A Conversation with the Elder Sophrony
16 November 2011 Religion / Interviews
The abbot of the Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopedi, Archimandrite Ephraim, spoke with Elder Sophrony of blessed memory at the Holy Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England on 20 September 1992. From this meeting, one is struck by Elder Sophrony’s spirituality and ascetic vision, and can appreciate the value of his contribution to the contemporary life of the Church.
The abbot of the Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi, Archimandrite Ephraim, in the garden of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex (1992) with Elder Sophrony, among the many pilgrims who found spiritual comfort near the venerable Elder
Elder Sophrony: “O Heavenly King and Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things, treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us of all that defileth, and save our souls, oh Thou who are good.” Welcome, holy abbot… If during our conversation I do anything unusual, please forgive me. These days I don’t hear or see very well. Archimandrite Ephraim: Considering your age, you’re doing very well. E.S.: Ninety-six years old…I’ll tell them to bring us the letter from Vatopedi from our archives. A.E.: Yes, I would like to see it. E.S.: You know, I’m one of your own. A.E.: This is a blessing for us. E.S.: I don’t know. It is a blessing for me, that they gave me leave with such willingness. And circumstances have shown that God blessed it. After I left the Holy Mountain, though, I became very ill. I had a stomach ulcer and I suffered from gastrorrhagia, I was also very poor. I had to undergo a difficult operation, and they had to remove nearly my whole stomach. For twelve years I had great difficulty eating. I got something later on, but it’s fake. A.E.: It was God’s will, Elder, that you came here. E.S.: I’ll tell you what, abbot, I’m always afraid to say that something [from God] happens to me, but it seems to me that nothing took place according to how I imagined it, but everything came from God. A.E.: This is what the conscience of the Church also witnesses to, it seems that it was from God. And that it is a work that has a history behind it. And [this monastery’s] history has been stamped by God, that’s what the facts witness to. E.S.: Yes, but I am only bold enough to say, “Lord have mercy on me and save me.” Only to a certain extent can I say that it happened according to the providence of God.
a spiritual autobiography [ We Shall See Him as He Is]. But even this. according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). chemotherapy.S. E. I didn’t want to write a theological textbook. For it expresses the person. I only wrote down my experience. wanted you to see his official canonization by the Church. And I was. Elder.S. “Let Us make man in Our image. The contemporary spiritual. Recently. St. in turn. Only revelation can say this.E. of the translation of his book into Modern Greek]…but they have translated it into the simple language. you live wisely.: It doesn’t properly express them. is a question for us. “Lord have mercy.” But…I don’t understand….: Well…let me tell you. After the stomach operation I had. I would say very confused.S.: So…if it’s in a good language already. most young people’s language skills are lacking today. but you need to translate it into Modern Greek because young people don’t know Ancient Greek.: May God allow it to be so…may God allow it to be so… A. Perhaps this autobiography will help someone find the solution to his or her own personal problem.: It’s that fruit of divine grace.: The Church needs you.: And I don’t know how the providence of Christ made it happen.E. E. Lord save me. E.
