Upon the brink of the abyss, And in the raging ocean’s fury, Midst angry waves and darkness vague, And in the desert whirlwind’s hurry, All, all that threatens us with death, Hides for the mortal in its depth An inexplicable enchantment—A promise of eternal life!
This image, painted by the poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), can be seen mirrored in the life of Elder Sophrony. His life can be described as one suspended between a vision of death’s abyss and an unquenchable thirst for Eternal Life. Elder Sophrony, in a letter to his family, recalls another poem of Pushkin as having enormous influence during his youth:
No, I’ll not wholly die: My soul in sacred lay Shall outlive my dust And escape decay.
From early childhood, he struggled with the question of Eternity. He was unwilling to accept the possibility of a meaningless death, a plunge into the abyss of non-being. However, his life coincided with events that threatened this conviction to the extreme. He was only seventeen when World War One plunged millions of lives into dark oblivion. In his autobiography, Elder Sophrony writes, “It was impossible to come to terms with the fact of vast numbers of lives being brought to a senseless, cruel end. And I might find myself drafted into their ranks, with the object of slaughtering people I did not know.” Tormented by this vision he would ask, “Was I eternal, was everyone else, or were we all destined for the black night of non-being?”
Elder Sophrony was born Sergei Simeonovich Sakharov on September 23rd, 1896. Even before his earthly introduction to the world, his soul peered into the abyss of death. During labor his mother, Catherine, was in great danger of dying. The surgeon put a terrible choice before her husband, Sergei, “Either the mother or the child?” Sergei painfully replied, “Save the mother.” Thankfully, the surgeon, also named Sergei Simeonovich, was able to save both lives and the grateful father named his newborn son, Sergei in honor of the surgeon. Thus, Sergei Sakharov became the third oldest among a family that eventually numbered ten. His father was a wealthy manufacturer of ladies’ handbags and was patronized by the wealthy of Moscow. The Sakharov’s large home can still be seen on Moscow’s Giliarovskogo Street, a half hour tram ride from the Kremlin. Sergei’s father made sure that his children received the best education. Sergei likely received his elementary education at a classical gymnasium where he would have studied Russian and European literature, Latin, Greek, and French, calligraphy, and sacred and secular history. The young Sergei loved literature, especially Pushkin and Turgenev (1818- 1883). He also frequently attended the world-renowned Bolshoi Opera where he would listen to the powerful voice of Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) whom he greatly admired.
Nonetheless, Sergei’s greatest passion was for art. From a very early age, he could be often seen sketching under a table in the family’s home. Sergei would later write to his family, “For me the world was painting.” Judging from his extant works, Sergei undoubtedly received a first-rate elementary education in the classical foundations of artistic technique and form, possibly under the tutelage of Fedor Rerberg (1865-1938) and Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926), both renowned artists, who had ateliers near the Sakharov residence. Sergei was just 17 when he was drafted into the Russian army, serving from 1913 to 1917. Much of his service was in the newly formed camouflage division. The atrocities of World War One that surrounded the young Sergei, though he was not directly involved in combat, intensified his personal effort to overcome the abyss of non-being yawning all around him and his anxious search for Eternal Being. This search led him to abandon the Christianity of his childhood, which he viewed as existentially limiting. It also led Sergei to the aesthetic idealism of the renowned artist, Vasilii Kandinsky (1866-1944).
In 1910, Kandinsky had produced arguably the first work of art consisting of pure abstraction. In 1912, he published a profound articulation of his aesthetic approach in Du Spirituel dans l’art (On the Spiritual in Art.) This book was published in Russian in the year 1915 and the young Sergei Sakharov quickly fell under its influence. According to Kandinsky, abstract art contained the possibility to express an object or person’s inner meaning, a spiritual reality not limited by the imitation of material models, as was figurative art. In his estimation, abstract art alone could bridge the chasm between the physical and metaphysical, creating a “spiritual atmosphere,” either “pure or poisonous” by which an artistic work’s value could be judged. Kandinsky further argued, “A creative work is born from an artist in a very mysterious, enigmatic and mystical manner. Liberated from him, it takes on its own independent, spiritual being which also leads a material and concrete life, it is a being.” Not only is the result of abstraction the refinement of the artist’s own “inner being” or soul, it is also the creation of something outside the creator, something new, they—the artist and artwork—become two separate, living beings.
