Elder Sophrony: The Grace of Godforsakenness and the Dark Night of the Soul
Christ is the true Light, which enlightens every man that comes into the world (Jn. 1:9). Therefore, we can confidently say that no man has ever been born, whether in village or in city, whether in times present or times past, who has not tasted and seen that the Lord is Good (cf. Ps. 34:8). In varying degrees and in diverse ways all have experienced God’s Light, though only for an instant or with their last breath. It then follows that all have likewise tasted the experience of being forsaken by God. Though seldom comprehended, the vast majority in fact spend their life in a state of Godforsakenness. Having been visited by Light, we loved darkness (cf. Jn. 3:19) and God, respecting our freedom, has withdrawn. Throughout the ages, certain men and women have preserved the Light and been a light to others. However, the world as a whole has sunk deeper and deeper into darkness. The tender flame flickers, then dies out. Finding itself in darkness, the world cries out in pain, “God is dead.”
I recall, while still quite young, encountering the figure of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) by means of his 9th and final symphony (1909). I remember being struck by the tragedy of his life, woven with the remarkable intensity of his genius into the fabric of his music, “Hope and despair . . . held in uneasy equilibrium.” Mahler’s heart, it seemed to me, burst with a thirst for life, for the beauty of creation and for its Maker, but also the knowledge that all he loved would be blotted out by his imminent death. In the first movement, the orchestra repeats over and over again the motif from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (1908), “Ewig, Ewig . . . (Eternally, Eternally . . .).” But, there is no eternity for Mahler. He is resigned to bitter reality. There is no God and life is a mad farce. In the last movement, the music dies out completely to nothing, it is the final breath.4 If only God were not dead!
The image of Mahler in pained acceptance of a reality in which there was no God, no eternity, and no truth struck me with especial force because the impression was mirrored in my own life at the time. I had lost the faith of my childhood and in the absence of any guiding Light I failed to see any purpose in a life that could only end in death. On more than one occasion, I thought of putting an end to the “mad farce.” All truth appeared relative and all religion seemed no more than a senseless battle between these relatives “truths.” Only much later did I learn the cause for the crisis of my faith: I had forsaken Christ-God.
Genuine faith requires that we preserve a “spiritual and divine sensation” (νοερὰ καὶ Θεία αἴσθησις). Faith is not the acceptance of logically proven facts, it is sight transformed by a “spiritual and divine sensation”, it is a mind that has tasted and seen that God is and that there is no One like Him. Mahler, and so many like him, simply lost this “spiritual and divine sensation,” and hence lost their faith. I cannot begin to express my gratitude that God did not abandon forever, but once more freely poured His grace upon me, and led me to the feet of Elder Sophrony.
Elder Sophrony’s personal experience of Godforsakenness, his witness of both its horror and benefit, spoke with overwhelming strength. I remember driving home from a short retreat that I had made to a nearby monastery. I had picked up Elder Sophrony’s His Life is Mine and begun to read it. I was listening to Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe and pondering on Elder Sophrony’s powerful words. At some point, the gravity and expanse of the life to which Elder Sophrony was witness dawned upon me and I was overcome with awe. Since that event, the word of Elder Sophrony has been an ever-widening horizon and a constant source of inspiration. I have found that Elder Sophrony’s life and teachings speak with a unique immediacy to challenges of our times. It came as an enormous encouragement to know that in the person of Elder Sophrony was a man who had experienced the Godforsakenness of a post-Christian world and yet found a path to salvation.
When I first approached Dr. Christopher Veniamin (PhD Oxon.), I had a great wish to write on the subject of Elder Sophrony’s relationship to Arvo Pärt with the intention of developing from this study an Orthodox Christian approach to aesthetics. Dr. Veniamin, who was personally acquainted with Elder Sophrony, intimated that I had rather the wrong approach. How was it possible to objectively study such a subjective topic as “Orthodox aesthetics” without having become first acquainted with the Patristic ethos? I was at first taken aback. “Had I not read the
Church Fathers?” I said to myself. However, Dr. Veniamin had something quite different in mind than a quick perusal of Patristic quotes on the value of the arts. He wanted me, my person, to be shaped and molded by the vision of the Church.
The result is what will follow in the next couple of posts.
It will be of very little interest to the scholar, it will not shake the walls of academia with provocative revelations. It is simply a sketchbook, kept while studying Elder Sophrony’s experience of the Godforsakenness. The primary purpose is to form in myself, however shallow, an impression of Elder Sophrony’s vision of the Christian life. To facilitate this effort, I have chosen to use the life and writings of the 16th century Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, as a sort of sounding board by which to understand Elder Sophrony’s unique voice more clearly. Thus, you will find in the following posts a summary of the lives of both John of the Cross and Elder Sophrony, with particular attention given to their personal experience of Godforsakenness and the educational prism that shaped their comprehension of this event. In addition, you will find an anthology of sorts related to their actual writings concerning the experience of Godforsakenness. Finally, there is a brief conclusion that compares the approaches of John of the Cross and Elder Sophrony, stressing the unique contribution that Elder Sophrony offers in his teachings regarding Godforsakenness to the challenges of our own generation.
In having the opportunity to spend the past year immersed in the writings of Elder Sophrony, it seems that I can understand and value more the experience of Godforsakenness that I witnessed, particularly in my youth. Likewise, I believe I have greatly benefited from the effort to learn more about John of the Cross and the tradition he represents. My hope and prayer is that you can also find help and comfort in their word: In the Night there is weeping but in the Light of the morning there is rejoicing (cf. Ps. 30:5).