Theology, Dogma, and Revelation in the Vision of Elder Sophrony

Elder Sophrony considered his encounter with St. Silouan to be the greatest event of his life. One might readily ask, how this could be? Sophrony, since childhood, had mingled with the elite societies of Moscow and Paris, received the highest level of education, the famed theologian, Sergei Bulgakov, had served briefly as his mentor at the famed Institut Saint-Serge (A Life of Arch. Sophrony can be found here). What did he see in this uneducated peasant from provincial Tambov? Certainly, in his visage there was no particular “form or comeliness” to set him apart from the other Athonite monks of St. Panteleimon. Most of his brethren showed surprise that foreigners, scholars and hierarchs would visit him (among Silouan’s acquaintances were Fr. Georges Florovsky, David Balfour, and St. Nikolai Velimirović). One monk even remarked to such a visitor, “I don’t understand how a scholar like you can take pleasure in going to see Father Silouan.” To which the person replied, “It needs a ‘scholar’ to understand Father Silouan.” The same monk subsequently mused again, “I wonder why they go to him. After all, he reads nothing.” To which Fr. M., who ran the monastery bookstore, offered the revealing reply, “Reads nothing but fulfills everything, while others read a lot and fulfill nothing” (Saint Silouan, 74).

Many years later, in a letter to Fr. Georges Florovsky, Elder Sophrony would provide the key to understanding his veneration for Silouan as a theological event of cosmic proportion. He writes, “I have a constant thought that if we truly abided in the spirit of the commandments of Christ, then we would reach a unity of experience incomparably more quickly, an experience of dogma” (The Cross of Loneliness, Letter 11). In other words, by means of the struggle to keep the Gospel commandments—and more specifically, the commands of love of God and neighbor—the ascetic experiences the divine mode of being and thereby embodies dogma, lives theology. Fr. Sophrony re-cognized that Silouan “fulfilled everything” and, thus, “the experience of the great Fathers was repeated in him” (ibid., 127). He believed that in the person of his startetz, Silouan, the same Holy Spirit that “made the fisherman most wise,” likewise abode in all fullness. There was nothing lacking in the Elder’s theological vision due to “the identical nature of their experiences” (ibid), the fruit of their shared, titanic struggle to follow Christ “wheresoever He goeth” (Rev. 14:4).

It has become cliche in some circles to affirm theology to be the fruit of experience. Yet, I fear, to the majority, what this translates to is a “God-moment” collection of feelings which automatically qualifies someone to study and write about theology. A somewhat refined understanding would attribute authentic spiritual knowledge (i.e. theology) to anyone exhibiting “mystical” experiences. This would include exalted “mystics” in both East and West (this was my own approach to John of the Cross). Given this concern, it is important that we comprehend what Fr. Sophrony means when he states that Silouan “spoke out of experience granted from on high” (St. Silouan, 75). In this respect, we will first qualify the term experience and then continue to the content of this existential theology.

Pure Prayer

St. Silouan, honing Evagius’ maxim, states, “If you pray purely, you are a theologian” (ibid., 143). Fr. Sophrony explains that there are three forms of prayer, with the highest being pure prayer which he defines as “the mind (nous) by being absorbed in prayer detaches itself from every image [. . . and] is deemed worthy to stand before God”(ibid., 151). He elaborates thus

When the created human mind, the created human persona, stands before the Supreme Mind, before the Personal God, it attains to genuinely pure and perfect prayer, but only when from love of God every created thing is set aside is the world forgotten—as the Staretz was fond of saying—and one’s very body so ignored that there is no telling whether one was in the body or outside the body in the hour of prayer (St Silouan, 151).

The fact that pure prayer is imageless is fundamental in Fr. Sophrony’s approach. It is this characteristic that sets it against the lower forms of prayer. It is the goal of mental stillness (hesychia) and the primary reason why Fr. Sophrony attaches so much importance to the ascetic struggle with the imagination. In the first form of prayer the imagination takes precedent, “all that is spiritual presents itself in various fantastical aspects” (ibid., 132). The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola is a popular expression of this form of prayer. The second form of prayer, according to Elder Sophrony, is characterized by “the concentration of attention in the brain [i.e. not the nous/mind], leads to rational, philosophical intuition, which, like the first form of prayer, opens the way to a contrived world of imagination” (ibid., 133). Prayer of this form, Fr. Sophrony adds, often gives rise to speculative theology: the “mystic,” having achieved some religious experience and relatively ascetic discipline is content to allow thoughts of God to appear in his brain, to write these down, and to teach others without having ever entered that subtle battle—the area of pride and vainglory. We will explore this peculiar “process” of theology in Part Two of this essay. Suffice it for now to answer one question related to the difference between Pure Prayer and the mystical practices of the “Areopagites.”