These ideas were very attractive to the young Sergei who was desperately searching for Being beyond the chasm of earthly, transitory life. Much later he would write, “[Through Kandinsky] I had been attracted to the idea of pure creativity, taking the form of abstract art.” From approximately 1916-1919, Sergei undertook the creation of large compositional improvisations after the manner of Kandinsky. In his own words, he endeavored “Not to copy natural phenomena but to produce new pictorial facts.” A possible example of Sergei’s abstract improvisations can be seen in Dunes (early 1920’s).
During this time and in between his military service he studied with Il’ia Mashkov (1881-1944), best known for his still lifes. The influence of Mashkov can be easily recognized in Sergei’s Still life with bowl of fruit, (1922).
In 1918, the 22 year-old Sergei Sakharov enrolled in the celebrated Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Here he studied with Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876-1956), receiving a solid education in anatomy, drawing, painting, and composition. He furthermore acquired a deep appreciation for the Old Masters, in particular Veronese (1528-1588) and Rembrandt (1606- 1669). Both Konchalovsky and Mashkov were also great admirers of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and worked in his post-impressionist style. One can discern the influence of both Cézanne and Konchalovsky in Sergei Sakarov’s Self-Portrait (1918).
Sometime in either 1919 or 1920, Sergei became disenchanted with abstract art. It is difficult to determine the exact cause or date but at some point he became convinced that pure abstraction could not bridge the chasm of non-being, nor answer his yearning for Eternal Being. He would afterwards recall in his book, Wisdom from Mount Athos, “I realized that everything that I created was conditioned by what was already in existence. I could not invent a new colour or line . . . An abstract picture is like a string of words, beautiful and sonorous in themselves, perhaps, but never expressing a complete thought.” Much later, after his return to the Christ of his childhood, he would write, “An abstract picture represented a disintegration of being, a falling into the void [the abyss], a return from the non esse (non-being) from which we had been called by the creative act of God.” One possible turning point in his attitude toward abstract art is an excursion that Sergei made in the summer of 1920 with six of his artist friends to Barvikha, a small, picturesque village just outside Moscow.
Led away from the turmoil of the city, the memories of the previous decade’s horror began to fade. Around them, the seven young artists found the beauty of Barvikha’s idyllic forests and meadows. Victor Lobanov (1885-1970) in his study of Lebedev-Shuisky (1896-1978), one of Sergei’s travel companions, writes that the little group “ecstatically painted studies of nature, giving special attention to the representation and structure of trees.” Lobanov adds, “To be immersed in the poetry of nature deeply affected the young artists’ ability to see, feel and understand its beauty.” Sergei appears to reflect this time when he writes, “The whole world, practically every visual scene, became mysterious, uncommonly beautiful, profound.” Later, Sergei would use the image of a great tree to describe the relationship between the abyss of suffering and the vision of heavenly glory. Perhaps he was bringing to mind his time at Barvikha. In His Life is Mine, he writes, “When we see a centuries-old tree with its branches reaching to the clouds, we know that its roots, deep in the earth, must be powerful enough to support the whole.” What is known for certain is that the seven friends returned to Moscow with a renewed energy to escape the abyss of their world’s contemporary situation and to find a means of expressing Eternal Being through their art. The result was the formation of the group ‘Bytie’ (Being).
