Saint 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.