A Conversation with Elder Sophrony († July 11)12 July 2015
The abbot of the Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopedi, Archimandrite Ephraim, spoke with Elder Sophrony of blessed memory at the Holy Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England on 20 September 1992.
From this meeting, one is struck by Elder Sophrony’s spirituality and ascetic vision, and can appreciate the value of his contribution to the contemporary life of the Church.
Elder Sophrony: “O Heavenly King and Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things, treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us of all that defileth, and save our souls, oh Thou who are good.” Welcome, holy abbot…
If during our conversation I do anything unusual, please forgive me. These days I don’t hear or see very well.
Archimandrite Ephraim: Considering your age, you’re doing very well.
E.S.: Ninety-six years old…I’ll tell them to bring us the letter from Vatopedi from our archives.
A.E.: Yes, I would like to see it.
E.S.: You know, I’m one of your own.
A.E.: This is a blessing for us.
E.S.: I don’t know. It is a blessing for me, that they gave me leave with such willingness. And circumstances have shown that God blessed it. After I left the Holy Mountain, though, I became very ill. I had a stomach ulcer and I suffered from gastrorrhagia, I was also very poor. I had to undergo a difficult operation, and they had to remove nearly my whole stomach. For twelve years I had great difficulty eating. I got something later on, but it’s fake.
A.E.: It was God’s will, Elder, that you came here.
E.S.: I’ll tell you what, abbot, I’m always afraid to say that something [from God] happens to me, but it seems to me that nothing took place according to how I imagined it, but everything came from God.
A.E.: This is what the conscience of the Church also witnesses to, it seems that it was from God. And that it is a work that has a history behind it. And [this monastery’s] history has been stamped by God, that’s what the facts witness to.
E.S.: Yes, but I am only bold enough to say, “Lord have mercy on me and save me.” Only to a certain extent can I say that it happened according to the providence of God.
A.E.: Elder, your monastery is an oasis in the desert [of a culture] of materialism.
E.S.: We’re just…eh! How can I explain it to you…we’re thankful to those who rule this country, and to the queen, and other officials. But Orthodox life outside of Greece is difficult. Not all of our thought: theological, ascetical…connects with the tradition of the West, with the Catholics and Protestants. But these are the ones who rule this place.
A.E.: From everything I have observed here, Elder, you live wisely. During the years that you have been here, you have acted with great discernment, which is why you’ve been able to help people greatly in hidden ways. And this is a very important thing for a spiritual person.
E.S.: Well…let me tell you. You’re an abbot. And I was, in a certain way, an abbot. And I was always hung from a thread above the abyss, shouting at God for everyone, for everything…because nothing happens by human strength.
A.E.: And I’m sure that you must have had many difficulties here, Elder.
E.S.: Oh…it’s better not to talk about them…. But even this, to a certain extent, is a question for us. Recently, I published a book, a spiritual autobiography [We Shall See Him as He Is].
A.E.: We’ve read it, Elder.
E.S.: Of what interest would a purely factual biography have been? I only recount spiritual events in this book. And the book has appeared, somehow, at just the right time.
A.E.: What you have provided is a living witness.
E.S.: I didn’t write a theological text, I only wrote down my experience, from fear and because I’m bold to say, “Lord have mercy, Lord save me.” But…I don’t understand…. I became ill many times with fatal sicknesses and yet I’m still alive. I don’t know why…
A.E.: The Church needs you, which is why God has extended your life. Your life is a miracle. We are amazed at how you are still living considering the illnesses you have had and still have. Many spiritual people are amazed that you’re still alive.
E.S.: In 1986 they invented a machine that can diagnose cancer and they opened me up and found that I had the worst type of cancer, and they were expecting me to die. There was no chance of an operation, of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or something similar. They left me to waste away…. Six years have passed and I’m living in my seventh year since then, and I don’t know how. After the stomach operation I had, which completely cut up my insides, for twelve years I couldn’t eat. Two years after that, I was a bit better.
A.E.: Your Elder, St. Silouan, wanted you to see his official canonization by the Church.
