“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”(Matt. 5:3). For Elder Sophrony, this promise formed the essence of every ascetic endeavor. He never tired of showing the blessedness of poverty of spirit, the gift of the mindfulness of death, and the grace of Godforsakenness (Bogoostavlennost). He saw the withdrawal of grace and its accompanying Charismatic despair as absolutely necessary. Even more so, he saw this event as the most creative and beneficial period of a Christian’s life. He himself testifies that, in his own life, it was the mindfulness of death and blessed despair that carried him across the abyss of non-being and to the kingdom of heaven. In our own age, so infected with an overwhelming sense of despair, Elder Sophrony’s words bring comfort: despair, when accompanied by repentance and faith in God leads to the vision of Christ in Glory; which is Eternal Life. The one who sees himself impoverished of every good thing finds Christ a fellow traveler and will not fail to see his soul resurrected.
Elder Sophrony envisioned the life of a Christian as one patterned after the life of Christ, especially as He is seen in His self-emptying at Gethsemane and Golgotha. The grace of Godforsakenness experienced by the Christian is intimately linked with Christ’s own abandonment, most fully expressed in His cry, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me”(Matt. 27:46). Self-emptying (κενόω) lies at the heart of the mystery of both Divine Being and human personhood. Elder Sophrony also saw the life of the Christian as patterned after the Hebrew’s exodus from Egypt: the miracle of the Red Sea crossing, the arduous struggle in the wilderness, and the entrance into the promised land. The spiritual life, Elder Sophrony attests, consists of three stages: the first visitation of grace, the withdrawal of grace, and the return of grace when this gift becomes one’s own. As the following chapter explores Elder Sophrony’s teachings on Godforsakenness, the Christian’s Christ-like self-emptying will be discussed within the framework of these three stages of the spiritual life.
Elder Sophrony discouraged any attempt to construct a program for the spiritual life. The Christian does not plan his repentance nor force his way to salvation; he is rather thrown into an ocean and must either swim or die. Therefore, to speak of stages in spiritual life one must be cautious for it cannot be understood literally or chronologically. Elder Sophrony taught that the spiritual life is like a sphere: at whatever point we come into contact with God’s uncreated energies we touch the whole mystery of Divine Life, but in varying degrees. Thus, in speaking of the visitation of grace in the first stage and the withdrawal of grace in the second, this is not to be understood rigidly or temporally. Until a person is perfected—often just prior to their death— the Christian continually vacillates between a perception of God’s presence and the feeling of His withdrawal. Nonetheless, rooted in his own experience and affirmed by the teachings of the Church Fathers, Elder Sophrony perceived a general pattern in the varying degrees that God is experienced within the course of a Christian’s struggle to become like Christ.
In a letter to David Balfour, Elder Sophrony reminds him, “When you were a small child divine grace visited you, and in this I see your calling from the Lord.” We have already been made aware of how Elder Sophrony himself, when yet a young child, was granted the grace to see the Eternal Light. Saint Silouan, too, was still a young novice when he beheld the vision of Christ. Elder Sophrony perceived these visitations of great grace as a “first calling,” the first stage at which a person is initiated into God’s work of salvation. This first grace is completely undeserved, unmerited, and unsought for: it is a pure gift. In this first period, the Christian, on the outset of his journey is given the “unjust riches” of which Christ speaks of in the Gospel of Luke (cf. 16:1-13). Elder Sophrony indicates, “The measure of grace conferred at the beginning to attract and instruct may be no less than that accorded to the perfect.” In other words, the experiences of those at the first stage might closely resemble the experiences described by the saints. However, Elder Sophrony is quick to add, “This does not at all mean that the fearful blessing is assimilated by those who have received it. The adoption of God’s gift requires a long probation and hard striving.” That the gift of grace might become one’s own possession requires that a Christian “convince” God of his fidelity.
When the warmth of God’s grace first floods a man’s soul, he cannot stop giving thanks and expressing surprise: a new world, never imagined, has been opened to him. He is seized with a great love for God. In his “first-love” (Rev. 2:4), a love stronger than any earthly attraction, the Christian is glad to run the way of God’s commandments (cf. Ps. 118:32). Everything comes easy to the man who is inspired by grace. He no sooner utters a cry for help than God is by his side, comforting him. Prayer, fasting and spiritual labors appear more desirable than all the pleasures of his previous life. His greets all men as dearest friends and calls no man his enemy.
