Saint Sophrony’s Spiritual Testament

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In his Spiritual Testament, delivered to us in community on the Feast of Saint Antony January 17th 1991, Saint Sophrony the Hesychast shared his vision of monastic life as the unity for which Christ prayed, that we may be one as the Father and the Son are one, that we may be one in the image and likeness of God the Holy Trinity (John 17:21).  This vision is wisdom that sees our human being as one in the image and likeness of God, one being in countless persons or hypostases, each one of whom is in some sense the graced centre of all.  Everyone and everything is for this one, unique person, who is at the mystical centre of this oneness and this wholeness, which she is and has, but which is surrendered by her to each and to all.  For the wisdom of this love, no-one is either greater or lesser.  No-one is self-centredly centred on himself when this God-centred love of neighbour as oneself is alight in the heart.  Our brother or sister is our life, the image and likeness of God who is our life.  There is an ineffable co-operation inherent in this mutual co-inherence, inspiring a mutual yearning at the heart of each one’s prayer, an awareness of being the guardians of each other’s deification.  This awareness raises each person, together with the whole community, into the spiritual sphere of the Kingdom of the Holy Trinity. 

Saint Sophrony’s Spiritual Testament sees life in community as one possible way to become aware of the image and likeness of God in mankind, but his own way had been the Hesychast path of solitude, even when he was called to found a monastic community.  Saint Sophrony ended his life in Ambergate, his small hermitage in close proximity to his monastery, but he had been a hermit on the Holy Mountain and a solitary in Paris even when others gathered round him to be near him.  He was a Hesychast in his awareness of the oneness of mankind in the Holy Name, in the image and likeness of God the Holy Trinity.  Ascetic practice was for him self-emptying love, whether in solitude or in community, a self-emptying love that awakens the heart to glorification in both solitude and community.  Indeed, the division between solitary and communal monasticism dissolves, in Saint Sophrony the Hesychast, into a glorious, differentiating co-inherence.  The measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (Eph 4:13), draws each and all into deifying communion, experienced in person, by each person in countless different ways, both in solitude and in community   Saint Sophrony bequeathed to us his vision of personhood in communion, a vision that inspires both solitude and community, solitude as oneness with all and community as communion with all.  

The Spiritual Testament of Saint Sophrony became for those who heard and received it the vision of a life-time.   It became a vision of the fulness of personhood, of love as fulness of personal communion, a vision that creates an ethos of freedom and liberating love.  This vision of love was one spirit with the vision of Abba Sophrony’s elder, Saint Silouan the Athonite, a vision of love and freedom which inspired the Monastery and gave it its distinctive Orthodox, Hesychast ethos.  Institutional regimentation dissolves when a holy and co-inherent anarchy reigns, as in the sovereign Reign of God, which enthrones and crowns each and all within the glory and oneness of God.  Love transforms the life of the one who loves into the beloved, because the beloved is the very life of those who love.  Since our life is God’s life in the one who loves and in the beloved, when we become God-centred we cease to be self-centred, to some degree, as we are able, because our personhood becomes participation through deifying communion in the image and likeness of God the Holy Trinity.  Loving God with all our heart, mind and soul, we love our neighbour as ourselves, living God’s life as our life, sharing together in God’s glorification of God in each and all. 

For Saint Sophrony the Hesychast, the God-centred being of all in God becomes our ascetic wisdom when we abide in God-centred glorification of God in Holy Trinity.  His Spiritual Testament grounds the practice of wisdom in the grace of ineffable transfiguration, lived as what he called ‘personal, hypostatic eternity.’  It centres both solitary and community life in the Name, whose glory reveals God in each and all.  It opens the heart to Name-hallowing awareness of God’s presence as glory in the midst.  It inspires a life of Name-hallowing wisdom which transcends the narrows and shallows of institutional religion whilst fulfilling its rites and beliefs in deification.  It does not, therefore, stand aloof from the narrows and shallows but transfigures them.  The canonisation of Saint Sophrony the Hesychast, on November 27th 2019, confirms once and for all, that his vision of liberating personhood and freedom in communion is the vision of the Orthodox Church as a whole.  It is not, therefore, an optional extra, relevant only to Hesychast saints or monastic communities, but is intrinsic to integral Orthodoxy everywhere.  It was catalytic for those like Archimandrite Kyrill, abbot of his monastery in Essex until recently, who faithfully handed on his legacy for a whole generation.  It can now, with the canonisation of the elder, become catalytic for the whole Orthodox Church, retaining an irrepressible capacity to deepen the shallows and expand the narrows of institutional, religious regimentation.