.: Of what interest would a purely factual biography have been? I only recount spiritual events in this book. when I sent the book that is right behind you to His All Holiness [the Ecumenical Patriarch].E. to a certain extent. theological problem concerns the person [πρόσωπο]…I lived completely by revelation.S.S. And the book has appeared. Revelation reveals that “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). for twelve years I couldn’t eat.: And this translation can be made now.: [Elder Sophrony speaks. of radiation therapy.E. which cannot express subtle meanings.S.E.S. which is why God has extended your life. and we want it in this language.E. You need to make an “Economy. “I am” it means that He is a person. somehow. Your life is a miracle. E. Silouan.: From everything I have observed here. E. We are amazed at how you are still living considering the illnesses you have had and still have. which the Lord never refuted…. A.S.: I didn’t write a theological text. unique Orthodox witness is necessary to wake them up.: Elder. E. A. Elder.: It is in a good language. or something similar. E.: We’ve read it.: In 1986 they invented a machine that can diagnose cancer and they opened me up and found that I had the worst type of cancer.: It’s from this perspective that I was emboldened to write. There was no chance of an operation. Six years have passed and I’m living in my seventh year since then. I say it with boldness because it is a fact. But these are the ones who rule this place. I published a book. So.: What you have provided is a living witness. because unfortunately. If He says. and a contemporary. and other officials. but simply to describe the experience of an Orthodox monk.E. A. Many spiritual people are amazed that you’re still alive.E.: This book will be very useful.E.E.S.S. at just the right time. and they were expecting me to die. E. E. A.S. E. During the years that you have been here. Two years after that. for everything…because nothing happens by human strength. A. A.: Yes. You’re an abbot. your monastery is an oasis in the desert [of a culture] of materialism. But Orthodox life outside of Greece is difficult. I became ill many times with fatal sicknesses and yet I’m still alive. A. shouting at God for everyone. with the Catholics and Protestants. I refer to actual facts. And we need to base ourselves on revelation. He placed me at the feet of my Elder. Elder. And this is a very important thing for a spiritual person.S. I was a bit better. E. I say that.: Your Elder. ascetical…connects with the tradition of the West. And I was always hung from a thread above the abyss. Elder.: We’re just…eh! How can I explain it to you…we’re thankful to those who rule this country.: And I’m sure that you must have had many difficulties here. our young people today are not able to understand it. They left me to waste away…. A. which completely cut up my insides. in a certain way. God says. what’s happening with it? A. an abbot.E. Not all of our thought: theological.A.” and give the blessing for your book to be translated into Modern Greek as well. and to the queen. But unfortunately. A.E. This book is not an intellectual contrivance. I don’t know why… A.E.: Oh…it’s better not to talk about them…. which is why you’ve been able to help people greatly in hidden ways. from fear and because I’m bold to say. E.: People today are confused.: This book has also helped us on the Holy Mountain a great deal. Elder. E. you have acted with great discernment.S. This is why in one of the chapters in the book to which I referred earlier I note that the word “I” has great significance. and I don’t know how. Science cannot say this.
“Keep your mind in hell and despair not…. In our monastery.
St. it can be done. but they may not understand it for another reason.E. how can we express it.S. if many people understand this book? A. because the providence of God lead me to Silouan.: Yes. said.: Unfortunately. because unfortunately in Greece various factors have managed to adulterate the Greek language. though. but because of their persecutions they don’t have an inner life. because they have completely lost the ascetic culture. we have quite a few young monks.: I understand. through the other Athenagoras (of London).S. Paul’s Monastery [on Mount Athos]. that’s what they say.
. And he. E. Seventy years of captivity… A. from the time I began to do philological studies and have had contact with them. And from this. He had a great deal of experience. E.E.E.: Your book.” A. is about spiritual practices of the very highest kind.: You prove the opposite. it’s a part of them. have said that the Orthodox Church cannot say that it is.: Twelve monastics. “the One. And throughout Europe.E. I wonder. Holy. and Apostolic Church.: They don’t understand it in its full depth. one can discern that it is from God. It is also very encouraging that you are directly connected to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.A. E. though. St. which was why I was bold and asked that our holy monastery be a dependency of St. E. Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938).: And. A deeper. they [the Orthodox] are ethnic bodies who live with hatred among themselves. Catholic. The Roman Catholics.: They lost asceticism and this can help. E.E. Patriarch Athenagoras the First understood this idea as well.: And I… and I… A.: A number of Russian bishops came to Vatopedi and told us that the Russians are pious.E. was the reason that many people came to the Holy Mountain to become monks. “tell Sophrony to give me…to send me a request for Stavropegic status. The young monks don’t know Greek.S.S. that Stavropegic status was granted so easily. A.” It isn’t catholic. because of its language.S. Silouan the Athonite. more extreme form of asceticism does not exist. as I have heard for many years. twelve nationalities.: What I’m trying to say is that this book.: It can also help people in Russia. even though they are Greek.E. by its very nature. the book led many heterodox to Orthodoxy.” A. holy abbot.