Perhaps, in some degree, it can be said that no one has been born who has not received even the slightest touch of this grace. “The wind blows where it listeth” (Jn. 3:8) and the Spirit of God is no respecter of persons (cf. Rom. 2:11). Christ says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will enter” (Rev. 3:20). Elder Sophrony writes, “Many people have received grace, and not only in the Church but outside the Church too.” It is possible that the accounts of revival in the annals of religious history can be attributed to this “first call.” God “maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). All have, in some measure, been invited to the banquet of God’s mercy (cf. Matt. 22:1-14), for He “desires the salvation of all men.” (I Tim. 2:4).
The first stage of spiritual life contains enormous potential. It provides the energy by which a man can make a new beginning: he discovers a new mode of being and is granted to see, in part, the image of God in himself and is energized by a zeal to attain its likeness. However, there is also an enormous degree of instability at this stage. Elder Sophrony insisted that a man could contain the first grace for only the briefest amount of time: a few hours or days; in rare cases as much as seven years. A man, having received the great gift of grace, begins to accept the thought that he somehow merited this gift. “The moment we are invaded by a false feeling of self-satisfaction,” writes Elder Sophrony, “The Spirit of Life, proceeding from the Father forsakes us.” The Lord is humble and cannot bear a proud thought, and so departs. When grace was with him, he had breathed the air of the perfect and had gradually considered himself to be among their rank. However, as soon as the “unjust riches” are withdrawn, he finds himself bereft of everything (cf. Lk. 16:9). He sees himself the “chief among sinners,” “a worm and not a man” (cf. I Tim. 1:5; Ps. 22:6). He calls but now God is seemingly deaf to his cry. “I had been introduced into the house of the Great King,” recalls Elder Sophrony, “I was His kindred—but now [after the loss of grace] again I am no more than a homeless beggar.”
Pride lies at the root of every fall from grace. Through pride our first parents fell, thinking that through their own efforts they could become “like God” (Gen. 3:5). Pride, according to Elder Sophrony, “runs counter to Divine Love.” For this reason, the Light of God–which is humility—cannot dwell in a heart that is proud. God does not punish the soul; He merely leaves the soul that has made no room for His grace. The wilderness of God’s abandonment is not an experience that God actively inflicts upon the soul; instead it is the Creator giving His creature the freedom to remain alone, autonomous, apart from God. Nonetheless, to him who has basked in the warmth of God’s first grace and then become bereft of it, there are no words to describe his pain. Elder Sophrony relates, “The soul hangs suspended in space over the abyss, and is terrified, for God seems completely unattainable.”
Writing to Balfour, Elder Sophrony relates from his own experience, “There is no tribulation upon earth harder to bear than the tribulation of the soul when she loses grace.” In the writings of Saint Silouan, one finds the following powerful image:
A country cock lives in a small yard and is content with its lot. But the eagle flies up under the clouds and beholds the blue horizons, knows many lands, has seen forest and meadow, rivers and mountain, sea and city; and if you were to clip his wings and put him to live with the cock in the farmyard—O how would he pine for the blue sky and the crags of the desert. Thus it is with every soul that has known grace and lost it: she is inconsolable in her grief.
The second stage is predominated by a sense of Godforsakenness, leading to blessed despair. There are, of course, many kinds of despair: there is an ungodly despair in which a man exhibits ingratitude for God’s gift of life, taking his life in his own hands and ending it on his own terms. There is a despair in which a man displays a lack of care for his own salvation. This despair is known in ascetic literature as despondency (ἀκηδία). Saint Silouan was told: “keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.” In other words, he was never to renounce hope in God’s mercy and never to cease striving for his own salvation. Nevertheless, Elder Sophrony indicates that there is also a “blessed despair.” “Through despair of this kind,” he adds, “I was reborn into Light.”