E.S.: And I don’t know how the providence of Christ made it happen. He placed me at the feet of my Elder. The contemporary spiritual, theological problem concerns the person [πρόσωπο]…I lived completely by revelation. Revelation reveals that “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). If He says, “I am” it means that He is a person. This is why in one of the chapters in the book to which I referred earlier I note that the word “I” has great significance. For it expresses the person. God says, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Science cannot say this. Only revelation can say this. And we need to base ourselves on revelation, which the Lord never refuted…. So, when I sent the book that is right behind you to His All Holiness [the Ecumenical Patriarch], I didn’t want to write a theological textbook, but simply to describe the experience of an Orthodox monk.
A.E.: This book will be very useful, Elder.
E.S.: May God allow it to be so…may God allow it to be so…
A.E.: People today are confused, I would say very confused, and a contemporary, unique Orthodox witness is necessary to wake them up.
E.S.: Yes, I say that, I say it with boldness because it is a fact. This book is not an intellectual contrivance, I refer to actual facts.
A.E.: It’s that fruit of divine grace.
E.S.: It’s from this perspective that I was emboldened to write. Perhaps this autobiography will help someone find the solution to his or her own personal problem.
A.E.: This book has also helped us on the Holy Mountain a great deal.
E.S.: [Elder Sophrony speaks, in turn, of the translation of his book into Modern Greek]…but they have translated it into the simple language, which cannot express subtle meanings.
A.E.: It doesn’t properly express them, Elder, but you need to translate it into Modern Greek because young people don’t know Ancient Greek. You need to make an “Economy,” and give the blessing for your book to be translated into Modern Greek as well, because unfortunately, most young people’s language skills are lacking today.
E.S.: So…if it’s in a good language already, what’s happening with it?
A.E.: It is in a good language, and we want it in this language. But unfortunately, our young people today are not able to understand it.
E.S.: And this translation can be made now.
A.E.: Yes, it can be done.
E.S.: I understand, holy abbot. I wonder, though, if many people understand this book?
A.E.: They don’t understand it in its full depth, but they may not understand it for another reason, because of its language. In our monastery, we have quite a few young monks. The young monks don’t know Greek, even though they are Greek, because unfortunately in Greece various factors have managed to adulterate the Greek language.
E.S.: What I’m trying to say is that this book, by its very nature, because the providence of God lead me to Silouan, is about spiritual practices of the very highest kind. A deeper, more extreme form of asceticism does not exist. And from this, one can discern that it is from God. “Keep your mind in hell and despair not….”
A.E.: Your book, St. Silouan the Athonite, was the reason that many people came to the Holy Mountain to become monks. And throughout Europe, the book led many heterodox to Orthodoxy.
E.S.: It can also help people in Russia, because they have completely lost the ascetic culture. Seventy years of captivity…
A.E.: A number of Russian bishops came to Vatopedi and told us that the Russians are pious, but because of their persecutions they don’t have an inner life.
E.S.: They lost asceticism and this can help. The Roman Catholics, as I have heard for many years, from the time I began to do philological studies and have had contact with them, have said that the Orthodox Church cannot say that it is, “the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” It isn’t catholic, it’s a part of them, how can we express it, they [the Orthodox] are ethnic bodies who live with hatred among themselves.
A.E.: Unfortunately, that’s what they say.
E.S.: And I… and I…
A.E.: You prove the opposite, though.
E.S.: Twelve monastics, twelve nationalities. Patriarch Athenagoras the First understood this idea as well. He had a great deal of experience, which was why I was bold and asked that our holy monastery be a dependency of St. Paul’s Monastery [on Mount Athos]. And he, through the other Athenagoras (of London), said, “tell Sophrony to give me…to send me a request for Stavropegic status.”
A.E.: And, that Stavropegic status was granted so easily, is an indication that God wanted this monastery to be established. It is also very encouraging that you are directly connected to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
E.S.: …and from my writings, as some people have said, it seems that monasticism is not human, but is a call from God. And if some read this book, they will say that it is not monks who choose this path by human means, but it is a call from God. From this perspective, the book may be theological, the theology, that is to say, that accompanies the asceticism of the Orthodox ascetic. This is why the references in the book are only made to Holy Scripture. And thank you very much for your letter regarding the book. I’ll tell you why. Few people are able to understand this book. Even on the Holy Mountain, where Silouan lived for nearly half a century, few understood the spiritual height of the Elder. They had such fear…but also such boldness for the love of God! He did not speak openly about his spiritual condition, but hid.
