St. Silouan on Nietzsche

From Blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov’s book St. Silouan the Athonite. (“Staretz” is a Russian term for a spiritual elder, and the term is used affectionately by Elder Sophrony for his mentor and spiritual father.)

I remarked to the Staretz that there are people who interpret freedom from passion, not as love for God but as a particular kind of contemplation of being, ranking higher than distinguishing good from evil, and they rank such contemplation above Christian love. To this, the Staretz replied,

‘That comes from the devil. The Holy Spirit teaches otherwise.’

And listening to the Staretz, I could not help thinking to so-called ‘supermen’ who ascend ‘on the other side of good and evil’.

The Staretz used to say,

‘The Holy Spirit is love, and He gives the sould strength to love her enemies. And he who does not love his enemies does not know God.’

This last criterion occupied an absolutelyexclusive and incontestable place in the Staretz soul. He would say,

‘The Lord is a merciful Creator, having compassion for all. The Lord pities all sinners as a mother is compassionate with her children even when they take the wrong path. where there is no love for enemies and sinners, the Spirit of the Lord is missing.’ (104-5)

What follows is one of my favorite stories from  St. Silouan’s life that illustrates his exceeding love.

I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction,

‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’

Obviously upset, the Staretz said,

‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire — would you feel happpy?

‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.

The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance:

‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’

And he did, indeed, pray for all. It became unnatural for him to pray for himself alone. All men are subject to sin, all ‘come short of the glory of God’. The mere thought of this was enough to distress him — in the measure given to him he had already seen the glory of God and known what it was to fall short of it. His soul was stricken by the realization that people lived in ignorance of God and His love, and with all his strength he prayed that the Lord in His inscrutable love might suffer them to know Him. (48-49)

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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.

On Fr. Daniel Sysoyev the New Martyr

My didaskalos Dr. John Mark Reynolds makes some political points on the recent murder of the Russian priest Daniel Sysoyev by putting it in comparison to the Swiss minaret controversy. From his post on the Washington Post site:

There is a double standard and the Swiss voters knew it. The martyrdom of Christians in the Sudan, the work camps for Christians in China, the yearly martyrdom of Christians in North Korea, and the destruction of Coptic Christianity in Egypt is hardly a topic for polite conversation let alone passionate condemnation. Islamic radicals can kill Christians, the “secular” Turkish government can inhibit their freedom of religion, and Communist states can massacre them, and too little will be said.

Let Swiss voters ban minarets and we will rally to do something. Two wrongs do not of course make a right, but in a world of wrongs some are worth more outrage than others.

Father Sysoyev is dead in Moscow, but by all means let us condemn the Swiss voters loudly enough that we cannot hear his blood cry out for justice. If we look into it too hard, it might complicate the European energy picture.

If a good priest was killed for his opinions about Islam, it is far worse than a bad-zoning decision by fearful Swiss voters. If a good priest was killed for his opposition to the corruption in the Putin government, then this is far worse than banning minarets.

When we look at the future of religious freedom in the states, we need only to look to Europe.  Our crowns may be just around the corner.

While the ruthless murder of Fr. Daniel is a travesty and worthy of outrage, it is also something beautiful too.  If this is the future for Christians in then US, Glory to God! Read the letter written by Fr. Daniel’s wife:

Dear brothers and sisters, thank you for your support and prayers. This is the pain which cannot be expressed in words. This is the pain experienced by those who stood at the Cross of the Saviour. This is the joy which cannot be expressed in words, this is the joy experienced by those who came to the empty Tomb.O death, where is thy sting?

Fr Daniel had already foreseen his death several years before it happened. He had always wanted to be worthy of a martyr’s crown. Those who shot him wanted, as usual, to spit in the face of the Church, as once before they spat in the face of Christ. They have not achieved their goal, because it is impossible to spit in the face of the Church. FrDaniel went up to his Golgotha in the very church which he had built, the church to which he gave up all his time and all his strength. They killed him like the prophet of old – between the temple and the altar and he was indeed found worthy of a martyr’s calling. He died for Christ, Whom he served with all his strength.

