Fathers and Despots

Part V: Freedom & Obedience in the Vision of Saint Sophrony

CONTEMPORARY conversation is fixated with the idea of equality. The solution often presented is the dissolution of inherent distinctions. Saint Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, offers another solution: “Subject yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.”1 Archimandrite Zacharias likewise remarks, “If we are truly spiritual we respect every authority.”2 To underscore this assertion, he offers the example of his elder, Saint Sophrony: when he felt his end drawing near he wrote a letter to his bishop, entrusting the monastery to his care and asking for a blessing to depart this life. Imagine, exclaims Father Zacharias, “he even asked the blessing of his bishop to die!”3 Such submission to authority is often perceived in terms of inequality: the lesser submitting to the greater. However, this is not at all the case. Saint Sophrony stood on a spiritual level far above an ordinary bishop and yet he asked for a blessing. We should further remind ourselves that Saint Paul prescribes mutual submission, and not in terms of relative value but for the sake of the love for the other.4

If we seek an embodied illustration of mutual submission a ready example can be found in Saint Sophrony’s description of his elder, Saint Silouan. He provides this sketch: “He had a genuine respect for people of rank and education but no feeling of jealousy or inferiority—possibly because of his profound realization of the transience of worldly position or authority, wealth or even scholarship.”5 Saint Silouan approached each person on a level that transcended hierarchy—that is, the level of personal being.6 Thus, he was neither disrespectful nor servile. He viewed each personal encounter as an opportunity for a divine encounter, as a grace-bearing exchange. Saint Sophrony comments “He set particular store by the blessings of bishops and abbots, and, indeed, of all in holy orders, but he was never obsequious or ingratiating.”7 His humility and obedience to authority were the fruit of his great love8 and not from any sense of institutional discipline. He offered obedience to the hierarchy of the Church on the basis of a filial relationship, a relationship that was built and preserved by mutual respect, love, and freedom.

We are likewise to “obey our leaders and submit to them,”9 approaching them as sons to their fathers. Archimandrite Zacharias remarks, “Bishops are like shepherds standing at the frontier of the Church . . . and that’s why we must be obedient to our bishops, not because they are masters but because they are fathers.”10 In like manner, those in authority who rightly perceive their task exercise this ministry as a father to his children. Abbot Sergius often reminds his spiritual children that he not only commands his monks: “I have to live with them too.” In other words, he approaches his role as a living, ongoing relationship, as a father does his family.

Tragically, Saint Sophrony observed a prevailing tendency among the hierarchy of the Church to approach their ministry as “despots”11 and not as fathers. In 1959, he wrote to Fr. Georges Florovsky:

When they enter this “upper class” of the hierarchy, unfortunately, most bishops lose the necessary respect for those who stand below them in rank—that is, the priests. An element foreign to the unified life of the Church—”class relations”—is thereby introduced. Bishops too often cease being not only brothers but even fathers as well. They feel themselves to be first and foremost masters (δεσπότης: despots) and also too often incline toward “despotism.”12

“Despotism” is built upon a corrupted understanding of obedience framed in terms of discipline instead of personal relationship. The despot appeals to structures of authority—church canons, ecclesiastical tradition, or even punishment—for demanding acquiescence from those beneath them. But, discipline is contrary to the very nature of authentic, Christian obedience. St. Sophrony insists “Monastic obedience is not a ‘discipline.'”13

The coordination of human society, Saint Sophrony concedes, necessitates a certain amount of “discipline,” and we should therefore not be surprised to find a ready supply of “despots” willing to fill the role of societal masters. However, even in ideal situations wherein there is a willing acceptance of discipline in exchange for provision and security—that is, a social contract—Saint Sophrony nevertheless argues that “discipline does not cease to be discipline, since its underlying principle is the subordination of one man’s will to that of another.”14 Such is unacceptable in a Christian community. Saint Sophrony warns, “If the abbot and other elders in the monastery are ever obliged to have recourse to ‘discipline’ to constrain the brethren, this is a sure sign of the debasement of monasticism and, possibly, of a total forgetting of its purpose and essence.”15 The same could be said about the relationship of parents and children, a priest and his parish, or a bishop and his diocese.

