Impossibility of Aloneness
I’m an Orthodox Christian living in Homer, Alaska and experienced Jesus Christ in the Himalayas, in India.
I listen to the heartbeat of rain outside…
Cold, Alaskan fog blowing in off the bay, emerald hills now that autumn is here and summer chased away into the mountains. But a milky white fog spreads over the bay like a silken ghost. I used to visit Trappist monasteries, back when I was Catholic, at the beginning of high school, and searching for a relationship of love. I read plenty of philosophy then to know that knowing isn’t enough, that having a realization in the mind is entirely different from experiencing a revelation of the heart.
I spent two birthdays in the Himalayas…
Traveling along gravel roads that drop deep into icy gulches where the Ganges river rages below not yet packed with the filth and mud and newspapers of villages, not yet carrying remainders of Indians in her current, I found Christ found me. It’s a difficult and strangely compelling atmosphere to confront oneself, – – India, – – sandwiched with black corpses, white snow, pagan fires and virulent animals.
I took a bus north from Delhi. It was crowded, tight and cramped, flies buzzed between my face and the windows smeared with brown slime. It’s so polluted in Delhi, so much coffee-colored smoke, so much steam that you really can’t see the sun. You saw it, a rising orange-reddish ball burning over the horizon fifteen minutes in the morning, but then fifteen minutes slouching back down again, an exhausted head over the mountains.
I grew up Catholic but turned to Buddhism when introduced to a self-hypnosis class at my Catholic high school, experimenting with meditation and ‘mindfulness.’ I experienced serious symptoms of manic depression then, partially because I’d consciously turned away from the Judeo-Christian God, and also because life at home was very, very difficult for me. I grew anxious and got into extremely self-destructive habits, and so Buddhism seemed a perfect door to address – or not address – my turning from God and family, and focusing my energy toward dissolving into a Void, a dissolving bubble on an endless and personless river, Tathāgatagarbha. The element that got me is to dissolve my desire, and abandon my selfhood, in order to avoid suffering. But desire doesn’t seem so bad, especially when it is for love, which requires more than one person, and thereby voids any notion of abandoning self, – – and to love, to truly love, is to give, which may require sacrifice, and suffering – –
So Tibetan Buddhism kept coming up, because the meditation helped calm my anxieties and depression, and because the culture proved highly engaging, what with all her colorful flags, her skulls, and metaphysical explanations of things, – – but what is left, when ‘I’ disappear, and there is no one else for whom a relationship of the heart can exist? Not to mention, what did the experiences of the Gospels, the Cloud of Witnesses, the Holy Church, amount to? I knew nothing of Orthodoxy when I reached into the closet of Buddhism, but in light of it, now, what does it all add up to?
Mindfulness worked as far as cleansing the window, the mind, is concerned, which is important, but then many of its doctrines, – and I explored countless doctrines, – really stop here. Clear sky. But what it did not do, and could not, really, is orient me toward the sun, and the warmth of the sun, and the sunlight – – all religions seem to contain some seed of truth, but fail in witnessing to the Triadic God…and all my destructive habits, and relationships, and every mantra, and yoga, all of which I’ve had my fill…this is how Christ brought me to Him.
Back to the story, I’m in Delhi, on a bus. And after an hour or two of sitting in that cramped, stuffy and urine-soured air you hear the front breaks release, the bus finally stretching her arthritic joints and creak slowly forward. She rolls, head first, toward the busy main road. For fifteen minutes we cough and pop down the road, away from my filthy, but greatly lovable refuge of Manju Ka Tilla, a sort of Tibetan refugee camp criss-crossed with telephone wire, wet and narrow alleyways packed with dogs and diapered babies, and polio. Cobblestone streets and bakeries, copper trinkets and arms, this is the first place on earth I met leprosy, and her sister polio. The beginning of my spiritual warfare.
I usually saw them together, these two, – polio and leprosy – crowding in around a barrel of fiery rags, in the crayon-black darkness hands like chewed-up bread, teeth pencil yellow and cracked. I see a boy attacked by a skinny, vicious-looking dog with long, wet fur and crazy eyes – it looks like a red and yellow fox, – – a tangle of fur and blood and whimper. The taxi cab drivers, waiting on their afternoon customers near the stinking, feathered dumpsters launch after the monster in a terrible raid of madness and darkness. They chase the thing down with bricks loosened from neighboring grocery store steps leaving the boy warm and wet with his own blood, a hound’s tooth broken off inside his leg.
Here is suffering, and personhood, and sacrifice…
He looks young but his face shows no signs of innocence. His dark eyes follow me as I run a few feet away to pick up a bottle of water, then return. We look at each other. His long, dangling arms and fingers started rubbing the area of skin that have broken open and gush a strange, purple fluid.
Wet, mossy feet and the bitter odor of trash hang in the air. Cows streaked with vomit pick through spoiled food and milk cartons nearby at the dumpsters. He waits for a doctor but one never arrives. I don’t know what else to do. The boy looks through me, limping into an alley and disappearing in the terrible darkness.
