Tag Archives: monasticism

Kindling the Divine Spark

Kindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual ZealKindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal by Abbot Herman

Only the benumbed soul doesn’t pray. Preserve in yourselves the feeling of need, and you will always have stimulation for prayer . . . Necessity teaches everything. The need for prayer teaches one to pray. (70)

Of all the aspects of the Christian faith, monasticism (either of the male or female variety) may be the most misunderstood. Yet I would venture to say that the health of a church, the help and the hope of the faith, depends on the strength of its monastic communities. A friend has said that in the history of the church, renewal has often come from the monasteries. They’re like the spiritual batteries by which the church occasionally must be recharged.

But contemporary misunderstandings arise because we don’t see what such communities are actually for, what they’re supposed to be doing, how they influence or interact with the “normal” life of the church in the rest of the world. They’re not practical. They’re antiquated. They’re disconnected. What have poverty, chastity, and continual prayer to do with marriage, children, career, or even evangelism?

St. Theophan the Recluse was a bishop in nineteenth-century Russia who had a passion for starting monasteries and convents, and he gave regular sermons at these various communities in which he spelled out for their members the goal of lives as monks and nuns. Many of these sermons, along with some brief biographical sketches, are collected in this volume, Kindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal. There is a gap of culture and of a century or so, so while reading it’s easy to slip into an analysis of this work as an authoritarian bishop working to keep communities of women (nuns) under his influence. Except for the fact that Theophan ultimately abandoned his position to spend decades as a recluse, living out the life of austere monasticism that he had preached.

Besides being a living testimony to the spiritual heritage of Christianity across the world and throughout history, the power of monasticism, as illustrated in these sermons, is the example it provides for us in the world. Every Christian is called into the same struggle, and monasticism reminds us of the cost that we might otherwise be able to forget: that Christianity is not a system of knowledge or principles but a life lived out in community with the goal of perfection, of sanctifying individuals into the likeness of Christ.

Peace and tranquility and fulfillment are either the crown of perfection or a state of extreme fall, in which all spiritual striving and needs are extinguished . . . The state of those who are progressing toward perfection, however, is a state of struggle—intense, laborious, and full of tribulation. This state of progressing—is the narrow path. (40)

Of Theophan’s sermons, I thought “The Healing Pool” (Chapter 18) was the most profound. It talked about the paradox of considering oneself as the least, most humble, most struggling Christian and how this disposes the soul to be a source of help and healing for others. Advancing in the spiritual life, according to Theophan, does not make one more confident or sure of one’s self but rather more aware of one’s weakness and one’s innate and continual need for God. If the Christian life is one of resisting or overcoming the passions, Theophan argues, the more we understand ourselves and are aware of these passions, the more the struggle grows. We cannot resist passions of which we are not even aware.

What to take from all this into a life outside the monastery? The awareness of Christianity as a struggle—not a thrown switch or single-time salvation experience—is paradoxically a source of encouragement. When will I finally arrive at grace? When will I be delivered from the struggle against my own selfish, awkward, grasping nature? Theophan says: never. At least, not here. This is the testimony of monasticism, that sanctity is a process, and a process that grows more difficult as one progresses.

This had profound implications for prayer, the awareness that it is driven by necessity. We cannot manufacture a desire to pray, but we pray out of need. The more awake and aware we are of our need—and the more we open our hearts to the needs of others—the more we find within us the desire to pray.

Isn’t this view of salvation rather discouraging though? I mean, all this talk of struggle. How could that invite anyone to follow after Christ? And what good would it do? Here’s where empiricism comes into play, the testimony of experience and the test of Theophan’s claims: what kind of people are those from whom you find grace, healing, and encouragement? Who are those through whom real good is done? In the world, we go after those with confidence and firm leadership, often to our enduring disappointment and chagrin. But the saints of the church are those who embody the struggle: their humility and self-emptying, all of the things they give up or walk away from, their self-denial—all of this becomes a means of healing for those around them.

And then we’re back at Christ, the exemplar of the whole Christian life, who gave himself up in humility, who made himself the least of all—not simply (or even) to propitiate some kind of cosmic justice but to show that the nature of God himself, that the hidden secret at the heart of the universe, was this kind of love. And it was a struggle, even for him. (Read the account of the garden of Gethsemane.) So the monk or the nun (or the Christian) follows this example, and the struggle is not one of despair but of hope, because the testimony of Christ reveals the ultimate outcome of such a life of self-emptying love: union with God.

