St Sophrony The Athonite
The greatest miracle in all the Universe is the union of man's heart with the Spirit of Christ.
(St Sophrony the Athonite, On Prayer)
The greatest miracle in all the Universe is the union of man's heart with the Spirit of Christ.
(St Sophrony the Athonite, On Prayer)
The Saints are the continuation of the epistle of the Word of God to their generation. Having trodden the path of Christ to the end, they received knowledge of the mysteries of His Kingdom. For this reason, in their own person, the word of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, which was given as the power of God for the renewal of the world and which testifies to the truth of His Resurrection, is ‘known and read’ experientially. Saint Sophrony was a pioneer in the way he wrote the life of Saint Silouan, and also an equally genuine descendant of Holy Tradition. Elder Sophrony describes the life of the Saint and analyses his teaching, while at the same time maintaining a dialogue with his time, not only in the style, structure and mode of expression, but rather in opening new horizons for the dark impasses of tribulation wherewith this world is stricken. God bestowed upon Saint Silouan a pure and simple word of life in a direct, concise manner, and chose his disciple, Elder Sophrony, who had followed the path of the Saint and was vouchsafed similar experiences, to transmit this word and shed light on it for the people of an age which has been conquered by a wisdom deprived of all wisdom and by intellectual pride. The dialogue of these holy men with their generation had its beginning in a monastic cell or in a dark cave, where, for long years, with uncontainable weeping, they let rivers of tears flow for the fate of a humanity which ignores or is indifferent to the love of its Creator and Father, walking with steadfast steps towards self-destruction, in time and, alas, in eternity as well.
‘Israel fought with God and which of us does not so fight. The world even to this day is plunged in despair, nowhere is there any solution... Our spirit would have a direct dialogue with Him, the One Who called me from nothingness.’1
Christ is the ‘sign’ of God for all generations. When the Jews erroneously asked the Lord for a ‘sign from heaven’,2 he set forth the ‘sign of Jonah’3 that foreshadowed his death and Resurrection that would give life and salvation to all mankind.
In the Person of Christ, through his life and example, an answer was given to every question and tragic impasse of man. The descent of Christ into the nethermost
See Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), OnPrayer, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 1996), 127.
Following the tradition of the Holy Fathers, St Sophrony declares that theology bears an experiential character, being the fruit and expression of man’s communion with Christ, the source of all theology. Thus, the journey towards experiential theology is the way of ascetic perfection, where asceticism becomes the method of experiential theological knowledge. It is this ‘ascetic method’ that primarily distinguishes the theological path of St Sophrony. He understood theology as a state of man’s spirit, as the narration of his encounter with Christ during his vision of Divine Light. Love for enemies constitutes the summit of theology: it is the pledge that guarantees genuine communion with God, the infallible criterion that verifies the authenticity of experiential theology and validates the word of a true theologian.
‘Υe have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape. And ye have not his word abiding in you... How can ye believe?’1
1. True Theology according to the Patristic Tradition
God’s truth constitutes ‘a mystery, which was kept secret’2 and was made manifest to the world ‘by revelation’.3 Bearers of this revelation were initially the prophets of the Old Testament, but its fullness was given to the world ‘in the person of Jesus Christ’.4 Through the incarnation of the Word, God is revealed now with greater perfection as a Person, and the character of this person is sealed through his love ‘to the end’.5 From the beginning, the content of Christian theology was built up through the assimilation and interpretation of the revelation ‘in Christ’.6 According to St Gregory
John 5:37–38, 44.
Cf. Rom. 16:25.
Cf. Gal. 1:12.
2 Cor. 4:6 (see Greek text).
Cf. John 13:1.
Georgios Mantzarides, Ὁδοιπορικὸ θεολογικῆς ἀνθρωπολογίας (Ἅγιον Ὄρος: Ἱερὰ Μεγίστη Μονὴ Βατοπαιδίου, 2005), 21.
St Sophrony divides the spiritual life into three periods. The first, the initial one, is that of the call to and inspiration for the struggle in question; the second is that of the withdrawal of ‘perceptible’ Grace and the experience of Godforsakenness; and the third is the return of perceptible Grace and its retention. Godforsakenness is not experienced by those who live Christianity as a moralistic or intellectual philosophical-cum-religious system, because such people have no empirical communion with God. They are unaware of the existence, the sharing of divine Grace, its advent and its removal. They may believe that God exists, but they do not have living faith, the faith of experience.
