think we pray. It is not enough to attend the church services and just be there like that would be enough. We have to work the prayer from the inside out. No matter how many prayers we say with our mouth, it is nothing if the prayer is not coming from the heart and if we don’t apply the teachings of Orthodoxy in our everyday life. Now more than ever, lay people have to pray from the heart, because this will be our only salvation. In the heart is the root of all passions and that is where we need to direct our struggles. If in the later years Christianity became luke warm and superficial, we have to end all that now, this is not going to be enough anymore. If we will not pray from the heart, we will not be able to sustain the psychological attacks, because the evil one has hidden brainwashing methods that are unknown to us.

May our Lord strengthen us for the days ahead of us and keep us in the “faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Amen.

What can we learn from Archimandrite Sophrony?

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…

Now–I am.

 

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov)

Archimandrite Sophrony

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.

St. Amvrossy Letters 54 & 60

St. AMvrossy Letters 54 & 60

I apologize to my readers for taking such a long time to continue the letters of St. Amvrossy, but being pulled by various responsibilities the blog has needed to wait. At this point in the collection of letters by St. Amvrossy, there is a change from festal greetings to an exhortation in personal letters. Some are very short, and in a single post there may be more than one letter as it is in this one. Now, let us turn to the letters:

Letter 54

The last time when I congratulated you on your birthday, as I recall, I wished for you spiritual rebirth. And now,congratulating you with this*, I sincerely wish for you the spiritual ascent with proper and lawful steps, of which the first and foremost is the acknowledgement of our profound spiritual and bodily weaknesses. The second lawful step is self-reproach; that is, in every unpleasant and grievous situation to blame one’s self and not others. The third step is patience with thankfulness when we meet up with any of the grievous temptations that overtake us. From these three steps a fourth is brought forth–the beginning of humility. However this happens only if the first three were sown by faith and a turning to the Lord in prayer, as prescribed by the regulations of the Holy Orthodox Church and the instructions of the holy fathers who pointed out the way of salvation. However, I will express myself more simply: when we ascend over the steps–whether on a smooth or rough surface–we simply must strive to do so in humility, in accordance with the commandments of the Lord. Lord help us! Lord strengthen our
weakness and turn away our eyes from vanity and all that is unprofitable

Letter 60

Concerning the meaning of the words “child” and “little child”–you wish to know
the difference of the meaning of the words “child” and “little child”. The apostle calls “little children” those in whom Christ is not yet formed, He Who endured spitting and beating on the face and all sorts of disparagement. One who wants to be called a “child” of Christ, must patiently and without murmuring endure everything that Christ endured. He must also pray sincerely for those who offend him, just as He prayed for those who crucified Him. Peace be to you!

St. Amvrossy Letter 41

St. Amvrossy Letter 41: The meaning of the words of the Holy Prophet David:”Goodness and discipline and knowledge teach Thou me”.

Introductory note: As today was the last Sunday during the Paschal cycle I am now posting, in full, a Paschal greeting of St. Amvrossy. This letter was dated April,1891, therefore it was the last of such greeting in his life.

Brethren in the Lord and Mothers and Sisters!

I congratulate you with the radiant feast of the Resurrection of Christ and I greet you all with the joyous Christian greeting: Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen!

By reason of its great significance, the radiant feast of the Resurrection is called the feast of feasts and the holy day of Christian holy days. It is also called the Pascha of Christ, which means the passage from death to life and from earth to heaven. On this feast, the joyful Christians greet each other as brethren, forgiving all that hate them by the Resurrection.

As is my custom, for the benefit of your souls, I set forth for your consideration the words of the Psalm with which the Prophet David prays to God: “Goodness and discipline and knowledge teach Thou me” (Psa. 118:66). Being a prophet, David had the need to pray to be given the above traits; even more then does it befit every common Christian to take care to acquire these traits and to pray to God for help from on high.

“Teach me goodness.” Goodness and kindheartedness are the main elements of love; while love is the major virtue and commandment. As is said in the Gospel: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mat. 22.37-40). Love is born from faith and the fear of God. It grows and becomes stronger than hope, becoming perfect through goodness and kindheartedness, which express the imitation of God—as it is said in the Gospel, “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Again it is said in the Holy Gospels: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Mat. 9:13). Mercy and condescension towards one’s neighbor, and forgiving his shortcomings, are above any sacrifice which is not acquired without peace with one’s neighbor according to the word of the Gospel: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Mat. 5:23-4).

Love towards God is shown by love and kindheartedness towards one’s neighbor. Kindheartedness, mercy and condescension towards one’s neighbor and forgiveness of his shortcomings are obtained through humility and self-reproach. Therefore in all afflictions and unpleasant happenings we should put the blame on ourselves and not others—thinking that we did not act as we should have, and therefore this unpleasantness and grief occurred. If we will reason thus, then we will have much less of a tendency to become embittered and angry which “does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Frightening are the words of the Apostle John: “One who does not love his brother” (that is, any neighbor) “abides in death” (I John 3:14), “and walks in darkness and does not know whence he goeth” (I John 2:11). “And he who hates his brother is a murderer” (I John 3:15).

“Teach me discipline.” In Slavonic the word “discipline” signifies soul-profiting instruction so that we could follow the way of virtue in the fear of God in unity with God’s commandments and the regulations of the Church. Even in the Old Testament it is said “An uninstructed son is a grief for the father and sadness to the mother” (Prov. 10:1); that is, a son who was not taught the fear and the law of God. At present, many parents teach much to their children—and often what is not needed or harmful; but they neglect to teach the children the fear of God, the fulfillment of God’s commandments, and the keeping of the regulations of the only universal and Apostolic Church. For this reason, children are—for the most part—disobedient and disrespectful towards their parents, no good for themselves or their fatherland, and in addition are often even harmful.

“Teach me knowledge”–that is, true and correct reasoning! The Holy Scriptures say: “Seek understanding that you may live and be directed in sound knowledge” (Prov. 9:6), that is, strive to understand the Holy Scripture not any old way or however one may want, but correctly and truly, as it must be understood. The proof of this is that all peoples read the same Gospels but understand it differently. The Orthodox and Catholics do not understand it in the same way. The Armenians, Coptics, and Arians understand it differently, as do the Reformationists and Lutherans and their like. Such differences come from the fact that not all pay due attention to the words of the Lord: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:19-20). Only the Orthodox Church accepts the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments completely; the remainder accept only what they want, and that which justifies their ideas. Thereby they are numbered among the heretics, because the word “heretic” comes from the Greek word aireo -“I choose”. About such, the Apostle Paul writes: “A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself” (Titus 3:10).

So, like the Prophet David, let us pray that the Lord, in ways He knows best, will teach us goodness and mercifulness, what is beneficial for the soul, and true understanding–without which our eternal salvation is in doubt and unsure if we do not come running in repentance with humility to the one Who suffered for us and who died on the Cross for us and Who resurrected on the third day, our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom is due all glory, honor and worship together with His Father Who is without beginning and His most-holy, good and life-giving Spirit unto the ages of ages. Amen.