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Monastic Strivings

St SilouanosBrother Simeon’s vision of Christ, the most important event of his life, could not fail to bring about the most profound changes in his soul and his consciousness, and have a radical effect on his entire future development. At the moment when God appeared to him his whole being was apprised that his sins were forgiven him. The flames of hell which had roared about him vanished. The hell-like torments he had experienced during the preceding six months ceased. It was now given to him to know the peculiar joy and peace of reconciliation with God. A rare feeling of love for God and for man, for every man, flooded his soul, while his prayer of repentance and the searing, unrestrainable search for forgiveness was arrested.

During this first period after his vision Simeon’s soul, which had known her own resurrection and seen the light of true and eternal being, lived in a state of paschal triumph: all was well—the world was beautiful, people were agreeable and nature was inexpressibly lovely. Strength seemed to be added to him—his body felt light and no longer a burden—and the word of God rejoiced his soul. Out of the abundance of his joy pity was born in him and he prayed for the whole world.

A little later, one feast-day morning after a night-long vigil in church, grace visited Brother Simeon a second time, as he was serving the other monks at their common meal in the refectory. But now it was less intense and afterwards its action gradually began to diminish. The memory of what he had known remained, but the peace and joy in his heart dwindled away, to be replaced by perplexity and a fear of losing what he had had. How was this loss to be avoided?

There began an attentive search in the counsels of his confessor and the works of the ascetic Fathers for an answer to his growing bewilderment. The young monk learned that he had been granted a rare and exceptional gift but he could not understand why his mind, which had been filled with the light of the knowledge of God, was growing dark again, obsessed, despite all his efforts to keep the commandments, by those evil spirits which had disappeared after his vision of the Lord. In his perplexity he went to Old Rossikon to ask the advice of the staretz (elder) Father Anatoly. (Old Rossikon lies in the hills to the east, about two hundred and fifty metres above sea-level and over an hour’s walk from St Panteleimon. It was a quiet, desolate place which attracted those monks who wanted greater solitude for the sake of mental prayer.)

When Father Anatoly had heard all the young monk was experiencing he said:

‘You pray a great deal, do you?’ ‘Yes, I pray all the time.’

‘Then I think you must be praying in the wrong way, and that is why you so often see devils.’

Ί don’t understand about praying in the right or the wrong way; but I do know that we must always pray, and so I pray without ceasing.’

‘When you pray, keep your mind quite free from any imagining, any irrelevant thought,’ said Father Anatoly. ‘Enclose your mind in the words of your prayer.’

Simeon stayed some time with Father Anatoly who, at the end of his instructive and profitable discourse, cried out with undisguised amazement: ‘If you are like this now, what will you be when you are an old man!’

Staretz Anatoly was a patient and seasoned ascetic who had spent all his long life, as Staretz Silouan told me, in fasting and repentance but it was only after forty-five years in the monastery that he experienced God’s great mercy and came to know the workings of grace. It was natural that he should have been astonished by the young monk but, of course, he should not have shown his amazement, and therein lay his error. Praise stimulates vanity and self-satisfaction, and stands in the way of courageous striving after perfection.

Ladder.jpgBefore Simeon now lay the ascetic’s battle against intrusive thoughts or suggestions from without—a battle which is no mere matter of cogitation on some abstract point but the struggle of mind and heart together against influences proceeding from entities invisible to the physical eye. Often the insidious thought comes clothed in fair words, to appear not only good but wise and even saintly. But by its effect on the heart we may recognise its origin. Only practice in guarding the mind and heart from every intrusive thought and imagining leads to understanding of the power and subtlety of demoniac insinuations. Brother Simeon’s entire being was turned to God but he was still naive and his prayer was accompanied by the imagination and so gave devils the opportunity to tempt him. The strange light which filled his cell one night and illuminated his entrails, and those monstrous figures which crowded his cell by night and even appeared by day were all pregnant with great danger. True, nearly all holy ascetics were subjected to this struggle with devils, so that to meet with them along the paths leading to spiritual perfection is a normal phenomenon, but for a simple man like Brother Simeon, brave though he was, to remain tranquil in such circumstances was impossible.

