In Thee, by Thee, now-I am

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Saint Sophrony the Hesychast, canonised by the Patriarch of Constantinople on November 27th 2019, completes what he calls his Confession and Spiritual Autobiography (‘We shall see him as he is.’ 1988) with witness to the Name ‘I AM.’  “Now, O my Christ, in Thee and by Thee…Now – I am” (‘We shall see him’ p 234).  This witness cost him everything and was profoundly catalytic for all who knew him, all whose lives were transformed by his insight.  A young theological student from Nottingham University came to see him in June 1965, who not only reeled as he encountered the spiritual energy of his witness to ‘I AM,’ but was also reassured by the playful humour which cradled it.  It took over twenty years for this prodigal son to process this experience of the Name and become a monk in his monastery, three years before he died.  Once there, the elder again spoke often of the Name, ‘I AM,’ pointing out to him how to turn and see, how to abide in ‘I AM,’ how to pray for all as for himself, how to love the brethren as his own life.  This legacy turned out costly indeed, for it costs truly everything, but it was priceless too, because it embraced all the ineffable wealth of grace, all treasured gifts of wisdom and insight, all mysteries of glory and the Name.  Indeed, it gave him living, hallowing, Orthodox Christian wisdom, the wisdom that is concealed when religion imposes its narrow, shallow conventions, its resistance and neglect, its regime of divisive separation and unconscious confusion.

The writings of Saint Sophrony the Hesychast have been warmly received and some in high circles have named him ‘Saint Silouan the theologian,’ since the formal canonisation.  Occasionally, his writings met with resistance from conventional religious circles during his lifetime, but the elder, perhaps dismayed by such opposition, was not crushed.  After all, ethnocentric religion could not be expected to open its heart to what lay so very far beyond it, especially if it was re-enforced by narrow egocentric concerns.  But the elder valued freedom above all external conformity and so was generally patient with the shallows that preferred to narrow his vision, without compromising the witness of the Spirit.  There were times when wrath was manifest but it was the rigour of divine love, insisting on freedom, not of personal animosity.  His writings were often uncompromising and some found them far too demanding, like fire that burned.  His teaching on self-condemnation to hell as God’s remedy for pride called for sturdy strength of heart, not always evident in those whose souls were suffering from crippling, neurotic self-hatred.  The wisdom of gratitude for the given was said to open hearts to the same humility, but the elder felt he had betrayed Christ in his youth and needed the strong theopathy of Saint Silouan the Athonite to heal his soul.  His profoundest inspiration was self-emptying love as communicated in the Gospel and Epistles of Saint John and Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 and Phillipians 2.  Perhaps it was the Sinai Revelation of the Name ‘I AM’ that gave him his most decisive paradigm to express awakening to uncreated light and he often referred to the mystery of the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:2-14).  But the paradigm mysteries of transfiguration on Mount Tabor, which inspired Saint Maximus and Saint Gregory Palamas, were undoubtedly an indispensable inspiration to Saint Sophrony too, as his writings prove.

The elder was a hermit with an anchorite’s calling to desert Hesychasm.  The monastery in which for many years he did not actually dwell, as it was being founded with his guidance, was built on the inspiration and teachings of Saint Silouan.  It thrived as it wrestled with the legacy of the Name ‘I AM,’ with self-emptying kenosis and mindfulness of death, with spiritual repentance and searing mourning.  The hermit’s experience of spiritual freedom profoundly informed his teaching on love, on prayer for the brethren and for all, his insight into graced personhood and the truly personal.  What he sometimes called holy anarchy created an ethos of ineffable light and freedom, of humility, humour and of joy that earthed and balanced his very Russian insistence on Saint Silouan’s harrowing self-hatred.  The elder’s teaching on uncreated light reflected his experience of Christ’s ‘I AM,’ of prayer in God that unveiled wisdom’s vision of God as ‘HE WHO IS,’ as ‘I AM WHO I AM,’  showing what ‘despair not’ meant to Saint Silouan when he was told to ‘keep his mind in hell and despair not.’  At 8 am on Sunday morning, July 11th 1993, during the early Liturgy in the little Church in the Old Rectory, Saint Sophrony died in his cell at Ambergate.  He had prepared us all personally for his passing and bore witness that all condemnation passes away as death overcomes death in resurrection, for there is boundless forgiveness when there is boundless love (Luke 7:47).  His liberating spiritual legacy remains as challenging to conventional religion as it always was.  Religion wants safety, not saving self-emptying, easy consolation not costly peace, external conformity not radical freedom in hallowing communion.  Perhaps religion has its rights, to meet fear with fear, to impose conformity to survive, to maintain control to stay safe, but the searing tears and the liberating laughter of Saint Sophrony the Hesychast breathe a very different air.  “Now, O my Christ, in Thee and by Thee…Now: I AM.’