There are many reasons why God forsakes the soul: Pride and self-satisfaction, the instability of fallen human nature not yet perfected, a momentary lapse from the Law of Love, if only in thought. However, divine abandonment is fundamentally an experience by which God trains and perfects the soul. It is therefore an overall positive and absolutely necessary experience. Elder Sophrony, in a letter to Balfour, writes, “My profound conviction is that if you—this goes for everybody—do not live through these ordeals[:] poverty, humiliations, perhaps even hunger, utter abandonment by everybody—by men and even by God too . . . you will never know divine love.” He goes on to affirm, “The heart that is not broken by the wounds of tribulations and has not been humbled unto the end by every form of poverty, both spiritual and material, will never be fitted to receive divine grace.” It is for this reason that Elder Sophrony “never stopped talking” about the “blessed despair” of Godforsakenness. Blessed in the sense that he perceived this as a “Charismatic event,” an action of grace (charism), albeit its withdrawal.
Elder Sophrony speaks of the “Hell of Godforsakenness,” the flames therein arising from the pain of God’s tangible absence. However, he also understood that the presence of the Holy Spirit could be experienced as a burning fire. In a conversation with Metropolitan Hierothoes (Vlachos), Elder Sophrony related, “It is a law of the spiritual life that first we experience God negatively as fire and then positively as Light.” This fire is purgative and not punitive as it leads the Christian to recognize his own vileness and to place all his hope in God. The one who rightly enters the struggle of the second stage is characterized by a maximal effort to keep God’s commandants and an extreme awareness of his inability to do so. The Light of God’s presence reveals both God’s holiness and the darkness contained in a person’s heart, hitherto hidden by ignorance and pride.
Elder Sophrony, describing this two-fold vision, writes, “The uncreated Light discloses our inner hell and at the same time allows us to sense the holiness of the Living God.” He adds that those in the “agony of repentance are given the experience both of hell and of the resurrection.” This grace-given vision leads to an abandonment of all vestiges of self- satisfaction. Love of God, according to Elder Sophrony, leads to self hatred; hatred of the self apart from God; love of God to the point of self-forgetfulness. In summary, Godforsakenness can be understood as both God’s withdrawal of His comforting grace and as an intensification of that grace in the form of an illumining fire by which a man sees his failure to keep the commandment: to love God with all one’s being (cf. Matt. 22:37).
The painful longing and thirst for the Uncreated experienced in the second stage, without conscious effort, detaches the soul from everything created. The man who looks with horror at the evil lurking in his heart can no more find pleasure in the world’s beauty than can the criminal condemned to be hung at dawn. Where as in the first stage the soul saw everyone and everything bathed in the Light of God, in the second stage the soul recognizes that, abandoned by God, life is a mad farce; it can only lead to the abyss of non-being. Elder Sophrony speaks frequently of a special charism that often accompanies God’s withdrawal: the grace of the Mindfulness of Death. This is not simply a psychological knowledge that we will all some day die. Instead, it is a gift of God—albeit a terrifying one—by which a man comes “face to face with Eternity, to begin with in its negative aspect, when all existence is seen to be in this grip of death.” It is a vision by which man recognizes that he is existentially linked to all creation. Elder Sophrony recalls, “My inevitable death was not just mine . . . with me, all that had formed part of my consciousness would die: people close to me, their suffering and love, the whole historical progress, the universe in general, the sun, the stars, endless space; even the creator Himself—He, too, would die.” Later, it will be seen how this vision awakens the Hypostatic Principle in man, and is therefore ultimately positive. However, at first this grace works to detach the soul from seeking consolation in the “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye and the pride of life” (I Jn. 2:16).
When still a young man, a successful artist living in Moscow and Paris, Elder Sophrony was overtaken by the grace of the Mindfulness of Death. In his autobiography, he describes its effects:
Everything subject to decay lost its value for me. When I looked at people, without thinking further I saw them in the power of death, dying, and my heart was flooded with fellow-suffering. I wanted neither fame from those ‘dead mortals’ nor power over them. I did not look to people to like me. I despised material wealth and did not think much of intellectual assets which afforded no answer to what I was seeking. Had I been offered centuries of happy life, I would have refused them. My spirit required eternal life, and eternity.