I will live here a total of five and a half months. I will have arrived here practicing Buddhism and Hinduism for eleven years, and leave Christian…
I thought maybe I’d join a Buddhist monastery, or be discovered by wise sage in the mountains, spend the rest of my life in the Himalayas experiencing exotic mystery and enlightenment. I read dozens of sutras by various Buddhas, had an underlined and well-worn copy of the Bhagavad-Gita and Upanishads, and was reading all the California guys, Bhagavan Das, Ram Das, Krishna Das, and even met most of them, all the 60s ‘hippy’ idols who dropped acid and flew to India to go ‘find the guru.’ I read Be Here Now and did the whole drug scene, but despite all the colorful statues and marijuana and tantra, no matter how ‘empty’ I became, there wasn’t enough and I sensed…how can I say this…something was wrong.
I worked as a wilderness guide for at-risk youth in the sage deserts of Idaho. Teaching primitive skills, meditation and mantra, and working with psychologists to develop methods of emotional and behavioral therapy – – I was chased by a wolf, I killed a rattlesnake. And while out there, – this is in the middle of my life before Christ, – – toward the end of it, actually, – – I began experiencing strange things – not only while traveling through India, but before that, and not only me, but my girlfriend. We saw, and everyone involved with this recipe of mantra, meditation, yoga, – and a lot of it sober, – – we saw shadows and demons, experienced trembling and ungodly anxiety and fear. So I knew something was strange, something was going on. It is not all opinion, all belief, for if I have freewill, and exist outside the body, – and I had plenty experiences where I knew I was more than my body, – – and this is one of the things that helped me dismiss and eventually leave the bag of eastern religions, – in addition to God’s grace, – – that if I am more than my body, and I have free will, and can choose to either accept or reject love, then others can too, and this brought up the issue of good versus evil, of right and wrong.
Was what I was doing, right? Who was I following? Are these things, these deities, just archetypes, and if not, if they are ‘real,’ are they ‘good?’ It like jumping into an ocean and realizing there are many different things floating around in there, harmless creatures, some of them beautiful, and some, in fact, that will attack you, that are poisonous, and the astral life, the spiritual life, is like that. Very quickly, once I got to India, I understood this. And was scared.
The boy with the watermelon disease, his head swollen on a piece of cloth outside my guest room door, a cloud of black flies wriggling over an empty ribcage and hollow eyes, a human Jack-O-lantern, his mother’s long brown arm rung with silver jewelry begging for rupees.
So why did I leave a supportive and beautiful girlfriend behind in Oregon to experience this? I was beginning to mend my relationship with my parents, gain more confidence, and had read Way of the Pilgrim a number of months before, but it was with all my California stuff, and I never saw any relation to that and Orthodoxy, never once asked, where is a church that deepens one’s relationship with the living, loving, Truth? Where truth is a Person, as I’d later read from Father Seraphim Rose?
I’d head up to the mouth of the Ganges River, to Gangotri, – – into a mountain. On my 28th birthday, I listened to the heartbeat of the wind on the cliffs, on the water, and experience not a realization of the mind, though that did happen, sure enough, but only once the heart was struck by a sort of cherubim’s sword in my heart, experiencing a revelation occurring in meeting the living God, Jesus Christ, and myself peeling away from itself.
What can I say?
Everything I’d learned, practiced, experienced for all of eleven years poured out from my head, in one ear and out the other, replaced by their approximate Christian terms, fulfilled, actually, and I knew reincarnation is impossible through the resurrection, because I am a self, a soul, and I knew karma is impossible because it operates independently of ‘God’ and there is Divine Intervention, I’ve witnessed it, and experienced it. In the cave, a joyous ache in my heart, and in the cave, no more aloneness, no more aloofness. In the Himalayas, and I mean immediately, like I was zapped, I really met Christ, and was dumb for a moment, and in Eternity I saw in my heart the Person of God as Christ, and I could never, ever be alone. Maybe I’d FEEL alone, sure, (doubtful) but I ought to remember, the impossibility of aloneness. Maybe that should be the title of this letter.
So what happened after? I picked up a Bible and read the thing in a guest house back in Dharamsala, over 12 hours away, and then I’d return to America, after the shaking bus trips and gargantuan ceremonies of burning bodies and yellow and black gods and goddesses, and and I’d fall into the lap of the Orthodox Church, in Eugene, and, I’m only skimming over it now, due to time constraints, and I’d visit St Anthony’s Monastery, in Arizona, and all the monasteries and churches in between, long enough to fill a book, and pray to St Herman who could, by his intercessions, bring me straight to Spruce Island, and to where, kneeling before his relics, find home. In Homer. There is more, but I’ll write later. So much has happened to my heart. Forgive me for rambling, and going on. May the Father of Lights enlighten us, and have mercy on us. Amen.
“It is one thing to believe in God, and another to know Him.” + St Silouan
Printed in Issue 24
Editors Note: Joseph Magnus now lives in Port Townsend, Washington. He is a writer of children’s books and helps the Father Lazarus Moore Foundation. To visit his blog and read more of his poetry, short stories, and other writings, visit here: Servant of Prayer
St. Silouan’s the Athonite poetry-prayer, Byzantine iconography, and Arvo Pärt’s lyrical musical/ choral setting of the text faithful to its every nuance.(*)
Lenten Reflections (III)
Adam, father of all mankind, in paradise knew the sweetness of the love of God; and so when for his sin he was driven forth from the garden of Eden, and was widowed of the love of God, he suffered grievously and lamented with a great moan. And the whole desert rang with his lamentations, for his soul was racked as he thought, ‘I have distressed my beloved God’. He sorrowed less after paradise and the beauty thereof; for he sorrowed that he was bereft of the love of God, which insatiably, at every instant, draws the soul to Him.