Very often he would say to me that he was frightened of not having enough time, time to do everything. He was in a hurry. Sometimes, as a human-being he exaggerated, he got things wrong, he tripped up and made mistakes, but he made no mistake about the main thing, his life was entirely dedicated to HIM.

I did not understand why he was in a hurry. The last three years he was busy serving, never taking days off or taking holidays. I moaned, just now and again I wanted simple happiness, that my husband and my children’s father would be with my children and me. But another path had been prepared for him.

He used to say that they would kill him. I would ask him who would look after us. Me and the three children. He would answer that he would put us in safe hands. ‘I‘ll give you to the Mother of God. She’ll take care of you’.

These words were forgotten too soon. He told us which vestments to bury him in. Then I joked that there was no need to speak about that, we still did not know who would bury who. He said that I would bury him. Once our conversation turned to funerals, I don’t remember the details but I did say that I had never been to a priest’s funeral. And he answered that it did not matter because I would be at his funeral.

Now I remember many words which have gained a meaning. Now my doubts have dissolved, the misunderstandings have gone.

We did not say goodbye in this life, we did not ask each other forgiveness, we did not embrace one another. It was just another day: in the morning he went to the liturgy and I did not see him again. Why didn’t I go to the church that day to meet him? I had thought of it, but I decided I had better get the evening meal ready and put the children to bed. It was because of the children that I did not go there. There was a hand that did not let me go. But the evening before I had gone to the church and met him. I had felt as if dark clouds were gathering over us. And in the last few days I had tried to spend more time with him. Over the last week I had thought only about death and about life after death. I couldn’t get my head around either the first or the second. That day my head was spinning with the words: ‘Death is standing right behind you’. The last week everything was so hard, as if a huge load had been emptied out on top of me. I am not broken. He is supporting me, I feel as if he is standing by me. Then we said so many affectionate words, which we had never said to each other in our whole life before. Only now do I understand how much we loved each other.

The memorial service for the forty days of Fr Daniel takes place on the eve of his namesday and the patronal feast of the future church, 29 December, and 30 December is the feast of the holy prophetDaniel. According to the prophecy of an elder, the church would be built but Fr Daniel would not serve in it. The second part of the prophecy has already been fulfilled.

Matushka Julia Sysoieva

Translated by Fr. Andrew Phillips

St. Maximus on Philosophy

I’ve been working on a review of Derek Webb’s new album, Stockholm Syndrome, and an article on the recent OCA/ ACNA conference at Nashota House, but I wanted to briefly share a quote from St. Maximus the Confessor on the good of philosophy.  I ran into it while reading through Andrew Louth’s book on St. Maximus.

The passage is from Difficulty 10, which tries to dissolve the tension between philosophy and ascetic struggle, and the knowledge gained by both.  In a move characteristic of Orthodoxy, he refuses to allow the physical and the immaterial to be divorced from each other, calling to mind the reasonable movements of our bodies.

For the movement of the body is ordered by reason, which by correct thinking restrains, as by a bridle, any turning aside towards what is out of place, and the rational and sensible choice of what is thought and judged is reckoned to contemplation, like a most radiant light manifesting truth itself through knowledge.  By these two especially every philosophical virtue is created and protected and by them is manifest through the body, though not wholly.

Frankly, I was expecting  a move towards union in the opposite way; because philosophical investigation– like any other artistic act– is an act of ascetic striving.  The truth of this St. Maximus does not deny, and the union of reasoning in our daily bodily movements informs my more mundane observation.  Discipline in one’s physical actions reveals health in one’s rational and contemplative mind.  Rational movement is part of the prudent life. Prudence and profound thoughts are not just relatives, but close kin.

St. Maximus continues by talking of “the grace of philosophy” and how it wonderfully subtracts from our unfortunate state of disrepair.  Once rid of these entanglements we primed for the ascetical struggle that is so much of the righteous life.

For philosophy is not limited by a body, since it has the character of divine power, but it has shadowy reflections, in those who have been stripped through the grace of philosophy to become imitators of the godlike conduct of God-loving men.  Through participation in the Good they too have put off the shamefulness of evil to become worthy of being portions of God, through assitance they needed from those empowered, and having received it they make manifest in the body through ascetic struggle the virtuous disposition that is hidden in the depths of the soul.  So they become all things to all men and in all things make present to all the providence of God, and thus are a credit to God-loving men.