In this context, the sermons of Theophan take on a deeper significance than simply exhortations to men and women over a century ago who were participating in a practice of Christianity that no longer has any bearing on the contemporary world. His words, while still difficult, are for all of those who have taken up the struggle of living out the Christian faith.

Saint Siluoan the Athonite

Saint Silouan the AthoniteSaint Silouan the Athonite by Sophrony Sakharov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What does it mean to be holy? I’ve asked this before, in a previous review of the theology of Archimandrite Sophrony. Sophrony was a monk who lived for a time in the monastic community of Mount Athos and served as an assistant of sorts to an older monk, St. Silouan. Sophrony saw Silouan as a great spiritual leader, and this volume is an account of Silouan’s life by Sophrony (which takes up the first half of the large book), followed by the collected writings of Silouan himself.

Silouan was a Russian peasant who came to Mount Athos as a monk in the early twentieth century and who lived there in poverty, prayer, and ascetic practice for decades. In the minds of many, this is a waste: a life of chastity, cut off from the rest of the world, without practicing good deeds or serving others, simply a life of “navel-gazing”—fretting about one’s own spiritual life and a constant, morbid attention to death, to unworthiness, to begging for repentance and the love of God. As some of my students would point out, this seems very much like a “works-based” salvation.

But I’ve already argued for the merits of something like this, so I won’t go down that road again. Let’s just make the assumption that the ascetic life is a recognized and integral part of the Christian tradition, and once that assumption is made let’s see what we might learn from it. Because I doubt many who read this book will actually be called to that life (and Silouan is careful to point out that no one should embark on such a life unless they are called by God). Rather, there’s the idea that maybe folks who go up the mountain have some wisdom for those who remain below. And if nothing else, anyone who’s interested in diversity of views and perspectives (and what could be stranger than someone who self-consciously rejects what most of the rest of us spend our lives pursuing?) should occasionally peruse the writings of the Christian mystics.

For Siluoan, prayer and repentance are central to the life of the Christian. For those who claim that the life of a monk is one of inactivity, Siluoan (and tradition) would argue that prayer is the most essential, ontological reality of the world, and that this is thus the action of all true monks, the center of their existence. Indeed, there is the idea that if prayer ceases, the world itself ends. Prayer is the proper orientation of reality to God, the source of all reality, and for women and men like Siluoan, learning to pray—disciplining the mind and the will so that ceaseless prayer becomes a reality—is the primary task of the monk (or nun).

But the prayer Siluoan speaks about might be a bit foreign to those of us who are used to saying a few prayers on behalf of our own interests and the interests of our friends and family each day. True prayer, for an Orthodox monk like Siluoan, springs from repentance, which is not a “once and done” kind of thing. Rather, repentance is a constant posture before God: a sort of humility that borders on self-hate, a realization that the monk is the least in the kingdom of God, that others are sure to be saved but that there is no hope for the penitent, no excuse. It is for the monk an echo of the humility of Christ, that one must consider himself the least of all, must descend in humility and brokenness as Christ did, must shed bitter tears.

Like so many things in Orthodox Christianity, this is balanced in paradox: this deep repentance cannot give way to despair, because in the midst of all there is the hope of the mercy of God. This is the source of Siluoan’s famous statement, which he said he was given by the Lord Himself: “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” That is, keep your mind on your own wretchedness and brokenness, keep a posture of ultimate humility and depth of need in prayer, but trust in the mercy of God.

There is a purpose to this disposition. It is not self-flagellation or psychological masochism in order to earn some kind of salvation; rather, it is the path to true prayer, because only from such a posture of humility can one begin to bear the burden of the world, can one begin to shed tears of compassion not simply on behalf of one’s own sins but for the sins of the world. And this, Siluoan argues, is the ultimate purpose of the monk’s life in prayer: to offer up the world itself to God, to ceaselessly intercede with tears and compassion for everyone.

It is in this context that Siluoan makes what I think is perhaps his most powerful (and helpful) claim regarding prayer and the presence of God. In today’s climate of religious fervor and fundamentalism, of preaching and emotivist appeals, Siluoan claims there is one true way to know whether the Spirit of God is actually present. In Siluoan’s world, this sort of discernment was necessary for monks who claimed to have received a word or a vision from God. I think it holds equally true for us outside of the monastery, surrounded by people who claim to speak for God.