The group’s youthful and energetic members endeavored to return to a more positive approach to painting. Inspired by the example of their teacher, Konchalovsky, who once said to a student, “Put some being into it,” each member of ‘Bytie’ strove to produce art with essence and content, devoid of abstract and constructive designs. On January 1st, 1922, ‘Bytie’ offered their first exhibition in Moscow. Although it is not known what precise works were displayed, it is certain that Sergei Sakharov participated. Fyodor Bogorodskiy, a fellow art student at the Moscow school, remarked on the materiality and freshness of the landscapes and still lifes presented. Fyodor also recalls one of ‘Bytie’s lively members, Pavel Sokolov-Skalia, loudly arguing with an interlocutor: “You understand, we are fed up with abstraction! Life should resound in our canvases! Do you understand! Life!” The first exhibition was hailed a success by critics and was followed by additional exhibitions each year until 1929. On a personal level, Sergei experienced a similar feeling of success: “For brief moments there comes a feeling of triumph, of victory. I have grasped what I was seeking.” However, these feelings of elation, like the group ‘Bytie’ itself, were short-lived. Sergei goes on to write, “The rapture would soon disappear and once more I would be tormented by my failure.”
In the summer of 1922, Sergei Sakharov left Russia with his friend, classmate, and fellow ‘Bytie’ member, Leon Bounatian (later known as Leonardo Benatov). Leon had received a scholarship to study abroad in the great artistic centers of Italy and France. Sergei is assumed to have had the same purpose. However, their journey also came at a time of great upheaval in the Russian intellectual and artistic community. Many chose or were forced to leave the country as the new government sought to eliminate any who might oppose its socialist agenda. Whether or not this formed the real underlying reason for Sergei’s departure is unknown. It is a fact that neither Sergei nor Leon returned to their Motherland. The two artists first visited Rome, then Berlin, arriving in Paris at the very end of 1922. Sergei found here a studio in which to work near the beautiful park, La Maison Blanche. From the evidence gleaned from his autobiography, it is clear that Sergei continued to be torn between his vision of the dark abyss and his thirst for Eternal Being. In Russia, this struggle had formed the impetus for his participation in ‘Bytie.’ In Paris, Sergei writes, “I did not pursue anything on this earth except the Eternal, and at the same time in my painting [I] sought to express the beauty proper to almost every manifestation of nature.”
Outwardly, Sergei appeared as any other young man, full of life and energy, “often laughing and behaving like everyone else.” Paris quickly recognized Sergei’s talent. The elite Salon d’Automne accepted three of his works in the autumn of 1923. The renowned salon critic Thiebault-Sisson commented in the major newspaper, Le Temps, “Sakharof has two small paintings where the care of resemblance does not exclude a softness and delicacy worthy of Ricard.” Simply to receive a mention by Theibault-Sisson is evidence of Sergei’s exceptional talent, especially when taken with the fact that more than 1,500 artists participated at the 1923 exhibition and very few received reviews. In 1924, Sergei was invited to display at the Salon des Tuileries, an honor given to only Paris’ most elite artists. Sergei seemed on the cusp of world fame, but internally, he reveals, “I was moving over a bottomless abyss.”
In his spiritual autobiography, We Shall See Him As He Is, Elder Sophrony vividly recalls an episode from this time:
I am reading, sitting at the table. I take my head in my hands, and suddenly I feel that I am holding a skull, which I ponder, as it were, from the outside. (Physically, I was young and normally healthy.) Puzzled as to the nature of what was happening to me, I tried to rid myself of the sensations that were interrupting the peaceful progress of my work. Quietly I told myself: I still have a whole lifetime before me—forty or more years full of energy . . . And what happened? Suddenly there came the instinctive, involuntary reply, ‘And suppose you have a thousand years—what then?’ And the thousand years were over before I could frame the idea in words.
The pursuit of the Eternal through art, to which Sergei had dedicated every fiber of his being, appeared to him as futile. He writes, “A barrier rose up in front of me which felt like a solid wall, heavy as lead. Not one ray of light—mental light, not physical—could pierce this wall which was not a material one.” He continues, “In my art I tried to sense, beyond visible reality, the invisible, timeless essence . . . however the hour came when the increasing mindfulness of death entered into outright conflict with my passion for painting.” Sergei confesses that the struggle was neither easy nor brief. Nonetheless, “All this travail was in vain: the disparity was too obvious, and in the end prayer won.”
