Saturday, July 6, 2019

Finding a friend in Father “Sophrony”.
Father Seraphim Aldea.


Father Seraphim Aldea: Fr. Seraphim was tonsured as a monk in 2005 at Rasca monastery in Bucovine, North Moldavia. He has a PhD in Modern Theology from the University of Durham (UK) for a thesis on Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov's Ecclesiology. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Theology, Oxford University, while working to found the first Orthodox monastery in the Hebrides in over a millennium.

In the name of the Father and the Son 
and the Holy Spirit.

        The reason I love Father Sophrony, personally, and the very simple abrupt answer, is that he kept me alive.
         No one else except Father Sophrony and his writings, (I differentiate between the two because I prayed to him personally and then I've read his writings), they kept me alive for many years in my monastery. Actually, from the very beginning, I still have the first copy of his writings which I bought the very year I was tonsured and then ordained (2005).
        If you begin your experience of Father Sophrony through a book like “we shall see Him as He is”, for instance, the first and most striking thing, to me at least, was the clear and the wonderful ability this monk has, to perceive and to understand pain. He is useful in a practical way for people, like myself, who are very easily drawn towards depression or shying away from everything. And particularly if you fight this wonderful but horrible gift, to have on your shoulders, this image of death that becomes overwhelming at times.
         I have met no one who writes so clearly, and somehow from the inside, about these things. Absolutely no one. You find a lot of literature in the patristic fathers about awareness of death, and there's a whole theology about it and how it benefits you etc... However, in my opinion, they all felt detached from the experience of it. Father Sophrony writes from within it, as if he's living it there, on the page with you, and that gives his writing a certain energy or vibe that is immensely helpful. If you've got this temptation of falling into depression, or of an overwhelming, sometimes crushing awareness of the uselessness and emptiness of everything, if death sometimes crushes you, Father Sophrony is your best friend. If you haven't discovered him, do, because he's there and he is a gift from God to you. That's the first reason why I love Father Sophrony.
"A gift from God"...