The Christian inevitably faces the temptation to find his consolation in something other than God. This temptation is suppressed in the first stage but is redoubled when God withdraws His grace in the second stage. The ascetic writings of the Church Fathers provide many ways by which to struggle with temptation. Yet, none is as effective as the Mindfulness of Death and the “blessed despair” which Elder Sophrony so highly praised. When a thought of lust or some other passion approaches, the uninitiated must resort to psychological methods or bodily afflictions to ward off the temptation. However, he who endures the hell of Godforsakenness finds that such temptations hold no sway over him. He who has his mind in hell lives at a different level, below the barrage of temptations. There is no method or program to such an approach: it is a gift granted when and to whom God so desires. Blessed despair and the Mindfulness of Death are not cultivated, only endured.340 Despite the extreme pain of the experience, the Christian knows that when his mind emerges from the fire, temptations return and thus he learns to “keep his mind in hell, and despair not.”
The grace of Godforsakenness is the teacher of genuine asceticism: one that seeks only to decrease that God might increase (cf. Jn. 3:30); an asceticism free from every ambition to “reach heaven” (Gen. 11:4); an asceticism dominated by the thought: “all will be saved and I alone will stand condemned.” Godforsakenness, while including this element of divesture, also contains within its experience a completely positive aspect. Through the grace of Godforsakenness, the Christian enters into the mystery of Eternal Being. As paradoxical as it may seem, God is revealed at the moment when the Christian feels most strongly that he has been utterly abandoned. This is because Divine Life is ineffably one of abandonment: abandonment in the sense of self-emptying (κενόω). Each Person of the Holy Trinity ineffably empties Their whole Being and Life to the Other in an eternal act of self-emptying. Thus, when the Christian empties his being for the sake of his love for God to the point of self-hatred, he finds Divine Life suddenly pouring into his heart. Godforsakenness conforms human nature to the mode of Divine Being, which is, in essence, one of self-emptying.
Christ, being the express image of the Father, in His incarnation presented the most perfect revelation of Divine Life. Elder Sophrony often refers in his writings to Philippians 2:5- 8, where the Apostle Paul writes, “Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God . . . made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: . . . He humbled [ἐκένωσεν] and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). Elder Sophrony understood Christ’s earthly ministry, His betrayal, His death and finally, His descent into hell as one, continual act of self-emptying. He especially noted Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, where “being in agony, He prayed more earnestly” (Lk. 22:44). Elder Sophrony remarks, “Christ’s love on earth spells extreme suffering . . . He descended into hell, into the most painful hell of all, the hell of love.” His love desires the salvation of all (cf. I Tim. 2:4); and yet even “His own received Him not” (Jn. 1:11); He is betrayed by Judas, deserted by His disciples, and abandoned by God. He cries out, “My God, my God why hast Thou abandoned [ἐγκαταλείπω] Me” (Matt. 27:46). Yet, not only is such self-emptying love a voluntary act, it is an expression, the most perfect expression of Divine Life.
However, this is but one “pole of Divine love,” the negative pole of Eternal Being. The other pole, the positive aspect is one of inexpressible glory. Christ, going to His voluntary death exclaims, “Now is the Son of man glorified” (Jn 13:31). Elder Sophrony observes that, at the crucifixion, “The Christ-man is exalted: no one can come up to Him in the act of His self- emptying.” These two things are so closely linked, God’s glory and His humility, that Elder Sophrony comments, “Everyone who ardently loves Jesus Christ, God our Creator and Saviour, without fail experiences two states of being that would seem to be diametrically opposed: descent into hell and ascent into heaven.” It is precisely because “Christ emptied [ἐκένωσεν] Himself, having become obedient unto death” that “God also hath highly exalted him, and given Him a name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:8,9). Divine Life is both and at the same time one of extreme humility and exaltation.
Judging from this observation, Elder Sophrony proposes a crucial formula: “The deeper one goes in self-condemnation, the higher God raises one.” In the second stage, when God withdraws His grace the Christian is led along the same path that Christ followed: through Gethsemane, to Golgotha in order to experience, in some measure, the “breadth, and length, and depth, and height” (Eph. 3:18) of Divine Life. Elder Sophrony writes in his chapter on Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane, “It is vital to have experienced, if only once, the heavenly fire which Christ brought with Him to know with our entire being what it is to be even a little like Christ.” If Christ experienced abandonment by God (cf. Matt. 27:44), then the Christian cannot expect anything less. If Christ “descended first into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9), then the Christian can follow no other path than that which leads to hell, the hell of love. But following this path, he finds Christ as a fellow traveler and the night is turned into light in his joy (cf. Ps. 138:10 LXX).
