Archive for May 9th, 2007

His Life Is Mine

May 9, 2007


The following is an excerpt from Rosemary Edmond’s introduction to Archimandrite Sophrony’s His Life is Mine. In these paragraph’s she describes the great monk’s journey from Paris, where he had been an artist and a seminarian, to Mt. Athos, where he would take up his vocation as a monk. He speaks of despair and the knowledge of God. The lives of saints are not a rational argument, per se, for the Christian faith – but to me they are among the best arguments.

Little by little it dawned on him that pure intellection, an activity of the brain only, could not advance one far in the search for reality. Then suddenly he remembered Christ’s injunction to love God ‘with all thy heart, and with all thy mind.’ This unexpected insight was as portentous as that earlier moment when the Eastern vision of a supra-personal Being had beguiled him into dismissing the Gospel message as a call to the emotions [note for a short time in his younger life, Fr. Sophrony had explored Far Eastern religions before turning again to the Orthodox faith]. Only that earlier moment had struck dark as a thunderclap, while now revelation illuminated like lightning. Intellection without love was not enough. Actual knowledge could only come through community of being, which meant love. And so Christ conquered: His teaching appealed to his mind with different undertones, acquired other dimensions. Prayer to the Personal God was restored to his heart – directed, first and foremost, to Christ.

He must decide on a new way of living. He enrolled in the then recently opened Paris Orthodox Theological Institute, in the hope of being taught how to pray, and the right attitude towards God; how to overcome one’s passions and attain divine eternity. But formal theology produced no key to the kingdom of heaven. He left Paris and made his way to Mount Athos where men seek union with God through prayer. Setting foot on the Holy Mountain, he kissed the ground and besought God to accept and further him in this new life. Next, he looked for a mentor who would help extricate him from a series of apparently insoluble problems. He threw himself into prayer as fervently as he previously had in France. It was crystal-clear that if he really wanted to know God and be with Him entirely, he must dedicate himself to just that – and still more entirely than he had to painting in the old days. Prayer became both garment and breath to him, unceasing even when he slept. Despair combined with a feeling of resurrection in his soul: despair over the peoples of the earth who had forsaken God and were expiring in their ignorance. At times while praying for them he would be driven to wrestle with God as their Creator. This oscillation between the two extremes of hell on the one side and Divine Light on the other made it urgent that someone should spell out the point of what was happening to him. But another four years were to pass before the first encounter with Staretz [Elder] Silouan which he quickly recognized as the most precious gift Providence ever made to him. He would not have dared dream of such a miracle, though he had long hungered and thirsted after a counsellor who would hold out a strong hand and explain the laws of spiritual life. For eight years or so he sat at the feet of his Gamaliel [the reference is to the great Rabbi Gamaliel who was the teacher of St. Paul], until the Staretz’ death when he begged for the blessing of the Monastery Superior and Council to depart into the ‘desert’. Soon after, the Second World War broke out, rumors of which (no actual news filtered through to the wilderness) intensified his prayer for all humanity. He would spend the night hours prone on the earth floor of his cave, imploring God to intervene in the crazy blood-bath. He prayed for those who were being killed, for those who were killing, for all in torment. And he prayed that God would not allow the more evil side to win.

The Despair of Unbelief

May 9, 2007


I am gradually learning things that I have not known before – or only suspected. Posting occasionally as I have on the subject of atheism, and receiving occasional reponses from atheists, is an education in itself. There is atheism as I imagine it to be (I suppose what it would look like were I one) and there is atheism as it has historically expressed itself (in such writers as Nietsche or Sartre) and there is what I would dub “neo-atheism” if only because it seems to differ from its predecessors.

The major difference is this – there is a classic despair in early continental atheism and something of a search for a meaning that would replace the overarching themes of Christianity. And there’s the phenomenon as I am seeing it, particularly among younger people today. If I had to describe what I’ve been reading (and I’ve been surfing around a bit to test my theories) it would be an atheism that has jettisoned despair, or, rather, a way of human living in which hope (in a transcendent sense) is not a major issue. Thus it is not a “living large” but learning to “live small.”