The subject with which we deal in this article is not one which is easily accepted by those who are not initiates in the life of divine Grace. We would say that it is rather daunting, as testified by the title: ‘Godforsakenness’. It is, however, extremely important, the sine qua non for the spiritual life. Many—perhaps most—will say of what follows: ‘This is a hard saying; who can bear it?’.1 But St Sophrony, the blessed Elder who was recently enrolled into the Catalogue of Saints of the Orthodox Church and who, through his experience and writings, has left for us the unimpeded path for the life in Christ, stressed that God wants to see us perfect, as he is perfect.2 And the path to perfection necessarily passes through the Golgotha of Godforsakenness.
At the important moment in our life, whenever it pleases God that we should define ourselves positively before him, we experience the supernatural revelation of God. Having offered up the whole of our freedom towards the observation of his commandments, we ‘walk in the newness of life’,3 we enter a particular spiritual milieu where we encounter God, share in his Grace empirically and experience states ‘beyond reason and conception’, which we could never even have imagined before. It is then that Christians begin, to all intents and purposes, to experience the spiritual ‘new life’, life in Christ.
Following the earlier Fathers of the Church, St Sophrony divides the spiritual life into three periods. He writes: ‘The first, the initial stage, is the summons and the
See Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), We Shall See Him as He Is (Essex: Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 1988), 223.
Time coextends with Creation, which is not yet completed. Each of us has been granted his allotted time—brief, but enough to find salvation. Time is the ‘locus’ of our encounter with the Creator. What defines our actions is the purpose we have set in our life. Our perfection identifies with perfection of the hypostatic principle that we have as creatures ‘in the image and likeness’ of God. The Creator’s work is fulfilled in time, in the perspective of eternal life. Likewise, man’s work in time should be fulfilled in the perspective of eternal life. Through prayer we see God and we are in communion with him.
Many efforts have been made to investigate the notion of time and attempts have been made to formulate some definition of it. There are also those who have cast doubts on the existence of time. St Sophrony considered it important to explore this mysterious concept of time and he settled on a formulation of a certain definition which, while not describing its nature, does interpret its functionality and points to its theological and anthropological significance.
According to St Sophrony, time is the ‘locus’ of our encounter with the Creator. Time is the process of the implementation of God’s plan for creation... Creation has not yet been completed... Each of us has been granted ‘his allotted “time”—brief, but enough to find salvation’.1
St Sophrony notes that, in our own day and age, ‘The very feeling of time takes on a strange character—now tediously slow, now apparently non-existent, in the absence of any intelligent purpose’.2 If we recollect, however, that our proper attitude to time is the same as our proper attitude to life, it becomes clear that neither of the two feelings of time just mentioned justifies us in our life. The proper attitude to time, as the proper attitude to life itself, is of capital importance for us. This attitude, however, presupposes the concomitant determination of the purpose of human life.
If we are not to feel the passage of time as tediously slow, we have to exercise within it some creative task which has meaning and purpose. ‘The aim that we give
Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), On Prayer, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 1996), 16.
The article examines various implications of the ‘Testament’ that St Sophrony bequeathed to his monastery, where he puts forth his idea of the Holy Trinity as a model of monastic community. Man is created in the image and likeness of God the Trinity, not as an isolated individual, but as a communal being. The principles of life within the Holy Trinity are set out as the main principles of cenobitic monastic life, when ‘the Trinity becomes our ascetic project’. Monastic vows, such as obedience and poverty, are explained through the prism of the teaching on the Holy Trinity.
Towards the end of our life, we dwell on what is most important, while all other ‘details’ remain behind. Christ, in his earthly sojourn, expressed his final wish in Gethsemane, as the completion of his ‘work’ (Jn 17:3): ‘Let them all be one as we are one’ (Jn 17:21–22). The same message is contained within St Sophrony’s final Testament: ‘That all should be one as God the Trinity is one’.
It is striking that a monk in his final ‘Testament’1 should apparently bypass such monastic virtues as humility, obedience, poverty, prayer, etc., and focus exclusively on the dogmatic foundation of monastic cenobitic life. St Sophrony’s Testament shows to what extent all our ascetic tradition, with all the virtues we aspire to obtain, is based on our vision of God, the Divine prototype in the image of Whom we are created (Gen. 1:26). Without this undistorted vision of our Divine model, it is impossible to have a perfect and holy life, as St Sophrony reiterates on many pages of his writings. Dogmas of the Church for him are the supreme articulation of the Divine Revelation, the voice of God which translates Divine truths into human language, the heavenly reality into our human life. Therefore, St Sophrony writes: ‘I consider any act imperfect that does not proceed from a dogmatic mind’.2
See: Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov, ‘Testament’, in Dukhovnye Besedy [: Spiritual discourses (in Russian)], Volume 1 (Moscow: Palomnik, 2003), 326–327.
Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov, Perepiska s Protoiereem Georgiem Florovskim [: Correspondence with Protepresbyter Georges Florovsky (in Russian)], (Sergiev Posad: St Trinity Lavra, 2008), 55–56.
In the following article we shall examine four icons painted by St Sophrony, linking them to his writings, theology, and personal development.
The Person of Christ was the undisputable centre of St Sophrony’s life. During long years of intense repentance, he expressed his devotion in thought, in prayer, in writing and in painting.1 From his meeting with Christ in his youth until his eyesight began to fade in old age, it was his burning desire to portray the Face of his Creator in a worthy manner. Although he realised that painting the perfect icon was an impossible task, he continued to portray his Saviour in various forms of expression through his long life.
St Sophrony’s image of Christ is inseparable from his understanding of the hypostatic principle.2
The soul comes to know herself first and foremost face to Face with God. And the fact that such prayer is the gift of God praying in us shows that the hypostasis3 is born from on High and so is not subject to the laws of Nature... It is singular and unique.4
God, the Absolute Being, is Hypostatic by nature, and man, who is created in the image of God, has the full potential to become hypostatic in so far that he strives to
Nun Gabriela is a member of the monastic Community of St John the Baptist and she has been one of the closest apprentices of St Sophrony in the iconographic projects of the Community for the last 10 years of his life.
St Sophrony was a painter in his youth, something he gave up at his meeting with Christ, but a er many years of kenosis this art was taken up in the form of icon painting. For further information, see the introduction by R. Edmonds to A Sophrony, His Life is Mine (New York: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988); the first chapter in, A. Zacharias, Man the Target of God (Essex, UK: Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 2015), 25–53; Seeking Perfection in the World of Art and BEING, both published by Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 2014 and 2016.
For a full explanation of his theology on this point, see A. Zacharias, Christ, Our Way and Our Life (PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2003), 17–29.
In the original text the word persona is used instead of hypostasis.
A. Sophrony, His Life is mine, 43.
According to St Sophrony, the greater the intellectual riches, the more inexplicably painful is the abandonment by God, the Godforsakenness, which, however, opens the soul up to others, that is it inspires man to initiate a dialogical progress towards achieving consubstantiality, by gathering all creation into his hypostasis. This descent seems to be the only possible authentic ecstasis in Christ. But we are forever within the blessed context of Hesychasm. As did St Gregory Palamas, and before him St Maximus the Confessor, so St Sophrony ascends to God without any internal dichotomy, without any psychosomatic division, without any separation from the others, but perichorising consubstantially all created nature, without the rejection of any passion—since it is possible for everything to be transformed. As St Gregory and St Maximus were, so St Sophrony was, and still is, a presence of Christ in the world.
Although the theological discussion of the theology of St Sophrony has just begun, it promises to be exceptionally important for the identity of Orthodox theology in the immediate future. This is because, as I hope will become clear below, St Sophrony was not simply an ‘ascetic author’, as a group of authors has come to be known, who con- centrate their attention on what is wrongly labeled ‘spirituality’ and would perhaps be better called ‘the neptic (νηπτική) tradition’. Indeed, many of the ‘neptic authors’, as they are commonly known, show little or no interest in the incorporation of theology as a whole into their work. Of course, this in no way diminishes their work, since it is true that Orthodox theology is equally interested in genuinely empirical, neptic, and ascetic theological epistemology, without which any form of Eucharistic or Ecclesial ontology is in danger of becoming a kind of stale, incomprehensible, transcendental pursuit of a vague ecstatic communion. Very few of the Fathers, among whom are Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Maximus the Confessor, and Gregory Palamas, attempt any deep amalgamation of the neptic/ascetic tradition and its anthropological and theological predicates and consequences. In my view, St Sophrony Sakharov
An earlier version of this paper was published in Greek, as part of my book Οι Τρόμοι του Προσώπου και τα Βάσανα του Έρωτα: Κριτικοί στοχασμοί για μια μετανεωτερική θεολογική οντολογία [The Terrors of the Person, and the Ordeals of Love: Critical Thoughts for a Post-modern Theological Ontology], (Athens: Armos, 2009).