In the same way the soul which has known God through the Holy Spirit, but has afterwards lost grace experiences the torment that Adam suffered. There is an aching and a deep regret in the soul that has grieved the beloved Lord.
Adam pined on earth, and wept bitterly, and the earth was not pleasing to him. He was heartsick for God, and this was his cry:
My soul wearies for the Lord, and I seek Him in tears.
How should I not seek Him?
When I was with Him my soul was glad and at rest, and the enemy could not come nigh me;
But now the spirit of evil has gained power over me, harassing and oppressing my soul,
So that I weary for the Lord even unto death, And my spirit strains to God,
and there is naught on earth can make me glad, Nor can my soul take comfort in any thing,
but longs once more to see the Lord, that her hunger may be appeased.
I cannot forget Him for a single moment, and my soul languishes after Him,
and from the multitude of my afflictions I lift up my voice and cry: ‘Have mercy upon me, O God. Have mercy on Thy fallen creature.’
Thus did Adam lament, and the tears steamed down his face on to his beard, on to the ground beneath his feet, and the whole desert heard the sound of his moaning. The beasts and the birds were hushed in grief; while Adam wept because peace and love were lost to all men on account of his sin.
Adam knew great grief when he was banished from paradise, but when he saw his son Abel slain by Cain his brother, Adam’s grief was even heavier. His soul was heavy, and he lamented and thought:
Peoples and nations will descend from me, and multiply, and suffering will be their lot, and they will live in enmity and seek to slay one another.
And his sorrow stretched wide as the sea, and only the soul that has come to know the Lord and the magnitude of His love for us can understand.
I, too, have lost grace and call with Adam:
Be merciful unto me, O Lord! Bestow on me the spirit of humility and love.
O love of the Lord! He who has known Thee seeks Thee, tireless, day and night, crying with a loud voice: “I pine for Thee, O Lord, and seek Thee in tears.
How should I not seek Thee?
Thou didst give me to know Thee by the Holy Spirit,
And in her knowing of God my soul is drawn to seek Thee in tears.” Adam wept:
The desert cannot pleasure me; nor the high mountains, nor meadow nor forest, nor the singing of birds. I have no pleasure in any thing.
My soul sorrows with a great sorrow: I have grieved God.
And were the Lord to set me down in paradise again,
There, too, would I sorrow and weep – ‘O why did I grieve my beloved God?’
The soul of Adam fell sick when he was exiled from paradise, and many were the tears he shed in his distress. Likewise every soul that has known the Lord yearns for Him, and cries:
Where art Thou, O Lord? Where art Thou, my Light? Why hast Thou hidden Thy face from me?
Long is it since my soul beheld Thee,
And she wearies after Thee and seeks Thee in tears. Where is my Lord?
Why is it that my soul sees Him not? What hinders Him from dwelling in me?
This hinders Him: Christ-like humility and love for my enemies art not in me. God is love insaturable, love impossible to describe.
Adam walked the earth, weeping from his heart’s manifold ills, while the thoughts of his mind were on God; and when his body grew faint, and he could no longer shed tears, still his spirit burned with longing for God, for he could not forget paradise and the beauty thereof; but even more was it the power of His love which caused the soul of Adam to reach out towards God.
I write of thee, O Adam: But thou art witness,
my feeble understanding cannot fathom thy longing after God,
Nor how thou didst carry the burden of repentance.
O Adam, thou dost see how I, thy child, suffer here on earth. Small is the fire within me, and the flame of my love flickers low. O Adam, sing unto us the song of the Lord,
That my soul may rejoice in the Lord And be moved to praise and glorify Him
as the Cherubim and Seraphim praise Him in the heavens And all the hosts of heavenly angels
sing to Him the thrice-holy hymn.
O Adam, our father, sing unto us the Lord’s song, That the whole earth may hear
And all thy sons may lift their minds to God
and delight in the strains of the heavenly anthem, And forget their sorrows on earth.
The Holy Spirit is love and sweetness for the soul, mind and body. And those who have come to know God by the Holy Spirit stretch upward day and night, insatiable, to the living God, for the love of God is very sweet. But when the soul loses grace her tears flow as she seeks the Holy Spirit anew.
But the man who has not known God through the Holy Spirit cannot seek Him with tears, and his soul is ever harrowed by the passions; his mind is on earthly things. Contemplation is not for him, and he cannot come to know Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is made known through the Holy Spirit.
Adam knew God in paradise, and after his fall sought Him in tears.
O Adam, our father, tell us, thy sons, of the Lord. Thy soul didst know God on earth,
Knew paradise too, and the sweetness and gladness thereof,
And now thou livest in heaven and dost behold the glory of the Lord. Tell of how our Lord is glorified for His sufferings.
Speak to us of the songs that are sung in heaven, how sweet they are, For they are sung in the Holy Spirit.
Tell us of the glory of the Lord,
of His great mercy and how He loveth His creature. Tell us of the Most Holy Mother of God,
how she is magnified in the heavens, And the hymns that call her blessed.
Tell us how the Saints rejoice there, radiant with grace. Tell us how they love the Lord,
and in what humility they stand before God.
O Adam, comfort and cheer our troubled souls. Speak to us of the things thou dost behold in heaven. Why art thou silent?