I encounter elements of Buddhism (some forms of Buddhism are strictly agnostic or atheist in belief), elements of an existentialism, and primarily a defining of life in terms which do not require what atheism cannot supply.

Despair, if given its proper meaning, simply means “to have no hope.” For some this is also synonymous with depression and the like. But for others, it simply means something that is not part of their lifestyle. Hope is shrunk to more immediate concerns, metaphysics having been jettisoned.

Doubtless, the hypocrisy and failures of Christianity have done nothing to turn aside such an epiphenomenon. Indeed, they have probably contributed to its creation. The broad array of Christian denominationalism (how do you choose?), coupled with a growing crass materialism masked as Christianity (the heresy of the prosperity gospel that clogs the airwaves) almost beg young people to bow out. “No thanks,” might be the kind refusal of those surveying the Christian scene.

From the perspective of Orthodox Christianity none of this should come as a surprise. Defective Christianity is not the antidote to non-belief. Nor is Orthodox Christianity when it is practiced in a defective form. Thus Christ asks the question, “…when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8b).

Always a primary question for those who profess the Orthodox faith is “am I living the Faith?” In my efforts to do mission, I have stressed that the only way to do mission is to first be sure that there is actually a living Orthodox Church to which we may bring people. And so we pray, we fast, we give alms, we beg God of His mercy to give us the grace needed to become what we cannot become without Him.

Apparently, the despair that I project and expect of an atheist is not a given – or more to the point – it is a gift. To see the world without God and perceive its meaninglessness – and to perceive the tragedy of such – is a gracious gift of perceiving the truth. Modern Orthodox writers who have spoken about despair or even standing at the edge of the abyss (despair, hell, etc.) in order to pray for the whole world (this is an image that occurs in both Fr. Sophrony’s writings as well as in the life of St. Silouan) are not speaking of a place that we reach naturally, but that we reach supernaturally (that is by grace).

That gracious despair can also be accompanied (paradoxical though it may be) with great joy. Orthodoxy is full of references to “Joyful Sorrow.” And it is here that my experience of the world goes somewhere that atheism cannot take you. The encounter of the lives of the saints – where those who seem to be the most awake are also those believe the most deeply. I am overwhelmed with the goodness of a Mother Theresa – or a St. Seraphim of Sarov – and I do not see this goodness among those who do not believe. How do you stand in the slums of Calcutta and serve with joy the poorest of the poor without belief in God? Romanticism can only carry you so far – it cannot fill a lifetime.

And it is this encounter with a Goodness that is unexplainable apart from God that shatters despair (or reveals it). I know the sorrows of this world, I’ve seen plenty of death and the darkness of the human heart. This holds no mystery to me. But it’s the goodness that cannot be accounted for with no reference beyond the world as we know it that staggers me. How do we explain St. Seraphim, or St. Xenia of Petersburg, or St. Matrona of Moscow, St. Nectarios of Aegina (only to begin the list)? All of which is merely a prelude to the great question, “How do we explain Christ?”

The gospels are too rich, the New Testament too layered in nuance and multivalency to be but the fiction of a few. There is an event which occasioned their writing and which occasioned an irruption of goodness and mercy unknown at any prior time on earth. That same goodness, transcendent in aspect, continues to erupt. It is not necessarily evidenced on a daily basis in every parish church – though there is more there than many people know – but these irruptions (as I choose to call them) point beyond themselves and beneath themselves to what cannot be contained, cannot be accounted for within the closed universe.

Towards the ending of history, rays appear on the summits of the Church; hardly discernible at first, they belong to the Day without Ending, the Day of the Age to come. – Fr. Pavel Florensky

These are the saints and martyrs, ‘of whom the world was not worthy.’ They tell me that despair – even the honest despair that refuses to look away from the suffering of this world – is not the final word. There is indeed a hope beyond the despair – a hope that took flesh and walked among us, and continues to illumine us if we care to see.