Elder Sophrony illustrated the paradoxical nature of the Christian’s assimilation to Divine Life using two images: a pyramid and a tree. “In the structure of the world” Elder Sophrony explains, “we observe a hierarchal order, a division of upper and lower—a pyramid of being.” After man’s original fall from grace, the world is arranged so that the stronger rule, over the weaker. Yet, humans naturally desire equality and thus the weaker struggle against the stronger. Enter the millenary tragedy of revolution and repression. Christ, according to Elder Sophrony, “does not deny the … division into upper and lower, into overlord and servant; but He turns the pyramid upside down.” Instead of standing as Lord and Master upon the shoulders of his subjects.” He lowers Himself below all who come to Him. Elder Sophrony adds, “He is the summit of the inverted pyramid, the summit on which the whole weight of the pyramid of being falls.” Likewise, “The Christian goes downwards, into the depths of the overturned pyramid where the crushing weight is concentrated—to the place where the Lord is, Who took upon Himself the sins of the world—Christ.” The motif is thus repeated: to descend is to ascend.
This motif is further depicted in Elder Sophrony’s analogy of the tree. 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.” As tall as the tree is above ground, one may assume the same for the depth of its roots. Elder Sophrony observed something very similar in the Christian life. He writes, “If, like the apostles, we recognize the greatness of our calling in Christ . . . it makes us humble, not proud. This lowering, this humbling of ourselves is essential if we would preserve a genuinely Christian disposition.” In other words, the Christian struggle consists in humbling oneself, in constantly digging deeper and deeper into the earth, the humus of humility. Genuine Christians, as Elder Zacharias observes, “do not consider themselves worthy of any spiritual gift; they only try to learn one thing, namely, to go down before God, because then surely they will be exalted in due time.” And this is the image that Christ Himself presents at His life-giving death: nailed upon the Tree of the Cross His body descends to Hades, His eyes are lifted to His Father in heaven and His arms are stretched out to embrace all things. But this is also the image that every Christian is called to conform to its likeness.
Godforsakenness is thus but one facet of Divine Life, which can be described (though not defined) as Love and Humility. This Love and Humility includes within its Being both heaven and hell, both ineffable joy and ineffable pain. Elder Sophrony writes, “Christianity is not some philosophical doctrine but actual life. Life and love ‘to the end’—to hate for oneself. This is the great mystery of godliness’ [I Tim. 3:16].” How contrary to one’s natural way of thinking is that to attain God’s likeness (Gen. 1:26) and to be a partaker of His nature (II Pt. 1:4) would necessitate the dark night of abandonment, leading to complete self-emptying. But, such is the “great mystery.” No one could discover this path alone or by any method; it is a gift. Elder Sophrony, reflecting the teaching of his elder, St. Silouan, writes, “It is by the gift of the Holy Spirit . . . that we in our Church existentially, by actual experience, know the Self-emptying of the Son. He, the Holy Spirit, shows us the self-emptying that lies before us, too.” This is the key to successfully passing through the Dark Night of Godforsakenness: to recognize it as a gift of incalculable value.
Elder Zacharias recalls, “A few months before he died, Father Sophrony gave a remarkable talk about man’s adoption by God.” In this talk, he speaks of the trials of the second stage as a preparation for the third: man’s birth into Eternity. “Every day we say to God, ‘I am Thine, save me’ (Ps. 118:94 LXX). But who are we to say to God that we are His? We must convince Him that we are His.” The Christian accomplishes this by following Christ’s humble way during the second stage. Preserving maximum tension between a love for God and a hatred of self, God sees in this self-emptying a resonance with His own mode of Being. Once this occurs, Elder Sophrony continues, “We will hear His voice saying to us, ‘Yes, thou art My son, this day have I begotten thee.’” The gift of God’s presence, given as a token during the first stage, becomes one’s own in the third stage. The soul, who at the first call was a guest in God’s house, feasting on the tangible gifts of grace, is now recalled as a beloved son.