From the lives of the saints and the works of the holy ascetics, from conversations with spiritual father and others on the Holy Mountain, the young monk gradually learned to wage the ascetic war. As before, he did not lie down but slept in snatches sitting on a backless stool. He did hard physical labour all day. He practised inner obedience, setting himself to subdue his own will and learn full submission to the will of God. He was frugal in food, restrained in conversation and gesture. For long periods at a time he devoted himself to the Jesus Prayer—a feat so fraught with difficulty as to strain a man to breaking point. Yet, in spite of it all, the light of grace often left him, and hosts of devils surrounded him by night.

These alternations between a certain measure of grace followed by abandonment by God and the assaults of devils were not sterile: they kept Simeon’s soul alert and vigilant. Unceasing prayer and mental watchfulness, acquired with his characteristic patience and courage, opened new horizons of spiritual knowledge and enriched him with new weapons for the war against the passions. More and more often his mind sought out that vantage-point of attention in the heart whence it could observe the inner world of the soul. By comparing his alternating states and feelings he came to a clearer understanding of what was happening to him, and grew in spiritual knowledge and judgment. He learned how insidious thoughts suggested by the different passions steal upon the soul, just as he learned to understand the workings of grace. He entered upon a life of deliberate inner striving, realising that the main purpose of such striving is the acquiring of grace. How grace is acquired and preserved, and why it forsakes the soul, became one of the supreme considerations of his life.

The mighty and incomparable experience of the holy Fathers from generation to generation has shown that only very few of all those deemed worthy of visitations of grace when they first turned to God stood fast in that spiritual struggle which must follow if the grace is to be perfect and enduring. Words cannot convey the agony of even a single night of that wrestling for grace in which Father Silouan spent so many long years. As a rule, he did not like talking about it but I remember how he once said: ‘If in the beginning God had not given me to know how much He loves man, I could not have endured one of those nights. Yet they were legion.’

It was fifteen years after the Lord had appeared to him, and Father Silouan was engaged in one of those nocturnal struggles with devils which so tormented him. No matter how he tried, he could not pray with a pure mind. At last he rose from his stool, intending to bow down and worship, when he saw a gigantic devil standing in front of the ikon, waiting to be knelt to. Meanwhile the cell filled with other evil spirits. Father Silouan sat down again, and with bent head and aching heart he prayed: ‘Lord, Thou seest that I desire to pray to Thee with a pure mind but the devils will not let me. Instruct me, what must I do to stop them hindering me?’

And in his soul he heard:

‘The proud always suffer from devils.’

‘Lord,’ said Silouan, ‘teach me what to do that my soul may grow humble.’

Once more, his heart heard God answer:

‘Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.’

St SilouanThis brief exchange marked a new and extremely important stage in Father Silouan’s life. The means prescribed to him for the attaining of humility were unusual, incomprehensible, to all appearances cruel—but Father Silouan adopted them with joy and thanksgiving. His heart felt that the Lord was merciful, that the Lord Himself was guiding him. It was no new thing for him to abide in hell—he had dwelt there until his vision of the Lord. But God’s direction, ‘and despair not’, was new. Father Silouan had reached the point of despair before; and now again, after years of onerous wrestling, after frequent periods of abandonment by God, he had been living through hours if not of actual hopelessness at least of a very similar anguish. The memory of the Lord he had seen had kept him from complete collapse but his sufferings from the loss of grace were no less grievous. Actually, what he had been experiencing was also a form of despair but despair of a different kind: in all these years, and in spite of superhuman labours, he had not attained his desire and he was losing hope. And so when he rose from his stool after wrestling for prayer and saw before him a devil expecting adoration Father Silouan felt sick at heart. It was then that the Lord Himself showed him the way to pure prayer.

What was the essence of God’s prescription to Father Silouan?

It was not an abstract, intellectual disclosure but an intimation which existentially revealed to his soul that the root of all sin is pride: that God is humility and that the man who would ‘put on’ God must learn to be humble. Now Father Silouan realised that Christ’s supreme humility, which he had experienced at the time of his vision, is an inseparable feature of Divine Love.

Now did his soul triumph—triumph after a fashion ignored by the world. It had been given to him to behold the light of eternal Being.

