One of the books I’ve taken care to read this Lent, on the advice of my father-confessor, has been The Monk of Mount Athos by Saint Sophrony of Essex, who was glorified by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2019. It is a spiritual biography of Venerable Silouan of Athos, a monk who lived for most of his life in the Saint Panteleimon Monastery on the Holy Mountain. I found it to be an intensely powerful portrait of a spiritual struggler, and an important exposition on the importance of humility and love for enemies.
Bearing in mind that this is a book which was written by a monk, about a monk, it has a usefulness which extends considerably further than a small audience of Orthodox monastics. Humility is, after all, one of the virtues which is accessible to all regardless of their lot in life. In addition, the idea of what it means to be a person (any person) is explored at great depth in this work, making its appeal to a certain degree universal.
Saint Silouan was born in 1866 with the name of Semyon, very soon after the emancipation of the serfs, to the peasant Antonov family. His father Ivan, a gentle and hospitable man, was a formative early influence on his son’s spiritual growth. Of his father, Saint Silouan said:
‘I have never reached my father’s stature. He was quite illiterate: he even used to make a mistake in the Lord’s Prayer which he had learned by listening in church. But he was a man who was gentle and wise… When I think of my father, I say to myself: “This is the sort of staretz I would like to have.” He never got angry; he was always even-tempered and humble.’
Saint Silouan recalled to Sophrony two stories which illustrated his father’s character—one in which he spent a night in fornication with a girl he liked, and the next morning his father didn’t scold or beat him, but merely asked after him and told him that his heart was troubled for him. This mild rebuke from Ivan Antonov caused the young Semyon more mortification than either yelling or blows would have done. In another instance, Semyon gave his father some pork to eat on a Friday, and his father waited until six months later to correct him on that point, out of care for him.
Semyon, as can be seen from these stories, never became an atheist or a ‘freethinker’, but he passed his youth in a somewhat careless way. He was strong, tall, handsome and a bit over-sure of himself. However, he had a troubling vision of himself swallowing a snake, and heard the voice of the Theotokos calling him to repentance in the wake of this dream, after which he was never quite the same. He joined the military at his father’s behest, but his true desire was to become a monk. After finishing his term of service, he visited the church of Saint John of Kronstadt, where in a letter he besought the priest’s prayers for him as he journeyed to Mount Athos.
He joined the monastery of Saint Panteleimon as a novice, and his struggle to master himself began in earnest. He went to work carrying heavy sacks of grain up to the mill to be ground into flour for the monks’ nourishment. He recounts how on the journey he was tormented the entire way there by visions and sensations of the flames of hell. He endeavoured long to cleanse his heart, in order to escape from these visions, but ultimately it was only an act of grace from above which delivered him—a vision of Christ. This grace came to him, and left him again—leaving him to struggle against the demons. However, he received this wisdom from the visions: ‘Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.’
This wisdom was salutary for Saint Silouan, and the proof that it came from God consisted in this: that it didn’t stoke his pride, but rather helped him to cultivate a spirit of humility. When he kept his mind in hell, it spurred him to compassion for those around him whose salvation he desired. The true mark of humility, Saint Silouan came to realise, was to be found in love for enemies. His prayers were therefore directed not only to his own salvation, but to the salvation of the world. One can see this in such episodes that Saint Sophrony relates:
I remember a conversation between [Father Silouan] and a certain hermit who declared with evident satisfaction:
‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’
Obviously upset, the Staretz said:
‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire—would you feel happy?’
‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.
The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance.
‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’
Among the stewards was a capable monk, Father P, who was outstandingly capable, yet somehow always unlucky—his initiatives usually met with no sympathy among the fathers and his undertakings often ended in failure.
One day, after one such enterprise had resulted in disaster, he was subjected to harsh criticism at the stewards’ table. Father Silouan was present, but took no part in the ‘prosecution’. One of the stewards, Father M, turned to him and said:
‘You are silent, Father Silouan! That means you side with Father P and are indifferent to the interests of the monastery. You don’t mind the damage he has caused the community.’
Father Silouan said nothing but quickly finished eating and then went up to Father M who by that time had also left the table.
‘Father M—how many years have you been in the monastery?’
‘Did you ever hear me criticise anyone?’
‘Then why do you want me to begin with Father P?’
Disconcerted, Father M replied shamefacedly:
‘God will forgive.’