Siluoan’s statement is this: where the Spirit of God is, there is true humility, true love for enemies, and tears for the whole world. That is, if you claim to have any sort of deep experience with God, and the results are pride, derision, or division, this is a false claim. The true marks of the presence of the Spirit of God, according to Siluoan, are recognition of one’s own unworthiness (humility) and a compassion that extends to even those you thought you hated. Siluoan emphasizes this multiple places in his work, arguing that Christianity is never violent, never cajoling, but always something built on humility and compassion.

This struck me as incredibly profound: that an encounter with God brings about, not confident fiery preaching or denunciations or clearly-defined lines between us and the other, but rather tears, compassion, and a reticence to speak because we’ve finally realized how broken we actually are. Replace our confidence to denounce others we believe are wrong with a heartfelt compassion for our enemies and a humility that says they are more deserving of God’s grace than we ourselves, and Siluoan says you have a much more genuine Christianity and the true marks of encountering God.

For those who might immediately protest that God hates sin and that we have a responsibility to speak about the righteous judgement of God, I’d offer the saying of another monk, St. Isaac the Syrian, who, hundreds of years ago, offered this advice: “Do not speak of the judgement of God. His judgement is not evident in His dealings with you.”

What this thread of Christian thought is speaking to is this: Christianity is praxis, and the center and the goal of the Christian life is to know the love of Christ. Learn the love of Christ, these fathers would say. This knowledge is not book-knowledge. This is not a system of thought to be absorbed and repeated. This is an experiential knowledge, one arrived at through action, discipline, and the grace of God. Focus on that, bend your energies to that, to learning the love of God in Christ. Then and only then, these writers would say, worry about the implications of your theology for the life and practice of others. And then what you will find, according to their testimonies, is that you’re more interested in serving them, in serving even your enemies, in humility and love and compassion, then you are in condemning them.

Siluoan’s work is a hard read. The book is long and repetitive, and for a Western reader the nuggets of profundity seem buried in a lot of chest-beating and woe-is-me rhetoric. But for Siluoan, that’s the point. You have to do the hard work of self-abnegation to arrive at true knowledge of the love of God. The first portion of the book is a difficult go because it’s written by Siluoan’s protege and the tone is very hagiographic; it’s hard to see where the actual person was in the midst of all this. And then the second portion is Siluoan’s own writings, which, as the editor explains, are the occasional, unorganized scraps of a barely-literate peasant. So this portion is very repetitive and lacks a certain polish, but if anything it provides a more genuine glimpse into the mind and heart of someone who would forsake the world and spend a lifetime in the desert for love of God. Along the way, you also get some anecdotes about life on Mount Athos, which at times seems like another planet or at least another time period. And in the midst of this all, you get a sense of the things outlined above, of the goal of prayer and the life of repentance for the monk.

Christ, Our Way and Our Life

Christ, Our Way and Our Life: A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite SophronyChrist, Our Way and Our Life: A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite Sophrony by Archimandrite Zacharias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We are persuaded that man’s vocation is incomprehensibly wonderful and great. (99)

What do we do with this idea of holiness, the ideal of saintliness? The belief that in this life one can become like God in humility and love and empathy and prayer is one of the things that holds me in hope to Christianity.

Yet different traditions understand the concept of holiness in different ways. In many traditions, holiness and salvation are an either/or, on/off, you have it or you don’t, sort of thing: you’ve either been granted salvation and subsequent holiness by the grace of God and your faith therein, or not. In Orthodoxy, however, the process of theosis– of becoming like God– is not a thrown switch. It is certainly possible, by the grace of God, but it is claimed by few (likely no one, least of all those who approach it) and seen only as the fruit of a long process of ascetic practice and discipline.

That’s not to say holiness is only for monks. But it is to say that Orthodoxy recognizes holiness as a gradual process, an organic and often painful growth, a “ladder of divine ascent.” It doesn’t mean the only people going to heaven are the Mother Teresas of the world, but it does mean there are degrees of holiness and there are those who have advanced much farther along that road than others. And sometimes it’s good to take a long look at the abyss that separates someone like us (me) from someone like that.