        The second reason, is because he is like a permanent teenager in his approach to love. There's a sense of openness to everything, and anything, and everyone, which is very rare to encounter in serious experienced monastic elders. He is always open to embrace someone else's experiences. He doesn't come up with any type of recipe for anything. Everything is personal and unique. He's got the ability to respect who you are, and to respect your experience, even when that experience doesn't fit or contradicts his own. That respect, and that openness to the diverse gifts of the Spirit is very rare.         Most people tend to hold on to their own experience and then try to enforce that on the people whom they guide. Father Sophrony is quite the contrary. It seems the people who approach him benefit him a lot, because they enlarge his own experience of life, and of God… and that is very rare. We find something similar in St. Seraphim of Sarov with his famous greeting “Welcome, my Joy” …
        Because, it is through the others you grow.
      Another characteristic Father Sophrony has, which is becoming very difficult to argue in our days, is the respect for the diversity, not only of the personal experience but also tradition. For instance, when he speaks about monasticism, he never insists that the only type of monasticism or monastic life is that of a community. Never!. He talks positively about living in a community, as well as in a small skete, or as a hermit… He even creates space for a new type of monasticism known as “white monasticism”, or “monastics in the world”. Although he didn't experience it himself, or perhaps he did in his years in Paris, he never shied away from it.
        He always had respect for other people's experiences, unlike the orthodox today who are facing a tragedy, if not extinction, because we decapitate and amputate our own tradition for all sorts of minor selfish reasons. We have reached to a point today, particularly in the “Orthodox countries”, that the only approved, supported, encouraged, blessed etc... type of monastic life is that in a major monastery, and hence we simply lose everything else. Imagine the monastic tradition of the Orthodox Church as a body, and we've decided that only one arm is right, and let everything else rots away because no one is allowed to follow their calling. You don't find that in father Sophrony!. And if you feel cold for the type of monastic life that is not really encouraged by your local jurisdiction, you will find a friend in Father Sophrony, and for me as a monastic, that was hugely helpful, not to feel alone.
Father Sophrony with young monastics.
I've simply wanted to give you the two reasons why I fell in love with father Sophrony and kept reading his books for many years.
        Father Sophrony, gave me a principle in life, which has guided me, and I can see it being applicable and guiding me years from now, as long as God still wants me alive here. Father Sophrony was the first, and so far for me, the best writer, to come up with a principle, I can use in any context, or situation, or danger, facing my spiritual growth. I don't know how to formulate it, it is something along the lines of “keep going and keep open”. He wrote the following: “there is only one way for me: always forward”, which sounds very simplistic. However, the way he explains it and how he wants you to apply it, is not at all. What he means by this quote is that: You must live your life in full awareness that you own nothing. And ownership here doesn’t refer to the typical monastic meaning, which is not having a family, or a wife and children… it implies that you don't own yourself, nor own your own experience, or your own knowledge of God. Tomorrow you are going to be someone else. Tomorrow God for you will be someone else. Tomorrow your experience will be something else. Don't ever hold on to anything. Never stop. Always move forward and remain open. Ultimately what we do in our spiritual life is that we live a mystery. I am a mystery to myself; I am not properly myself yet. We become who we are called to become, only as a gift, after we depart this life. So really I am a mystery to myself. God is a mystery to me and will remain a mystery until I stand in front of Him face to face.
        The minute you hold on to an idea or a point of view, for instance, your own understanding of God, that is the moment you've actually died in your growth, because that is the moment you've replaced the mystery of the Living God with a created concept that your mind can deal with. The minute you point and say: “This is God.”, be sure that you have missed the point right there, and you are in fact worshiping an idol and living idolatry not Christianity.
        This is a very important idea, owning absolutely nothing; not yourself, nor your experience, nor your knowledge, nor your God… and being constantly open to a mystery. I know nothing even when I feel I know everything. This doesn't mean knowledge is restricted to me or unattainable. It simply means I still didn't get there yet. I tell you this from my own personal experience and as somebody who hears the confession of other people, that it is extremely difficult not to fall into this type of idolatry.
        I'm not venturing figures, but frankly, I have never met anyone who truly lives that way. We end up deforming the real God, in a way or another, the true God, in order to fit the Idol we've decided we are going to worship, because that idol corresponds to our values. So rather than allowing the mystery of the Living God to inform my values, to inform my life, and to allow that mysterious God to shape the mystery that I am, most people, work the other way around. And it is this life, and the values of this life, and the things they hold dear in this life, that inform their knowledge of God. Eventually, they build a God according to their values rather than developing their values according to God.
       It may sound theoretical, but it's not. It's painfully true, and it is a real and extremely common disease. Father Sophrony has helped me personally to become aware that I've got this disease, which I imagine is the first step towards, God willing one day, getting healed.
        This is the first idea which I hold on to from Father Sophrony, and there is another idea which somehow reflects and mirrors the first one, in a slightly different manner.    
It is through the others that you grow.