A.E.: They didn’t understand him…those who lived alongside St. Silouan in the monastery did not understand him, and some spoke ironically about him. Unfortunately, they did not understand with whom they were dealing. Which is also why we don’t have his relics, you took some, though he was such a great Saint.
E.S.: Me, sinner that I was—lost that is to say, he was very beneficent to me…. He was the greatest gift of divine providence that God gave to me…
A.E.: Because He knew that you would make good use of it, that’s why He showed it to you. And, humanly, you are the reason that St. Silouan’s legacy has shone forth. And he waits for you in heaven with open arms.
E.S.: I don’t have him…
A.E.: That’s the way it is…
E.S.: Why? Why don’t I have him? Because many have told me that they have prayed to Silouan and their request was immediately fulfilled. Many times Athonites have also experienced something similar, his quick response to their prayers suggests to them that he was a Saint.
[One of the other monks from Essex then speaks]: Elder, may I say something?
E.S.: Certainly…but ask the holy abbot.
[Monk]: Your monk, Fr. Silouan, was at Koutloumousiou the day after the celebration, during Matins, and a thought came into his head, “I wonder if St. Silouan has the ability to pray for us?” And as soon as Fr. Silouan thought this, that same moment, Fr. Athanasius from Simonopetra came up to him and said, “You know, Fr. Silouan, I have a relic of St. Silouan, which is not only fragrant, but one time it even gushed myrrh. And Fr. Silouan replied to him, ‘God gave me the answer almost immediately, because I was just wondering if St. Silouan could hear our prayers.’”
E.S.: The writing of his biography was not a human work. It was his own work…and when the Archbishop of Cyprus ordained our beloved spiritual father, Fr. Zacharias, hierodeacon, he was asked to give a word. And he prayed to Silouan. He sat and immediately wrote, what can I tell you? Something that supersedes human measure. His answer and aid came immediately.
A.E.: And you, Elder, you must have had personal experience with the boldness of St. Silouan.
E.S.: Let me tell you, holy abbot, the story of this boldness. On the second day of Pascha [Monday of Bright Week], in either 1930 or 1931, an educated Russian hermit monk, he was an engineer, came to visit me in my cell at the Monastery of St. Panteleimon’s. “Fr. Sophrony, how will we be saved?” I loved this person. He was a very gentle and sweet person, but also very clever. I prepared him a cup of tea, gave it to him, and told him, “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.”
The next day, I ran into Elder Silouan, with whom I had not yet had personal contact, but I could sense his spiritual strength. And he said to me,
“Was Fr. Vladimir with you yesterday?”
I didn’t answer him, that is, I didn’t say, “yes, he was,” rather I said,
“Perhaps I said something wrong?”
Silouan answered, “No, but what you told him was beyond his strength, beyond his measure. Come and let’s talk.”
That’s how he called me to speak with him. And because of this phrase, “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you don’t have any more strength, rest a little and have a cup of tea,” our relationship began, our spiritual connection. Afterwards, I went to the Elder and he taught me regarding, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”
A.E.: This is great love of wisdom, Elder.
E.S.: Great love of wisdom…. And you know how I feel, holy abbot? What I suffer because of this? What did the Lord mean with the phrase, “Keep your mind in hell,” which was for Silouan the pronounced removal of grace for a whole hour before the appearance of Christ? He clearly saw his eternal destruction and after this the Lord appears without any word, He didn’t say anything…for a moment. And when this happened, without any word, without words, he began to pray for all humanity and it became a state of being, not a thought, but a state of being. And when the Lord said, “Keep your mind,” Silouan saw Him. This is why it was only Silouan who understood the depths of the word regarding this state. For us self-reproach is appropriate, but not this state. And the conversation, his talk with Christ, was very, how to say it…very brief. This is what he said:
“I see demons.”
“The proud suffer from this.”
“But how can I become humble, Lord?”
“Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”
And then He left.
A.E.: This is why, Elder, on Mount Athos Elder Silouan and Elder Joseph the Hesychast are regarded…
E.S.: Ah! He was a soldier of the spirit. One of the seven greatest ascetics that I met in my life.
A.E.: …as the contemporary Elders who re-introduced, through their experiential way of life, the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas to Athonite monasticism.
