Saturday, August 13, 2022

Theology as a state of being.
Saint Sophrony the Athonite.


Saint Sophrony the Athonite.
How can one accomplish the transition from the canons of formal logic to the antinomies of real fact? The way out is mapped by Christ: Jesus said . . . “He who loves me will keep my word and my Father shall love him and we will come and dwell in him” (Jn 14:23). This commandment is at the basis of our gnoseology. Only the dwelling in us of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will give us authentic knowledge of God.

From this passage we see that knowledge is both a result of and equivalent to living communion. This communion is realized through love : love is thus the uniting principle. This “gnoseology” derives from trinitarian theology—absolute love between the divine hypostases ensures their absolute unity. This absolute unity/communion of the triune being results in the absolute mutual knowledge of each hypostasis. Great significance is attributed to the perichoresis (coinherence) between the divine persons—their absolute mutual coinherence. Fr Sophrony builds up a model of divine love within the trinitarian being: “The absolute perfection of love in the bosom of the Trinity reveals to us the perfect reciprocity of the ‘interpenetration’ of the three persons.”

This trinitarian model allows Fr Sophrony to make the connection between love and knowledge more explicit: “God is love (1 Jn 4:8) and He knows Himself and us absolutely; and everything in Him is one.” Fr Sophrony transfers the principle love=knowledge onto the human plane. The objects of knowledge here are both God and other humans. Fr Sophrony mentions knowledge of God in this context in his Ascetic Discourses : “The highest aim, according to Silouan is ‘the more a person loves God, the more he knows Him’ . . . love unites the very being. When we have repulsion toward others, barriers and so on—this deprives us of life. When we have prayer, love and tears, this brings us closer to the highest ‘science’—knowledge of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

On the basis of his maximalist anthropology Fr Sophrony transfers the intratrinitarian principle of being to the level of multihypostatic human existence. As in the Trinity, in which the hypostases know each other through perichoretic love, so also humans come to know each other through love. This connection between knowledge and love on the human level is clearly expressed in Letters to Russia : “If I will love my brother and my neighbor as my own life,and will not egoistically separate myself from him, then, clearly, I will come to know him more, and know him more deeply, in all his suffering, thoughts, and quests.”

Fr Sophrony inherits the idea of the living dimension of the knowledge of God from his elder Silouan. The golden thread of Silouan’s ascetic theology is the idea that living knowledge of God is actualized in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Fr Sophrony himself points out his dependence on Silouan in this respect. In Silouan, the knowledge of God is always based on revelatory experience of some kind and therefore comes “from above.” The faculty of the knowledge of God is placed not in man’s rational faculty alone but in “the whole man”: “The soul suddenly sees the Lord and knows that it is He . . . The Lord is made known in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit pervades the entire man—soul, mind and body .”

Empirical/scientific knowledge can be enclosed in the form of thoughts, objective ideas, and concepts, but these are insufficient for the perception of divine reality. Here we come to a crucial question: How and in what form then can nonconceptual and subjective knowledge of God be communicated to the human being?

To answer this question Fr Sophrony introduces a new concept: theology as a state of being. He writes that in the moment of divine revelation (as in contemplation of the divine light, for example) “profound knowledge descends on us, not as a thought, but as sostoianie [state] of our spirit.” These states usually occur during prayer. Fr Sophrony describes how in the moment of such prayer “our mind-spirit is included in the mind of God and receives an understanding of things which escapes any adequate expression in our daily language.” He explains this communion in knowledge through the state of our spirit in the following example: “All things are created by His will, His thought. He conceives the world, and His creative thinking becomes created being. Not matter but the thinking of God the Creator is the initial factor. Thus we live this world not only through the prism of experiential knowledge, but in the Spirit also behold it in another fashion (cf Heb 11:1-3).”

The problem with the term “state” is that it can be easily confused with the common use of the word, which has a very strong association with psychological conditions, or even with “feelings.” The temptation to fall for this conclusion is strong indeed, especially when Fr Sophrony describes these states in terms of their psychological effect, as joy, or pain. However, Fr Sophrony anticipates such misunderstanding and gives a clear definition of his technical term state in contrast to the usual use of the word in the context of psychology or human emotions:

“ State ” is the fact of being, which prompts our thought, operating after its own fashion, to understand truth. Such understanding is not achieved by demonstrative reasoning but through an intuitive penetration or an establishment of fact as knowledge of Divine Being, descending on us from God.


I love Therefore I am. The Theological legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony. Nicholas Sakharov. 2012.