‘Keep thy mind in hell and despair not.’ St Sophrony

As we continue our series of Meditations on the teachings and example of St Sophrony the Athonite, with his feast day approaching on the 11th of July, let us consider the role of self-sacrifice in our Christian lives, according to the contemporary saint.

The word kenosis is often used in Christian writings and theology, to describe Christ’s self emptying (Phil 2:7) as well as the way we are called to live as His people. St Sophrony places emphasis on this life stance, entirely giving over oneself to the other and receiving the other in his or her fullness. For St Sophrony, this self emptying and sacrificial way of being does not aim to simply spiritually develop a person, but rather, more importantly, aims to allow a person to give up their entire self, or their ego, to the other. This act is an act of love par excellence, as it is a free choice of the will, putting the other first, before the self. The greatest example of this kenotic love is seen on the cross, with our Lord and Saviour sacrificing His earthly life, then rising in glory, in order for us to share in His salvation and divinity.

We, in turn – just as is the case with every genuine and loving relationship – have to put in our own effort, we have to accept, desire and be open to accepting God’s love and salvation. We can achieve this by putting our own self-centred will to the side, following God’s will characterized by kenotic love for the other. Just as Christ descended into Hades following His voluntary passion, we are also called to descend in humility before God, putting Him and others first. Only then can we truly be transformed in Christ and ascend in glory with Him eternally. This voluntary self-sacrifice is the foundation of the ascetic tradition and experience of the Church. By trampling down upon our own vain and self-centred sins and passions – transforming them into holy and virtuous acts and thoughts – our entire being will be yet another living proof of the triumphal and martyric life in Christ. St Sophrony is absolutely a living proof of such a life. His example proves to us that a life of prayer and asceticism does not consist of continual requests to God but rather a progressive quieting of that self we are called to put aside. A life offered to God, for all and on behalf of all. With fervent hope in the mercy and providence of God, we are called never to despair, no matter the circumstance. If a father is to see his son struggling to maintain his balance on a climbing frame, he will reach out to him and offer a hand. In a similar way when we are in spiritual difficulty, experiencing trouble, our Lord and God Who desires a communal and living relationship with each human being, will stretch out His hand to us and lead us forward. In the instance of the father and son however, it is unlikely that the son would reject such fatherly aid and love. What about us? The prerequisite for our own acceptance of God’s presence and mercy in our lives is humility.

By ‘keeping thy mind in hell,’ through our humble stance and voluntary participation in the sacrificial love of Christ, we are able to resist pride. St Sophrony, in his work titled ‘St Silouan the Athonite,’ writes :
‘In my opinion only one thing is important – humbling oneself, for pride stops us from loving.’ For this reason St Sophrony (contemplating on the teachings of his elder St Silouan) advises us to concentrate on two things: ‘humility and love for enemies. Everything is there.’ For this reason let us take any challenge, difficulty, even pain, as a gift from God for the cultivation of our humility and spiritual growth, as ‘the source of energy needed to resist the pull of earthly attractions for the sake of the divine and eternal world. Through this form of asceticism we may discover the hidden meaning of the apparent paradoxes of the Beatitudes—Blessed are the poor in spirit; Blessed are they who mourn; Blessed are they who are persecuted…’

‘The more humble a man is, the deeper he enters the struggle of emptying oneself, the higher his state is before God, and the greater his capacity to receive grace.’ (St Sophrony)

As we approach the feast of our father among the Saints Sophrony, let us pray that we grow in humility and simultaneously never lose hope in our Lord Who calls all to salvation.

Useful sources used:
· Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan 1866-1938, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995),. 6-7.
· Aldea Leonard Daniel, The Ecclesiology of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov)
· Fr. Stephen Freeman, ‘Humility and Love,’ (2007)
· John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness. Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (London, T & T Clark, 2006) 82-84.