E.S.: Yes, yes…I had gone two or three times to Elder Joseph, who was still at St. Basil’s. Did you get to meet him?
A.E.: I didn’t meet him. I wasn’t found worthy of meeting him.
E.S.: This state that Silouan experienced is related to the great Fathers of Egypt [the desert fathers]. Abba Poimen, when they told him that he would go to the heavenly kingdom, replied, “Believe me brothers, where Satan was thrown, that’s where I’m going to be thrown.”
A.E.: This is the spirit of the Fathers…
E.S.: And Anthony shared the thought of the shoemaker of Alexandria, “Everyone will be saved, and only I will be damned.” These are states of spiritual struggle.
A.E.: Self-reproach as a state of being.
E.S.: Right…as a state.
A.E.: As a never-ending state.
E.S.: Like theology. Theology is the content of our prayers. And an example of this theology is the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. The whole anaphora is theology and is expressed through prayer. But then theology comes as a state of being. John the Theologian, from an academic point of view, was not a theologian, he says things simply. His theology, however, is a state of being. Whatever he says becomes dogma for everyone. The fathers around us have great devotion for the Elder and somehow, somehow they understand what he was all about.
A.E.: About whom, Elder?
E.S.: About Silouan…he was one of them. And if I take those to my right, or those to my left, it’s the same. In fact, this past Monday I encouraged my brethren to describe in a better way the path of battling against passionate thoughts. Because one of the sisters has written a book on the upbringing of children and though what she writes is simple, they are things that don’t come into our minds. And perhaps it’s necessary to describe the way of battle, for Silouan speaks of these things, but he does not describe how it happens. When the Lord fought with Satan in the desert, there we have some kind of an interpretation of the battle. But what I’m trying to say is that perhaps people need to learn how they can battle against passionate thoughts? I discuss this topic a bit in my book on the Elder…but what do you think? In the first book, I explain that every passionate thought is tied to the earth, with matter, and always takes a certain form, it’s a certain type. And if our heart or word does not accept this form, the passion stops. But sometimes, in the beginning, hand to hand combat needs to take place. People who don’t understand then ask, “But how does this happen?”
A.E.: You did very well to analyze the way this battle works, for you have written about these things in a contemporary manner.
E.S.: I asked my brethren to try to describe it, but it’s dangerous for one to write, do you understand? It’s not an easy thing. This problem needs to be expressed in some way.
A.E.: This is a very subtle issue, Elder.
E.S.: Silouan would say, of course he was without passion, “If a thought upsets us, we are free to discard this thought and to focus our attention on something else.” He was able to do this; other people, however, are like slaves to passionate thoughts.
A.E.: Many times, a passionate thought makes our life a living hell.
E.S.: Yes, and it turns our whole being upside down…
A.E.: And it’s at a high price that the Fathers lend us their wisdom, Elder.
E.S.: Yes…Silouan says that we are free to focus our attention on something else, so that captivity to the passionate thought, for him, is not a real problem. The bad thought comes and he thinks of other things. Theoretically, as Silouan says, this is simple. In action, however, and for us untrained ones, it is very difficult. Truly, the passionate thought sticks and torments, such that the combat is as if fighting hand to hand with Satan. I am very grateful to God that He saw me fit to become a monk on the Holy Mountain. I was there for twenty-two years.
A.E.: And we are very grateful to God that we were able to meet you today. [Elder Sophrony does not answer. Some monk asked, “Did you not hear, or did you not want to hear?”]
E.S.: I didn’t hear…. Unfortunately, the West in this respect is undeveloped. They study theology from books.
A.E.: With the intellect…
E.S.: Yes. But the only study that enables us to sense what God is like, is the ascetic life according to the commandments of the Gospel. When our life is lived according to the will of God, then we understand that there cannot be a difference between the commandments and the mind of God Himself. When we think according to the commandments, then our mind gets used to thinking as God Himself thinks. And regarding theosis, they say: but what is theosis? With obedience to the abbot from the beginning, one’s will is cut off, then in obedience to the Gospel commandments one reaches this state. We do small things but the results must become great. Through obedience we enter into the life of divine Being. We have good descriptions of this in the writings of St. Nicodemus the Athonite.
