The Universal Experience of Christ: Elder Sophrony and Saint Seraphim

Who has not stood in awe at an approaching storm; the air vibrating with immeasurable energy? Likewise, who has not uttered with the psalmist, upon God’s marvelous approach, “I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength; the Lord is my foundation and my refuge?” In this moment, we are charged with “power from on high” and we “leap over every wall.” Yet, invariably the storm reaches us with blinding force and we cry out, “the pangs of death surround me and the pangs of Hades encircle me.” God makes “darkness His hiding place” and before our eyes pass “clouds, hail and coals of fire.” Despairing of life, we fall on our faces yet God returns, now swiftly, to ‘rekindle our lamp’ and ‘enlighten our darkness’ and we are speechless with joy. Such is the theme of the spiritual life; recapitulated in the lives of the saints of every generation. Among our own generation, this theme has been developed with especial clarity in the life and writings of Elder Sophrony. This paper will summarize Elder Sophrony’s teachings on the three stages of the spiritual life and then examine these motifs as witnessed in the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

The student of theology will undoubtedly be familiar with the tripartite scheme of deification: purgation, illumination, and Theosis. This approach is helpful in that it reveals the effects of grace. However, those who find themselves thrown upon the boundless ocean of the spiritual life spare little consideration towards the eternal significance of the events they are witnessing. Instead, their hearts are wholly attuned to God’s perceptible presence or withdrawal and their life consists in a parallel of either bliss or agony. In this milieu, Elder Sophrony offers a pattern for the spiritual life based on three modes of grace: the first imparting of grace, the withdrawal of grace, and the return of grace. Archimandrite Zacharias, a close disciple of Elder Sophrony, points out that the grace of God simultaneously cleanses, enlightens, and divinizes. Thus, to speak of the spiritual life in distinct progressions is problematic. The spiritual life is infinitely variable. Fr. Sophrony likens it to a sphere, “whatever point of it we touch puts us into contact with the whole.” To touch this sphere, this ‘mountain’ can at certain times be breathtakingly luminous, at other times tremulous and terrifying. The next few paragraphs will discuss in further detail the three modes of grace that the Christian will encounter as he sets off in his ‘adventure with God.’

Man begins his voyage over the unchartered waters of the Spirit, knowing not “wither he goeth.” Elder Sophrony, in his spiritual autobiography, We Shall See Him As He Is, recounts, “no initiative of mine provoked the happenings in my inner life.” Arch. Zacharias firmly insists “that there are no plans in the spiritual life.” We first encounter grace when least expected and wholly unmerited. God comes to us; warms our heart and opens to us horizons of existence unimaginable in our previous state. John the Theologian writes, “herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He [first] loved us.” Elder Sophrony likens this first outpouring of grace to “unrighteous mammon,” a free gift, rained upon the just and the unjust, the righteous and the sinner. Falling upon good soil, grace nourishes the rose of ‘first-love.’ The heart grows and blossoms into an unrestrained zeal and infinite energy to “run the way of the commandments.” Everything appears beautiful in the springtime of this newly found life. Prayer flows easily and passions lie sedated. Nevertheless, such grace cannot be called one’s own and without exception every voyage must pass “through the valley of the shadow of death.”

St. Isaac, in his homilies, vividly describes the affliction brought to the soul as she enters the second stage: “At times our soul is suffocated and is, as it were, amid the waves; and whether a man reads the Scriptures, or performs his liturgy [. . .] he receives darkness upon darkness.” When a man is in the bliss of his ‘first-love’ he can easily fall into the error of attributing those free gifts to his own efforts. The second mode of grace therefore chokes from man’s soul any self-assurance. Yet, the causes and results of the second stage are infinite. Arch. Zacharias asserts, “the withdrawal of grace, the state of God-forsakenness, is a stage through which a man must pass if he is to be freed from the curse of the Fall and sin.” He adds, “the tormented grief which takes hold of man’s whole existence wells forth in abundant tears, which cleanse, heal and reintegrate his corrupt nature.” During this period of darkness, there is also a stripping away of concepts and a casting aside of the imaginative faculties. St. Gregory, in his Life of Moses, speaks of “leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees.” Nothing created can substitute for the Presence of which the soul has been deprived.

It is crucial to realize that this frightful second period is a charismatic event, no less an action of God than the first grace. If misunderstood, we are in danger of underestimating the power of God present in this mystery, perceiving it simply as a psychological phenomenon such as clinical depression. To remedy this misconception, a description of Elder Sophrony’s personal experience will suffice as evidence of the absolute reality of the saint’s experience of hell during the withdrawal of grace. Arch. Zacharias says of his elder, “when he went to the desert, sometimes for weeks he would not rise from the floor to look through the hole of his cave, whether it was day or night, but he was there, on the floor, weeping.” Elder Sophrony further relates, “aversion [to myself] begat prayer of singular desperation which plunged me into an ocean of tears. I could not imagine any possible cure for myself—there was no way of transforming my ugliness into the likeness of His beauty.”