Lo, the whole earth is in travail.
Art thou so filled with the love of God that thou canst not think of us? Or thou beholdest the Mother of God in glory,
and canst not tear thyself from the sight,
And wouldst not bestow a word of tenderness on us who sorrow, That we might forget the affliction there on earth?
O Adam, our father,
thou dost see the wretchedness of thy sons on earth.
Why then art thou silent?
And Adam speaks:
My children, leave me in peace.
I cannot wrench myself from the love of God to speak with you.
My soul is wounded with love of the Lord and rejoices in His beauty. How should I remember the earth?
Those who live before the Face of the Most High cannot think on earthly things.
O Adam, our father, thou hast forsaken us, thine orphans, though misery is our portion here on earth.
Tell us what we may do to be pleasing to God?
Look upon thy children scattered over the face of the earth, our minds scattered too.
Many have forgotten God.
They live in darkness and journey to the abysses of hell.
Trouble me not. I see the Mother of God in glory – How can I tear myself away to speak with you?
I see the holy Prophets and Apostles,
and all they are in the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. I walk in the gardens of paradise,
and everywhere behold the glory of the Lord.
For the Lord is in me and hath made me like unto Himself.
O Adam, yet we are they children!
Tell us in our tribulation how we may inherit paradise, That we too, like thee, may behold the glory of the Lord. Our souls long for the Lord,
while thou dost live in heaven and rejoice in the glory of the Lord. We beseech thee – comfort us.
‘Adam’s Lament’ (2009) by Arvo Pärt
Why cry ye out to me, my children?
The Lord loveth you and hath given you commandments.
Be faithful to them, love one another, and ye shall find rest in God. Let not an hour pass without ye repent of your transgressions, That ye may be ready to meet the Lord.
The Lord said: ‘I love them that love me, and glorify them that glorify me.’
O Adam, pray for us, thy children.
Our souls are sad from many sorrows.
O Adam, our father, thou dwellest in heaven and dost behold the Lord seated in glory On the right hand of God the Father.
Thou dost see the Cherubim and Seraphim and all the Saints And thou dost hear celestial songs
whose sweetness maketh thy soul forgetful of the earth.
But we here on earth are sad, and e weary greatly after God. There is little fire within us with which to love the Lord ardently. Inspire us, what must we do to gain paradise?
Adam makes answer:
Leave me in peace, my children, for from sweetness of the love of God I cannot think about the earth.
O Adam, our souls are weary, and we are heavy-laden with sorrow. Speak a word of comfort to us.
Sing to us from the songs thou hearest in heaven,
That the whole earth may hear and men forget their afflictions. O Adam, we are very sad.
Leave me in peace.
The time of my tribulation is past.
From the beauty of paradise and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit I can no longer be mindful of the earth.
But this I tell you:
The Lord loveth you, and do you live in love and be obedient to those in authority over you.
Humble your hearts, and the Spirit of God will live in you. He cometh softly into the soul and giveth her peace,
And bearth wordless witness to salvation. Sing to God in love and lowliness of Spirit, for the Lord rejoiceth therein.
O Adam, our father, what are we to do? We sing but love and humility are not in us.
Repent before the Lord, and entreat of Him. He loveth man and will give all things.
I too repented deeply and sorrowed much that I had grieved God,
And that peace and love were lost on earth because of my sin. My tears ran down my face.
My breast was wet with my tears, and the earth under my feet; And the desert heard the sound of my moaning.
You cannot apprehend my sorrow,
nor how I lamented for God and for paradise. In paradise was I joyful and glad:
the Spirit of God rejoiced me, and suffering was a strange to me.
But when I was driven forth from paradise cold and hunger began to torment me;
The beasts and the birds that were gentle and had loved me turned into wild things
And were afraid and ran from me. Evil thoughts goaded me.
The sun and the wind scorched me. The rain fell on me.
I was plagued by sickness and all the afflictions of the earth. But I endured all things, trusting steadfastly in God.
Do ye, then, bear the travail of repentance.
Greet tribulation. Wear down your bodies. Humble yourselves And love your enemies,
That the Holy Spirit may take up His abode in you,
And then shall ye know and attain the kingdom of heaven. But come not night me:
Now from love of God
have I forgotten the earth and all that therein is. Forgotten even is the paradise I lost,
for I behold the glory of the Lord And the glory of the Saints
whom the light of God’s countenance maketh radiant as the Lord Himself.
O Adam, sing unto us a heavenly song,
That the whole earth may hearken
and delight in the peace of love towards God. We would hear those songs:
Sweet are they for they are sung in the Holy Spirit.
Adam lost the earthly paradise and sought it weeping. But the Lord through His love on the Cross gave Adam another paradise, fairer than the old – a paradise in heave where shines the Light of the Holy Trinity.
What shall we render unto the Lord for His love to us?
Source: St. Silouan the Athonite, by Archimandrite Sophrony.
(*) In an interview in Toronto in the 1980’s, Pärt shared his personal definition of minimalism as the process by which his music is reduced to the number One. In his view, that One is the Divine Creator. In Adam’s Lament (2009) he sees the Biblical Adam as a unifying symbol. Pärt said, “Our ancestor Adam foresaw the human tragedy that was to come and experienced it as his own guilty responsibility, the result of his sinful act. He suffered all the cataclysms of humanity into the depths of depression, inconsolable in his agony.” Adam’s Lament is based on a Russian text by the ascetic monk and poet, St. Silouan of Athos (1866–1938). Pärt’s fascination with Silouan is such that his setting of this text is faithful to its every nuance. The music reflects a range of devotional writing that’s by turns dramatic, passionate, humble and submissive.
