Benedict, Sophrony, and Theosis

Every Sunday morning, I do a little bit of an introduction to the church season. In the vast sea from Trinity to Advent, that is usually a nearby saint’s feast. Last week, July 4, it was St Andrei Rublev (watch my video about his Trinity icon here), and today it was St Sophrony of Essex, who happens to share his feast (in the West, anyway) with St Benedict of Nursia.

St Sophrony (d. 1993) has a special place in my life because he was the founder of the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, and Archimandrite Zacharias, his successor there, is the spiritual father of my own mentor, Father Raphael of Edinburgh, Scotland. Besides drinking in wisdom and Greek coffee with Father Raphael, I have also read St Sophrony’s book His Life Is Mine, and I began St Silouan the Athonite a while back.

St Sophrony was a fashionable Russin emigre in early twentieth-century Paris who made fashionable modern art and was fashionably agnostic. He believed that somehow this art would be a source of transcendence — but in the end, he found true freedom in Christ and the Russian Orthodox faith of his homeland, and became and iconographer and monk, founding an oasis in the south of England (as they say, the only way is Essex).

His Life Is Mine is a book chiefly on prayer, about the human desire and encounter with God, Who Is. Who is Primordial Being. Who is Love. Who is Trinity. Who is the one, true hypostasis, persona. Whom we encounter because of the Incarnation and through contemplation, the beginning of which is repentance. In discussing theosis, St Sophrony writes:

The doctrine that man may become godlike … lies at the root of our Christian anthropology. As the image and likeness of the Absolute, man … transcends every other form of natural being. In prayer we glimpse in ourselves divine infinity not yet actualized but foreknown. Perfection of likeness … does not remove the ontological distance between God the Creator and man the created.

Perfection of likeness, of course, shall not be fully achieved here but in the hereafter — if at all. I wonder what St Sophrony would say to St Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of epektasis that our likeness to God will mean an infinite growth in perfection, since we are finite but God is infinite. It is important to observe that St Sophrony says that even if we do ever achieve a perfect likeness to God, the ontological gulf still exists.

This ontological gulf, that God is “holy, holy, holy”, that He is wholly Other, that he is being itself, is absolutely vital to keeping eastern Christian teaching on theosis in proper perspective. Some seem to think that theosis means we are perhaps swallowed up in God as in some versions of Hindu mysticism, or that we actually become part of God in a truly essential way, or something else. But the general description of our deification is done in the terms of St Gregory of Nyssa, who himself sparsely uses this terminology, who speaks largely of our union with God.

To whatever extent we become godlike, we never become God Himself, the Trinity Who Creates.

At the heart of this eastern Christian theosis as expressed in the life and teaching of St Sophrony, St Silouan, Archimandrite Zacharias, and Father Raphael is the Jesus Prayer (here’s my introductory post to this prayer). A main feature of the common prayer life of the Monastery of St John the Baptist is communal praying of the Jesus Prayer. I’ve done this at the Orthodox Church in Edinburgh, in fact. It is a different experience from the normal communal liturgical worship and from the solitary use of the Jesus Prayer. But it is good.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

As I said above, today is also the feast of another famous monk, St Benedict of Nursia, whose little rule for beginners designed for establishing a school for the Lord’s service has been one of the most influential volumes in western spiritual history, as it became the norm for Latin monasticism — his spiritual sons and daughters (that is, those who follow his rule) include not only those that are part of the Order of Saint Benedict but also the Cistercians and Trappists and some independent Orthodox monasteries. I’ve written about the Rule of St Benedict and about Benedictines a lot.

At his moment in history, in the mid-500s, St Benedict did not found an order but a monastery. There was no wider organisation than that. This is in keeping with the general tenor of late antique monasticism, that monasteries would form under a charismatic abbot and follow his rule whether written or unwritten. It is the basic form of Orthodox monasticism that they have no monastic orders, and every house or associated federation has its own monastic rule.

But if we’re pondering similarities between St Benedict and St Sophrony, although I’m sure they can be found in a variety of exterior facts related to their common heritage as monks and ascetics, I think the single most importan thing is a radical commitment to prayer. Compared to many other late antique and early medieval monastic rules, the Rule of St Benedict is actually fairly light in its burdens. However, this has been done precisely so that the brothers (or sisters) who live under the rule are capable of pursuing prayer. St Benedict goes into great detail over several chapters of the Rule about how the monastery’s prayer life is to be ordered. He also discusses how their attitude at prayer.

And what is the goal of prayer, of the monastic life? Here again, it is the same for St Benedict as for St Sophrony. To quote a famous line from Chapter 72 of St Benedict’s Rule:

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

Amen. Let us follow the example of these holy men on the path to everlasting life and theosis.