Nevertheless, among the hierarchy of the Church there can be observed a steady inclination toward “despotism,” a fixation upon institutional decree and ornamental display, a neglect of their role as shepherds and fathers, and a frequent recourse to “discipline”—collectively leading to the debasement of their office. Father Georges Florovsky bemoans the chasm that bishops in the United States have caused between themselves and their flock. He writes, “Among the Orthodox youth there is a sincere seeking after the spiritual life, but it finds little resonance among those who teach, who are swallowed up by the vanity of the world . . . [and] the youth’s disillusionment with the hierarchy threatens spiritual sobriety.”16 Saint Sophrony viewed the general disillusionment and disconnect between bishops, priests, and laity as being partially responsible for the disastrous renovation movements of 20th century Russia. He writes:

“I am deeply convinced that in the beginning of the Revolution, a phenomenon such as the “Living Church” (as well as other “presbyterian” movements in other times and in other circumstances) was inspired precisely by the emphasis placed on “inequality” on the part of the bishops themselves.”17

In this sentiment, Saint Sophrony at once stands apart from such extremist movements and offers his sympathy. He acknowledges the feeling of exclusion experienced by the priests that inspired them to seek a more conciliar and reciprocal method of governance. While personally he was tenaciously loyal to the “patriarchal” church,18 he nonetheless forewarned against the disillusionment that would continue to plague the Church if her hierarchy persisted in ignoring the outcry of priests and laity against episcopal “despotism.” Writing again to Florovsky, he cautions:

“In the battle against the idea of the “royal priesthood” of all Christians, in the battle against the idea of sobornost, which includes, in addition to the bishops and priests, the monks and laypeople as well, in the striving to declare the episcopacy as a whole to be the bearer of infallibility and the exclusive right to teach, and in other such things, I see a frightening reaction that can have catastrophic results for the Church in the future.”19

With these forebodings ringing in one’s ears, it is easy to overlook the tremendous progress that was made in the late 19th and early 20th century to restore the role of the episcopacy to one of fatherhood. Many of the elements that Saint Sophrony underscores—the royal priesthood of believers, sobornost, and the inclusion of both clergy and laity in the preservation and continuance of the Church—were adopted in the monumental reforms made in both Russia and the United States between 1905 and 1917. Regrettably, as Saint Sophrony intimates, these reforms were largely reversed in the subsequent years of persecution, exile, and retrenchment. However, there is still much hope that in building upon the courageous efforts of such figures as Patriarch Saint Tikhon (+1925) the balance between freedom and obedience achieved in a conciliar governance of our Church might be regained; and that the role of the episcopacy might be transformed from that of despot to one of fatherhood. The next section will explore the developments of the conciliar movement for this purpose.


1 Eph. 5:21 (NASB).
2 Arch. Zacharias, Remember Thy First Love (Essex: Community of St. John the Baptist, 2011) 365.
3 Ibid. Note: Saint Sophrony’s bishop, at his death in 1993, was His All-holiness, Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople.

4 Eph. 5:21. St. Paul immediately proceeds to discuss the relationship between husband and wife as one based on kenotic (sacrificial) love: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” [Eph. 5:25 KJV].
5 St. Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite, 53.
6 Note: St. Silouan was a steward of the monastery of St. Panteleimon, a position of significant of authority. He was responsible for over two hundred laymen who labored in various occupations for the monastery. After he would give his workers instructions for their tasks, he would return to his cell and “shed tears for each one of them [St. Silouan, 62]. St. Sophrony records that “his soul suffered for all the poor folk—no doubt more than they suffered themselves” [Ibid.]. The people recognized St. Silouan’s love for them and they, in turn, loved him. St. Sophrony relates, “He never hung over them, never drove them hard, yet they worked better and more cheerfully for him than for anyone else. The other stewards were primarily concerned for the economic interest of the monastery and who does not know that when economic [or institutional] interests predominate, the individual is overlooked [ibid., 63–64]. St. Silouan, by contrast, “lived the suffering of the people . . . he yearned to shed his blood for their peace ad salvation [ibid., 64].
7 St. Silouan, 53.
8 St. Nikolai, in his obituary for St. Silouan, describes him as “a man of great love.” St. Sophrony had originally planned to adopt this description as the title of English translation of his book on St. Silouan, as he notes in a letter to Fr. Georges Florovosky [The Cross of Loneliness, 29].
9 Heb. 13:17
10 Remember Thy First Love, 422.
11 From Greek, δεσπότης—master.
12 St. Sophrony, The Cross of Loneliness, 129.
13 St. Sophrony, Truth and Life, 89. Note: this passage appears in a lecture specifically on monasticism. By extension, we can say that obedience both within and without monasticism is not “discipline.”
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 Fr. Georges Florovsky, The Cross of Loneliness, 113.
17 St. Sophrony, The Cross of Loneliness, 130. Note: The обновленческая церковь (the Renovation Church), also known as the Living Church (Живая Церковь) formed in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution—though it had certain predecessors—and quickly fractured into several schisms. The Renovationist openly supported the new Soviet government, leading to the arrests and deaths of countless Orthodox Christians. Among the ideas they promoted were canonical and liturgical reform, support of socialism, and democratic ecclesial governance.
18 See Sakharov, I Love Therefore I Am, 29–30.
19 St. Sophrony, The Cross of Loneliness, 130.

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