Paraskevi, who out of sheer humility does not wish to reveal her full name, was among the first spiritual children of Elder Sophrony, during the time of her studies in England. She sent us a copy of two handwritten scripts by the blessed Elder.
A good wish card which the blessed Elder sent during Christmas 1967, when Paraskevi was going through some difficult times because of the illness of a close relative.
The outside of the card
The Christmas wish card (handwritten):
The Old Rectroy,Tolleshent Knight
by Maldon, Essex
Dear beloved in Christ, Sister Paraskevi.
May the Lord’s grace and peace be abundant in you. Let me first wish you Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!
Paraskevi, has it ever happened to do something according to my blessing and it turned out harmful? Or has it happened that you did something according to your mind and not according to my humble advice that it was successful and in accordance with God’s providence? Therefore, now you must listen to me, the old fool, and do as I give you the blessing to do. The only beneficial way for you and your relatives is to finish your studies and work at the same time, as my monks do from morning till the evening. Get rid of any worry for X and your family.
The unworthy Arch. Sophrony.
You have the love of all who are at out monastery.
Handwritten inscription by the Elder on the 15th August 1975, when he sent her his book, St Silouan the Athonite
On the book St Silouan the Athonite (handwritten):
To my beloved in Christ sister Paraskevi with warm wishes and love
15th August 1975
Printed in Caps:
Hailing from various countries
And retreating to the Mountain,
Among the holy fathers of Mount Athos,
Escaping the unnatural
And safeguarding the natural
Rising to that which is beyond nature
Again, by hand of Elder Sophrony:
From the Holy Spirit gashes out love, and without it no one is able to know God ‘as He must be known’.
E.S. p. 443
(Note: E.S. refer to Elder Silouan, not yet recognized as a Saint at the time)
This is something of a follow up on a recent post. Here I will be simply listing quotes of Archimandrite Sophrony taken from the book, “I Know a Man in Christ”, by Metrtopolitan of Nafpaktos, Hierotheos, published by, Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2015. Therefore at the end of each quote only a page number will be designated. In addition I will tack on an ending which I choose to refer to as “epilogue”:
People’s growing love of psychology is a terrible thing. Psychology helps those in the West, but it is dreadful when the Orthodox learn psychology and substitute it for the neptic tradition of the Church. We must undermine Orthodox Christians’ love of psychology, because psychological methodology is outside the Orthodox tradition and, at the same time, it is characterized by the Western mentality. (p.269)
The whole of the West was influenced by St. Augustine. Augustinian theory is rather psychological; it deals with God psychologically. In Greece today there is a noticeable trend towards psychology, which is why St. Augustine is studied so much. St. Augustine may be a saint, but his work is subject to much exploitation.(p.345)
There is a great difference between the Orthodox and Western traditions. Psychology is adjusted to the Western tradition, so it differs enormously from the Orthodox tradition. (p. 358)
I am sorry about those spiritual fathers who assert that the spiritual life is not enough and psychology is also necessary. (p.368)
Human psychology uses different anthropology. It is more or less heretical. It is dangerous. It is bad that it is used by spiritual fathers. To a certain extent it helps those who have no experience to understand other people, but it does harm. Spiritual things also have psychological repercussions, as can be seen when one looks at the Orthodox and the Latins. But psychological things are not spiritual as well. (p.364)
Psychology and the spiritual life have different starting points; their anthropology is different. However, we cannot overlook psychology, which mainly helps people who are atheists and do not want to use the hesychastic tradition of the Church. It is a remedy for people who are far from the living God and are in terrible torment. It should be used discreetly and wisely. Medication may help the body that has suffered serious harm from various problems, but the cure will come through man’s regeneration by the grace of God. The soul’s wounds are cured by means of prayer.(p. 227)
The view that everything psychological is also spiritual, and everything spiritual is also psychological is a deadly danger. It is very dangerous for us to regard people’s psychological problems as spiritual states. Such a view is a blasphemy against God. The exact opposite ought to happen, that is to say, we ought to make a distinction between spiritual life and psychological life. (p. 358)
In all our years in the Monastery here is England, I have never met anyone who was cured through psychoanalysis, although it is highly developed in Western societies, However, to be fair, neurologist and doctors who give drugs to patients are more humble than psychoanalysts, and they help people to become socially balanced. They also help those within the Church, when they have problems of a neurological nature for various reasons. (p. 358)
The observations of psychology with regard to human beings are significant, because they explain that beyond the rational faculty there is something more profound. Psychological analysis, however, is infantile compared with the teaching of the Fathers of the Church. Although the observations of psychology are significant, the therapeutic method that it offers is awful. Psychoanalysis does not cure man; rather it confuses him even more. (p. 358)
One ought not to ‘spy’ on oneself, but to have profound repentance. (p. 286)
There is a difference between psychology and life in Christ. Psychology attempts to deliver man from guilt complexes, whereas in life in Christ we experience grief, pain, on account of being far from God, and we do not stop repenting until this grief is transformed. (pp. 343-4)
A priest who studied psychology in the 1980’s both read the former post and worked together with me on this in that he found the quotes listed above. As we discussed the subject at hand he made some interesting observations: “Psychology today, no longer has a guiding star; it has nothing outside itself to look to as a model. It is self-absorbed. Whatever pleases a person, he can do. It has acquired the ethic of the culture it exists in.”
Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and Agios Vlasios, Hierotheos, speaks on Mount Athos’ secret cry: the Prayer of the Heart
As biological life is transmitted, so spiritual tradition is a whole life.
A guide speaks theoretically, but the Fathers beget spiritually.
The Holy Mountain is a living organism.
May the Lord find us worthy to hear its secret cry!
Already in his youth, Metropolitan Hierotheos was particularly interested in the Fathers of the Church, working for a time in the monastery libraries of Mount Athos, on the recording of the codices. He was especially interested in the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas.
The influence of Fr. John Romanidis, the study of the patristic texts and particularly those of the hesychast Fathers of the Philokalia, many years of studying St. Gregory Palamas, association with the monks of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos), and many years of pastoral experience, all brought him to the realisation that Orthodox theology is a science of the healing of man and that the neptic fathers can help the modern restless man who is disturbed by many internal and existential problems.
Within this framework he has written a multitude of books, the fruit of his pastoral work, among which is Orthodox Psychotherapy. Some of these books have been translated into various languages, such as English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic. With these books he conveys the Orthodox spirit of the Philokalia to the restless and disturbed man of our time.
In writing about this subject I have both fear and compassion: fear because of my lack of qualification to make a sophisticated analysis. Yet being aware of growing trust in the field within the Church, I am stirred with compassion in concern for the Orthodox faithful. So this is not a sophisticated analysis, but I will share some thoughts for consideration on this subject, most of which are quotations from others. It must be noted, however, that the final conclusion is meant to be a general statement and is not meant to be an absolute for each person.
Archimandrite Sophrony teaches that just as in the Liturgy during the Cherubic Hymn the priest prays, “No one is worthy” [that is, to perform the Divine Liturgy], so also no one is capable of being a spiritual father. He further explains that this is so because a spiritual father is a co-worker with God in the creation of immortal gods. Here, of course, his is implying our call to deification. He, and others that I have conversed with on this subject, have stressed the fact that a spiritual father must be a man of prayer. Although it is necessary to be familiar with the ascetic tradition of the Church, and things that one has read may come to mind, above all a spiritual father must be seeking God’s help through prayer. So now, let me go on to share a few thoughts for consideration:
I posed the following question to a Father from Athos who wished to remain unidentified (He was a doctor before becoming a monastic): “I have run across priests in the Church who rely much on modern psychology in their counseling. Is it possible for us to turn to psychology?” He answered:
“We trace the teachings of our holy fathers back to the fourth century but psychology has its roots only back to the 16th or 17th century in the non-Orthodox West. In psychology they do discover some things that are useful but our fathers already knew these things for over a millennium. In the West there is a problem: it is believed that the thoughts and mind are one. However, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church the mind and thoughts are not one, but two; and the mind must be cleansed of wrong thoughts that pass through it.”
The development of psychology can be traced to problems in Western Christianity in reference to salvation. In Catholicism salvation is a black and white systematic observance of rules and the performance of good works. This is said to give each person their own merit towards the salvation of one’s soul. In Protestantism salvation is thought to be only a matter of a confession of faith. And it is believed therefore that your name is written in the Book of Life. But in Orthodoxy salvation is a process of working to cleanse the inner man. In this process there are three stages of grace, the first is that of cleansing, the second enlightenment, and the third perfection which is rare. We must repent and become cleansed of our wrong thoughts and sins, and then the mind can become enlightened by receiving thoughts of God.
Psychology evolved in the West because Christians in the West do not understand the need of cleansing the thoughts. The thoughts that go through one’s mind can drive one to a state of mental illness, and so psychology tries to keep the mind occupied with other things in order to avoid this. Psychologists can therefore sometimes be helpful in keeping someone from going further into mental illness, but psychology cannot actually heal the soul.
In reference to this something was said by a novice at my former monastery. He quoted a relative of his who works as a psychologist and has written books in this field. His relative commented: “We psychologists are like a sponge. We soak up people’s problems but we cannot heal them.”
When I was a deacon, a young man who visited our monastery had just received a bachelor’s degree in psychology. I asked him: “Is it a good idea for me as a spiritual father to study some psychology for this ministry?” He answered: “No, you will learn nothing new for your spiritual ministry, and it will not help you to correct their errors.”
One priest told me of a friend of his who suggested he read a book on psychology. This man told him that although everything in the book was not proper teaching, there were some good points. This priest said this man was indeed very perceptive in what he saw. However he noticed a change in this man’s way of thinking from having read the book. He became very skeptical, and through deductive reasoning, sought proofs and systematic explanations for matters of faith. He sought to analyze and give rational explanations for mysteries of faith which cannot be subject to this. As a result of this, his simple faith was harmed.
I know a former priest who at one time was very enthusiastic about a parishioner who was a psychologist and whose forte was group therapy. He introduced this practice at his parish and began reading books on psychology. He had personal struggles in his marriage and as a result of his reading in psychology, he concluded that what he needed was a real relationship with a “good” woman. He wound up leaving the priesthood and his wife, and remarried.