E. is an indication that God wanted this monastery to be established.S.
And you know how I feel. that is. Silouan replied to him. gave it to him.” rather I said. where Silouan lived for nearly half a century.E. which is not only fragrant. And when this happened. “I wonder if St. but it is a call from God. holy abbot. that accompanies the asceticism of the Orthodox ascetic.: Great love of wisdom…. the story of this boldness. He was a very gentle and sweet person. few understood the spiritual height of the Elder. He was the greatest gift of divine providence that God gave to me… A. was very. It was his own work…and when the Archbishop of Cyprus ordained our beloved spiritual father. For us self-reproach is appropriate.: This is great love of wisdom.: Certainly…but ask the holy abbot. but also very clever. ‘God gave me the answer almost immediately. I have a relic of St. Silouan’s legacy has shone forth. Elder.E.S.” “The proud suffer from this.E. he was an engineer. an educated Russian hermit monk. Silouan could hear our prayers. Fr. that’s why He showed it to you.: Why? Why don’t I have him? Because many have told me that they have prayed to Silouan and their request was immediately fulfilled.” That’s how he called me to speak with him. Silouan. but what you told him was beyond his strength. Lord?” “Keep your mind in hell and despair not. I prepared him a cup of tea. E. They had such fear…but also such boldness for the love of God! He did not speak openly about his spiritual condition. sinner that I was—lost that is to say. in either 1930 or 1931.S. “yes. though he was such a great Saint. may I say something? E.: Me.: And you. but is a call from God. “Was Fr. you must have had personal experience with the boldness of St. This is why the references in the book are only made to Holy Scripture. Afterwards. A. And Fr. “Fr. Athanasius from Simonopetra came up to him and said.: They didn’t understand him…those who lived alongside St. that is to say. Silouan. holy abbot? What I suffer because of this? What did the Lord mean with the phrase. they did not understand with whom they were dealing. break off and have a cup of tea.S. not a thought. the book may be theological.” The next day. “Keep your mind in hell and despair not. Unfortunately. He didn’t say anything…for a moment. but hid. And the conversation. Silouan has the ability to pray for us?” And as soon as Fr. rest a little and have a cup of tea. “Keep your mind.S. our spiritual connection. how to say it…very brief. with whom I had not yet had personal contact. I’ll tell you why.S. he began to pray for all humanity and it became a state of being. his quick response to their prayers suggests to them that he was a Saint. humanly.” A. I went to the Elder and he taught me regarding. This is what he said: “I see demons. Silouan. [One of the other monks from Essex then speaks]: Elder. Even on the Holy Mountain. And when the Lord said.” Silouan saw Him. hierodeacon. Silouan in the monastery did not understand him. Fr. “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you don’t have any more strength. And. they will say that it is not monks who choose this path by human means. On the second day of Pascha [Monday of Bright Week]. Panteleimon’s. [Monk]: Your monk. he was asked to give a word. but not this state. that same moment.E. And he prayed to Silouan.E. His answer and aid came immediately.: Because He knew that you would make good use of it. but one time it even gushed myrrh. what can I tell you? Something that supersedes human measure. He sat and immediately wrote. and told him. Which is also why we don’t have his relics. This is why it was only Silouan who understood the depths of the word regarding this state. and some spoke ironically about him. Fr. Fr.”
. beyond his measure. you are the reason that St. “You know. you took some.: I don’t have him… A. but I could sense his spiritual strength. without any word. I ran into Elder Silouan.S. Sophrony. Many times Athonites have also experienced something similar. E. and a thought came into his head. I didn’t say. how will we be saved?” I loved this person. Silouan. And if some read this book. Few people are able to understand this book. And he said to me. Vladimir with you yesterday?” I didn’t answer him. A.: That’s the way it is… E. “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you feel that it is beyond your strength. “Perhaps I said something wrong?” Silouan answered. E. it seems that monasticism is not human. And because of this phrase. E. during Matins.” which was for Silouan the pronounced removal of grace for a whole hour before the appearance of Christ? He clearly saw his eternal destruction and after this the Lord appears without any word.: …and from my writings.” “But how can I become humble. he was very beneficent to me…. his talk with Christ. without words. the theology. because I was just wondering if St. was at Koutloumousiou the day after the celebration.: Let me tell you. “Keep your mind in hell. “No. From this perspective. Come and let’s talk. came to visit me in my cell at the Monastery of St. And he waits for you in heaven with open arms.: The writing of his biography was not a human work.S. but a state of being.’” E. he was.E. Silouan thought this. Zacharias.” our relationship began. as some people have said. Elder. And thank you very much for your letter regarding the book.S.