It should be noted at this point that Sergei had grown up in an observant Orthodox Christian home. He notes especially the influence of his nanny, Catherine, on his spiritual formation, recalling how he would contentedly sit at her feet during the Church services and could easily pray for half an hour or more; “It was like a need,” he recalls. The extent of his childhood experience of God strikes one with awe. He writes, “There were occasions when coming out of church I would see the city, then the whole world for me, lit by two kinds of light. Sunlight could not eclipse the presence of another Light.” As extraordinary as this account is, it would appear that the young Sergei was granted the grace of seeing the Uncreated Light. However, receiving such enormous grace Sergei was a special target of intrusive thoughts. One such thought came to him when he was 17, walking along Moscow’s Milutin Lane. He describes his internal dialogue thus:
‘So, you pray?’ ‘Yes.’
‘And your thoughts are always turned to some kind of immortality?’
‘But then what does the Gospel say? “Love God and your neighbor!’
The thought flashed by in an instant, but it had presented me with a picture of something that was greater than what the Gospel speaks of.
Sergei perceived the commandment of Christ as a shallow, psychological appeal to emotion. The thought was so paralyzing that he dismissed the deity of Christ and forced himself to cease addressing Him in prayer. Sergei was instead drawn to the idea of Supra-Personal Being promoted in the religions of the Far East. This was also the period that Sergei came under the influence of Kandinsky, who, although an Orthodox Christian, was nevertheless attracted to the philosophies of non-Christian religions.
Sergei arrived in Paris a non-believer, practicing yoga and meditation, and spending long hours alone in his studio lost in his artistic pursuit. However, at the same time, he writes, “Prayer began again in me, and this prayer came with such force that I could no longer give myself wholeheartedly to painting.” From his arrival in 1922 to 1925, Sergei was torn between these two aspirations: art and prayer. The battle so absorbed him that he records, “Sometimes, in the street, I would not be aware of the surrounding world . . . I did not feel that I was insane, but how others saw me I don’t know.” Sergei continued to be tormented by increasing mindfulness of the futility of earthly pursuits and was seized by a desperate prayer to the God of his youth. In his autobiography, one catches a glimpse into his state at the time: “As I prayed, I would feel fire burning up everything. I do not know how I survived. I shall never be able to find words for that fire which I experienced, and the despair.” Later, he adds, “Darkness stood before like a solid wall separating me from God.” This struggle reached its apogee on the night of Holy Saturday, 1925.
In a letter to David Balfour (1903-1989), written a decade later, Sergei recalls this life- changing experience as though speaking of another:
I know a man in Paris, who from Holy Saturday until the third day of Easter, throughout the three days, was in a state of contemplation, something which in the form of our earthly being he could express only by saying that he ‘beheld the dawn of day without eventide. ‘The dawn’, because the light was unusually delicate, fine, ‘tender’, in some way sky blue in colour. ‘The day without eventide’ is eternity.
Many decades later, in his autobiography, he would make clear that he spoke of himself. He writes, “Gentle, full of peace and love, the Light remained with me three days. It drove away the darkness of non-existence that had engulfed me.” What Sergei had so long sought for in his art, he experienced in the Light of The Eternal Being, the Personal God, the I AM. He continues, “Tormented hitherto by the spectre of universal death, I now felt that my soul too was resurrected and there were no more dead . . . If this is God, then let me quickly abandon everything.”
Sergei did indeed abandon everything. He set aside his art and immediately enrolled in the Saint Serge Institut de Theologie Orthodoxe (St. Sergius Institute), which had been formed in Paris that same year. Metropolitan Eulogy Gueorguievsky (1868-1946) had brought together the most eminent Orthodox theologians and philosophers of the time to form the Institute. A large majority of these had been recently exiled from Russia. Among these were Sergei Bulgakov (1871- 1944) and Georges Fedotov (1886-1951). Bulgakov was made head of the Institute and taught dogmatics. He also served as Sergei’s father-confessor. His influence on the future Elder Sophrony has been emphasized by contemporary theologians: Fr. Nicholas Sakharov and Fr. Andrew Louth. Yet, while Elder Sophrony’s later dogmatic writings do betray many elements common to Bulgakov’s thought, it is difficult to believe that Bulgakov could have exerted so much influence in such a short space of time.