A Spiritual Testament is more than just an occasional statement.   In fact, in this case, it became the first of a series of inspired talks to the gathered community, spelling out the implications and ramifications of its vision.  This legacy now belongs not only to those who were present when this Testament was delivered, but to all who ponder the wisdom of his writings and those of his Hagiorite elder, Saint Silouan.  There is no one, exclusive way to live this legacy of Saint Sophrony, for the personal uniqueness of each person’s hallowing way to live this wisdom, lies at its very heart.  The test is whether true personhood really is liberating communion or not, really does hallow difference or not, because institutional gravity tends to dumb communion down to mere conformity.  The test, as Saint Silouan taught, is love of enemies.  Indeed, without the grace of liberating freedom and communion, falls from the glory of this grace are inevitable.  But canonised saints point beyond the gravity that extinguishes grace, reminding hearts to turn and see God in the midst, not just in the midst of saints but in the midst of all, raising them all into God’s glorified holiness.  This contests the smugness that postpones grace and challenges the self-centredness that rejects awakening grace.  It offers hope to all that the disasters of dissipation, destitution and desolation are not inevitable.  It opens hearts to the single ‘eye’ by which God sees and is seen.  It infuses wisdom that listens to the Name and hears glory singing hallowing odes of glorification on earth as in heaven.

Saint Sophrony’s Spiritual Testament is Hesychast through and through, making little sense without God’s self-revelation in the Holy Name, ‘I AM.’   It is the expression of Hesychast vision that remains hidden outside the wisdom that discerns the glory of the Name.  It invites a degree of self-emptying that unselfish love alone can understand.  It opens to mysteries of glory which are revealed in glorification, glorification that purifies and illumines the heart.  None of this is exactly ‘easy,’ although grace eases all that burdens and weighs down the soul.  It liberates the heart from the compulsions of strain and stress that weigh on the conditioned mind.  It transmits without self-interest what was passed on without reserve.  It embraces paradox with antinomic wisdom, bringing reason to the threshold of lived insight.  It takes a life-time to begin to envision it and live it as way and truth.  Many books will, no doubt, be written, but Saint Sophrony knew that all words fall far short of the ineffable mysteries of glory concealed in the Name.  The Spiritual Testament of Saint Sophrony condenses into a few words the wisdom that inspires his many writings, but in each talk to the community he would begin afresh, seeking to throw light on the wisdom and glory revealed in God’s Name.

Such a Testament calls for many different ways of communicating it, because persons and peoples differ, although such difference should never be confused with division, because the Spirit bears witness to the oneness of the Father and the Son, in whose image and likeness all differentiating communication is blessed.  Holy anarchy is not self-obsessed disintegration but mature completeness, well able to embrace incompleteness without confusion or division.  This is the fulness of the stature of Christ lived personally within the all-embracing union of co-inherent communion.  it is simply Christ lived in us as the Spirit infuses, releasing and freeing whatever obstructs personal awakening to the mysteries of communion.   It transcends all impersonal confusion, whether it be monistic absorbtion or its enemy, dualistic division.  No theology of the Holy Trinity permanently resolves the reifications of the objectifying mind.  Instead, contemplation of God the Holy Trinity releases every kind of reification that tries to objectify the ineffable radiance of deifying glory.  Saint Sophrony’s Spiritual Testament teaches wisdom how to discern the glory of the Name without falling into conceptual sophistry, reifying aberration or objectifying profanation.  It opens the mysteries of Baptism to purity of heart, Chrismation to illumined vision and the Eucharist to deifying glorification, hallowing the Name in person as purification, illumination and deifying communion, renewing Hesychast wisdom for countless generations to come.