Maximus the Greek

St Maximos the Greek
I (re) discovered our venerable father Maximus the Greek of Vatopedi, Μάξιμος ο Γραικός, ὁ Ἁγιορείτης (+ January 21),   the Enlightener and Equal-to -the-Apostles during our recent pilgrimage to Constantinople. I was so impressed by this Greek monk of Vatopaidi, the missionary, publicist, writer, scholar, humanist, and translator active in Russia, that I started researching and studying his entire collected works upon return to England.  (For select English and Greek bibliography go to the bottom of the post*) What I discovered moved me deeply. What humility (*) and patience at his martyrdom, a heavy cross of unjust imprisonments and tribulations unto death, of which fourteen years in iron bonds (1525-1539), and a total of twenty-six years in a prison cell! He was not permitted to receive Holy Communion for eighteen full years because he was condemned a heretic! And yet, our Lord granted him celestial visions and consolations  recorded by this valiant soldier of Christ with charcoal on his prison wall! Below follows a narrative of his life written By Archimandrite Ephraim, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi.  The sections “His imprisonment” and “Dealing with his tribulations” and the Greek/Russian documentary by Vatopedi monasteryΆγ. Μάξιμος Γραικός ντοκυμανταίρ Ι. Μ. Βατοπαιδίου” at the end,  are especially worth your time.
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St. Maximos the Greek (Feast Day – January 21)
An Indomitable Herald of Patristic Tradition
By Archimandrite Ephraim,
Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi

During its historic past, the spiritual activity of the Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi [one of the twenty monasteries on the Holy Mountain of Athos—Trans.] has proved to be twofold. On the one hand, the monastery has lived in hesychia (silence, stillness) and freedom from cares, which are the preconditions for deification; and, on the other hand, it has sent forth its deified and sanctified children as missionaries, so that they might offer a good witness to the Orthodox Athonite Tradition for the strengthening of the people of God—something not extraneous to the life of the Church throughout the ages. We can say that the monastery became very distinguished in this field, such that it undertook missionary work not only within Greece, but also in other Orthodox nations.

St. Maximos of Vatopaidi—better known as St. Maximos the Greek—was one of the most learned monks of his time, distinguishing himself as a theologian, philosopher, author, and poet during the first half of the sixteenth century, and became known as the “enlightener and reformer of the Russian nation.”

He was born in the city of Arta [northwestern Greece] in 1470 to a wealthy, illustrious, and pious family, and was named Michael Triboles. His parents gave him his basic education at the schools of Arta and Kerkyra (Corfu). At twenty years of age, he went to Italy, where he pursued higher studies for some fifteen years at the universities of Venice, Padua, Ferrara, Florence, and Milan. One of the more distinguished biographers of St. Maximos, E. Golubinsky, maintains that, had the Saint ultimately remained in Italy, he would have become one of the most eminent university professors of his age.

St. Maximos, however, gave himself over to an intense search for an authentic way of Christian life, having seen for himself the nakedness of humankind bereft of God’s Grace while living in Italy, where Renaissance humanism was then flourishing. At the same time, moralism had turned the world to the senseless passions of hypocrisy, avarice, inhumanity, and dissoluteness. Thus, upon hearing about the monastic republic of the Holy Mountain and yearning to achieve the highest human calling—that of deification—and having discerned the vanity of every earthly glory and wisdom, he decided to dedicate his life to the Lord as a monk in this glorious cradle of Eastern Orthodox Tradition, eventually settling in the Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi.

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His departure for the Holy Mountain

At the Monastery of Vatopaidi, he lived in asceticism for approximately ten years. He exercised himself in the basic virtues of obedience and abstinence, thereby essentially avoiding all human passions, since he cut off his every will, desire, greed, and pride. His insatiable yearning for the acquisition of virtues and his enviable diligence in exercising himself therein rendered him a vessel of the loftiest virtues of humility, nonacquisitiveness, and love. By means, again, of these virtues, he constantly sacrificed himself for his fellow ascetics and fellow men. Simultaneously, he united his soul with God through unceasing prayer, becoming an abode of the Holy Spirit.

The monastery’s rich library also nourished the Saint spiritually; he found great delight in studying its books. From the library’s rare manuscripts, he garnered the wisdom of his predecessors in the Orthodox monastic tradition. At the same time, the example of the monastery’s other learned Fathers became a luminous guiding light in the Angelic, monastic life.


The monastery’s Fathers soon discerned the cultivation of his soul, so rich in virtues and spiritual gifts. They thus entrusted him with necessary work outside of the monastery, which the holy Father used as opportunities to strengthen our suffering Orthodox people, who were assailed by illiteracy, the bonds of the Turkish Yoke, and the heresies of the West.

In 1515, Grand Prince Vasily Ivanovich [of Russia] asked the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Protos of the Holy Mountain for an experienced, learned, and virtuous monk, who could translate Church texts into the Slavonic language and correct erroneous translations and copies of Holy Scriptures and Patristic texts.