It is quite unlikely that Sergei could have come into contact with Fr. Bulgakov any earlier than April of 1925 and he left Paris for Mount Athos in autumn of 1925. Sergei thus attended the Institute no more than five months. Elder Sophrony gives the reason for his departure in a letter written to his family in 1975. He writes,
And I, not without pain, decided to go to the Theological Institute, so as to get more acquainted with the Christian worldview, with the Christian outlook, with Christian teaching. During my time there I did not find what I was looking for: I learned some names, dates, who said what. I got to know about the historical difficulties of the Church, and so forth—but I had wanted only to hear about how to attain to eternity.
Sergei was evidently still consumed with his life-long pursuit of Eternal Being even after his Easter experience. The only benefit that the Institute afforded was that he was given a small room above the professors’ offices in which he could devote himself to prayer. He writes, “My constant prayer like some volcanic eruption proceeded from the profound despair that had taken over my heart.” He had been swept up into Eternal Life in his experience of the Uncreated Light but this state was short-lived. In his autobiography, he explains, “No effort on our part can retain this delicate Spirit. It departs and once again we are plunged in the darkness of death.” Having tasted what he had for so long sought, he was once again left bereft of His Presence; and this was a hell most bitter. In this hell, the intellectual information offered at St. Sergius held no attraction for him. He had the feeling that he must go to a monastery, if need be, to die in his wrestling with God.
In this state, he travelled to Yugoslavia and from there came to the Holy Mountain in the fall of 1925. He was accepted into the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon and in this place gave himself wholly to his fiery repentance. He describes the extreme tension that he witnessed during this period, lasting nearly five years, when he writes, “The soul is torn in two—torn between the horror of seeing oneself as one is and the surge of hitherto unknown strength through beholding the Living God. In a curious fashion despair over myself prevailed to such an extant that even when He was with me and in me I could not stop weeping for my sin.” In 1927, Sergei was tonsured a monk, receiving the name, Sophrony. On May 13th, 1930 he was ordained a deacon by His Grace, Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović (1881-1956). A short while after his ordination, a fellow monk, Fr. Vladimir, came to Fr. Sophrony and asked him, “How can a man be saved?” Fr. Sophrony replied, “Stay at the edge of the abyss, and when it gets too much, step back from the edge and take a cup of tea.” Then he handed the monk a cup of tea. The next day Fr. Sophrony encountered the schema-monk Silouan (1866-1938) as he was coming up from the monastery’s harbor. It was a meeting, a “monumental event of determinative importance to [Elder Sophony’s] later spiritual development and theology.”
Fr. Silouan had arrived at the monastery of St. Panteleimon in 1892. Through the prayers of St. John of Kronstadt, he had come to the monastery consumed with a fiery repentance and zeal to find salvation. However, after a short time he lost this grace and found that he continued to be tormented by “seductive images” and thoughts that whispered to him, “return to the world.” He struggled thus for six months until he “reached the final stages of desperation.” Elder Sophrony relates, “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.” It was at this darkest hour that he entered a little chapel and encountered the Living Christ in the place of His icon. The vision completely transformed the young novice.
Nevertheless, after relating the vision to his father-confessor, who did not hide his amazement, Fr. Silouan was beset by proud thoughts and for fifteen more years he was the victim of terrible demonic assaults. One night as he was sitting on a stool, striving to pray with a pure mind, his cell was once more filled with demonic spirits. In his heart he begged God, “ ‘What must I do to stop them hindering me?’ And in his soul he heard, ‘The proud always suffer from devils.’ ‘Lord,’ said Silouan, ‘teach me what must I do that my soul may become humble.’ ” Then, the Lord replied, “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.” This word of the Lord revealed to Silouan the path by which to cross the abyss. “I began to do as the Lord told me,” writes Silouan, “and the Spirit witnessed to my salvation.” Silouan thus attained that Peace that passes understanding and for the rest of his earthly life he prayed to God with a pure mind that, “all may come to know Thy love and in the Holy Spirit behold Thy gentle countenance.”