Father Silouan’s first vision of the Lord had been full of ineffable light, and had brought him love in abundance, the joy of resurrection and an authentic impression of a transition from death to life. Why then had it withdrawn? Why had it not been a gift of irrevocable character, according to the word of the Lord: ‘and your joy no man taketh from you’? Had it been intrinsically incomplete or had Silouan’s soul been unable to bear it?

Now it became evident, and Silouan realised, why he had lost grace: his soul had lacked both knowledge and the strength to bear the vision. But this time he received the ‘light of knowledge’. From now on he began to ‘understand the scriptures’, and many of the mysteries in the lives and writings of the Saints and Fathers were revealed to him.

In spirit he penetrated to the heart of the struggle of St Seraphim of Sarov who, during a time of loss of grace and abandonment by God after the Lord had appeared to him in church during the Liturgy, stood a thousand days and nights on bare stone in the wilderness, invoking God to be merciful to him, a sinner.

The real significance and force were revealed to him of what St Pimen meant when he said to his disciples, ‘Be sure, children, that where Satan is, there shall I be.’

He realised that God sent St Antony to the Alexandrian cobbler to learn the same lesson—the cobbler taught him to think, ‘All will be saved, only I shall be lost.’

He saw that St Sisoe was making the same reflection when he asked: ‘Who can keep that thought of St Antony’s always in mind? I know one man who can.’ (He was referring to himself.) Now he knew what St Makarios of Egypt meant when he said, ‘Descend into thy heart and there do battle with Satan.’ He understood what lay before those who become ‘fools for Christ’s sake’; and understood the paths trodden by the great ascetics Vissarion, Gerasimos of Jordan, St Arsenios and others. The road to salvation lay open to his mind’s eye.

He came to know, not abstractly or theoretically but experimentally, from the experience of his own life, that the field of man’s spiritual battle with evil—cosmic evil—is his own heart. He saw in spirit that sin’s deepest root is pride, that scourge of humanity which has torn men away from God and plunged the world in miseries and sufferings innumerable—pride, the seed of death, which has muffled mankind in the darkness of despair.

Henceforward, Silouan was to concentrate his whole soul on acquiring the humility of Christ which had been made known to him at the time of his first vision but which he had lost. Transported in spirit into the life of the Fathers, he saw that knowledge of the path to eternal, divine life had always lain in the Church, and that by the action of the Holy Spirit this knowledge is handed down through the centuries, from generation to generation.

After this divine revelation Father Silouan stood firmly on the spiritual path. From that day his ‘beloved song’, as he expressed it, was:

‘Soon I shall die, and my accursed soul will descend into the blackness of hell. I shall languish alone in the sombre flames, weeping for my Lord. “Where art Thou, Light of my soul? Why hast Thou forsaken me? I cannot live without Thee.” ‘

It was not long before this brought peace of soul and pure prayer. But even so fiery a path proved far from short.

Grace no longer left him as it had before: he was conscious of it in his heart; he felt the living presence of God and was filled with wonder at the divine compassion. The deep peace of Christ visited him, and the Holy Spirit once more gave him the strength of love. But though he was less blind and foolish, though he had emerged from his long and painful struggle a wiser man and a valiant spiritual wrestler, even now he still suffered from the hesitations and inconstancies of human nature, and continued to weep with unutterable sadness when grace diminished. Another fifteen years were to pass before he received the power to repel, with a single movement of the mind (which no outward gesture betrayed), what before had so shattered him.

In proportion as the visitations of grace grew in strength and duration, so did the feeling of gratitude to God increase in Silouan’s soul.

Ό Lord,’ he would cry, ‘how can I give thanks to Thee for this new, inscrutable mercy, that Thou dost reveal Thy mysteries to the ignorant sinner that I am? The world totters in the chains of despair, while to me, the least and worst of men, Thou dost reveal eternal life. Lord, not to me alone: suffer the whole world to come to know Thee!’

Gradually, sorrow for the world ignorant of God began to dominate his prayer. Christ-like love is blessedness with which nothing in this world can compare but at the same time it is a suffering greater than any other suffering. To love with Christ’s love means to drink Christ’s cup, that cup which the Word Incarnate entreated the Father to let pass from Him.