And yet again:
Father Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterised by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything that they held sacred. He always remained himself, convinced that ‘salvation lies in Christ-like humility’, and in the strength of this humility he strove with his whole soul to understand every man at his best. He found the way to the heart of everyone—to his capacity for loving Christ.
I remember a conversation he had with a certain archimandrite engaged on missionary work. Hearing from the latter’s own lips how severe he was in his sermons, how harshly he pronounced judgement upon other faiths, the Staretz said to him:
‘Father, people feel in their souls when they are doing anything right, so that if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you. But if you were to confirm that they were really doing well, and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to put right, then they would listen to you. God is love, and therefore the preaching of His Word must always proceed from love, and both preacher and listener will profit. But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not hear, and no good will come of such preaching.’
As we can see from such passages, the visions which Father Silouan was given when he was younger, far from turning him harsh or prideful, instead developed in him those qualities which he had so loved in his [biological] father: meekness, tenderness, and an open heart ready to condole the suffering. He retained these qualities all his life, being able to turn his thoughts back upon Christ with a movement of the mind downward and inward, but at the end of his life he said sadly of himself: ‘I have not yet learned humility.’
I found that this book was also of interest on account of Saint Sophrony’s meditations, in reflecting upon the life of Saint Silouan, on the Orthodox Church’s vision of humanity. Because the human being is made in the image of God, and God is Three Hypostases in One Essence, it follows therefore that ‘according to the second commandment, Love thy neighbour as thyself, each of us must and can comprise all mankind in his own personal being, in the same way as each of the three Persons of the Godhead contains the fulness of Divine Being’. The cold, callous individualism of a Jordan Peterson or a Joel Osteen finds no daylight with the self-emptying, neighbour-seeking, fellow-suffering spirituality of a Saint Silouan. ‘Each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for the common evil, for the deeds of our neighbour, we are repeating the [sin of Adam] and likewise shattering the unity of Man.’
At the same time, attaining to the second commandment in its plenitude as shown in this spiritual biography, is a lifelong struggle for most. Only those who are perfect, those who are entirely like Christ, may be called human beings in the full theological depth of the word; most of us are in fact human becomings. The image of God is stamped indelibly upon us, and therefore we are capable of receiving grace. This capability is deserving of its full measure of respect, even if it is abused or neglected. But we still struggle to attain the Edenic likeness of man to God in this life, and we find we are not capable of it on our own. Yet many who are in the Orthodox Church, and even the leadership of the same Constantinopolitan jurisdiction which glorified Saint Sophrony three years ago, are seeking to downplay or obviate this ‘hard saying’—in order to conform the Church’s anthropology to a model more amenable to secular accounts and discourses of rights.
(It can be an understandable reflex to take refuge in a language of individual rights in order to safeguard against secular-statist tyrannies. However, the experience of the last forty-five years of economic history in the West shows that this reflex does not and cannot answer the increasingly urgent and dire challenges that arise to the dignity of the person from powerful and unaccountable non-state agencies. More so than from the state, the human person is nowadays in the most danger from: banks; multinational energy, pharma, telecom and food corporations; social media platforms; and media monopolies which cater to emotions over reason. These do not operate by means of legal threats or open encroachments on rights; they operate on a more insidious level of stirring the passions at a subconscious level, rendering legal threats unnecessary.)
Going back to the point about this writing from Saint Sophrony being applicable to more than just monks, I’m finding that this monastic portrait ‘pairs’ quite nicely with the book I’m currently reading, The Prayer of a Broken Heart by Fr Paul Abernathy of Pittsburgh. The Prayer of a Broken Heart speaks of the spiritual tradition of the descendants of African slaves in the Americas, and makes particular note of how the intuitive nature of that spiritual tradition, finding redemption in the midst of physical and moral and political suffering, ‘rhymes’ in many ways with the witness of the Orthodox Church. (Fr Paul Abernathy even quotes directly from Saint Sophrony’s biography of Saint Silouan!) The importance of humility, forgiveness and enemy-love to the African-American spiritual tradition, far from being a ‘weakness’ of the ‘white man’s religion’, is in fact one of the major sources of spiritual strength which black Americans continue, as generations of their ancestors have done, to draw upon.
I will review Fr Paul Abernathy’s book in the very near future, as it deserves its own space for discussion. I find, however, that The Monk of Mount Athos is a very worthy read. If for no other reason, than that it shows me how much further I have yet to climb in order to begin to love my neighbour—and to spur me to action in making that effort.