The reader familiar with the teachings of the Western “mystics,” (Meister Ekhart’s Abgeschiedenheit, The Cloud of Unknowing, John of the Cross’ Noche Oscura, etc.) would be justified in suggesting a similarity between the detachment these promote and the Pure Prayer of the Staretz Silouan. However, on closer observation the practice of detachment or recollection (recogimiento) is conceptual and philosophical at its basis, arising from a medieval reading of Dionysius the Areopagite’s apophatic theology (via negativa). It has nothing in common with the hesychasm of the Holy Fathers, which, Fr. Sophrony writes, “springs organically from deep repentance and [. . .] a longing to keep the commandments of Christ. It is not the artificial application to spiritual life of Areopagitic theology” (ibid., 178).

This distinction is not lightly made. Elder Sophrony, while still a young man, spent seven-years enamored with the religions of the Far East. His return to Christianity gave him a keen awareness of the spiritual suicide met with in the buddhist practice of detachment (wú-niàn) and, by extension, the recogimiento of the Western mystics. He writes,

Dwelling in the darkness of divestiture, the mind knows a peculiar delight and sense of peace. If at this point it turns in on itself it can perceive something akin to light, which, however, is not yet the uncreated Light of Divinity but a natural attribute of the mind created in the image of God […] Woe to him because the darkness of divestiture on the borders of true vision becomes an impenetrable pass and a strong barrier between himself and God [. . .] since God is not in the darkness of divestiture. God reveals Himself in light and as Light (St Silouan, 179 emph. added).

Pure Prayer is, in essence, cataphatic not apophatic. While to uninitiated minds this must seem completely absurd, nonetheless, Fr. Sophrony repeatedly assures his reader that Pure Prayer is vision, knowledge, theology—a man beholds God face to Face. Pure Prayer is most intimately connected with the vision of the Uncreated Light. This Light is Theology as this Light is God in His ekstasis to His chosen. Indeed, this Light is not a passive vision but rather inspires what Fr. Sophrony describes as hypostatic prayer, that is, beholding in noetic vision the whole world and having entered upon the Divine mode of Being, he prays, like Christ, that “all men be saved” (1 Tim. 2:5). It is this gift of hypostatic prayer for the world that Staretz Silouan considered to be the defining trait of those who have been perfected (cf. St. Silouan, 67,68) and the token of the True Church (cf. ibid., 114). This fruit is completely absent from the promoters of divestiture, who exhibit a strong tendency at de-personalization. The cataphatic vision itself the West categorically denies. Having forgotten the hesychastic tradition, they made the assumption that such “beatific vision” was possible only after death. Lacking the authentic vision of Pure Prayer, they gave themselves over to mental speculations and fantastical meditations.

Theology, Dogma, and Divine Revelation

Pure Prayer gradually gives birth to a “dogmatic consciousness.” In Elder Sophrony’s estimation, the assimilation takes a minimum of fifteen-years (St Silouan, 186). He observes that more than thirty years elapsed before the Staretz set down in writing his own experience. Even then, unless compelled by obedience, the ascetic has no wish to undertake the mental effort to articulate in words the content of his contemplation of the Light. Elder Sophrony states, “We may be sure that none of the Saints would have sought language in which to express their spiritual experience. They would have dwelt in silence for evermore” (ibid., 147). Why is this? According to the Elder, even to function in a “normal” fashion, to even have the mental awareness of this hidden life in God, is, in a certain sense, a fall, a diminution of grace. He explains that if, let us say, there are twelve degrees of grace, one would have to descend to at least the eighth degree to even function in this world (cf. Enlargement, 229). The Saints descend to this degree in their great love and humility, not with any wish to offer “scholastic dissertations” (ibid.). Consequently, we may conclude that dogma (i.e. the written doctrinal statements of the Church and her Holy Fathers), while an expression of theology, is not theology itself and is even, in fact, a diminution of it.

Dogma, devoid of the experience of Pure Prayer is but empty, conceptual knowledge. Fr. Sophrony expresses doubt as to the value of “theological” precision related to the doctrine of the Trinity “if a man has not within  himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, and the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost” (ibid.). What is important is not the preservation of the historical terminology and its “correct” interpretation but rather the acquisition of the Spirit from which it was born. We could justifiably say that St. Anthony, though he wrote nothing, was as great (if not greater) a theologian as St. Athanasius, who gave articulation to his Elder’s experience of Christ in his eloquent tome, On the Incarnation. To this underline this point, St. Silouan makes the following provocative statement:

Suppose that for some reason the Church were to be bereft of all of her books, of the Old and New Testaments, the works of the holy Fathers, of all the service books—what would happen? Sacred Tradition would restore the Scriptures, not word for word, perhaps—the verbal form might be different—but in essence the new Scriptures would be an expression of that same ‘faith which was once delivered unto the saints’ (St. Silouan, 87,88).