The ascetic learns the great mysteries of the spirit through pure mental prayer. He descends into his inmost heart, into his natural heart first and thence into those depths that are no longer of the flesh. He thus finds his deep heart—reaches the profound spiritual, metaphysical core of his being; and looking into it he sees that the existence of mankind is not something alien and extraneous to him but is inextricably bound up with his own existence.

‘Our brother is our life,’ the Staretz often said.

Through Christ’s love all men are made an inseparable part of our own individual, eternal existence. The Staretz began to understand the commandment, Love thy neighbour as thyself, as something more than an ethical imperative. In the word as he saw an indication, not of a required degree of love but of an ontological community of being—the commandment of Christ incorporates man in the whole Divine act of the creation of the world.

‘The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son … because he is the Son of man.’

This Son of man, Great Judge of the world, will say at the Last Judgment that ‘one of the least of these’ is His very Self. In other words, He assimilates every man’s existence and includes it in His own personal existence. The Son of man has taken into Himself all mankind. He has accepted the ‘whole Adam’ and suffered for him. St Paul said that we, too, ought to think and feel like Christ—having ‘the same mind which was in Christ’.

The Holy Spirit in teaching Father Silouan Christ-like love bestowed on him the gift of effectively living this love, of taking to himself the life of all humanity. The intensity of his prayer as he wept for the entire world related him and bound him with strong bonds to all mankind, to the ‘whole Adam’. It was natural that having experienced his own soul’s resurrection he should begin to look upon every man as his eternal brother. In this world there are various distinctions and divisions among men but in eternity we are all one. Each of us must, therefore, take heed not only for himself but for this single whole.

After his experience of the tortures of hell, and after God’s prescription to him, ‘Keep thy mind in hell,’ it was particularly characteristic of Father Silouan to pray for the dead suffering in the hell of separation from God; but he prayed for the living, too, and for the generations to come. His prayer reached out beyond the bounds of time, and all thought of the transitory phenomena of human life, of enemies, vanished. In his distress for the world it was given to him to divide people into those who had come to know God and those who had not. He could not bear to think that anyone would languish in ‘outer darkness’.

I remember a conversation between him 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.’

And he did, indeed, pray for all men. It became unnatural for him to pray for himself alone. All men are subject to sin, all ‘come short of the glory of God’. The mere thought of this was enough to distress him—in the measure given to him he had already seen the glory of God and known what it was to come short of it. His soul was grieved by the realisation that people lived in ignorance of God and His love, and with all his strength he prayed that the Lord in His inscrutable love might give them to know Him.

To the end of his life, in spite of failing strength and illness, he kept to his habit of sleeping in snatches. This left him much time for solitary prayer, and he prayed continuously. The form of his prayer altered according to circumstance but was particularly reinforced at night, lasting till matins. This was the time when he prayed for the living and the dead, for friend and foe, for all men.

What did he think about, what did he experience, what did he say to God in those long nights of prayer for the world?

We know from some of his notes that the words of prayer should be spoken very slowly, one by one, each engrossing the whole being. The entire person focuses into a single point. The breathing changes and becomes constrained, or, to use a better term, secret, lest its ‘temerity’ disturb the projection and concentration of the spirit. The mind, the heart, the body to its very bones, are all drawn into this one point. Unseeing, the mind contemplates the world; unseeing, the heart lives the sufferings of the world, and in the heart itself suffering reaches its utmost limit. The heart—or, rather, the whole being—is submerged in tears.

The Staretz’ prayers were not verbose, though they went on for a very long time. Indeed, prayer is often wordless, the mind in an act of intuitive synthesis being aware of everything simultaneously. During such times the soul hovers on that brink where a man may at any moment lose all sense of the world and of the body, where the mind ceases to think in separate concepts, and where the spirit will be sensible only of God. At such a moment a man forgets the world. His supplications die away, and in rapt silence he simply dwells in God.

‘When the mind is entirely in God, the world is quite forgotten,’ wrote the Staretz.

When, for reasons we do not know, this dwelling in God draws to a close, there in no prayer, but peace, love and profound tranquillity in the soul, and a certain intangible sadness because the Lord has left, for the soul would wish to dwell in God eternally.

The soul then lives out what is left of her vision [theoria].

sophrony and silouan