Monk Sabbas of Vatopaidi was initially chosen, but he refused on account of his advanced age. The lot thus fell to the eminent Monk Maximos.

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His mission in Russia

St. Maximos left the Holy Mountain in 1516. Representing the Russian people, Metropolitan Varlaam of Moscow and Grand Prince Vasily Ivanovich welcomed the Athonite monk and those with him.

Unfortunately, at that time the Russian nation was being scourged by new ideologies, which had slipped even into Orthodox ecclesiastical books, perhaps not fortuitously.

St. Maximos began his work of writing, translating, correcting, and exegesis. At the same time, his genuine Orthodox way of life soon came to attract the Grand Prince and the Metropolitan, as well as the Russian people and numerous eminent and distinguished people, who recognized in him a sagacious monk with the ability to resolve, by the power of God and his wise teachings and counsels, the multifarious problems pertaining to people of all social classes and walks of life. Thus, he began his advisory work chiefly before the Russian ruler and the Metropolitan, who directed matters relating to the State and the Church, respectively.

We should also note that St. Maximos was the first to initiate the Russian people into ancient Greek philosophy and literature, thanks to his many years of profound studies at Western universities. Moreover, he was the first to introduce the art of printing into Russia, owing to his close ties with the renowned Italian typographer and savant, Aldus Manutius.

Generally speaking, St. Maximos the Enlightener and Equal-to -the-Apostles acted resourcefully and wisely, taking care to educate a multitude of people, who subsequently continued his colossal work of enlightening Russia in Orthodox Christianity, for the salvation of the people and the glory and joy of the Church of Christ.

These cultural activities of the Saint underscore his manifold acts of beneficence, showing him forth not only as a missionary worker, but also as a civilizer of the Russian people, who at that time were in a state of illiteracy and ignorance.

St. Maximos’ missionary activities lasted eight years. He bore a heavy cross, however, with his work on behalf of the Faith; or rather, the Devil, the enemy of the truth, attempted to destroy St. Maximos’ work, though the Evil One ultimately failed in this regard, since the “grain of wheat fell on good ground and sprang up, and bore fruit a hundredfold” (cf. St. Luke 8:8).

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Conflict with the political and ecclesiastical leadership

More specifically, owing to irregularities on the part of certain political and ecclesiastical figures—due, in large part, to ignorance—the Athonite Father was compelled to expostulate with and censure certain individuals, on the basis of the principles of the Gospel and in accordance with the ecclesiastical capacity afforded him by the Russian Church and the country’s royalty.

Unfortunately, however, not only did things not improve, but St. Maximos was now additionally confronted with the enmity of those he had censured, among them the Grand Prince and the new Metropolitan of Russia, Daniel, who disregarded the Saint’s sincere concern for their salvation and for the right direction of the Russian Church.

Thenceforth the Saint was to bear a heavy cross of imprisonments and tribulations unto death. Precisely these tribulations perfected St. Maximos spiritually, however, such that today the equal-to-the-apostles, confessor, martyr, and ascetic is regarded as one of the foremost illustrious children of the Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi, and of our Orthodox Church in general. It is he who, by Divine calling, accumulated all of the charisms; and all of the aforementioned appellations befit him to such an extent that not one of them can be deemed an exaggeration.

St. Maximos censured representatives of the Church for living in a manner unbecoming to the clergy and monasticism, as well as for inappropriate behavior towards the people. At the same time, he also reprimanded political representatives for similar matters, just as St. John the Forerunner—who was put to death in prison for censuring the King for committing adultery—had done. Thus, St. Maximos became a confessor by upholding moral standards with strictness and by rebuking those who did not live morally, regardless of their office or rank.

He did not become conceited by the honors shown to him by the Grand Prince, nor by the fact that he was the foremost royal counsellor and ate with the Grand Prince at the same table for eight whole years, as if he were himself a prince. None of these things made him forget that he was a monk—and an Athonite monk at that—who had been called by Divine behest to correct the morals of the Russian people. Nor did he take into account that he would lose favor with the Grand Prince and representatives of the Church, along with the honors they showed him, by censuring them.

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His imprisonment

He was condemned, as an alleged heretic, to life imprisonment in fetters and deprived of partaking of the Holy Mysteries. Placed in solitary confinement, he was forbidden to have any communication with the faithful. He suffered all of these things, as we said above, because he had censured his accusers for immoral behavior, using Christian morals as his basis. Likewise, he was prohibited from carrying on correspondence or reading books. The final prohibition was a martyrdom in itself for the learned monk-philosopher, since his spiritual nourishment and delight were derived from the study and writing of books.

Metropolitan Daniel, who was primarily responsible for St. Maximos’ ordeals, placed in his prison cell two cruel and inhuman guards, who tormented him without mercy for six continuous years. As St. Maximos later wrote to Metropolitan Makarios of Moscow: “Imprisoned, I was kept in bonds, dying from the cold, smoke, and hunger.”