Seeking the incomprehensible life

I posted this quote to a group I’m part of on Facebook. It’s a group started by a friend who works for a mission organisation; his job is to help encourage, ignite, and equip disciple-making movements around the world. The group is largely focussed on how poorly we seem to be doing at this in the white Anglophone world. Part of the problem, my friend has postulated, is that we keep focussing on having “new wineskins”, but we’ve lost sight of the wine (Jesus the Christ) and keep offering Kool-Aid in new packaging.

Anyway, my contribution was the following passage from Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite:

Strange and incomprehensible to the world is the Christian life. Everything is paradoxical, everything contrary to the ways of the world, and there is no explaining it in words. The only way to understand is by doing the will of God — by observing Christ’s commandments. The way He Himself indicated. (p. 45)

I wrote that this passage “makes me wonder if we Protestants have spent too much time making ourselves comprehensible to the world and too little time pondering Our Lord’s commands.”

My friend who started the group pointed out that observing Christ’s commands from the Sermon on the Mount means moving our focus not only from murder to anger but as far as actively seeking reconciliation. I’m pretty sure that’s radically countercultural. I’m pretty sure most people tear into their enemies with anger or just avoid them. (I’m an avoider.)

Archimandrite Sophrony shows an example of this incomprehensible life in the all-consuming love for others that came upon St Silouan as a result of grace. St Silouan would weep for those who would end up in hell, and pray even for them. He once met a hermit who happily spoke of how the atheists would suffer in hell. St Silouan expressed his grief at this — how is this love for others, to rejoice at their suffering? (I’m sure David Bentley Hart would have some things to say about this, but I’m not one for debating about universal salvation.)

This feeling of sorrow for those who are outside of Christ, this all-encompassing love for others — this is what characterised St Silouan in his outward life. This was the result of his tireless pursuit of prayer, of God, of Christ our God.

In The Cloud of Unknowing, the author says that the increase of love for others is a result of contemplative prayer. The closer we are to Christ, the more we love other humans.

As the Internet increasingly polarises us, we must find ways to live out the radical commandments of love that Jesus gives us. Meditating on the Sermon on the Mount, as my friend suggests, is a place to start. Praying, praying, praying, as St Silouan did, is another.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going”

St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938)

Apparently, the title of this post is a Winston Churchill quotation; so says the Internet, anyway.

At present, things are going swimmingly for me. There is light, brightness, joy. You know, that sort of thing. At times like this, it is easy to put on a CD of hymns and sing along or simply listen in joy. It is easy to thank God for the victory. To see the promises of Scripture leap off the page and into my life.

But there has been darkness in the past.

There will be darkness in the future.

Times when prayer is dry. When God seems distant — not just ”Tis only the brightness of light hideth Thee’ distant, but ‘Are you even there?’ distant. Church (what a bore!). Other Christians? Ugh. Spiritual reading? Morning Prayer? No. Really, let’s just watch Star Trek and go to bed.

Historic, orthodox Christianity has plumbed the depths of such times, whether we think of the writings of St John of the Cross or the life of St Teresa of Calcutta.

Perseverance is the key. We read of St Silouan (1866-1938; born Simeon) about his own darkness:

Month after month went by and the torturing assaults of the devils never slackened. His spirits began to fail, he was losing heart, while despair and the fear of perdition gained ground. More and more often was he possessed by the horror of hopelessness. Anyone who has gone through something of the kind knows that no mere human courage or power can hold out in this spiritual battle. Brother Simeon foundered and reached the final stages of desperation. Sitting in his cell before vespers, he thought, ‘God will not hear me!’ He felt utterly forsaken, his soul plunged in the darkness of despondency. Sick at heart, he remained in this black hell for about an hour.

That same day, during vespers in the Church of the Holy Prophet Elijah …, to the right of the Royal Doors, by the ikon of the Saviour, he beheld the living Christ.

In a manner passing all understanding the Lord appeared to the young novice whose whole being was filled with the fire of the grace of the Holy Spirit — that fire which the Lord brought down to earth with His coming.

The vision drained Simeon of all his strength, and the Lord vanished. (Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite, pp. 25-6)

Few of us are blessed with anything approaching the beatific vision that St Silouan had at Vespers that evening. Indeed, many of us will find that we go to Vespers, or say our prayers, or turn up on Sunday after Sunday, almost unwillingly, and with no apparent change.

St John of the Cross says that this dark night exists as a means to help us grow in grace, in holiness, and in faith. The apparent absence of God is there to strengthen our weak souls. It is like a mother weaning her child. If we persevere in faith, we will come to richer, deeper, profounder love of God and our fellow humans.

This is real Christianity. This is not quick fix, Jesus-will-make-you-happy-rich-healthy religion. This is not pop psychology poorly applied by the underqualified. This is perseverance, seen in saints such as Silouan, John of the Cross, Mother Teresa. It involves pain, sorrow, grief.

But in the end, real joy, abiding peace, as we behold Our Saviour face to face in His glory.

