24 September 2009

'The Splendour of God Is a Man Fully Alive'—St Silouan the Athonite

Today, 11 September on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938), one of the great Saints of the twentieth century. As the Synaxarion from Matins in the Akolouthia for the Saint proclaims, in obvious reference to our Lord’s famous words to the Saint, ‘Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not’:

On this day we celebrate the memory of our venerable Father Silouan the Athonite.
Having followed Christ Whom he kept in his heart,
Silouan the Athonite carried the victory.
He was raised on the twenty-fourth to celestial
By Him Who preserves all men from despair.

In his Preface to an early French translation of St Silouan’s Life, Fr Georges Florovsky writes, ‘Père Silouane était un homme humble.’ Thus, the Saint’s greatest disciple and biographer, Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) of Essex, quotes the Register of St Panteleimon Monastery, Mt Athos (St Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1999], p. 9):

Schema-monk Father SILOUAN. Name ‘in the world’—Simeon Ivanovich Antonov. Peasant from the province of Tambov, district of Lebedinsk, village of Shovsk. Born 1866. Arrived Athos 1892. Professed 1896. Schema 1911. Performed his duties of obedience at the mill, at Kalomar, at Old Russikon, and as steward. Died 11//24 September 1938.

But as Elder Sophrony goes on to write at the end of his monumental book on his own Elder, ‘[H]owever simple a human being Staretz Silouan was, his life was an exceptionally noble one and a great tension of love towards God’ (p. 257), a fact belied by the complete uneventfulness of that life. Indeed, Elder Sophrony credits St Silouan as God’s tool for bringing him out of ‘darkness’: ‘But He did not leave me altogether in darkness—He brought me to the feet of Blessed Saint Silouan, and I saw that all my previous experience had prepared me to fathom his teachings’ (p. 18). Stepping back a bit from the intimacy of this particular relationship, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) summarises St Silouan’s place in modern Orthodoxy (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. [London: Penguin, 1997], p. 130):

In a hidden and unostentatious way, the Mountain went on nurturing saints, ascetics and men of prayer formed in the classic traditions of Orthodoxy. One such was St Silouan (1866-1938; proclaimed a saint in 1988), at the Russian monastery of St Panteleimon: of peasant background, a simple and humble man, his life was outwardly uneventful, but he left behind him some deeply moving meditations, poetic in style and profound in their theological vision, which have been edited by his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993) and published in many languages.

This last observation, about the publication of St Silouan in ‘many languages’, is eloquent testimony to the international appeal and pan-Orthodox charactre of this Saint, who lived of course in a great centre of Orthodoxy for all nations—the Holy Mountain. Glorified among the Saints by the Œcumenical Patriarchate, he is venerated by all of the traditionally Orthodox peoples, as well as converts in such countries as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States (in this post, I mention attending services at a convert-led mission of the Russian Church Abroad in Washington dedicated to St Silouan).

In his Foreword to one English edition of St Silouan’s Life, Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh writes (Foreword, The Monk of Mount Athos: Staretz Silouan 1866-1938, by Archimandrite Sophrony, trans. Rosemary Edmonds [London: Mowbrays, 1973], p. 5):

‘The splendour of God is a man fully alive.’ (St Irenaeus) Staretz Silouan was such a Man—truly, simply a Man in whom the Image of God, so badly distorted in most of us, appeared in strong relief, with great purity. A man who fulfilled his human calling in the strict, uncompromising way of Orthodox monasticism. . . . To meet a Man is the greatest experience one can have. Reading Archimandrite Sophrony’s book one can have this rare privilege. In our day when the words ‘spirit’ and ‘charisma’ are so badly misused, it is challenging to stand face to face with Staretz Silouan in whom the Spirit of God lived, moulding, teaching and enlightening him with all the sobriety, the reserve and shyness, but also the warm, outgoing love of God Himself.

To illustrate the words of these various important figures of 20th-c. Orthodoxy, I shall give four passages—two from the Life of the Saint, and two from his writings:

On the eve of a certain saint’s day Simeon set out with three other young guardsmen of his company to spend the evening in town. They went into one of the big, brightly-lit taverns of the capital where a band was playing noisily. Sitting down, they ordered food and drink, and a lively conversation sprung up in which Simeon, however, took little part. He was so silent that one of his companions turned to him and said,

‘You’re not very chatty, Simeon. A penny for your thoughts!’

‘I’m thinking that here we sit in a tavern, eating, drinking vodka, listening to the band and enjoying ourselves, while at this very hour on Mt Athos they are in church for vespers and will be at prayer all night. And I’m wondering which of us will put up the best defence before God’s Judgment-Seat—them or us?’

Simeon’s friend exclaimed,

‘What a fellow Simeon is! We sit listening to music and enjoying ourselves, while he is on Mt Athos and at the Last Judgment!’