For Plato, Wittgenstein, and now St. Maximus, the role of philosophy is not to add something missing to the human being, but to keep us where we need to be: in humility, wonder, and holiness.

Saints and Monks Among Us

It  is an incredible thing to visit the incorupt body of St. John Maximovitch in San Francisco.  The nearness of such an incredible man is a shock to one’s system.  It’s like having cold water splashed on your spirit; you realize what is possible, what is near, and how dark you yourself are.  All this while experiencing hope, joy, and love.

I’ve had similar shocks from visiting monastics lately too.  Last month the elder Dionysius visited St. Seraphim with Metropolitan Jonah.  He came with some of  his spiritual children, whose love for mankind were apparent, and whose tenacity and devotion to God were tangible.  And I do mean tangible – the air was thick with it.  We were blessed to have a small dinner with the group of them, and to ask the elder questions.   For about an hour we sat at his feet – the Metropolitan, the Dean of a Seminary, a couple priests, and a couple families.  I have little more to say about that, except that it was loving and holy.

Nowadays there’s a distrust of monasticism, and for that matter, of holiness. I don’t claim to be an expert, but now that I have gotten to know the monks and nuns that walk among us, I find myself extremely reliant upon them.  The ones that I have met, I trust like an infant trust his mother.  I get this sense to from the books I’ve read, like The Mountain of Silence,  from the writings of the contemporary elders, and from the enlivened faces of my friends when they return from trips to monasteries.

In a time of scandal and fear, my experience cries for trust and obedience.  

Where I Fail in Prayer

What does it mean to pray?  In what sense is prayer “doing something”?  While I was convinced of this long ago, I’ve been learning (painfully) that prayer is an activity that encompasses all parts of who we are.  In other words, prayer is not just mental, it’s physical.  Prayer is not just where we are, it’s where we’ve been and where we’re going.  It’s not just what we say, it’s what we mean – and that is not divorced from what we do.  Says the Blessed Sophrony in his book On Prayer:

In our prayer we try to stand as a whole, uniting all our being, heart and mind most of all.  In order to achieve this blessed union of the two most important components of our personality we do not have recourse to any artificial means (psychotechnics).  To begin with we train the mind to continue attentive in prayer, as the Fathers teach – that is, carefully pronounce the Divine Name of Jesus Christ and the rest of the prayer.  Concentrated invocation of the Divine name together with unremitting effort to live one’s life in accordance with the Gospel commandments leads to a state where both mind and heart actually function together.

“Unremitting effort to live one’s life in accordance with the Gospel commandments” is where I fail in prayer.  I cannot pray always, as St. Paul commands, because of my hypocrisy.  Even on my knees, on my face, or in Church – when I am praying with the utmost of my capacity – to I fall short.  The rest of my life is suspect, so I my prayer life is handicapped.

It is not all bad news; progress can be made.  I hope that I am becoming a little less hypocritical, able to live the Gospel a little more each day.  I can also help my prayer life by working on other aspects of my life.  A friend once advised me to keep cans of food in my car, and hand them out to the homeless I drive past.  This, he said, was greatly influential in his prayer life.  

Progress is possible, but does not often come quickly.  This struggle, long and tedious, is precisely what the Christian life is.

It is essential to dismiss the idea of achieving the maximum result in the shortest time.  Experience down the centuries shows that fusion of mind and heart achieved psychotechnically never lasts long; and, more importantly, does not unite our spirit with the Spirit of the Living God.  Eternal salvation in the most profound sense is the question that lies before us.  For this our whole nature must be reborn, the carnal to become spiritual.  And when the Lord finds us able to take in His grace He is not slow to respond to our humble invocations.  His coming is sometimes so all-consuming that heart and mind are both completely occupied by Him only.  This visible world gives place to a reality of another, higher order.  The mind ceases to think discursively: it becomes all attention.  And the heart finds itself in a state difficult to describe: it is filled with fear but a reverent, life-giving fear.  Breathing is restrained: God is seen both within and without.  He fills all things, all of man: mind-spirit, heart-feeling and even the body, all together, live only through God.

“Oh Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy upon us and upon Thy world.” (On Prayer, 153-4)