Fr. Sophrony was already acquainted with Silouan through Bishop Nikolaj. However, he felt ashamed in his presence because he sensed that Silouan knew his terrible state. Seeing Silouan coming up the hill toward him, Fr. Sophrony tried to avoid meeting him. However, Silouan desired to speak to the bashful young deacon regarding his advice to Fr. Vladimir and changed his course to make their meeting inevitable. Silouan promptly asked, “Did Fr. Vladimir visit you yesterday?” Bypassing all polite forms of address, Fr. Sophrony immediately asked, “Did I make a mistake?” Fr. Silouan replied, “No, you were right, but it is beyond his strength.” Fr. Silouan discerned the similarity of their experience and invited Fr. Sophrony to his cell. Here, Silouan revealed Christ’s word to him: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not” so akin to Fr. Sophrony’s advice to “stay at the edge of the abyss.” Based on their common experience, Fr. Silouan taught Fr. Sophrony the great science of judging oneself as worthy of hell-fire while avoiding complete despair. Fr. Sophrony henceforth devoted himself to Fr. Silouan and was his closest disciple until Silouan’s repose in 1938.
Two years after their meeting, Fr. Sophrony became acquainted with David Balfour, an English convert to Orthodoxy, who was visiting St. Panteleimon’s for academic research. Balfour stayed on the Holy Mountain for only three months. However, a lively correspondence continued between them that continued throughout Balfour’s turbulent and complicated life. In the letters of Fr. Sophrony to Balfour that have been preserved, one can observe the maturity and depth of Fr. Sophrony’s thought. They express the central ideas of his later writings: self-emptying, Godforsakenness, pure prayer, and the vision of Christ in the Light of Eternity. The eloquence of his theological discourse and the clarity of his spiritual vision produce the impression that here is a man already formed—a theologian of the highest caliber. Judging from the brevity of his formal theological studies, the maturity expressed in his letters can have no other source than his own experience and his own assimilation to St. Silouan’s vision.
One letter, written sometime toward the end of 1932, contains an important question in respect to our comparative study of Fr. Sophrony and John of the Cross. Balfour had asked Fr. Sophrony in a letter, now lost, “to express [his] opinion on the book of John of the Cross, to indicate the distortions and deviations in it.” To this request, Fr. Sophrony answered, “I am not at all disposed to consider the work of St. John with a preconceived wish to find in him some ‘distortions and deviations.’” However, with a wish to help David he promised to read St. John’s writings with “fear, prayer and attention.” Due to severe illness from which Fr. Sophrony fully expected to die, he did not manage to read and reflect on St. John’s writings until 1936, four years later. By this time, David was living in Athens. In his answer, Fr. Sophrony admits that St. John had “struck [him] with the depth of his psychological analysis.” “Certain spiritual states,” he adds, “are described in his book with astonishing order and completeness.” He appraises St John to be “at the level of the greatest writers on Eastern asceticism.” Of particular value, in Fr. Sophrony’s estimation, is St. John’s “resolve to bear with gratitude the inevitable afflictions and difficulties of our path.” Beyond this general commendation, Fr. Sophrony refrains from offering any analysis of St. John’s writings in light of Orthodox dogma and ascetic practice. The precarious state of his health and his continued pained repentance prevented him from being “drawn to such questions.”
