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.

Encountering God

St Gregory Palamas

This Monday I lectured about St Basil the Great (330-379), and the discussion portion of the evening was reserved for his treatise On the Holy Spirit. One of the facts that I brought up in St Basil’s response to Eunomius of Cyzicus was the fact that, contrary to Eunomius’ thought, Basil teaches that we cannot actually know anyone perfectly according to their essence. Our knowledge of other persons is derived from their activities — what they say, what they do, how they react to what we say, etc., etc. We can learn about the essence of another person from his or her activities, but the activities are what we experience directly.

Eunomius, on the other, was understood by his opponents to say that we can know God according to His essence — and a proper understanding of accurate doctrine, the sound use of words, was part of this. God, according to essence, for the Eunomian, is unoriginated, for example. Knowing this helps bring us closer to the actual essence of God.

The word used by St Basil for “activities” is energeiai. As I drafted my notes, my mind was drawn inevitably to St Gregory Palamas (1296-1357/59), almost a millennium later. I’ve blogged about the essence/energies distinction in Palamite theology before. Twice, in fact. Being a lumper rather than a splitter, I thought it was worth bringing this Byzantine moment into the lecture itself, to show my students the ongoing trajectories of these things, but also bringing up the difference between Palamas and St Thomas Aquinas on this point — and noting that we Protestants have no official position here.

In mentioning Palamas and his use of this distinction, I mentioned the hescyhastic controversy and the encounter monks of Mount Athos had had with what they deemed the uncreated light, the energy of God.

I’d like to note here that St Gregory Palamas, in fact, uses St Basil, On the Holy Spirit as a source:

The divine supraessentiality is never named in the plural. But the divine and uncreated grace and energy of God is indivisibly divided, like the sun’s rays that warm, illumine, quicken and bring increase as they cast their radiance upon what they enlighten, and shine on the eyes of whoever beholds them. In the manner, then, of this faint likeness, the divine energy of God is called not only one but also multiple by the theologians. Thus St Basil the Great declares: ‘What are the energies of the Spirit? Their greatness cannot be told and they are numberless. How can we comprehend what precedes the ages? What were God’s energies before the creation of noetic reality?’

St Gregory Palamas, Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Texts, ch. 68, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, The Philokalia, Vol. 4, p. 377, citing St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, ch. 19.49

The point being made at this particular moment in Palamas is that the energy, the activity, of God is single and fully united yet still able to achieve multiple effects. This particular Palamite treatise, apologetics for the hesychasts, is, in fact, replete with references to the Cappadocians and Chrysostom.

The central argument of Topics of Natural and Theological Science is that the light the hesychasts have encountered is the uncreated light of God, the energy of God, the activity of God, existing with God before creation, and not a created grace sent from God as a blessing (which is what the more Thomist-Aristotelian Barlaam would argue, it seems).

How do we encounter God in that uncreated light? The approach comes up in the name for these monks — hesychasts, those who pursue hesychia, defined by the translators of the Philokalia thus:

a state of inner tranquillity or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepened by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of heart and intellect. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him.

The Philokalia, vol. 4, p. 435.

What one of my students wanted to know was the relation of hesychia and meeting God in that place of stillness to the wider Christian life. The short version of my answer was that meeting God in stillness, in your prayer closet (cf. Mt 6:6) always results in greater love for other humans, but that the life with other humans is part of the life with God. (As my answers tend to do, it ranged widely: The Cloud of Unknowing, Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, St Basil the Great, St Silouan the Athonite, St John of the Cross.)

This is the tension of the Christian spiritual life. To make our eastern hesychastic vision almost up-to-date, St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) spent time as an almost-hermit in his monastery where he could pray as much as and whenever he wanted. He later spent time as steward of the monastery, where he had to adapt his prayer life to meet the schedule and demands of this role, a large part of which was organising and overseeing the lay brothers who worked for the monastery. He found greater satisfaction in the latter role, despite the reduced times for prayer. As St Basil says, how can we fulfil the command to love our neighbour if we spend all our time alone?

God is encountered in silence alone. God is encountered in community.

In closing, one of the driving forces behind the theologians covered in my Nicaea course is the true encounter with God that the Christian has, whether as a member of the mystical body of the Incarnate Christ as St Athansius’ shows in On the Incarnation and the Life of St Antony, or as a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit as St Basil shows in On the Holy Spirit. The Christian life, then, is an encounter with the Triune God, and this is what they were trying to put into words.

