Part II of Freedom and Obedience in the Teachings of St. Sophrony
A BISHOP once related to Saint Sophrony, “I have come to fear love.”1 Saint Sophrony later concludes, “More than once was I reminded, and still am, of his paradoxical words.”2 Who among us has not experienced the agony of a relationship grown cold, or of losing someone whom we love? How many times have we asked ourselves: would it be easier not to love? And indeed, after being repeatedly wounded, many allow a scab of indifference to grow over their hearts, shielding them from the pain of love.
In our relation to the other, there exists a deep seated desire to control, to make them act in a way that we judge is best. When we feel that the other does not properly return our love, the pain is tremendous and the wish to force our way through the shell they have constructed becomes overwhelming. Yet, we inevitably learn that, although we can bend someone’s exterior, the person’s soul remains inaccessible.3 Whether a child, a spouse, a spiritual son or daughter, a friend, or a parent, there remains the fundamental fact of their otherness—their freedom. The fundamental character of love is that it is a free act and it is precisely for this reason that it may be unreciprocated. A love that is compulsory or instinctual is no longer love. Only a free, self-determined being can reciprocate authentic love. To love is to be human, to cease to love is to be less than human. This is our nature’s grandeur and its tragedy.
In contrast, machines—an organ stop or a piano key—are determined by an exterior force within the parameters of natural law. A machine can neither love nor hate, it simply acts as determined by its creator. Indeed, the inventor or engineer eliminates, as far as possible, any unpredictable behavior within his creation. Computers have greatly aided this effort, exponentially reducing the degree of unknown outcomes in a wide field of variables. Observation of the physical and biological world has yielded natural laws that describe future behaviors, further reducing risk. Whether it is Newton’s apples or Pavlov’s dogs, modern man has grown to expect predictability and controllability. They wish the same for homo sapien.
The scandal of the Judeo-Christian narrative is that when its Creator breathed life into his creature, Adam, he accepted the risk of the other. He created a free person, unpredictable and uncontrollable. Man was formed from dust—he was nothing—and yet God formed him in his own image and likeness, which is preeminently one of self-determination. Saint Sophrony writes, “To give man god-like freedom shut the door against predestination in any form. Man is at full liberty to determine himself negatively in relation to God—even to enter into conflict with him.”4 Though an infinite expanse divides the Uncreated from the created, God chose to elevate man to a rank of equality, in as much as he addresses us as other, as a being outside of his Being. And, what is more, God permits man the audacity of arguing with him. Archimandrite Zacharias develops this theme, remarking that the definition of man given in the Book of Job is κατεντευκτής: “someone who stands before God and intercedes, and even quarrels with God.”5
In his book on elder Silouan, Saint Sophrony contemplates the tragic nature of God’s relation to the other: “Man’s freedom is positive, real. It concedes no determination in his destiny, so that neither the sacrifice of Christ Himself nor the sacrifices of all those who have trodden in his footsteps necessarily lead to victory.”6 And yet, Love cannot but continue to yearn for the other’s salvation, and this spells great pain. Do we think that God and the saints in heaven are immune to the pain that is invariably intertwined with love? Saint Sophrony, with a touch of irony, comments in a letter to Father Georges Florovsky:
For the kingdom is not some quiet corner with a wonderful garden, filled with “heavenly” music, surrounded by a wall that no “impure” person can get through, that hides from the gaze of the saints the flames of hell.7
We must apply to both human and divine nature Saint Silouan’s words: “The greater the love, the greater the suffering;”8 suffering caused, not from changeability, but from the tension between love and freedom, between knowing what is best for a person and yet respecting the other’s choice to reject what is good. God, the omnipotent Creator, the Ruler over all, the King of kings, seeing his creature in the flames of hell, nonetheless preserves the freedom of his creature. If God is love,9 his image and likeness must also have the capacity to love, and therefore it must be free from every compulsion.