through their experiential way of life.E. so that captivity to the passionate thought.: With the intellect… E.S.: Right…as a state. then our mind gets used to thinking as God Himself thinks. “But how does this happen?” A. Elder. that’s where I’m going to be thrown. This problem needs to be expressed in some way.: About Silouan…he was one of them. Whatever he says becomes dogma for everyone. such that the combat is as if fighting hand to hand with Satan. “If a thought upsets us. we are free to discard this thought and to focus our attention on something else.E.S. but he does not describe how it happens. is the ascetic life according to the commandments of the Gospel. from an academic point of view. and it turns our whole being upside down… A. “Did you not hear. A. E. Gregory Palamas to Athonite monasticism. the teaching of St. But the only study that enables us to sense what God is like. Basil the Great.E. Basil’s. it is very difficult. A. I wasn’t found worthy of meeting him.E. And perhaps it’s necessary to describe the way of battle. in the beginning. People who don’t understand then ask. The fathers around us have great devotion for the Elder and somehow. and always takes a certain form.: As a never-ending state. A. the passionate thought sticks and torments.: Yes.: Many times. the West in this respect is undeveloped.” These are states of spiritual struggle. they are things that don’t come into our minds. E. other people. When our life is lived according to the will of God. E. for him.: I didn’t meet him. however. when they told him that he would go to the heavenly kingdom.E. the passion stops.E. “Believe me brothers.E.: And it’s at a high price that the Fathers lend us their wisdom.: And we are very grateful to God that we were able to meet you today.E. for Silouan speaks of these things. is a state of being. yes…I had gone two or three times to Elder Joseph. Elder. they say: but what is theosis? With
.S. this past Monday I encouraged my brethren to describe in a better way the path of battling against passionate thoughts.S. [Elder Sophrony does not answer.S. A. A. this is simple. then we understand that there cannot be a difference between the commandments and the mind of God Himself. with matter. E. And an example of this theology is the Liturgy of St.S.E.: This is why. E. Elder? E. somehow they understand what he was all about.: Yes…Silouan says that we are free to focus our attention on something else. and for us untrained ones. A. A. there we have some kind of an interpretation of the battle.: This is the spirit of the Fathers… E.S. Truly.E. His theology. as Silouan says. but it’s dangerous for one to write. John the Theologian. it’s the same.E.: …as the contemporary Elders who re-introduced. Elder. is not a real problem.: Self-reproach as a state of being.” A. A. But what I’m trying to say is that perhaps people need to learn how they can battle against passionate thoughts? I discuss this topic a bit in my book on the Elder… but what do you think? In the first book. who was still at St. When we think according to the commandments. Theology is the content of our prayers. And if our heart or word does not accept this form. And if I take those to my right.S. The bad thought comes and he thinks of other things. E.E. They study theology from books.And then He left. A.S.” He was able to do this. on Mount Athos Elder Silouan and Elder Joseph the Hesychast are regarded… E.: I asked my brethren to try to describe it.: About whom. and only I will be damned. “Everyone will be saved. where Satan was thrown. Did you get to meet him? A. Because one of the sisters has written a book on the upbringing of children and though what she writes is simple. Abba Poimen. I explain that every passionate thought is tied to the earth.: Like theology.: This state that Silouan experienced is related to the great Fathers of Egypt [the desert fathers].: I didn’t hear…. however. But sometimes. But then theology comes as a state of being. for you have written about these things in a contemporary manner.S.S. E. or those to my left. I was there for twenty-two years. hand to hand combat needs to take place.: This is a very subtle issue. In fact.: And Anthony shared the thought of the shoemaker of Alexandria. are like slaves to passionate thoughts. it’s a certain type. he says things simply. a passionate thought makes our life a living hell. was not a theologian. The whole anaphora is theology and is expressed through prayer.E.S.: Yes.: Silouan would say. replied. or did you not want to hear?”] E. of course he was without passion. When the Lord fought with Satan in the desert. I am very grateful to God that He saw me fit to become a monk on the Holy Mountain. One of the seven greatest ascetics that I met in my life.: Yes. however. And regarding theosis.: You did very well to analyze the way this battle works. Unfortunately.S. In action. Some monk asked. do you understand? It’s not an easy thing.: Ah! He was a soldier of the spirit. Theoretically. E.