And the guardsman’s suggestion that Simeon was ‘on Mt Athos and at the Last Judgment’ was true, not only of that particular moment when they were sitting in the tavern but of the whole period of his military service. (p. 19)

Among the stewards [of St Panteleimon Monastery] was a certain monk, Father P., who was outstandingly capable, yet somehow always unlucky—his initiatives usually met with no sympathy among the fathers, and his undertakings often ended in failure. One day, after such an enterprise had resulted in disaster, he was subjected to sharp criticism at the stewards’ table. Father Silouan was present with the others but took no part in the ‘prosecution’. Then one of the stewards, Father M., turned to him and said:

‘You are silent, Father Silouan. That means you side with Father P. and don’t care about the interests of the Monastery . . . You don’t care about the damage he has caused the community.’

Father Silouan said nothing, quickly finished eating and then went up to Father M., who by that time had also left the table, and said to him,

‘Father M.—how many years have you been in the Monastery?’


‘Have you ever heard me criticise anyone?’

‘No, never.’

‘Then why do you want me to begin on Father P.?’

Disconcerted, Father M. replied shamefaced:

‘Forgive me.’

‘God will forgive you.’ (p. 61)

It is interesting that in both of these stories, St Silouan keeps silent until pressed about his thoughts. When he speaks, what he says only reveals further the depths of his humility, but also the lofty spiritual plane on which he moved. According to Harry Boosalis’s study of the Saint, ‘In the writings of St Silouan the theme of humility is of primary importance’ (Orthodox Spiritual Life According to St Silouan the Athonite [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 2000], p. 100). It is no wonder, however, that this is so, for as St Silouan himself writes:

If all the world knew the force of Christ’s words, ‘Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Mt 11:29), then the whole world, the whole universe, would abandon all other knowledge for to study this heavenly science.

Men are ignorant of the power of Christ’s humility, and that is why they aspire to the things of this earth; but without the Holy Spirit they cannot know the force of these words of Christ. But he who has learned will never relinquish his knowledge, even were he to be offered all the kingdoms of the world. (p. 278)

And a bit further on, he writes:

Were we simple like children, the Lord would show us His paradise, and we would behold Him in the glory of the Cherubim and Seraphim, and of all the heavenly host, and the Saints, but we are not humble, and therefore we torment ourselves and those we live among. (p. 282)

This site has many wonderful links on St Silouan and Elder Sophrony. Among others, Theodouli Karambatakis, a dear friend of ours in Thessaloniki, and Fr Seraphim Bell, the pastor of the St Silouan parish I mentioned above, have co-translated a Greek Paraklesis for St Silouan from Simonopetra Monastery on the Holy Mountain, which is available here. But there is also the full Akolouthia translated from the French, from which I offer the final sticheron in Tone 4 before the Glory at Lauds:

O holy Father Silouan, thou hast been a tree growing in the vast sylvan abodes of all the monks of the Holy Mountain, and thou hast bowed under the breath of the Holy Spirit which filled thy life with knowledge and love of Christ our God. Intercede before Him that He may grant to our souls the radiant grace of His Spirit, and that He may have mercy on those who sing to thee.


David.R said...

Thank you for posting this. I had the blessing of visiting the monastery in Essex a few years ago. Fr Zacharias heard my confession and brought the relic of St Silouan out so I could venerate it. It was beautiful golden relic. I was at the monastery for about a week so I was able to spend long periods of time inside the crypt where Fr Sophrony is buried. Surprisingly it is a nice room, with lighted candles and fresh air, very quiet and peaceful. Fr Simeon showed me elder Sophrony's study and Fr Nicholas ( Elder Sophrony's nephew) showed me the elder's house, his kitchen, old typewriter and his room. I venerated his icons (hand-painted by the elder himself), sat on his recliner chair, what can I say, I sometimes wonder why me? Why should I be given these blessings? You know, all the monastics, monks and nuns gather together in church, twice a day to say the Jesus Prayer. The inside of the church is in total darkness, but the flickering of the candles reveal icons of angels, seraphim, cherubim, everywhere. It is a very holy place indeed and while you stand there, all you can hear around you is "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me" I wish more people from the US would go visit and support their monastery.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I'm really happy for the links you've provided here. I was thinking of looking for a prayer service to St. Silvanus today and I did not know where to look, and now I've found it. Thank you!

David.R said...

Do you know if the Akathist Hymn to St Silouan has been translated into English? I did find the Supplicatory Canon.

aaronandbrighid said...

Inner Kingdom (if I know your name, I've forgotten it--sorry!)> Thank you for your kind words. I only hope these posts honour the Saints in the slightest way.

David> I'm sure it has been. You should contact Fr Bell in Walla Walla and ask him. He would surely know.

aaronandbrighid said...

David> It looks like you may be able to get it from St John of Kronstadt Press.

David.R said...


Anonymous said...

Of course your posts honour the Saints!
Oh, and my name is Mary.

aaronandbrighid said...

Mary> Good to know! And thank you again.