Elder Sophrony: Crossing the Abyss

During his life the Elder Sophrony Sakharov lived an intense yet hospitable life: a life characterized by love.  This love appears clearly in his writings.  They are both warm and personal, strong and soaring.  They invite and challenge.  I believe he was able to do this largely because his vision was expanded by suffering, the kind of suffering that is common to all humanity and especially common to the people of this present age.  Meaninglessness.

Consider these sections from a chapter from his book His Life Is Mine entitled “The Bliss of Knowing the Way”. Pardon the length, cutting out anything at all was exasperating.  You can read the whole chapter here.

Those with no experience of prayer find it hard to believe how prayer broadens the horizons of the spirit. Sometimes prayer consumes the heart like fire; and when the heart succumbs to the burning flame, unexpectedly there falls the dew of divine consolation. When we become so conscious of our frailty that our spirit despairs, somehow, in an unknown fashion, a wondrous light appears, proclaiming life incorruptible. When the darkness within us is so appalling that we are paralysed with dread, the same light will turn black night into bright day. When we properly condemn ourselves to eternal infamy and in agony descend into the pit, of a sudden some strength from Above will lift our spirit to the heights. When we are overwhelmed by the feeling of our own utter nothingness, the uncreated light transfigures and brings us like sons into the Father’s house.

How are these contrasting states to be explained? Why does our self-condemnation justify us before God? Is it not because there is truth in this self-condemnation and so the Spirit of Truth finds a place for Himself in us?

Even remote contact with the Divine releases the soul from all passions, including envy, that vile offspring of pride. The man who continues with a humble opinion of himself will be given greater knowledge of the mysteries of the world to come. He will be delivered from the power of death. United through prayer with Christ, he realises that in eternity the whole content of being will belong to him, too, through the perpetual dwelling in him of the Holy Spirit- of the Trinity, it would be truer to say. Father, Son and Holy Spirit will make Their abode with him. By virtue of this, every good or word or deed, from whatever source, will become part of his eternal divinised life. Thus, in the words of St Paul ‘as having nothing yet we possess all things’ (2 Cor. 6.10). If anyone performs deeds to the glory of God which bring him both temporal and eternal renown, the man of prayer feels not envy but joy at our common salvation. My brother’s glory will be my glory, also. What blessedness to behold fellow humans radiant with the Holy Spirit! Yet even this is but a pale reflection of our joy in the Kingdom to come where, in a superabundance of love which never diminishes, the spirit of man will embrace the fulness of god-man being.

Let us not forget, however, that the way to this superabundant love lies through the depths of hell. We must not be afraid of this descent since without it plenitude of knowledge is unobtainable.

Sometimes the trials and difficulties which befall put us in the position of a traveller who suddenly finds himself on the edge of an abyss from which it is impossible to turn back. The abyss is the darkness of ignorance, and terror at being captive to death. Only the energy of a saintly despair will get us across. Upheld by some mysterious strength, we cast ourselves into the unknown, calling upon the Name of the Lord. And what happens? Instead of smashing our heads against unseen rocks, we feel an invisible hand gently carrying us over, and we come to no harm. Throwing ourselves into the unknown means trusting to God, having let go of all hope in the great ones of the earth and setting off in search of a new life in which first place is given to Christ.

Traversing the abyss of the unknown can also be likened to swinging along a cable stretched from one side to the other. The hands of Christ crucified link the far ends of the abyss. The soul that has been given the dread privilege of travelling along this cable can find no words to describe it, just as those who have passed beyond the grave cannot tell us of their experience on the new plane.

The spiritual vision just outlined dissolves into contemplation of the crucified Christ. His arms are outstretched to gather all peoples into one, to link the far concerns of the world; His body, hanging on the cross, forms a stupendous bridge between earth and heaven. Uniting in Himself both God and Man, He calls upon us to follow in His steps. It is not a simple matter to portray what meets the spiritual eye at such times. Just as a heavy body precipitated beyond the range of terrestrial gravity becomes subject to the mechanics of space and moves at a speed impossible on the surface of the earth, so it is with our spirit when prayer in its upsurge towards God overcomes the passions which pin us down, to move in the luminous sphere of the Divine and contemplate the sublime and hitherto unknown. In the depths of our consciousness we apprehend the unoriginate Truth, and the Spirit testifies to our immortality. Thus the first dread vision of darkness and mortality changes to a vision of light and life indestructible.

At first the struggle for prayer seems to be beyond our strength but if she persists the soul will eventually be able to contain within herself at the same time sorrow and joy; despair and hope. There is no more alternating between elation and depression, since all states are gathered into a single whole. Through knowledge of God the soul has acquired profound peace.

O God and Father, without beginning;
Thou Who art blessed throughout all ages;
Who hast revealed unto us the mystery
of the way of Thy salvation:
Renew our nature, by Thy Word abiding in us,
and make us the temple of Thy Holy Spirit,
that being ever guarded by Thy might
we may give glory to Thee in a worthy manner,
now and for ever.

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Wittgenstein summarizes Chesterton

From Philosophical Investigations.

129.

The aspect of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.  (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all.  Unless that fact has at some time struck him. — And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.

Philosophy’s valuable bumps

What is philosophy good for? People often read Wittgenstein as deconstructing the usefulness of philosophy; and I suppose that is sort of true. As any philosophy majoy will tell you, philosophy is not particularly useful.  They will, however, tell you that it is incredibly valuable.  Wittgenstein helps make this clear; and here’s a little section from Philosophical Investigations to that effect.

The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language.  These bumps make us see the value of the discovery. (PI, #119)

It bears mentioning here that the value of a thing is also a thing that is discovered by the philosophical act of “simply put(ting) everything before us, and neither explain(ing) nor deduc(ing) anything”.  That is, to be precise, that value is something real that is seen, as opposed to something invented or made up. Philosophy is useful in that it helps us value things that should be valued, and enjoy things that should be enjoyed.  In short, it helps us live well.  But it will not help us with smaller projects.  When it is commandeered for that purpose, it simply becomes something that gets in the way. That is why Wittgenstein says about a page later that “(i)f  one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree with them.” (PI, #128)