12 July 2009

'The Living Tradition'—Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) of Essex

Thanks to John Sanidopoulos for pointing out a fact of which I was not aware: that yesterday was the anniversary of the repose of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) of Essex (1896-1993), the spiritual son and biographer of St Silouan the Athonite whom many consider to have been in turn a Saint of the Church. I have already posted one of my favourite passages in Elder Sophrony’s writings here. I find him one of the most fascinating and moving Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, I seem to be missing one or two things that I was hoping to find in order to do a proper post on Elder Sophrony (which reminds me, incidentally, I wonder if anyone knows whether it is possible to acquire Elder Sophrony's Principles of Orthodox Asceticism, ed. A. Philippou [Oxford, 1964]?). So I will just confine myself to a couple of observations and excerpts.

First, I think one can do little better in approaching him than to begin with the opening paragraph of the ‘Foreword’ to the superb study of the Elder's theology by his nephew, Hieromonk Nicholas (Sakharov), I Love Therefore I Am: The Theological Legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2002):

Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (1896-1993) is an outstanding Christian ascetic, monk and mystic of the twentieth century. His teaching has rarely as yet been approached in such a way as to unveil his true dimension as a theologian within the history of Christianity. Yet already his books, such as St Silouan the Athonite, have become an indispensable part of the church tradition. Inasmuch as he is our contemporary, his theological kerygma has become an event to many people in the modern world. Through his own ascetic experience he lived the eternal truths of Christian faith in their profundity. His message is a mighty testimony that Christianity is not just an academic discipline but very reality, life itself. This reality imprints a mark of indisputable authenticity upon each of Fr Sophrony’s writings. Strange to abstract scholasticism, his words breathe the inspiration of the living tradition, where Christ is the divine absolute, ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’ (Heb 13:8). (p. 11)

Fr Nicholas notes that it was the impact of Elder Sophrony’s book, Staretz Silouan (now available with additional material as St Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1999]), that led to the growing veneration of this contemporary Athonite Saint and his glorification by the Œcumenical Patriarchate in 1987 (p. 31). His other works, while not as widely known, are similarly inspired, and while it is true that, as Fr Nicholas also observes, ‘The patristic heritage has for him indubitable authority’, and ‘never does his theology transcend the boundaries set out by the Orthodox tradition’ (p. 11), there is also something unique about them. It seems to me that, for instance, in their open and personal tone, in Elder Sophrony’s readiness to speak of his own experiences, works like his autobiographical We Shall See Him as He Is can only really be compared with the writings of St Symeon the New Theologian. Concerning the latter, Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin) has written (On the Mystical Life, Ethical Discourses Vol. 3: Life, Times, and Theology [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1997], p. 10):

While no [St] Augustine, and certainly innocent of the latter’s consuming interest in philosophy and its relation to Christian theology and experience, or his confidence (one which is never duplicated in the Greeks) in the mind’s capacity for searching the divine mysteries, Symeon nevertheless provides the unique case of a Greek Christian writer’s approaching the Western father’s willingness to discuss out loud his own mind and heart. . . . [H]is use of ‘I’ distinguishes him sharply from both predecessors and successors. It was also, as we shall note shortly, to bring down on him loud and apparently frequent accusations of pride and delusion.

This seems like an apt description of Elder Sophrony’s work as well. Fr Nicholas notes that We Shall See Him as He Is, was received poorly by Orthodox reviewers, and particularly Russians. He writes:

The main points of criticism were his ambitious frankness in putting on paper his personal experience of God, his ‘blatantly high opinion of himself’, his ‘familiarity with God’, his mystical sensuality and descriptions of visions, and his allegedly overexuberant language. (p. 36)

But as with St Symeon the New Theologian, Elder Sophrony’s experiences have come increasingly to be seen among Orthodox Christians as genuine and authoritative. Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpatkos, for instance, cites We Shall See Him as He Is as a genuine contemporary testimony of experience of the uncreated light, the same experience defended by St Gregory Palamas in the 14th century (St Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite, trans. Esther Williams [Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1997], pp. 327-8).

One can read a brief account of Elder Sophrony’s life here, at the wonderful page devoted to the Elder. I also recommend to posts on the Elder from Ora et Labora: Fr Sophrony on Contemporary Monasticism, and Humility and Humor. Above, I have already linked to what is absolutely my favourite passage from his writings—to conclude this post, I shall give two more. First, from the ‘Foreword’ to Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan 1866-1938, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995), pp. 6-7:

The Athonite monk is convinced beyond doubt that the Orthodox Church is privileged with the most authentic knowledge of the One True God. The way to the Father lies uniquely through the Son, only-begotten and consubstantial with the Father. He, and He alone, ‘knows the Father’ with complete knowledge, and ‘no man cometh unto the Father, but by the Son’. Knowledge is acquired through prayer of the mind united with the heart, and our whole being given over to God. The heart is the spiritual centre of the human personality and the mind is enlightened through the heart. The monk knows the travail of launching the mind in the heart. But he knows, too, that this secret realm cannot be entered painlessly, and so he embarks willingly on the ascetic struggle. When the roots of the Tree of Life press into the human heart the monk feels a sort of spiritual pain. In many ways suffering of the spirit is unlike physical suffering. Spiritual pain is the source of the energy needed to resist the pull of earthly attractions for the sake of that other divine and eternal world. Through this form of asceticism we may discover the hidden meaning of the apparent paradoxes of the Beatitudes—Blessed are the poor in spirit; Blessed are they that mourn; Blessed are they which are persecuted; and so on. Just as in the scientific world approximation to the infinitely small started the conquest of cosmic space, so approach to the divine mysteries lies through humility and the kind of kenosis that we see in Christ, Who ‘made himself of no reputation’.

The fruits of ascetic striving are not only prayer in the heart: the mind is imbued with the knowledge expressed in a supremely condensed form in the dogmas of the Church. And only through the union of prayer and knowledge does life in God become fuller and more perfect. Prayer by itself is not yet perfection. And intellectual familiarity with dogmas is not perfection either. Hence the Athonite’s twofold determination to cling to prayer and preserve the dogmatic teaching inherited from the Fathers of the Church.

Finally, here is a lovely passage from We Shall See Him as He Is, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2006), p. 166, typical of the mystical descriptions there.

I would look up at the clear blue sky, sometimes staring fixedly in one direction, at others letting my eyes sweep from one edge to the other. When my gaze reached the horizon, I would travel further and mentally embrace our whole planet. I would peer into the depths, trying to penetrate its boundaries, but the longer I stayed my attention on the marvellous scene—the more eagerly I studied the heavenly sphere, full of light—the more the mystery fascinated me. And when, by a gift from on High, it was vouchsafed me to behold the Uncreated Light of Divinity, I saw the blue sky of our planet as a symbol of the radiance of heavenly glory. This radiance is everywhere—filling all the depths of the universe, ever tangible, other-worldly for the created world. Azure-blue is the colour of transcendency. Many human beings have been given the blessing of beholding this marvellous Light. Most of them cherished the blessing as the most precious secret of their life and, captivated by this wonder, departed to the other world. But others were bidden to bear witness to near and distant brethren of this lofty reality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Elder Sophrony is a breath of fresh air. I find him very complicated to read but thoroughly enjoy trying. Did you know that he was Met. Hierotheos (Vlachos') spiritual father? This is found in the beginning of the Greek work, and unfortunately not translated yet, "I Knew a Man in Christ" written by the Metropolitan.

Keep up the good work.

I work as a nurse in the emergency dept where I live. I've been praying for your father. It sounds like something quite scary to have to witness but I'm glad that he is alright now.