Another story expands upon this theme: A certain Roman Catholic doctor of theology was once visiting the monastery of St. Panteleimon and asked the guest master, “What books do your monks read?” After listing many writings of the ascetic Fathers (St. John Cassian, Isaac the Syrian, et al) the doctor replied with astonishment, “Your monks read those books! With us it’s only professors who do!” Later, when St. Silouan learned of the conversation, he replied, “You could have told the doctor that our monks not only read these book but could themselves write their like . . . Monks do not write because there are masses of fine books which satisfy them (Saint Silouan, 72).

Monks—and here St. Silouan is referring specifically to the ascetics who “left father and mother” for the sake of total repentance and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit—could make a repetition of the Church’s dogmatic expression because their mode of life was no different than that of the Holy Apostles and Fathers, that is, they dwelt in Eternal Being—the Life and Light of He, Who was, and is, and will be (cf. Rev. 1:8). For this reason, Elder Sophrony relates, Silouan “not only remained faithful to Church tradition but by God’s grace the experience of the great Fathers was repeated in him” (ibid., 127). The connection between a person’s life and consequent dogmatic consciousness cannot be overstated. Fr. Sophrony writes, “the slightest deviation from the truth in our inner spiritual life will alter our dogmatic perspective” (ibid., 144). The 4th-century monk, Evagrius, confirms this approach when he writes, “What we hear about God through faith, that we know through a pure life, in that we accept the proofs of what is believed through dispassion” (Eulogium 15, in Bunge, 16). In other words, the Fathers confessed in dogma what they had already learned to believe—through dispassion.

Hieromonk Alexis (Trader) recently presented a homily on the Sunday of the Fathers in which he drew a connection between the lectionary reading for the day, “And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God (Jn. 17:3) and Arius, whom the First Council Ecumenical Council condemned as a heretic. Fr. Alexis stated, “Arius, despite his great erudition and outstanding knowledge of Scripture, did not know God and was therefore deprived of eternal life and fell into erroneous thinking.” We can conclude inversely that the Fathers of the Council expressed in the dogmas confessed the fruit of their knowledge of God, the fruit of hesychia, the fruit of dispassion. In like manner, we may conclude that all errors in relation to dogma have, on the spiritual plain, a direct relationship to the spiritual life and vision (or lack thereof) of the one expressing the error. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” states the Gospel, “for they shall see God,” but we can likewise say that those who lack this purity have never seen God nor are they bearers of authentic theology. They might be nice, sincere, religious people, but their words and thoughts are the fruit of a mind still in want of healing. It cannot be said of them, “The perfect never say anything of themselves . . . They only say what the Spirit inspires them to say” (St. Silouan, 57).

As we reach the conclusion of this section, it must be noted that we have yet to mention Divine Revelation. Building upon what has already been said, it should require very little explanation and yet this perspective of Divine Revelation forms the crux of our exploration of confession as theological event. Divine Revelation is commonly understood to incorporate those appearances of God to men in which He revealed truths about Himself. These revelations are typically divided between Natural and Special Revelation. In this manner of thinking, Natural Revelation consists in “facts” about God, gleaned through natural science. Special Revelation refers to the epiphanies of God in the Old and New Testaments and the inspired words of the Prophets and Apostles. However, if we judge Elder Sophrony’s witness to represent the larger experience of the “Catholic” Church, then we should include in the category of Divine Revelation the Vision of Pure Prayer. More generally speaking, any encounter with God—be it within prayer or any of the Holy Sacraments—can be considered an epiphany and Revelation less facts conveyed than a sharing of Life. We will return to this theme in our third section as it relates to confession as a theological event or, more to the point, as a Divine Revelation. In our next section, we will explore different approaches to Divine Revelation, dogma, and theology both within and without the Orthodox Church and how these relate to the approach to which Elder Sophrony testifies.

This is Part II of a series, Confession as Theological Event. For Part I, click Here

Next up: Orthodox Thinkers

2 Replies to “Theology, Dogma, and Revelation in the Vision of Elder Sophrony”

  1. Would like to look at the following points in light of John 3:34:

    “For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.”
    “ὃν γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ Θεὸς τὰ ῥήματα τοῦ Θεοῦ λαλεῖ· οὐ γὰρ ἐκ μέτρου δίδωσιν τὸ Πνεῦμα.”

    “Consequently, we may conclude that dogma (i.e. the written doctrinal statements of the Church and her Holy Fathers), while an expression of theology, is not theology itself and is even, in fact, a diminution of it.”

    “The connection between a person’s life and consequent dogmatic consciousness cannot be overstated. Fr. Sophrony writes, “the slightest deviation from the truth in our inner spiritual life will alter our dogmatic perspective” (ibid., 144).”


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