As mentioned before, this event may not occur until the very end of one’s earthly life. The greatest saints struggled for many years before they were born from on high in a more or less permanent, stable way. Even so, St. Anthony, the great 4th century ascetic told his fellow monks, “This is the great work of a man: always to take blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.” Elder Sophrony echoes this sober reminder when he writes to Balfour, “Essentially speaking, it is impossible to ‘live’ as a Christian. It is only possible to ‘die’ as a Christian, a thousand deaths every day.” There is, in a certain sense, a reluctance to emerge from or to lessen the extreme tension experienced during the second stage. Elder Sophrony writes, “[The soul] cannot come down from the cross because every time she considers ‘coming down’ [cf. Matt. 27:40] from this cross the flow of real eternity decreases in her.” He recalls from his personal experience that every time the life-giving fear and blessed despair would abate “I would feel a slackening of the vital strength within me. Prayer grew weak, my mind was distracted, the sense of the divine disappeared in the mist—my spirit began to die.” But slowly, the Christian learns to “keep their mind in hell,” even when the warmth of grace returns and to live in both hell and paradise simultaneously.
The Christian spends a vast majority of his earthly struggle nailed to the cross, stretched between these two states. Elder Sophrony writes to Balfour, “The alternation between waves of darkness and of light—this, you know, is the lot of the monks.” However, the negative experience of the second stage gradually gives way to the positive vision of the third. Fear is slowly replaced by perfect love (cf. I Jn. 4:18); the refiner’s fire is slowly replaced by the Light of the Uncreated Sun; the negative asceticism, fueled by the blessed despair of the Godforsakenness, becomes less necessary in the third stage as the “impulsion of the spirit towards God, in prayer, compassion, [and] love” increase. Elder Sophrony describes the third stage as “grace and created nature knit together and become one . . . it is the transfiguration of the whole man through which he becomes Christ-like, perfect.” In the third stage, the soul is given the “true riches, to possess imprescriptibly for ever.” Among these riches, Elder Sophrony focuses on three particular gifts: pure prayer, hypostatic being, and the vision of the Uncreated Light. The remaining portion of this chapter will be dedicated to an exploration of these three gifts.
In his book, Saint Silouan the Athonite, Elder Sophrony describes three forms or levels of prayer: prayer of the imagination (φαντασία), prayer of meditation διαλογισμικη προσευχη), and pure prayer καθαρή προσευχή). The first form of prayer, he writes, “Imprisons man in constant error, in an imaginary world, [and] in a world of dreams.” If the Christian persists in this form of prayer, “not only unfruitfulness but deep-rooted spiritual ill- health may result.” The second form of prayer (meditation) is a self-driven prayer, though occasionally accompanied by grace, wherein the Christian focuses his mental faculties on abstract concepts or the words of a prayer. This labor can lead the one who prays to a certain philosophical intuition and an awareness of the Divine but it leaves him blind to the subtle passions of vanity and pride. Elder Sophrony writes, “Having accumulated a measure of religious knowledge and achieved relatively decorous behavior, content with matters, he gradually takes to speculative theology.” The third form of prayer is pure prayer. Elder Sophrony describes pure prayer as the following:
Pure prayer is preeminently prayer without images, prayer in which the mind (nous) is stationed in the heart and there it “cannot be distracted, [and] no irrelevant thought can intrude.” One of the greatest benefits of God’s withdrawal and the accompanying despair is the resulting detachment of the soul from everything created and imaginary. Godforsakenness is a necessary prerequisite for pure prayer. Elder Sophrony relates, “The contrite spirit in fatal longing after God the Savior is totally drawn to Him. And man himself does not know when and how the change in him occurred: he forgets the material world and his own body.” Through the pain of repentance, the soul is detached from a manner of praying that is imaginative or meditative; God has withdrawn and nothing created, material or imagined can serve as His substitute. This pain is centered in the heart, the center of a person’s being, and the mind naturally shifts its attention to the place of greatest pain. The pain of blessed despair unites a person’s mind with their heart and he stands before God with this one thought: “Not to lose such a God.”