A.E.: He was a great Saint. St. Nicodemus described the ascetic, neptic life in detail.
E.S.: Yes…you know that we have the official proclamation of Silouan’s canonization framed, in the same kind of frame that they use in the Holy Community of the Holy Mountain.
A.E.: When the official Patriarchal proclamation came to the Community, for St. Silouan’s inclusion in the official list of Saints of the Orthodox Church, they sent us a copy for our archives, and they sent one to all of the monasteries of the Holy Mountain. Because the Saint was an Athonite…
E.S.: And I’m a Vatopedinos…and I’m a Vatopedinos!
A.E.: Idiorhythmic, however. You’re an idiorhythmic Vatopedinos!
E.S.: Not idiorhythmic, because I was at St. Andrew’s Skete, which was a coenobium. [At this point, the fathers begin to laugh.] They’re laughing…
A.E.: They’re happy. They’re not laughing, Elder, they’re happy!
E.S.: Yes, and I love them. To think and to live the way they do, in the present state of Europe, is a great thing. While in Greece, the whole atmosphere is full of faith, of theology, of asceticism.
A.E.: Greece is also going through a crisis right now. The European, rationalistic way of life has been introduced to Greece, and it’s going through a spiritual crisis.
E.S.: We’ll see. Because recently, great ascetics have reposed…no one can say that Greece is dead. It is very much alive.
A.E.: It is alive, in one sense, but it is in danger from the secular and rationalistic spirit of the West, and we are greatly distressed. We are concerned for Greece.
E.S.: Fair enough, but don’t you think we’ll be victorious?
A.E.: Yes, we believe that. But you know, Elder, we are also concerned about the Holy Mountain.
E.S.: In what way?
A.E.: Because, you see, the young monks that come are used to comfortable living and do not acclimatize easily to the ascetic tradition of the place.
E.S.: If that’s the case, then you will arrange their asceticism according to their capabilities, in particular the study of the past so that they can be freed of their secular ideas, and rather study the lives of the holy Fathers and the Apostles. You understand what I’m trying to say…if that is where their thoughts are, they will not spend time with the passions. Remember the example from the Gerontikon. There was a grace-filled ascetic who had a secular education and had been very wealthy. When another ascetic visited him, a person that had been a poor shepherd in the world, he saw the bed of the grace-filled ascetic and how he lived comfortably, and he was scandalized. When, however, he learned that in the world he had lived a luxurious life, with great wealth, he accused himself and confessed that the wealthy man was now living ascetically, while he himself was living comfortably.
A.E.: Yes, yes I remember that story.
E.S.: When I was a spiritual father at Simonopetra, the older monks would complain about the younger monks, and the younger monks complained about the older monks. I would say to the older monks, “From where did you receive these children?” “From the world.” “What did they learn there? How did they live?”
A.E.: That’s the way it is.
E.S.: Don’t expect them to become perfect right away. I have told others, as well, that when they learn things from the world, they are living in sin. They need to free themselves through asceticism. This is how I tried to make them understand the need for patience. Now, holy abbot, let’s wrap this up, because the service will begin. We were very glad that you wanted to come, and that I had the chance to see my abbot.
A.E.: Let it be blessed, Elder. I bring to you the respects of my Elder, who asks that you remember him and pray for him.
[Another monk asks Elder Sophrony]: Do you remember Elder Joseph, who came here two years ago?
E.S.: Yes, yes of course…. We need to finish, though…tomorrow we’re celebrating the consecration. You know, for some Saints and great teachers of the Church, there is no service, but for Silouan, on the Holy Mountain there are four.
A.E.: Silouan is a great Saint.
E.S.: For me, I have written about it…for me he is truly great.
A.E.: For you, he is the greatest.
E.S.: For me, he is great…
A.E.: Which Saints have you included in the consecration? Which relics?
[Another monk responds]: We included the two Theodores (the martyrs) and the venerable Silouan.
A.E.: Through the prayers of our holy Father, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us.
[All together]: Amen!
A.E.: Thank you, Elder.
E.S.: God seldom allows ascetics to meet, and that’s the way it happened. This was precisely the reason…now…how did you know it?
A.E.: I didn’t understand your last sentence. How did I know what, Elder?
E.S.: That ours would be a meeting in the Holy Spirit.