Understanding the correlation between the vision of God and the charismatic revelation of the soul’s sinfulness is paramount to understanding this second mode of grace. Arch. Zacharias writes, “The greater the enlightenment, the clearer becomes the vision of the hell he is living in, that is the space deprived of the grace of God.” Judging by this ‘law’ of the spiritual life, we can hypothesize that the greater the grace given to a person at the beginning of their struggle, the deeper the hell they will experience in the ‘dark night’ of the second period. It is likewise important to note that ‘personal’ sin, as perceived by the human mind, has little to do with this phenomenon. Grace can obviously withdraw because of personal sin, but by no means is it exclusively so. St. Maximus the Confessor relates four reasons why grace is withdrawn, three of which have nothing pertaining to personal sin. Elder Sophrony, with all the saints, experienced sin on an ontological level and their repentance and desperate prayer was (and is) for the whole of humanity whom they recognize as being hypostatically and inseparably linked to their own being.

The theme of the spiritual life is developed through an infinity of variations. Man’s heart, in the second stage, becomes a tight knot gazing with fixed eyes upon the hell he finds inside himself. He exhibits the utmost tension between the wish to fulfill the commandments and the realization that all our works appear as filthy rags before the purity of God’s presence. Then, suddenly everything changes. Elder Sophrony relates that in his own hour of darkness, “quite unexpectedly, it seemed as if a fine needle pierced the thick wall, and a ray of Light gleamed through the hairline crack.” St. Isaac confirms this, saying, “God does not leave the soul in these things an entire day [. . .] but He speedily provides her with an ‘escape.’” A man slowly learns to stay his course through the vacillations of the spiritual life and to avoid being continually “tossed by the wind.” The spiritual life is in a perpetual state of flux between the first and second modes, between loss and recovery of grace. In this instability, it is difficult to view one’s progress towards the longed for shore. The primary concern at this time is simply to keep one’s head above water. However, to those made perfect in the crucible of God’s love, there is a defining moment when they come in sight of their safe harbor and pass from created existence to “those things which cannot be shaken.”

Regarding the third and final mode of grace, “It would be easier . . . to keep silence in fear.” Who can describe the man who has become the ‘place’ of God? Arch. Zacharias writes, “Having struggled justly and lawfully in the mystery of the chastening of the Lord, the riches entrusted to man in the beginning [. . .] now become his very own possession.” In the ‘hour of death,’ the saint convinces God that he is His and in return God’s voice resounds, “thou art My son, this day have I begotten thee.” The morning star dawns in the heart of man and he goes to his true work; becoming a collaborator with God in the salvation of the whole world. This re-birth in no wise constitutes a mode of being devoid of all suffering. In fact, Saint Silouan affirms that, “the greater the love, the greater the suffering.” Nonetheless, this suffering is for the salvation of the whole world and there is no pain of division in it. Man has become a dwelling place for the Beloved and no attack threatens his peace, for his mind has been lost in God.

To every man and to every generation, Christ bids, “If anyone will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” And those who respond to his call are glad to follow him “withersoever He goeth,” even unto hell. Arch. Zacharias maintains that “one cannot be holy, a friend and a disciple of the Teacher [. . .] if one has not traversed this road to the end.” This law being universal we should expect to see its three-fold structure displayed in the lives of each saint. In fact, it is a marvelous wonder to see the unanimity and confirmation of this guiding principle in countless generations of Christ’s disciples. With what freshness and stunning accuracy, pertaining to our own spiritual lives, do we find the words of St. Isaac, spoken well over a millennium ago? Likewise stands St. Anthony, whose struggles mirror so closely the saints of our own day. Compare, for example, Anthony’s victory over the devil by pondering on the threat of punishment by fire, and Christ’s words to St. Silouan: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not.” In closer confirmation of the universality of this pattern is our beloved St. Seraphim of Sarov, to whom the remaining pages will be devoted.

From a very early age, St. Seraphim was shown to be a ready receptacle of God’s grace. When only ten, Seraphim (then Prokhor) fell gravely ill. Doctors left little hope for his recovery. Then one night, he was visited in his dreams by the Theotokos, who promised to soon heal him. It so happened that within a few days the revered, wonderworking, Kursk Root icon, past by Seraphim’s house. Seraphim was brought out to venerate our Lady’s image and afterwards quickly recovered. A similar event occurred during his noviate at the Sarov monastery. Having received such grace at the beginning, nonetheless Seraphim’s way was by no means sure. Elder Sophrony, in like manner, received an outpouring of grace while still young; beholding the Uncreated Light when only a child. Yet, he was in no wise spared from the assault of the enemy and wandered from the faith for seven years, afterwards repenting bitterly. Seraphim would also be sorely tried.