Genuine detachment can only proceed from the grace of Godforsakenness. An ascetic, self-willed divestment of the material world leads to a distorted, negative vision of what God created and called “good” (Gen. 1:31). Alone, it cannot grant a positive vision of God. Elder Sophrony expresses this sentiment in the following words: “I have renounced all that is ephemeral but God is not with me.” Such is the negative vision of the “Areopagites” and the religions of the Far East. These divest themselves of every material and imaginative form but fail to be invested with any positive vision. Reaching the edge of the abyss and gazing into its depths through mental exercise they fail to reach the opposite side. Elder Sophrony asks, “Is not this ‘outer darkness’—hell itself?” Absence is mistaken for vision, hell for heaven. Elder Sophrony, speaking from his own experience, describes another vision, the fruit of blessed despair: “The Lord absorbs me completely. I both see and do not see my surroundings. My eye glances around at intervals when I am busy with the unavoidable preoccupations of everyday life. But whether I am asleep or awake, God is closer to me than the air I breathe.”
The journey toward pure prayer is by no means easy or brief. The struggle with intrusive thoughts spells enormous suffering, yet this suffering is creative: “it does not destroy.” In pure prayer, the self is transcended for the sake of the Other; “At the same time he continues to be himself as persona, to be aware of himself more firmly and clearly than he ever was in his customary state.” The self-emptying associated with the experience of Godforsakenness is not the annihilation of personhood. It is instead the revelation of what it truly means to be a person. Through the blessed despair of the second stage, man discovers the hypostatic principal within himself.
The hypostatic principal (ἀρχὴ ὑπόστασις) is that “image” which man was given in the beginning and of which he is called to attain the “likeness” (cf. Gen. 1:26). Elder Sophrony writes, “The personal principle in man contains, first and foremost, his likeness to Him Who revealed Himself to us under the name I AM.” God is a Person, not a supra-personal energy. He is “I AM THAT I AM” (Ex. 3:14). Man, likewise has the potential, contained in the “image” of God in him, to also be a person, an I that is not the I AM. The actualization of this potential occurs through the pain of Godforsakenness.
Through the grace of Godforsakenness and its accompanying mindfulness of death, a man realizes his existential link with all men and all creation. This vision is at first negative; he sees all things under the dominion of death and witnesses his own death as a universal death. However, this vision reveals that he is, in a mysterious manner, the centre of creation, that all things are somehow contained in his person. Through the grace of Godforsakenness, he beholds Christ as He ascends the cross, bearing in Himself the whole world (cf. Is. 53:4,5) and thereby gathering together all things in Himself (cf. Eph. 1:10). The Christian by this grace also beholds in his own soul the bitter roots of selfishness: the desire for dominion and survival in opposition to the other. The deformity of the “image” given him and his unlikeness to Christ inspires in the soul of the Christian a holy self-hatred. But, it is precisely this holy self-hatred that gives birth to true being: hypostatic being.
Elder Sophrony marvels at this paradox. This revelation cannot have anything but a divine source. What man would teach, “Detest yourself because of love for God and you will embrace all that exists with your love?” In the awakening of the hypostatic principle, “The I is forgotten in the transport of love for the God of love but nevertheless it is this I that blissfully contains in itself all heaven and earth.” The hypostatic principle is therefore at once a total self-emptying love and an all-embracing power through which human nature, all creation and even God become the content of one’s being. Through an effort to hold in tension these two extremes, a sketch of the hypostatic principle can be made out. However, Elder Sophrony emphasizes that “the Hypostacity of God escapes definition,” and adds that even the human hypostasis is “hidden” and likewise escapes definition. Elder Sophrony preferred rather to offer the portrait of his Elder, Saint Silouan, as an example a true man in the likeness of the True Man, Jesus Christ.
