Saint Sophrony the Hesychast often spoke of the ‘critical tension’ inherent in self-condemnation to hell without despair, which Saint Silouan the Athonite was given to cure pride. This ‘word’ can appear joyless and heavy, but Saint Sophrony was neither, because his experience of the glory of grace was full of joy. He did not despair, because he trusted in God to save him, even though, as sinner, he fell short of the glory of grace. The ‘critical tension,’ that he so often spoke of, was due to the fact that wisdom discerns the glory of grace and the fall from grace at the same time, the beauty of holiness and the absence of holiness, the fullness of grace and the fall from grace, antinomies which are held together in ‘critical tension,’ rather than falling apart into neat solutions or premature resolutions of one sort or another. This ‘critical tension’ placed him simultaneously in heaven and in hell, as it did Honen and Shinran, patriarchs of Pure Land wisdom in mediaeval Japan, and Martin Luther, prophet of the sixteenth century German reformation. In all similar cases, despair is held together with whole-hearted trust, despair in one’s own capacity to save oneself and refusal to despair in the saving grace of God.
‘Critical tension’ is an incontravertible fact of spiritual life, because faith, being faith, does not despair, and hell, being hell, is despair, in this case, despairing in the capacity to save oneself. Saint Sophrony the Hesychast knew that Saint Silouan the Athonite was given this difficult ‘word,’ ‘Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not,’ to cure pride, and it was the unintelligible incoherence of pride that is therefore present in the ‘critical tension’ inherent in this difficult ‘word.’ Pride has no intelligible coherence in God, so to cure it, God is obliged to enter the unintelligible to undo the unintelligible, to enter hell to secure heaven. This means that the wisdom of ‘critical tension’ is God’s way of overcoming evil, which has no foundation in God. If evil were intelligible, it would have its root in God, but since in God there is no evil, in God evil has no intelligible foundation. Saint Silouan condemned pride to hell, to sever the roots of pride, in obedience to God, whose love condemned hell to hell, and whose grace empties hells into heavens of ineffable glory.
‘Critical tension’ is sheer paradox that extinguishes unintelligible pride by imparting humility that is no further cause for pride. The wisdom of this humility is able to transform pride into humility in ways that are no cause for pride. Sinners thereby become saints, without pride, trusting grace to save without presumption. Without this ‘critical tension,’ temptation easily descends the slippery path to evil without deliverance and despair slams the gates of hell, leaving no hope. There is profound wisdom hidden in ‘difficulty’ because impasse, aporia, is utterly catalytic. Without aporetic impasse, wisdom slithers into pride, so is cut off from wisdom, and faith degenerates into presumption and is no longer faith. Saints never pride themselves on being saints, although grace transforms sinners into saints, to which saints, without pride, bear unambiguous witness. Hence,’critical tension,’ is wisdom’s safe way round the mountainous obstacle of pride, whether by cutting through it, or by leaping over it. When humility looks back, there is no trace of the mountain, so no pride in having moved it, with no trace of ‘tension’ and nothing ‘critical’ left present, for without pride there is nothing obstructing the simple wisdom of humble insight.