Despite his reserved appreciation for the writings of John of the Cross, Fr. Sophrony never recommended it to his disciples. He even remarked to Balfour, “I am sorry that this book [by John of the Cross] fell into your hands.” Instead, Fr. Sophrony recommended that Balfour immerse himself in the literature of the Christian East: The Philokalia, The Homilies of St. Issac of Syria (6th c.), the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), Peter of Damascus (12th c.), St. Paissy Velitchkovsky (1722-1794), St. Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807-1867), and the Way of a Pilgrim (anon. 19th c.). Furthermore, Fr. Sophrony himself shows a comfortable familiarity with all of these authors, often quoting from these texts in his letters. His later writings demonstrate an unmistakable intimacy with the entire Patristic corpus, not only in their frequent use of Patristic texts, but in their Patristic orientation and Patristic phronema (ethos or spirit). It is based on these sources that Fr. Sophrony articulated his experience of the purifying fire of Divine Light and Godforsakenness. That he did not read St. John’s Dark Night until 1936 would seem to negate any possibility that this source was at all influential in the development of his thought and expression.
Fr. Sophrony would instead ascribe his later teachings on Godforsakenness to the instruction and example of his beloved elder, Fr. Silouan. In We Shall See Him as He Is, Fr. Sophrony marvels,
Great was the spiritual genius of Blessed St. Silouan to whose feet the Divine Providence led me. He spoke and wrote of his experience in words that were simple, yet intelligible only to those who lived in the same atmosphere as he did . . . The fact that by his, St. Silouan’s prayers I, too, was placed in the same spiritual perspective allows me to venture on this task . . . to discuss this vastly important matter . . . ‘God cannot be moved by entreaty.’
The blessed elder Silouan came to an end of his earthly life on September 24th, 1938 and with his demise Fr. Sophrony lost sight of “the one soul free of all passion whom it has been given me to encounter on my earthly way.” Shortly thereafter, Fr. Sophrony requested permission to retire to a remote cave in the austere Karoulia region of Mount Athos. In 1941, he was ordained a priest and later became confessor to three monasteries. In order to be more accessible to the many monks who came to him to confess, Fr. Sophrony moved to the cave of the Holy Trinity near St. Paul’s monastery in 1944. He remained there until his departure from Mount Athos in 1947.
The remoteness of his abode gave Fr. Sophrony the opportunity to give himself over wholly to prayer for a world ripped apart by the events of World War Two. A glimpse of his prayer may be gleaned from the following description:
In the solitude of my grotto I had the unique privilege of being able to devote myself entirely to this prayer, free from earthly cares. It possessed me for months on end . . . I would be oblivious to all else, conscious only of a terrible sense of sin which engendered in me sorrow, shame, abhorrence and even hatred of myself. And once more I would drown in tears and repentance, and my spirit would enter a nameless infinity.
Literally suspended above an abyss—his little hut clinging to the sheer face of the cliff on which it was built—the elder prayed, crucified on the “boundary between being and non-being, standing between the paradise of God’s love and the hell of Godforsakenness.”
Fr. Sophrony left Mount Athos in 1947 and journeyed to Paris in order to fulfill the wish of his elder, Fr. Silouan, that he collect and publish his writings. In Paris, there was still a large Russian Orthodox community in which Fr. Sophrony could find help in these efforts. He had every intention to return to Mount Athos once this work was complete. However, God saw otherwise. In 1948, he succeeded in self-publishing a roneo-typed collection of the writings of Elder Silouan. However, the work so exhausted Fr. Sophrony that he developed a severe stomach ulcer. In the same year, he underwent a complete gastrectomy (removal of the stomach) and spent eighty days in the hospital. Afterward, he was removed to a Russian home for the elderly and later to an old castle tower called le Donkon, both in St. Geneviève-des-Bois, a Paris suburb. Laypeople soon began to come to Fr. Sophrony and a small pseudo-monastic community was formed around him. So it was that Fr. Sophrony stayed in France until 1959, never permanently returning to Mount Athos.
