Saint Sophrony the Hesychast

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Encountering Saint Sophrony the Hesychast, in 1965. at the age of twenty, was catalytic for a theological student who knew very little about the Orthodox Patristic Tradition.  Recommended to see him by Father Gilbert Shaw, who loved him dearly, the directness of his wisdom of God-centred personhood was both overwhelming and reassuring, and gave clear direction to a lifetime of spiritual practice of the Jesus Prayer.  It took more than twenty years to complete the responsibilities of the first half of life, marriage and children, before being tonsured by him in his monastery.  Those who joined him in those intervening years were formed by him in different ways within the monastic community, but to this particular prodigal son, his wisdom of God-centred personhood was decisive.  This formed a foundation for later years in solitude, in a desert monastery on the Stiperstones, then in a wisdom hermitage in Saint Davids, Pembrokeshire, in Wales, a place of pilgrimage going back to the Age of Saints in the sixth century.   Hesychast wisdom centres in God’s God-centred love of God, awakening to personhood in blessed stillness.  Although it was Saint Sophrony’s destiny to inspire a monastery, he was always a Hesychast who lived somewhat apart, never playing a deliberate role as founder, but surrendering to the facts of foundation as they gracefully unfolded.  

Freedom was always decisive for Saint Sophrony the Hesychast, whose experience of Christ in the Spirit was always an experience of the grace of freedom.  Free from the desire to impose and control, the mysteries of personhood were everything for him.  He listened to what God was inspiring in those he met, confirming the grace that was unfolding in each and all.  There were difficult times, when hearts remained hard or uncomprehending, but there was always a wondrous sense of humour and underlying joy.  In the imageless image and likeness of God, this Hesychast vision of graced personhood was grounded in the Holy Trinity, not in current trends in Orthodox thinking, although it did inspire personalist readings of the Orthodox fathers that some later contested.  The word given to his elder, Saint Silouan, on Mount Athos, ‘Keep thy mind in hell and despair not,’ lay at the heart of much of his teaching and so became a central theme for his disciples, generating a rich wealth of spiritual wisdom for generations to come.  Condemning to hell the mind-set that engenders hell, pride dissolves into humble stillness, bequeathing wholesome freedom.  Pride presumes to usurp God, causing despair, imposing separation from God, whereas vulnerable humility releases pride into bright tenderness, receiving deification by grace, releasing obsessions with conditioned ways and means.

The Hesychast legacy of Saint Sophrony the Hesychast cannot be defined or confined by binary definitions, opening Orthodox Hesychasm to a regeneration of the tradition which transcends traditionalism as well as every sort of trendy liberalism.  Hesychast stillness is not reducible to some conditioned sort of reactive peace, but centres in the Great Peace which passes all understanding.  Abiding in the hallowed Name, first-personal experience of revelatory wisdom actually becomes quite ordinary and everyday, which is how the Jesus Prayer has worked for centuries in healthy Hesychast circles.  Contentious arguments regarding the Holy Name are silenced when the Name is actually hallowed.  Divisive debates regarding wisdom are silenced when wisdom is lived, loved and known.  The Spirit is not quenched by Christ in his Father’s Kingdom, so when the Name is hallowed, in Hesychast circles, the Spirit is never quenched.  The communion of saints is profoundly liberating, which is why it is unnerving in conventional circles that seek to impose rules and regulations.  Saint Sophrony the Hesychast frees Hesychasm from such tendencies but Hesychasm nevertheless remains subject to them to the extent that it conforms to prevailing conditioning.

When the Spirit is rejected and despised, it is quenched, even if piety will never admit to what is does, but conceals it under accusations of deception and delusion.  Orthodoxy descends into a system of repression that hunts heretics and demonises saints so as to preserve nominal ethnic orthodoxy from rising again as Patristic Orthodoxy.  Wise stillness is unperturbed by this, preferring to abide in silence and in the solitude of pure prayer.  In this way, Saint Sophrony the Hesychast lived and loved the wisdom of the Holy Name instead of descending into a defence of those accused of Name and wisdom heresies troubling Hesychasm in the twentieth century.  In his last days, the elder would often point to the mystery of the Name, so that those ripe for recognition might turn and see.  This went unnoticed to many, but was decisive for a few, for whom his writings were a consistent witness to the wisdom of the Burning Bush and the revelation of the Holy Name.  Indeed, two crises of twentieth century Hesychasm, Onomoclasm and Sophiaclasm, were healed and resolved, without contention, simply by wholesome Name hallowing and wise prayer of the Spirit in the heart.  The legacy of Saint Sophrony the Hesychast is simple Hesychasm, Name hallowing and wisdom’s discernment of the glory of the Name. 

What else is there to say?  The elder’s writings are not easy reading for many in our troubled times, but his transmission of the legacy of Saint Silouan the Athonite is accessible and attractive to very many.  Together, their joint legacy is Hesychasm renewed, the Name prayed, the wisdom of glory shared so that simplicity imbues stillness with serenity, bequeathing a gospel of unselfish love and wholesome spiritual prayer for generations to come.  Communion with this living communion of saints transcends monastic communities in particular and communal orthodoxy in general, but regenerates both to the extent that true freedom of spirit in the Holy Spirit is welcomed and loved.  Saint Sophrony is many things to very many, but for one young prodigal who is now quite old, he is still the laughter that reduced the heart to tears, the twinkling kindness that distilled wisdom from stillness, the witness that is what martyrs are, without terrifying those who seek to follow on.  His crypt contains his earthly remains, but his resurrected body is light of glory without remainder.  Communion with him is communion with angels and saints, a wider community that wisdom beholds in the glory of every saint, a hallowed belonging that cannot be reduced to anything the mind can comprehend.  By condemning the mind that separates, Saint Sophrony the Hesycahst revealed heaven in hell, liberating love from fear, freeing glory from vanity, opening closure into ineffable openness with the wisdom of the glory of ineffable grace.