Thanks to Elder Sophrony Sakharov, we, the Orthodox – and not only -, have met and loved St. Silouan. Indeed, the book of Elder Sophrony “Saint Silouan the Athonite” is very widespread among Greek Christians, and is published in many foreign languages.
The canonization of St. Silouan is largely due to Elder Sophrony, since the latter not only knew St. Silouan from St. Panteleimon Monastery on Mount Athos, but was the only one who understood his high spiritual life and holiness. In an interview given in 2011, Elder Sophrony analyzes the central points of the teaching of St. Silouan.
The elder was initially asked about humility. There is so much to read in the ascetic literature about humility. However, he singled out some particular elements of humility in the life of St. Silouan: “Silouan says that there are two forms of humility: one is ascetic humility, through repentance, ‘I am the worst of all,’ and the other is divine humility of Christ. Which means that he characterizes the nature of God, which cannot be described. I have never encountered in other people this distinction between ascetic humility and the humility that is specific to God as his characteristic. Another point: No one can love Creation as a whole, etc. and pray for the whole of it, if this is not done in the Holy Spirit.
And prayer for enemies is a characteristic of those who are bearers of the Holy Spirit. That is why he says that he who does not love his enemies has not yet known God as we should know Him.
At one point in his life, Saint Silouan saw the Living Christ. This meeting gave him the prayer for the whole world. The appearance of Christ, in a way, made him live in the way of Christ, that is, love. Therefore, he prayed for the whole world.
Elder Sophrony says about this: “This means that Christ really appeared to him and that he got to know him through the Holy Spirit, as he himself describes that the Spirit was in all his being: in his spirit, in his mind, in his brain, in his heart, and in his body.”
The first true meeting and the frequent contacts for eight years
What was the relationship between them? Elder Sophrony replies: “I had systematic contact with him for about eight years, until his death in 1938. Before I always had respect for him, but I did not approach him; the first real meeting took place on Easter 1931. On the day father Easter Sunday I had received in my small cell in the monastery, monk Vladimir, an educated man, a mechanical engineer, who lived in the desert. Our conversation was very cheerful and this is what he said to me: ‘Father Sophrony, tell me, how can someone be saved?’ At that moment I had brought hot water into my cell and offered him tea, as if I were entertaining an ambassador, and I said to him: ‘Hold on to the edge of despair and, when that is beyond you, when there is no more strength, withdraw and have a cup of tea.’ I said that without really understanding it. But when he left me, went to visit Elder Silouan. I don’t know what they said. The other day, on Easter Tuesday, there was an incident that was the beginning of my relationship with the Elder. I was descending from the large building to the courtyard of the monastery when the Elder entered through the door. I always had a sense of reverence for him and out of deep respect for him I made room for him to pass. However, he came straight to meet me and said, ‘Did Fr. Vladimir come to you yesterday?’ ‘Did I do something wrong?’ ‘No, but this is not his level. Come on, we’ll talk about it.’”
A key feature of the lives of Saints is prayer for others. The Saints do not live for themselves but for others, whom they love as God loves them. “To pray for the whole world is to shed your blood,” says St. Silouan. We know that there is human love, but there is also the respective love of God. Usually we, people, love those who love us, and that with a lot of effort, one might say. When God’s love is given to man, then man loves everyone, no matter how others treat him. Then he does not feel the need to set conditions for his love for others. His love is unconditional. Thus, free.”
Elder Sophrony in his work reiterates the need to pray daily so that we do not sin during each day. Therefore, the Saints advise us to examine at night how we spent the day and whether we have saddened God. Elder Sophrony’s contact with St. Silouan certainly helped him to be convinced of the necessary effort to not sin each day: “There were questions that immersed me in wonders, so I asked him and he helped me more than anyone else to find the answers. Three times a day we ask in our prayer in the Church God ‘to keep us in this day – or in this night – sinless.’ So, I asked him: ‘How can we live in this world, which is too dynamic and immersed in despair, without sinning? How can we avoid sin?’ I had other questions too, such as, ‘How can we be sure that the spirit within us is the Holy Spirit emanating from the Father?’ ‘Since man was called to create, what is the highest form of creative work?’ ‘What state of mind shows us that we are truly the image of the Living God?’”
The power of prayer and how sin can be overcome
What were the answers given by Silouan? “I did not retain everything, nor did I do everything I learned from the Elder, and therefore I have no right to discuss these matters; but with the help of his prayer, I will tell you a few of what he taught me.
The spirit is overwhelmed by fear when it sees the holiness of God and at the same time realizes its own complete unworthiness to ever be united with such a God. The knowledge that we are under the bondage of our sins despairs of us. Then our prayer is filled with tears. When we thus condemn ourselves to Hades, we are stripped of everything earthly and temporary, since only eternity extends before us. Sin has been imprisoned; it has been stopped. There is no longer any pride, nor hatred, nor fear; no search for glory, wealth or power. Only the danger of falling into eternal despair. But, coming to this point, we stop: ‘And do not despair.’ Then, if we continue, realizing our worthlessness, being in a state of our spirit that corresponds to reality, we allow the Spirit of Truth that emanates from the Father to create a relationship with our hearts,” he adds.
*The article was first published in the newspaper “Orthodoxi Alitheia”