In this portrait, one defining characteristic predominates: Saint Silouan’s hypostatic prayer. Hypostatic in the sense that it was all-embracing. Saint Silouan relates that he would often “pray for all as I pray for myself.” Silouan was a simple schema-monk and had perhaps, due to his lack of formal education, never seen a map of the world and yet he prayed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “O Merciful Lord, give Thy grace to all the peoples of the earth that they may come to know Thee.” Moreover, he indicated in his writings that the infallible criterion for judging the progress of one’s spiritual life is whether one has attained love of enemies. A love that is completely self-emptying sees with spiritual eyes the existential unity between all peoples and the man thus graced considers his brother to be his life. Such a love cannot be content for even a single soul not to know God. But such a perfect love is born only through the terrible travail of Godforsakenness. Having experienced God’s love in the first stage and then become bereft of this love, the Christian knows by painful familiarity that “There is no greater affliction, no more bitter pain, than not to know God.” Thus, he prays for the salvation of his enemies all the while considering himself to be undeserving of this same salvation—not aware that by such love he been born anew into Divine Life.
Elder Sophrony bears particular witness to the severity of man’s brokenness. His words express with unique intensity the horror of man as he exists in his fallen state apart from God. Yet, his deep sorrow is due only to the fact that his vision for man’s potential is so great. The force with which he describes the darkness of Godforsakenness is only the result of his vision of the Uncreated Light. Through this experience, Elder Sophrony was made witness that “created being, by the gift of God’s pleasure, [can be] made a partaker of uncreated, unoriginate Life . . . to receive the divine form of being, to become god by grace.” Through the action of God’s Uncreated Light, “a wondrous flower blossoms—the persona, the hypostasis.” In the Uncreated Light, the Christian knows, not intellectually but existentially, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and “sees God (Matt. 5:8).” Such was the grandeur of Elder Sophrony’s vision of the person in whom the hypostatic principle is realized.
Within the second stage, God is experienced frequently as a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) and the resulting divesture of every attachment of created forms is often perceived as a darkness. Nonetheless, “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (I Jn. 1:5). Elder Sophrony pronounces woe to the man who mistakes the “darkness of divesture on the borders of true vision” for the vision of God itself. He affirms repeatedly, “God reveals Himself in light and as light.” It is true that God appeared to Moses at Mount Sinai in the “darkness” (γνόφος)(Ex. 20:21). Elder Sophrony however, argues that after the incarnation of God in the flesh, His Divinity is always revealed as Light, appearing in a “bright cloud” (νεφέλη φωτεινή)(Matt. 17:4). Darkness is a necessary experience, but a negative one. Unless it is followed by the positive investment of the third stage, epitomized in the vision of Christ in the glory of His Uncreated Light, the darkness of divesture and the torment of abandonment remains fruitless. The entire purpose of God’s gift of the blessed despair and His withdrawal is the attainment of true personhood granted by the vision of His Uncreated Light.
Elder Sophrony states plainly: “Divine Light is eternal life, the Kingdom of God, the uncreated energy of Divinity. It is not contained in created human nature and, being of a different kind, it cannot be discovered through ascetic techniques. It comes exclusively as a gift of God’s mercy.” The vision of the Uncreated Light is the free gift given to those who have proven themselves to be faithful stewards through the trials of the second stage. It is the blessedness of those whose hearts have been purified and strengthened to “see God” (Matt. 5:8). This vision is not of God’s essence but of His Uncreated energy. It is God as He appears in His self-emptying revelation. It is God Himself but the knowledge afforded is not the same knowledge as possessed by the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, Who are of one substance (ὁμοούσιος). Neither in life nor in death can that which is created be absorbed into the nature of the Uncreated. The mystery of both Divine and human personhood preserves the distinction between created and Uncreated nature. Nonetheless, man who by nature is “dust of the ground” can participate in the mode of being of the Uncreated Divine Persons, primarily through his vision of the heavenly Light even while still on earth.
It is inevitable that man encounter suffering both on a personal and universal level. The man who seeks to alleviate this suffering by withdrawing his mind from all earthly attachments peers down the dark abyss of non-being and is deceived by the thought that he has discovered true Being. The Christian too reaches the edge of this abyss when he encounters the Gospel commandments. “By their very nature,” Elder Sophrony explains, “The soul stands over abysses where our unenlightened spirit sees no way.” However, through the energy granted through the grace of Godforsakenness, the Christian despises his own life, spurns the danger and “like lightning”(cf. Lk. 10:18), he flashes “across the abyss to settle on the opposite shore,” to God, “the Father of lights” (James 1:17), Who exclaims, “My son, this day have I begotten you” (Ps. 2:7).