You are on page 1of 7

Keep Thy Mind in Hell, and Despair Not: St.

Silouans Kenotic Vision of Salvation


James L. Kelley

In The Monk of Mount Athos, Archimandrite Sophrony gives an account of St. Silouans first experience of the Divine Glory. Once, while St. Silouan was a young monk at St. Pantaleimon Monastery a great Divine Light shone about him, [and] he was taken out of this world and transported in spirit to heaven, where he heard ineffable words [1]. Though this divine vision was of short duration, Sophrony emphasizes that St. Silouans experience of God was no mere magical deliverance from future struggle, as the saints subsequent lifelong struggle was to prove. In the same way that St. Peter denied Christ even after seeing the Light on Mount Tabor, St. Silouan experienced his own moment of doubt and despair. Praying in his cell one night, years after his initial vision of Glory, the saint struggled for hours to pray with a pure mind. His reward was the appearance of 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

2 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 [2]. These last wordsspoken directly into the staretzs heartbecame the foundation stone of St. Silouans theology. But what do these words mean? St. Silouan explicates them thusly: Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not means that the desire to be delivered from suffering, hellfire, and demons is nothing more than pride. Indeed, such an impulse can only come from one who regards himself as righteous, and thus not in need of purification. It follows that, in this life, the struggle for salvation is never over. St. Paul teaches this when he says not that I have already attained. There is never a safe harbor where the Christ-seeker can rest. St. Silouans long struggle in the wilderness of the soul was rewarded when he heard the voice of the Holy Spirit within him confirm the Fathers great insight that the perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness; that it is impossible to attain perfection, since. . .perfection is not marked off by limits [3]. St. Silouan began to see the fires of hell as the very path the salvation, as the burning away of the dross of passions that prepares the inner man for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Behind Silouans idea of the positive aspect of hellfire was the Patristic

3 conception of salvation as synergy. Though man is by nature created and contingent, he can become united to the Holy Trinity through Uncreated Energy, or Glory. Calling Gods Divine Will Energy is not a positive philosophical assertion, but rather is Old and New Testament revelation. In Exodus, Moses face shines forth with the doxa, or glory of God, and in the synoptic Gospels, we find a form of the same Greek word, doxa, used to describe the light with shone from Christs face at the Transfiguration. Man, through his energy or will, overturns the parasitic demonic energy that rules the fallen world by abiding in the Energy-Will of the Holy Trinity. However, we should never see synergy as mans dynamic response to a static, ideal energy. Indeed, as the saint experienced in his own life, God makes himself known to man through an active bestowal of love. This is the meaning of the Incarnation of Christ and also of St. Silouans initial vision of light, fifteen years before his vision of hell-as-salvation. God gave St. Silouan a foretaste of life in His Glory, but it was long after his vision before the saint fully understood how to prepare himself to receive and bear this Energy. St. Silouans vision of salvation was Incarnational. Hell only saves us if we go down into the pit as Christ himself did. This, for St. Silouan, is the meaning of the Incarnation: God became man, His human nature being the source of mans divinization and the overturning of the corruption of death. However, it is for us to follow him down to hell, to uproot every passion in ourselves, thus turning what is experienced initially as a burning flame into a bliss-bestowing Light. Since St. Silouans mind is that of the Fathers, this example of Christs is more than the mere moral guide of Peter Abelard. Indeed, since synergy is based on the Incarnation, our individual acts of pietyour first and subsequent denials of ourselvesare inspired by God, who always draws us to Him,

4 while preserving our free will. Thus when we speak of mans ascetical labors and Gods providential economy, both are aspects of one and the same thing: The agreement of human and divine wills in true Energetic vision. St. Silouan agrees with the Fathers that the first stage of spiritual ascent is purification. This purification is the restoring of the nous to its proper functioning by eradicating fantasies from the heart and mind. The nous is the center of mans heart, the image of God in man, and it is designed to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is communion in the Glory of God. Since Adam removed himself from Gods presence when he ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (thereby denying the need for purification, which is preparation for bearing the vision of God), mans nature is strangled by mortality, and as a consequence, mans nous either malfunctions or ceases to function at all.1 St. Silouans expression of the need for purification as a prerequisite for vision of God is couched in terms of discrimination of energies. Viewed from the standpoint of the already-illumined heart, the mind dwells in the heart [and] perceives the images and thoughts around it proceeding from the sphere of cosmic being which attempt to see heart and mind. The energy of this or that spirit makes itself manifest in the form of thoughtsuggestions roused by this or that image.2 This discrimination of spirits, between those of the devil and those of the Uncreated, is gained gradually, and it is only achieved through ascesis, which St. Silouan connects intimately with suffering-as-Christ-suffered. When we do this, we experience the fires of hell which, as the Glory of God, purify while
1