During his sojourn in France, Fr. Sophrony was given the opportunity to form relationships with many eminent Orthodox theologians, including: Vladimir Lossky and Fr. Georges Florovsky. Fr. Sophrony worked closely with Vladimir Lossky from 1950 to 1957 as the editor of Messager de l’Exarchate du Patriarche Russe en Europe Occidentale (The Russian Messenger). However, Lossky was skeptical of the dogmatic value of Elder Silouan’s writings, prompting Fr. Sophrony to write an extensive introduction demonstrating the theological depth of his elder’s thought. Lossky also viewed the Dionysian via negativa as the wellspring Orthodox dogma and hesychastic life. Fr. Sophrony, argued, by contrast, “the ‘inner quiet’ of hesychastic prayer is something different, and is reached by another, different path from what we find in St Dionysius the Areopagite.” Lossky moreover viewed “Godforsakenness” as a wholly Western phenomenon, foreign to the experience of the Orthodox Church and viewed with distrust Silouan’s experience of God’s abandonment.
Fr. Georges Florovsky, by contrast, had a great appreciation for both Elder Silouan’s experience and his writings. Fr. Sophrony asked Fr. Georges to provide the Forward to the 1958 English edition of Silouan’s writings, The Undistorted Image, which he did in glowing terms. Fr. Sophrony had first held correspondence with Fr. Florovsky between the years of 1926-1929. It is not known why this correspondence ceased. Nonetheless, it was resumed in 1954 and continued until 1963. Fr. Sophrony held Fr. Georges in such high esteem that he asked him to review his book on Elder Silouan and to point out any dogmatic deviations or errors in the text. In addition, he discussed with Fr. Georges Christ’s descent into hell, the self-emptying (κενόω) of the incarnate Logos, and offered criticism of Fr. Sergei Bulgakov’s German idealism. The correspondence demonstrates the ease in which Fr. Sophrony dialogued with one of the greatest Orthodox theologians of the 20th century over matters of the deepest dogmatic significance. This is the more remarkable when one takes into consideration that Fr. Sophrony never completed any formal theological training. His school was experience, his teachers: the Holy Spirit and the unlettered schema-monk, Silouan.
In 1959, Fr. Sophrony, together with a small number of the community that had formed in St. Geneviève-des-Bois, moved to Tolleshunt Knights, near the town of Maldon, Essex: England. Here, Fr. Sophrony established the monastery of St. John the Baptist. The community was mixed, consisting of both men and women monastics. Several nationalities and languages were also represented. Fr. Sophrony took advantage of this diversity to realize his vision of monasticism as a vocation of universal dimensions: The monk is he or she who struggles to discover and enlarge their deep heart, to discover therein God and neighbor and to embrace both in pure prayer. The monk is a universal person, defined by neither nationality nor language, but only by their life in Christ and their prayer for the world.
Shortly after the foundation of his monastery, Fr. Sophrony returned to the great love of his youth: painting. However, after his experience in Paris and Mount Athos and after his encounter with St. Silouan, he no longer tried to express an Eternity lost, through attempts to capture the beauty of nature. Instead, he turned to painting icons, using his artistic talent and education to express an Eternity found: the hypostatic Being of the Holy Trinity shining through the faces of Christ and His saints. He would tell his disciples, “Iconography in its essential form, is an inspiration for prayer, and a ‘spring-board’. . . to eternity.”
Aside from his return to the artistic expression of his early years, many other threads from his youthful search for Being and Eternity continued to reemerge throughout his later ministry. The theme of the abyss was something present in his mind until the end of his days. In a conversation with Elder Ephraim of Vatopaidi that occurred in 1992, a year before his death, Fr. Sophrony recalled his work as an abbot (1959-1974): “I was always hung from a thread above the abyss, shouting at God for everyone, for everything…because nothing happens by human strength.” In his book, His Life is Mine (1977), he provides a certain summary of his life, in which the search for Being figures strongly: “We are nearing the end of our long search to discover the depth of Being—a search that in the past involved us in one spiritual adventure after another. Now we press on towards the goal shown us by Christ, not dismayed but inspired by the magnitude of the task before us.” We can observe that until the end of his days he held before him the vision of death’s abyss, but that he overcame this death and became a universal man— bearing in his person at the same time both the “height and depth” (cf. Eph. 3:18) of Eternal Being. Fr. Sophrony reposed in the Lord on July 11th, 1993.