As a monk, and I assume it should apply for lay people as well, prayer is absolutely fundamental. I can't imagine salvation without prayer. What we call prayer can be extremely different, and again there's a diversity in the types of prayer. But someone who doesn't pray, I am not sure how he can be saved, because that simply means there's no relationship between him and Christ. The method in which prayer is manifested can be extremely diverse; it can be reading prayers written by the Saints, as almost 90% of the Orthodox are doing, or trying to improvise words, or meditate. I strongly believe there are people who pray in painting rather than using words, or who pray in writing poetry. Not everyone is driven by mere intellect. We live in a society where we have built this idolatry towards the brains, and even prayer has to fit our grammatical rules and it has to make sense. Words have to add up into some sort of a logical statement and only that is prayer. I don't believe that is correct!. Prayer is beyond reading logical statements about faith. 
        Father Sophrony, at the very beginning of his book “On Prayer” says something along the lines of prayer being creation, the process of creation, when you pray, you create yourself or rather you allow God to continue the process of creating you and creating who you really are through prayer. This opened a whole new world for me, when I started to understand it, because truthfully prayer is impossible!. If you define prayer as meeting God in a relationship face to face, being a person in front of a person and interacting, then prayer would be impossible. Because what does it mean being face to face with God? It means nothing… that is the reality of it, beyond metaphors and nice theological writings, it really means nothing. 
"Thy Face Lord will I seek..." (psalm 27:8)
       Face according to Father Sophrony as for the whole tradition before him is another word for hypothesis or “Prosopon” a Greek word, which simply means face. However, there's a whole meaning beyond that hypothesis or person. Eventually, as father Sophrony repeatedly said, we are not as yet “hypothestatical”  beings in this life, we are not yet persons, we are in the process of becoming who we are supposed to be, but we are not yet. He says, we do not have an “I am” of our own” … I cannot say I am made the way in which God is, because God is a personal being. I shall become a personal being by the grace of God after my death but not now. Right now, I'm a deformed version of myself. So, instead of having the face of God in front of the face of man, in prayer, meaning a personal God in front of a person, you have the person of God in front of an individual. What I mean by “a person” is a human being who fully appropriates, activates, and actualizes his or her nature; whereas an individual is someone who hasn't really reached that state. We are all individuals, and we shall die individuals. We can experience personhood, and therefore we can experience prayer, for extremely brief moments as gifts. Those moments are like peaks, or glimpses into the kingdom which are given to guide us. They are not a state that we can take ownership of, they are given and then taken away.
        Saint Paul mentions such a state when he talks about out-of-body experience and so does Saint Silouan when he says he could not support prayer and the Presence” at all for more than a few seconds because that “could have killed him”. God allows for a few fractions in a second in our lives to be in this state of filled with who we really are, and what a painful state we must be in. If this experience of who I really am can kill me, then what kills me is my own humanity if revealed to me in its fullness and in its wholeness. So, just as I'm supposed to hold on to the awareness that I remain a mystery to myself, in this earthly life, and God remains a mystery to me, in the same way prayer is an experience which is impossible. We are all aiming for the impossible. 
        The way you've seen Me, Christ, pray separated from you. But when you pray say “Our Father”. The point of revelation is me, the entry of Christ into the world is each one of us personally.

"All being one..."
        There is this personal relationship. The content of that revelation is all being one, and this is perfectly represented in the prayer of the “Our Father”. The “how” of the prayer, the method of the prayer is being alone in a personal manner. The “what”, which is the content of the prayer, is for everyone, for the “we” and the “our” and the “us”. This is what you find in father “Sophrony”, this perfectly balanced importance of understanding that you are a person, but that you become a person, by gathering within your own being every single human being, who has been created, those who were created before us and those who will be born after us. As father Sophrony and Saint Silouan say “the whole adam from the first born to the last”. This balance between personal prayer and communal prayer is something that must remain with us if we want to pray as Christians. if you only pray in the church and you don't have a personal experience, then your vision of the Trinity, of God, is wrong. If you don't allow space for multiplicity within your own being then you don't have a Christian vision of the Trinity in one.
        Knowing this theology you must reflect it on your practical life, and if you look at humanity the way father “Sophrony” looks at humanity, all the critical contemporary issues are instantly solved, such as questions concerning immigration or war, question concerning the use of guns and the right to kill other people in any context… all these extremely controversial issues are suddenly boring because everything becomes so clear… once you adopt his theology all these issues are perfectly clear. You cannot be a Christian and allow for war or use of guns against other human beings at the same time…  that can only mean two things, either you have wrong theology and that is reflected in your practical life, or you have a correct theology of God but you don't allow the theology to inform your practical life. An extreme example of that would be the devil, what better theologian than a devil, but he doesn't do anything of the things he knows.  
        So, it's not only about our minds and our prayer and our spiritual lives, although that's the main thing, it's also about the way we behave. Father Sophrony used to say that somebody who has correct theology, but that correct theology is not reflected in his life, is like a bird with one wing forever looking up and thinking it will get there, not knowing that it's already condemned to forever be on earth. If you don't allow your theology to inform your life, your values, your choices then you've missed the point and you will never fly…