Nicodemus the Athonite.: Because. rationalistic way of life has been introduced to Greece. and I love them.: He was a great Saint. It is very much alive. for St. While in Greece. you see. they’re happy! E. When another ascetic visited him. Essex.E. We do small things but the results must become great. A.S.: Yes. a person that had been a poor shepherd in the world.E. but don’t you think we’ll be victorious? A. Silouan’s inclusion in the official list of Saints of the Orthodox Church. E. and rather study the lives of the holy Fathers and the Apostles. of asceticism. You understand what I’m trying to say…if that is where their thoughts are.: Yes. we believe that.S. Andrew’s Skete.S. A.E. They’re not laughing. and we are greatly distressed. We are concerned for Greece.: Greece is also going through a crisis right now. neptic life in detail.E. E.: When the official Patriarchal proclamation came to the Community. St.: Yes…you know that we have the official proclamation of Silouan’s canonization framed.S.S. which was a coenobium.: We’ll see. Remember the example from the Gerontikon. We have good descriptions of this in the writings of St. The European.: They’re happy. Because recently.] They’re laughing… A. in particular the study of the past so that they can be freed of their secular ideas. [At this point. then in obedience to the Gospel commandments one reaches this state. E.S. he saw the bed of the grace-filled ascetic and how he lived
. and they sent one to all of the monasteries of the Holy Mountain. the young monks that come are used to comfortable living and do not acclimatize easily to the ascetic tradition of the place.: Fair enough. E. great ascetics have reposed…no one can say that Greece is dead. in the same kind of frame that they use in the Holy Community of the Holy Mountain. John the Baptist.obedience to the abbot from the beginning.: In what way? A.: Not idiorhythmic.: If that’s the case. of theology. There was a grace-filled ascetic who had a secular education and had been very wealthy. In the middle is the tomb of Elder Sophrony of blessed memory
A. in one sense. Elder. the fathers begin to laugh. in the present state of Europe. however. they sent us a copy for our archives. but it is in danger from the secular and rationalistic spirit of the West. Elder. we are also concerned about the Holy Mountain. A. the whole atmosphere is full of faith.S.: Idiorhythmic. and it’s going through a spiritual crisis.: And I’m a Vatopedinos…and I’m a Vatopedinos! A. because I was at St. To think and to live the way they do. they will not spend time with the passions.E. one’s will is cut off.E. is a great thing. Because the Saint was an Athonite… E.E. But you know.E.
The underground crypt at the Holy Monastery of St.: It is alive. then you will arrange their asceticism according to their capabilities. You’re an idiorhythmic Vatopedinos! E. Nicodemus described the ascetic. E. Through obedience we enter into the life of divine Being.S.
: Silouan is a great Saint. as well.: Let it be blessed.: That’s the way it is. and that I had the chance to see my abbot. there is no service. We need to finish.S. but for Silouan. however. and the younger monks complained about the older monks.: I didn’t understand your last sentence.E.E. for some Saints and great teachers of the Church. [Another monk asks Elder Sophrony]: Do you remember Elder Joseph. E.: God seldom allows ascetics to meet. while he himself was living comfortably.E.E.E.” “What did they learn there? How did they live?” A. A. E.E.: Which Saints have you included in the consecration? Which relics? [Another monk responds]: We included the two Theodores (the martyrs) and the venerable Silouan. because the service will begin.S. Lord Jesus Christ our God.: That ours would be a meeting in the Holy Spirit. and that’s the way it happened. You know. they are living in sin. I have written about it…for me he is truly great. Elder.S. yes of course…. with great wealth. he is great… A.: For me. A.: For me. I would say to the older monks. I bring to you the respects of my Elder.E. This was precisely the reason…now…how did you know it? A. E. yes I remember that story. This is how I tried to make them understand the need for patience. [All together]: Amen! A.S.: When I was a spiritual father at Simonopetra. he learned that in the world he had lived a luxurious life. let’s wrap this up.
. I have told others. A.: Yes.E.: Thank you. How did I know what. he is the greatest. We were very glad that you wanted to come. “From where did you receive these children?” “From the world. E. A. he accused himself and confessed that the wealthy man was now living ascetically.S. holy abbot. They need to free themselves through asceticism. though…tomorrow we’re celebrating the consecration. that when they learn things from the world. Elder.S.E. who came here two years ago? E. Elder? E. on the Holy Mountain there are four. When.S. A. have mercy on us.: Don’t expect them to become perfect right away. Now.comfortably.: Through the prayers of our holy Father. E. and he was scandalized. the older monks would complain about the younger monks.: For you.: Yes. who asks that you remember him and pray for him.