Pentecost: ‘A fire goes before Him and burns up all his enemies’

The destructive force of fire at Fort McMurray

On Sunday, the minister preached about fire, about the Holy Spirit as fire, recalling some of the famous biblical images of fire, such as Elijah’s chariot of fire (2 Kings 2), the fire burning in the hearts of the disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35),  and the ‘fire’ of love that the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts. I do not dispute any of what was said, nor its significance. Nonetheless, I was drawn to fire of a different sort.

When I was a teenager, the song ‘The Lord Reigns‘ by Bob Fitts was very popular amongst youth in the Anglican Diocese of Calgary. One of the verses runs:

A fire goes before him
And burns up all His enemies
The hills they melt like wax at the presence of the Lord

If we think on the Psalms that inspired that song, such as Psalm 97, the allegorical reading of the Psalms as described by John Cassian (d. 430s; see my posts Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2) allows us, as Christians, to consider the enemies in question as not human but spiritual (like the Babylonian babies in Psalm 137:9) — sins, vices, demons. The enemies that the Lord’s fire consumes are within us; in the language of Cassian’s spiritual master, Evagrius of Pontus, these are logismoi; they are also the passions when disordered — but most importantly, they are sin when the logismoi and disordered passions incarnate themselves in our actions.

My thoughts were next drawn to the words of another song from my Albertan Anglican youth, by fellow Canadian Brian Doerksen, ‘Refiner’s Fire‘. I loved this song back in the 90s, and I still agree with its sentiment and the cry of the charismatic heart from which it issued. In Doerksen’s words, thousands of us have prayed for God to purify our hearts, to make us holy, to cleanse us from our sin (deep within) — using the image of a refiner’s fire, to make us pure like gold and precious silver.

I can only imagine that a refiner’s fire, and the crucible that rests in it, must be very, very hot.

And painful.

One of the facts about fire that was brought forth on Sunday is its destructive force, as in the recent wildfires in northern Alberta, most notably at Fort McMurray. We have all seen images in the past few weeks of these fires in action, and now photos of the devastation are starting to come in.

Doerksen’s prayer never made me uncomfortable when I was a teenager. Often, but neither always nor everywhere, the charismatic movement has been more interested in such purification as being comforting, as the warmth you feel in moments of ecstatic contemplation. And it can be. And it is.

But not always.

My readings in the ascetic and mystical tradition as an adult have made me realise that if we wish to enter a crucible (refiner’s fire) so as to emerge as gold (pure gold), or if we want, to quote another song from the Vineyard, ‘more love, more power, more of [God] in my life’, we will struggle for it — the dross wishes to remain. Our sin, the disorder of fallen passions, and the temptations of logismoi fight back at every turn. The daily battle with temptation and long, slow progress in holiness prove this.

None of this is to say that my minister and the charismatics are wrong. Rather, it is to see the purifying flame of the Holy Spirit from a different angle. One of the Desert Fathers says that prayer is struggle to your last breath. Another says that if you are not being tempted, this is because you are already sinning. The modern Athonite mystic Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex (d. 1993) says, in His Life is Mine, that living as a Christian will always mean struggle.

Our hearts are fickle. We need the fire of the Holy Spirit to come and destroy the Lord’s enemies in our lives; we need the fire of the Holy Spirit to come and melt us and burn away the dross in our hearts. And this will hurt as the Spirit burns away our tendencies towards gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, vainglory, and pride (to cite Evagrius’ and Cassian’s Eight Deadly Thoughts/logismoi, later shifted into Seven Deadly Sins by Gregory the Great).

Truly becoming holy will require struggle as we stand guard over our hearts. The fifth-century Egyptian monk St Isaiah the Solitary writes:

I entreat you not to leave your heart unguarded, so long as you are in the body. Just as a farmer cannot feel confident about the crop growing in his fields, because he does not know what will happen to it before it is stored away in his granary, so a man should not leave his heart unguarded so long as he still has breath in his nostrils. Up to his last breath he cannot know what passion will attack him; so long as he breathes, therefore, he must not leave his heart unguarded, but should at every moment pray to God for His help and mercy. -Ch. 15 of ‘On Guarding the Intellect: Twenty-Seven Texts’, in The Philokalia Vol. 1, p. 25, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware.

It will require struggle.

But it will be Good.

This is the path to holiness and freedom, and the Holy Spirit will not only purge but warm — the Paraclete will come alongside us to comfort us. As Theophan the Recluse (d. 1894) reminds us, while we need to do this work ourselves, it is precisely in the Spirit’s power that we are able to do it. Therefore, let us be of good cheer as we prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit to burn up all the Lord’s enemies and purify our hearts this Pentecost season. Yes, this burning flame will hurt — but it is the pain of a doctor curing a wound. We must not let desire for comfort and a life of cheap grace stand in the way of holiness and life abundant.