In a conversation with Bishop Basil Rodzianko (a large section in the popular book Everyday Saints is dedicated to him) he commented: “Both the Church and psychology agree that guilt will drive a man crazy. In the Church we deal with this through repentance but in psychology they try to use other methods”
Someone I am acquainted with and who spent some time at Holy Transfiguration Monastery at Elwood City, Pennsylvania, told me the following: “I was having some difficulty with anger, and our chaplain, Fr. Roman, was away. I told a visiting priest of my struggle. He said I needed to go through the past and heal the inner child. This priest thought therapy would be helpful. When Fr. Roman returned I asked him if I should do this and he replied, “No, you will only give tools to the demons.”
I believe Fr. Roman was concerned about reintroducing old temptations and breaking open old wounds. I learned from a psychologist that their aim in this is to remove stumbling blocks from the past which can cause abnormal behavior. This brings up a question: Which approach is the best? I will offer some reflections and let the readers decide for themselves.
Speaking of recalling the past brings to mind a letter of the 20th century elder, Fr. John of Valaamo. Concerning memory he writes:
“Imagination and memory are one inner sense. Sometimes the memory of former events hits us on the head like a hammer. At such time concentrated prayer is needed, and patience too. Our memory must be filled by reading the Holy Gospel and the writings of the Holy Fathers; in other words, the mind should not be idle. Former events must be replaced by other thoughts, and gradually the former recollections will be crowded out and the melancholy will pass. In one heart two masters cannot live together. (Christ is in our Midst, Letters from a Russian Monk, p. 30)”
Something else says with some relation to this:
“When I visited St. John the Baptist Monastery in England I had the blessing of speaking with Fr. Sophrony. I had questions written down which the Abbot, Fr. Kyril, read to him ahead of time. When we sat down to talk Fr. Sophrony first asked me: “Where did you study psychology?” I was amazed to hear him say that, and it is true that I did have one semester of psychology in college, for which I had an avid interest. He felt I was over-examining and over-analyzing myself. He stated: There are some who have done this and have become saints (I think he had St. John Climacus in mind who in his Ladder of Divine Ascent examined the passions and spoke of the action of virtue in detail) and Father continued: “This was not the way for St. Silouan and this is not the way for us. The way for me is straight ahead.”
Let me comment on the words: “The way for me is straight ahead.” St. Seraphim has said that the aim of Christian life is to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit. We do need to be aware of our faults and confess them. But rather than trying to examine and fix everything that appears to be wrong with us, we should go straight ahead and seek to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit. As we grow in the grace of God the hold that the passions have on us will lessen. All our weaknesses and sicknesses of soul will also become easier to bear. The above mentioned words of the Elder John of Valaamo are quite applicable if we replace the word “memory” with “soul” and “melancholy” with “passions, etc.”:
“Our memory [or soul] must be filled by reading the Holy Gospel and the writings of the Holy Fathers; in other words, the mind should not be idle. Former events must be replaced by other thoughts, and gradually the former recollections will be crowded out and the melancholy [or passions etc.] will pass. In one heart two masters cannot live together.”
Psychology has a different approach. One hieromonk who studied at St. Tikhon’s commented: “Psychology is a secular form of Eastern religion. Psychologists try to put all the parts in the right place.” They can even appear to perfect that which according to the image of God is in one’s self. But, Fr. Sophrony comments, concerning those who experience some state of perfection in Eastern religion: “The God of all is not in this.”
In conclusion I leave you with a comment by Archimandrite Sophrony: “Psychology is not profitable for those in the Church. A spiritual father helps those who come to him because he has gone through similar struggles and has learned from what he has suffered.”
Not for the faint-hearted!
“No one on this earth can avoid affliction; and although the afflictions which the Lord sends are not great, men imagine them beyond their strength and are crushed by them. This is because they will not humble their souls and commit themselves to the will of God.”
These words seem to sum up soberingly D. Balfour’s tumultuous life, and indeed in so many respects ours…
SPEECHLESS! “It seems ludicrous to rate a book like this according to a certain amount of stars…I searched for it after reading the book I Know a Man in Christ — a great book about our holy and blessed Elder Sophrony, which mentions this correspondence with the amazing Englishman David Balfour. I imagine that the only reason why anyone would be interested in this book would be to learn about this incredible spiritual friendship. (No! There are so many more reasons to want to study this book) And this book does allow for that — and much more besides. I’ve read letters of spiritual direction before. These letters go way beyond that. They give insights to the Elder and to St. Silouan which are simply impossible to convey otherwise. And this David Balfour — he went from Catholic hieromonk to Orthodox hieromonk to British Army major and intelligence officer to diplomatic interpreter to midlife husband and father to Oxford Byzantine scholar in old age. A biography of him wouldn’t go amiss, although I don’t think we’ll see one. And underlying his whole life is the gaining and the losing and the eventual regaining of that inestimable treasure, the Holy Orthodox Christian faith and Holy Grace. Not for the faint of heart.” (D. Kovacs )
Not for the faint of heart.” Most certainly!