In the beginning, St. Seraphim, in the power of his ‘first-love,’ went from strength to strength. God had given him many talents and he returned them ten-fold. The first stage of his journey reached its pinnacle when St. Seraphim was granted a vision of Christ. Valentine Zander, in her hagiography of the saint, relates that at the Liturgy of Holy Thursday, the young deacon Seraphim “saw our Lord Jesus Christ in his aspect of Son of Man, appearing in dazzling glory surrounded by the heavenly host.” St. Seraphim afterward remained speechless but his heart “overflowed with joy.” The event possesses a remarkable resemblance to St. Silouan’s own vision of Christ. In both instances, Christ appeared to the ascetics while they were still in their spiritual youth, granting them tremendous grace and then disappearing into the icon to the right of the Royal Doors. Both St. Seraphim and St. Silouan were untried in the spiritual life, the vision being offered as a pure gift. Nonetheless, the vision would prove for both absolutely essential for their subsequent prodigious struggles.

St. Seraphim lived in his first-love for a number of years after his vision. He become wondrously sensitive to the currents of the Spirit and its gentle voice continually strengthened the ramparts of his watchfulness. Thus, it was with crushing horror that St. Seraphim immediately perceived the departure of that Comforter. Why grace was withdrawn from St. Seraphim is unclear. Several of his biographers mention that a position of abbot was offered to him in a neighboring monastery and that Seraphim refused. Elder Sophrony maintains that the saint noticed a certain bitterness after this event and that this kind of sadness grieved the Holy Spirit. Regardless of the exact reasons, it is certain, from what has been said before, that none of Christ’s followers can avoid the path “through the valley of the shadow of death.” It is also clear from a number of his biographies that St. Seraphim was indeed made bereft of that extraordinary grace that was given to him at the beginning.

Iulia de Beausobre, in her book Flame in the Snow, takes special pains to make this point clear. Her description of St. Seraphim’s struggles as a hermit, while departing from the narratives of many other biographers, perfectly illustrates the events of the second mode of grace and are closely aligned with Elder Sophrony’s own perspective on the saint’s life. Iulia relates, “A dark, cold abyss, [which] he harbored within himself without knowing it, had unveiled.” Over this abyss hovered two choices and “in his greatest hour, his hour of free choosing, melancholy ruled Seraphim.” One choice was to offer thanks to God and to be a judge his own unworthiness. The other choice, writes Iulia, “grown from a spark of original pride, was a dark body of blasphemy, streaked with gelid lighting of despair, it spread tentacles to embrace, to imprison, Seraphim.” A storm of thoughts assailed him: “Curse the creator for the agony of the created.” Attacked from without and seeing the hell within, “Seraphim despaired of God.”

This struggle lasted for a thousand days and a thousand nights. Iulia describes the turning point in the following words:

It is astonishing how perfectly Iulia describes this event in the terms of Elder Sophrony’s vision. It is precisely in the second stage that the saint becomes a fellow traveler with Christ, is crucified and seemingly forsaken by God, and journeys “withersoever He goeth” even into the dark regions of hell. And likewise, it is only through and by means of this downward journey that union with our incarnate God is found and man is raised to sit with the Son at the right hand of the Father.

“Slowly, very slowly,” Iulia concludes, “the enclosing darkness was overcome. Out of the place called Seraphim, the light of the Spirit shone.” It is commonly known to what heights and riches Seraphim was raised after this period. His famous conversation with Motovilov and his appearance to him in the Light of Tabor is but one example. His own consolation became the consolation of others and his acquisition of peace became the salvation of thousands. Yet, this peace that St. Seraphim so eloquently described through his life cannot be separated from the hell from which it was unearthed. We cannot forget for a moment that St. Seraphim preserved this peace in the crucible of humility. He himself said, “He who sheds tears of compunction has his heart illumined by the rays of the Sun of Righteousness.” Arch. Zacharias adds, “we are only at peace for as long as our heart is in the pain of repentance.” In reality, the grace of the third stage is humility, the re-birth of a man into the likeness of Him who “hid the splendor of His majesty and concealed His glory with humility.” For, as St. Isaac says, “humility is the raiment of the Godhead.”

Being aware of the natural ebb and flow of the spiritual life can help us weather the storms that will inevitably roll over us on the sea of life. Without this knowledge, one can quickly despair after the bliss of the first stage is replaced by the darkness of the second. Knowing that this ‘dark night’ is absolutely essential for spiritual growth can transform abandonment into a chance to prove our true fidelity. Witnessing how even the greatest of saints did not avoid this path can remedy the misconception that these were somehow immune to such afflictions as we ourselves encounter. Certainly, St. Seraphim plunged to a depth unimaginable for us. Nevertheless, their course should not altogether be foreign to our own experience. In measure, their path to salvation must be recapitulated in each of our lives. There is no other way.

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