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.

Living tradition

A Gathering of the Holy Fathers

I am reading Gabriel Bunge’s book Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, and he is discussing what tradition is and how it works in the first chapter. Tradition is much-contested ground ever since the days of the Reformation when everyone, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic (for want of better words), was trying to sift through the mass of the deposit as it stood in the midst of Renaissance decadence, late mediaeval scholasticism, corruption amongst clerics and princes alike, and true devotion.

Which parts were true devotion? And which true devotion was rightly placed? Which parts of this deposit are either apostolic by antiquity or at least Spirit-driven consequences of apostolic tradition, which are man-made things to be abandoned, and which are adiaphora?

These debates are often framed in terms of pitting Scripture and tradition against each other. In Browne’s very capable Victorian book about the 39 Articles, he makes a good case against there being an oral tradition of things not in Scripture that must, nevertheless, be believed. In good Anglican form, he is careful to state that the tradition of exegesis and liturgy, especially of the Fathers, is important for devotion and the right interpretation of Scripture, but nothing independent of Scripture is to enjoined upon Christian souls as essential for salvation.

In these terms, tradition seems fairly dead, doesn’t it?

But, as the Eastern Orthodox apologists like to point out, we are all part of traditions, even Baptists at Bible study.

Bunge’s idea of tradition is something different:

The meaning and purpose of preserving the “tradition” is, then, for the Fathers, just as it was for the first “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, not an unthinking adherence to what has been handed down, but the preservation of a living fellowship. (p. 24, emphasis original)

Two years ago, the book I read on the bus to visit my wife and son at hospital after he was born was Archimandrite Zacharias’ book Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony. I was given this book by Father Raphael, from whom I have received much spiritual insight. The main source for Archimandrite Zacharias’ teaching is actually sacred Scripture, but the second-most popular citation in the notes is Elder Sophrony, followed by St Silouan the Athonite. Elder Sophrony was Archimandrite Zacharias’ spiritual father, and St Silouan was Sophrony’s.

As I read the book, I felt like I was encountering a living tradition, not simply a bunch of facts handed down, but an entire way of life, from Athos to Essex. In fact (now that I write it), Archimandrite Zacharias is Father Raphael’s spiritual father (after the falling asleep of Father John [memory eternal!]), and if I were Orthodox, I would hope Father Raphael would be humble enough to accept the challenge of being my spiritual father.

Tradition is the encounter and fellowship with those who have gone before, seeking to live and apply their encounter with Jesus to our circumstances now.

One of the richest loci for the tradition is, of course, the liturgy. As Father Andrew Louth points out in Discerning the Mystery, when St Basil the Great discusses the unwritten tradition of the church in On the Holy Spirit, the things he talks about are all liturgical.

Given that I am now reading Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, this point takes on a new kind of resonance. The Prayer Book was a way in which Christians of Cranmer’s world were able to accept that fellowship with what has gone before, but also sift through it, seeking what had gone awry (a task Rome was also doing; let’s not fight that fight today). I have written on the catholicity of the Prayer Book before, but it is worth repeating. When we pray with the Book of Common Prayer in spirit and in truth, we truly join in fellowship with the Christians of the centuries who have also used so many of those forms, from (at the latest) the Apostolic Tradition (modern attribution: Hippolytus of Rome, mid-200s), whether in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Old Church Slavonic, Elizabethan English.

We also, with greater specificity, join with the Anglicans around the world and through the centuries (until the liturgical movement of the later 20th century), whether in Australia or Kenya or Canada or Canterbury. We enter into that fellowship of faith, a Reformational liturgy rooted in the catholic tradition (note the lower-case c).

Arguably (and here perhaps I  become controversial), inasmuch as the Prayer Book’s theology is an attempt to restore to prominence certain apostolic and Augustinian themes obscured in England at the time of the Reformation, we could also argue that in using it we find ourselves in the august company of St Paul and St Augustine.

At prayer, we seek God. And God comes to us. We find ourselves in communion, in fellowship with Him, and through Him, with the Christians through the centuries who have also sought Him. And if we choose to submit ourselves to them in our own seeking of God, to fellowship with them — then that is living tradition.

“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.