Given such liberty, man nevertheless voluntarily enslaves himself to various desires. St. Silouan notes that “there is but only one servitude—the servitude to sin—and one real freedom, which is resurrection in God.”10 Perhaps, most egregious among these enslavements is the desire to control the other either by manipulating their behavior or demanding their love and respect. Oddly, while valuing our own freedom as paramount, we demand love and respect from our peers. What is more, we demand love and intervention from God himself. We act in a mechanical, deterministic mode when we bargain with God, whether through prayer or in other acts of piety, expecting a certain outcome. Do we forget that, while we serve a “good God, who loves mankind,” who is unchanging and whose “compassions fail not,”11 he is still free to say no to our pleading? As C.S. Lewis puts it, “he is not a tame lion.”12
This is a lesson Saint Silouan learned while still a novice. After an intense period of repentance during which the “flames of hell” roared about him,13 he was brought to the point of utter despair. He felt completely abandoned by God. More precisely, the thought came to him in this dark hour: “God will not hear me!”14 Happily, the saint was shortly thereafter granted the wondrous consolation of Christ’s appearance. Nonetheless, the experience of abandonment and God’s seeming indifference molded Silouan’s consciousness of God’s freedom, his hypostatic Being, and complete otherness.
Admittedly, Saint Sophrony’s is a maximalist vision of both divine and human being, unique in its intensity among the church fathers. Personhood stands foremost in his dogmatic conscience, unifying and transcending categories of doctrine: hence, the insistence on man’s self-determination in relation to God. St. Sophrony writes in his breathtaking spiritual panorama, We Shall See Him as He is, “Persona and liberty are indissolubly related: where there is no liberty, there is no persona.”15 And, in the saint’s framework, outside the personal nothing exists. This vision of the human person induces St. Sophrony to write:
The freedom of the man who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ . . . belongs to a plane of other dimensions. It is a freedom in no way determined from without. Such a man, . . . although he is a creature created by God, the Creator treats not as his “energy” but as a definite fact even for himself.
With such an audacious view of the human person, it would seem to follow that man was at liberty to do as he pleases. A grotesque version of deism comes to mind, with a helpless God pining for the return of his lost sheep, but too abashed by man’s freedom to interfere. Obviously, Saints Silouan and Sophrony have a quite different perspective. For them, liberty and personhood are not equated with political and theological liberalism or with moral permissiveness. St. Sophrony recalls a conversation during which his elder, Silouan explained to a politically-minded young student, “To become free, one must first of all ‘bind’ oneself. . . . People generally seek freedom in order to do what they like. But that is not freedom.”16 He concluded, “True freedom means not sinning, in order to love God and one’s neighbor with our whole heart.” Thus, in the saint’s vision, authentic freedom meant the freedom to love without reserve. The maximal expression of freedom is love for one’s enemies. If this is not enough to make the modern balk, it may also be added that obedience and servitude could also be expressions of freedom for St. Sophrony and St. Silouan.
In our next essay, we will explore love as the bridge between the antinomy of freedom and obedience in the political, economical, and spiritual realms.
1 Saint Sophrony, On Prayer (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1996) 91.
3 “Whatever I do with this cage, I cannot get at you, and it is your soul that I want” in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
4 St. Sophrony, His Life is Mine (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1977) 32.
5 Arch. Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart (Essex, UK: Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 2012) 78. The author references Job 7:17, 20 and the example of Moses’s quarrel with God in Exod. 32:32.
6 St. Sophrony, Saint Silouan (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1991) 108, 109. Note: St. Sophrony adds that it the preservation of man’s freedom that led the Church to repudiate the determinist theory of apocastasis as promoted by Origen and subsequent Universalist.
7 St. Sophrony, The Cross of Loneliness (South Canaan, PA: STM Press, 2021) 137.
8 St. Silouan in St. Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, 365.
9 I Jn. 4:8.
10 St. Silouan the Athonite, 107.
11 Lam. 3:22.
12 C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, 83.
13 Arch. Zacharias, The Enlargment of the Heart, 20.
14 St. Sophrony, Saint Silouan, 25.
15 St. Sophrony, We Shall See Him as He is (Essex: Community of St. John the Baptist, 2004) 110.
16 Ibid., 65.