On the Patristic doctrine of the malfunctioning nous or noetic energy as the sickness of fallen man, see J.S. Romanides, The Cure of the Neurobiological Sickness of Religion: The Hellenic Civilization of the Roman Empire, Charlemagnes Lie of 794, and His Lie Today. <http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.02.en.the_cure_of_the_neurobiological_sickness_of_rel.01.htm> 1011. 2 Sophrony, Monk 77.

5 simultaneously showing man his own lowliness. This intense kenotic love led St. Silouan to see himself alone in hell, just as Christ found Himself alone in Gethsemane. Archimandrite Sophrony relates a pertinent incident: I remember a conversation between [St. Silouan] and a certain hermit who declared with evident satisfaction: God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire. Obviously upset, the Staretz [St. Silouan] said: Tell me, supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-firewould you feel happy? It cant 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.3 Entombed in the Abyss, St. Silouan saw everyone save himself above ground. As a consequence, he condemned no one but himself. In the same way Christ, without blame or sin, took all the worlds sin and suffering upon Himself.4 Such a connection between the descent of Christ and the ascent of man was, for St. Silouan, the bridge between individual acts of piety and full theoria, or vision of God. However, man cannot, as in Pietism or Gnosticism, ascend to God as an individual. Indeed, all of creation groans (Rom. 8:22) to be redeemed by the love of the Holy Trinity, and God cannot be loved except through our neighbor, indeed, through the whole cosmos, which was created very
3 4

Ibid. 32. We are not suggesting that Christs harrowing of hell is identical to mans purification. For one thing, man has a gnomic will that can choose between alternatives of good and evil. Christ, being the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, has a divine will and a human will. Neither of His wills are gnomic; Christ chooses always to do the good, without the hesitation that accompanies a gnomic will. On the gnomic will, see the works of St. Maximus the Confessor, esp. The Disputation With Pyrrhus of Our Father Among the Saints Maximus the Confessor, trans. Joseph P. Farrell (St. Tikhons Seminary Press, 1990).

6 good (Gen 1:10,12,18). As Archimandrite Sophrony testifies, the Fathers cosmic vision of salvation is as vibrant in St. Silouan as it is in St. Paul and St. Irenaeus: The life of the spiritual world the Staretz recognized as one life, and because of this unity every spiritual phenomenon inevitably reflects on the state of the whole world: if the phenomenon be good all heaven rejoices; if evil all heaven sorrows. Though every spiritual phenomenon inevitably leaves its mark on the entire world, that intangible communion in the existence of all things of which the Staretz wrote is chiefly the bounds of human knowledge, he ascribed the action of the Holy Spirit in whom the soul sees and embraces the whole world in her love.5 Sophronys words proffer a deep, experiential conception of the saying Keep thy mind in hell, one that cuts to the quick. At the level of purification, the seeker rebukes himself severely, raking himself over the coals, one might say. However, this selfdirected ruthlessness is not the end of the story. Self-accusation is accompanied by a prayerful opening of ones inner self to the divine: the mind in hell becomes united to the love of Christ. Those who cooperate with Gods grace come to know that these fires are the Glory of the Holy Trinity. As St. Silouan was once heard to remark: The saints all said: I shall suffer torments in helleven though they performed great miracles. They had learned by experience that if the soul condemns herself to hell, but trusts the while in Gods compassion, the strength of God enters into her, and the Holy Spirit bears clear witness of salvation.6

5 6

Ibid. 58. Idib. 106-7.

7 NOTES 1. (Crestwood, 1989), 19. 2. Ibid., 28.