What an intense book which can be read on so many levels! A heart-rending spiritual biography of a brother in Christ struggling for his faith and the salvation of his soul amidst staggering trials, temptations and tribulations! A sobering warning too to all of us to be deadly serious with our faith and never forsake our obedience to our spiritual father at any cost! Hell indeed broke loose when Balfour decided to disobey St. Silouan and use his own mind instead for his life-decisions! To give you just one example: After converting to Orthodoxy and becoming an Orthodox hieromonk, Balfour disobeyed St Silouan’s ‘suggestion’ to move to France, and then to England, and went to Greece instead. Things went well at first, but with the outbreak of the Second World War, Balfour was forced to flee Greece and started wandering all over Europe, while undergoing a very dark period of disobedience, disillusionment, doubt and eventual loss of his faith, to the extent that he decided to shave his beard and defrock himself in Cairo, Egypt! I cannot even begin to imagine how traumatic all this experiences must have been for him!
What a most sobering book! “For Whom the Bells Toll” indeed. How often have I betrayed the Lord and disobeyed my spiritual father in the past! How dire the consequences of my disobedience have always been! Indeed, how fragile our faith is, how precarious our decision to follow the Lord at any cost like a true disciple, how unpredictable our falls and how uncertain our salvation until the very last moment of our life!
Striving for Knowledge of God: Correspondence with David Balfour is a treasury of wisdom distilled from Fr. Sophrony’s reading of the Fathers of the Church, from his conversations with St. Silouan, and from his own experience. Since most of these letters were written to someone new to the Orthodox Church and to Orthodox monasticism, they are of greatest interest to anyone contemplating converting to Orthodoxy.
In particular, the correspondence touches and elaborates on the difference between Eastern Orthodox and Western thought, in both Christian and philosophical writings. Thus Fr.Sophrony mentions Schleiermacher, Spinoza and Kant, and St John of the Cross (The Dark Night of the Soul). He dedicates a few pages to the concepts of the heart and prayer. In Eastern Christianity, he argues, the spiritual heart is not an abstract notion but is linked with our material heart and has its physical location. In opposition to the Western search for some visionary mystical experience, Fr.Sophrony advocates the prayer of repentance, which is the basis of all spiritual life.
As a reply to Balfour’s doubt over the importance of specifically Eastern ascetic and dogmatic traditions, Fr.Sophrony asserts the organic integrity and integrality of ascetic life, dogma and the Church. Criticising Schleiermacher in connexion with this issue, he writes:
“There are three things I cannot take in: nondogmatic faith, nonecclesiological Christianity and nonascetic Christianity. These three – the church, dogma, and asceticism – constitute one single life for me.” – Letter to D. Balfour, August 21, 1945.
“If one rejects the Orthodox creed and the eastern ascetic experience of life in Christ, which has been acquired throughout the centuries, then Orthodox culture would be left with nothing but the Greek minor [key] and Russian tetraphony.” – Letter to D. Balfour.
Fr.Sophrony also warns against attributing to intellectual reasoning the status of being the sole basis for religious search:
Historical experience has demonstrated that natural intellectual reasoning, left to its own devices, fatally arrives at pantheistic mysticism with its particular perception of reality. If this takes place in the soul of the Christian who does not want to reject Christ (as in the case of Leo Tolstoy), he arrives at Protestant rationalism or at spiritualism, which stands mystically close to pantheism… I am convinced that the rejection of the Church will lead to the rejection of the Apostolic message about Сthat which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes… and our hands have handled (1Jn.1:1) .
On a more general level, these letters are full with profound theological and spiritual insights. What a most blessed golden ‘chain’ of Grace and Sainthood! Elder Sophrony, already under consideration for glorification, was ordained to the diaconate by St Nicolai (Velimirovic) of Zicha and became a disciple of St Silouan the Athonite. Can you imagine? All these Saints were also ‘connected’ with the greatest probably Saint of our century, St. John Maximovitch! St. Nikolai Velimirovich is often referred to as Serbia’s New Chrysostom. St. John Maximovitch, who had been a young instructor at a seminary in Bishop Nikolai’s diocese of Ohrid, called him “a great saint and Chrysostom of our day [whose] significance for Orthodoxy in our time can be compared only with that of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky). … They were both universal teachers of the Orthodox Church.”
Coming back to the book, of all theological concepts touched upon in this book, the one which most interests me is the concept of Godforsakenness, as outlined by Fr.Sophrony, who worked out a distinction between two types:The first one is when man deserts God: To the extent that we live in this world, to that same extent we are dead in God. The second one is when God hides from man: a horrific state of Godforsakenness. When man has no more life in this world, i.e. cannot live by this world, the memory of the divine world draws him there, yet despite all this darkness encompasses his soul. He explains: these fluctuations of the presence and absence of grace are our destiny until the end of our earthly life. Fr.Sophrony saw suffering as a necessary stage in ascetic development: Divine grace comes only in the soul which has undergone suffering.
“We must have the determination to overcome temptations comparable to the sorrows of the first Christians. All the witnesses of Christ’s Resurrection were martyred. We should be ready to endure any hardship.”
“The most important thing in the spiritual life is to strive to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. It changes our lives (above all inwardly, not outwardly). We will live in the same house, in the same circumstances, and with the same people, but our life will already be different. But this is possible only under certain conditions: if we find the time to pray fervently, with tears in our eyes. From the morning to ask for God’s blessing, that a prayerful attitude may define our entire day.”
“Whoever gives up his cross cannot be worthy of the Lord and become His disciple. The depths of the Divine Being are revealed to the Christian when he is crucified for our Savior. The Cross is the foundation of authentic theology.”
Not for the faint of heart, indeed!