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Met. Hierotheos Vlachos
Birth of the Theotokos Monastery
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“I Know a Man in Christ”: Elder Sophrony the Hesychast and Theologian
Of Fr. Sophrony, Metropolitan Hierotheos writes:
“THERE IS NO DOUBT that Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov is numbered among the great Elders and Fathers of the twentieth century. I have called him ‘a hesychast and theologian’ because he is truly distinguished by these two great spiritual gifts.
“The ever-memorable Elder Sophrony was an exact teacher of the hesychastic and deifying way of life, by reason of his experience of God’s grace. He proved to be a true teacher and theologian of the self-emptying life of Christ, the path of keeping His commandments, the mystery of the ways of salvation, spiritual mourning, the Light of God and many other great teachings of the Orthodox Church.
“I knew this apostolic Father in person for seventeen years, and I delighted, and still delight, in the streams of his theological teaching. From him I heard apostolic words, I saw proof of the evangelical life, I sensed his God-pleasing way of life, as far as I was able to bear it, and I glorify God for this great gift, which was kept in store for me unworthy as I am. I loved him greatly and I was more greatly loved by him.”
Archimandrite Sophrony (1896–1993) was born to Orthodox parents in Tsarist Russia. From childhood he showed a rare capacity for prayer and as a young boy would ponder questions heavy with centuries of theological debate.
Elder Sophrony is best known as the compiler and editor of the writings of St Silouan the Athonite (1866–1938). In addition to writing the lengthy first part of Saint Silouan the Athonite, Archimandrite Sophrony also wrote His Life is Mine, On Prayer, and his spiritual autobiography, We Shall See Him As He Is, all of which have established him as a master of the spiritual life throughout the Orthodox world and beyond. He is also the founder of the Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Maldon, Essex, England.
Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos wrote this book about Elder Sophrony as an expression of gratitude for his long association (17 years) with the Elder and “to share with readers the spiritual wealth that I unworthily received”. The first part of the book is a spiritual portrait of Elder Sophrony. After a brief survey of his theology, the author examines the Elder’s writings in the light of the experience of saints of the Church, particularly St Paul, St Symeon the New Theologian and St Gregory Palamas, thus placing his teaching in a wider context. There is a careful analysis of the Elder’s correspondence with David Balfour, which reveals “many subtle details of the spiritual life” but also how “a genuine spiritual father guides those entrusted to him”. The second part of the book records what the author learnt and experienced during visits to the Monastery of St John the Baptist in meetings and informal conversations with the Elder and as a concelebrant at the Divine Liturgy. Over the years he carefully recorded the Elder’s words and amassed an archive of notes that he publishes here. The subjects covered reflect both Father Sophrony’s and the author’s personal and pastoral concerns and include prayer (particularly the Jesus Prayer); monasticism and obedience; priesthood and the temptations it brings; giving spiritual guidance; the problems facing those who become Orthodox; and family life. The discussions also shed light on theological issues close to the Elder’s heart. The Elder’s teachings are presented mostly in his own words, interspersed with brief accounts of the author’s impressions of the blessed life he lived during visits to the Monastery of St John the Baptist. We see the Elder in church during the Divine Liturgy and daily services, in the refectory, and meeting pilgrims. The author also describes visits to the Holy Mountain to see the places where the Elder lived and to meet monks following the same tradition. After the chapters arranged chronologically by year, this part of the book ends with a collection of undated sayings of the Elder which were not spoken directly to the author but were passed on to him by others. The book shows us a “great hesychast and theologian, but also a wise, discerning and prophetic spiritual father” and brings us closer to the man in Christ.