For a time I used to regularly read the blog of Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest living and working in Tennessee. In his excellent posts he would consistently make reference to the works of Archimandrite Sophrony, an Orthodox monk whose life spanned much of the twentieth century. In particular, Father Stephen would quote from a study of Sophrony’s life entitled Christ, Our Way and Our Life, written by another monk, Archimandrite Zacharias, originally as a PhD dissertation and translated into English in 2003.

Sophrony and his mentor, St. Silouan, spent their lives in the pursuit of holiness. They devoted themselves to prayer and contemplation, and they said things like, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not” and “Stay on the verge of despair, but when you see that you are going to fall over, draw back and have a cup of tea.” They lived in chastity and obedience, poverty and humility, and they attempt to forsake the priorities of this world completely. What’s the point of such endeavors? If salvation is by faith alone, are they missing the point of Christianity? Or are they of the handful of faithful few on whom the salvation of the world rests?

These are deep waters, and I waded out onto them with some trepidation. I’m no mystic, but I tried to wrap my mind around the themes of their theology. Those themes included utter humility and self-loathing to the point of despair to reach the point at which one can truly pray for the entire world. Sophrony believes this is what Christ did and that the ultimate goal of a Christian is to be able to truly pray on behalf of all (something embodied in the liturgy we celebrate each week).

No one besides monks are much into self-loathing or humility today. Yet Sophrony and Silouan maintain that a form of self-loathing is necessary to gain true repentance, that we need to see ourselves as we actually are in comparison to the love and purity of God, and that only by living through the pain of this self-knowledge (which led the publican to beat his chest and cry, “Lord, have mercy”) can we know the extent of redemption and love of God.

Most of us, I think, would prefer repentance and salvation be quick and painless. But for the Orthodox ascetics, it’s painful. It’s a burning. It’s something that’s achieved with rivers of tears. The more we know who we truly are, the more we know the extent of our own sin, the more we understand the love of God.

If they left it there though, it wouldn’t be much in the way of good news. For Sophrony and Silouan, despair over our own condition– and then beyond that, despair over the condition of the human race itself– is necessary to be like Christ. They understand the entire life of Christ as a descent– from the right hand of God to a lowly place on Earth, and then from Earth to Hell itself. Christ sits at the bottom of an inverted pyramid of creation, occupying the most lowly, painful, humble position, and from that position bearing the sins and weight of the world. When we embrace the painful humility of our own brokenness and start to feel the weight and pain of the world itself in our prayers, we are following the path of Christ. Salvation is not upward toward heaven and redemption– or at least not initially; it is downward toward the pain and humiliation of Christ.

“Keep your mind in hell,” are the words reported to have come to St. Siluoan from Christ Himself, meaning we must live in that struggle and that pain, that in taking up the suffering of our own sins and the sins of humanity, we are with Christ. “Keep your mind in hell,” he was told, “and despair not.” Despair not, because Christ did not remain in Hell, and by taking on the sins of the world He was able to redeem the world and conquer death. But, Siluoan and Sophrony would say, we focus too much on this second part alone, but we neglect that Christ only ascended by first descending and that we must follow the same path.

Christ did not descend so that a switch could be flipped and we could live the rest of our lives in redeemed comfort. He came so that we could emulate Him in taking on the burdens of the world and offering them up to God. Generally speaking, man bears witness to his kinship with God when, in every aspect of his life, he thinks, feels, and acts with the consciousness that God has placed all of creation into his care. (63) For them, this is a very real, ontological act centered in prayer, not simply in a role of stewardship of nature or talents (though that’s certainly a part of it).

If this repels, reflect on the saints. Who are the saints, in whatever tradition you find yourself? What makes them saintly? Is it simply that they’ve been saved and sanctified, or is it that they recognize this salvation as a means of taking up the pain and the burdens of others and by doing so sanctifying them to God? And how are they able to do this? By recognizing their own brokenness, by living at the edge of despair and not yielding to it, and by constantly orienting themselves toward humility, patience, and descent.

That seems pretty difficult. And right.

For those who have not been given such a state, copying his way of fulfilling St. Silouan’s word may prove unbearable. A lighter form of this teaching may, however, be realized by anyone, if he gives thanks to God at all times for all He bestows upon him, acknowledging always his own unworthiness. Continual thanksgiving makes up for what is lacking in us. (273)