His biographer, Kurbsky, writes that:

“He suffered much from the burdensome bonds and the long confinement in a frightful prison, …being exceedingly beleaguered and mercilessly tortured, both physically and mentally, by intolerable ordeals for six years in iron fetters. …As a result of these tortures, St. Maximos would often fall completely unconscious, almost to the point of death. At one point, wishing to alleviate his affliction, he wrote a Canon to the Holy Spirit on the prison wall with a piece of charcoal, since he was not permitted paper on which to write. Under these conditions, he never grumbled or condemned anyone! At the end of his earthly life, St. Maximos would write a letter in which he prayed with regard to Metropolitan Daniel, who was the primary cause of his myriads of tortures: ‘May God not lay this sin to his charge’!”

During his first imprisonment in the Monastery of Volokolamsk, and, following that, during his second transfer to the Monastery of Otroch, he was confined to a damp and dark, subterranean prison, deprived of light and heating, and of every human consolation to which even the vilest of malefactors is entitled.

Who is capable of describing his martyrdom, and especially his deprivation of the Divine Eucharist? Only one who has come to know the love of our sweetest Jesus could describe such a martyrdom.

Despite the Saint’s protests over this harsh and unjust epitimion (penance), and despite his pleas at least to be permitted to partake of the Divine Mysteries—saying, with deep pain: “I ask that you vouchsafe me to partake of the All-Immaculate and Live-giving Mysteries of Christ, which I have been denied for seventeen years now. …Grant me, I beseech you, this favor…, save this lost soul….” “…I seek mercy and benevolence….” “…I ask for mercy; show me mercy, that you might also be vouchsafed the same Grace”—unfortunately, the clergy of iniquity did not pay him heed. They confined him without permitting him Holy Communion for eighteen full years.

Moreover, as we said above, his martyrdom was heightened by the tremendous pain caused by being enchained for six years at the prison of Volokolamsk, and then again during the first eight years of confinement in the prison of the Monastery of Otroch. In total, he spent fourteen years in iron bonds (1525-1539), and was imprisoned for a total of twenty-six years.

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Dealing with his tribulations

Saint Maximos suffered all of his ordeals with patience and without resentment. Never did he reproach those who had caused him to undergo such great sufferings, nor did he ever depart from the bounds of spiritual nobility and meekness. This he achieved through humility. Emulating other holy Fathers, while protesting against his condemnation as a heretic and a blasphemer, he nevertheless accepted his trials as if they had been permitted by God on account of his sins.

Thus, he wrote to Metropolitan Daniel: “But I tell you in this regard that you have [unjustly] condemned me for heresy and prohibited me from partaking of the Divine Mysteries. As for my other many and innumerable sins, I am not able to open my mouth. I must not despair, however, but rather hope in God’s immeasurable mercy….” And elsewhere: “The Just Judge, Who desires that all men be saved, Who has permitted me to undergo these afflictions on account of my many great sins, and not for heresy or blasphemy…”

The Saint’s patience was also due to Divine strengthening, in accordance with the Psalm: “According to the multitude of my sorrows in my heart, Thy comforts have given gladness to my soul.”

The consolations of the Holy Spirit were such that not only they equiponderated the Saint’s sorrows, his pains from the tortures, and his tears, but additionally they caused Divine love to overflow in his heart, becoming his “bread day and night.”

The venerable Father was also vouchsafed a vision of a Holy Angel, who descended into the prison and offered him the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus. Following this miracle and his Divine vision and succor, in Divine exaltation he composed and wrote with charcoal on the prison wall the aforementioned Ode to the Holy Spirit, which begins: “O, the manna by which Thou once didst feed Israel in the desert…,” followed by “with Thy Bodiless Ministers, I also chant to Thee…” which imply the vision of the Angel who transmitted to him the Body and Blood of our Lord.

As for the further Divine succor granted to him, who could know or tell of it? God guided him, through this hard path, towards perfection. We also see this from the exhortation by the Holy Angel, who appeared to him and said: “Maximos, be patient in these sufferings, that you might escape the sufferings of eternal chastisement.”

Thus, St. Maximos, by Divine revelation, became completely aware that he was fulfilling the Will of God when he was forlorn and reckoned an abomination by all, a stranger in a foreign land. In a state of extreme humility of spirit, he put into his heart that he was the lowest person on earth, humbled with Divine knowledge that the Lord had permitted his sufferings; for through the path of extreme humility He wished to guide him to spiritual perfection.

Living in seclusion and silence, he prayed unceasingly, with wordless groanings of the heart, noetically calling from the depths of his heart upon the Name of his sweetest Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

Thus, through his martyrdom and through bearing the Cross of the Lord with knowledge, the Saint became perfected in Christ, completely dispassionate, a pleasant psaltery and sonorous cittern of the Holy Spirit, and a dwelling-place of the Holy Trinity!

St. Maximos was among the few monastic Saints who conducted their spiritual struggles devoid of a guide and human solidarity— without a spiritual Father or Elder to comfort and strengthen him as he bore his cross, and even without the solidarity of like-minded brothers, according to the saying: “A brother helped by a brother is as a strong and fortified city.”

He was faced with “external battles,” “imprisoned, kept in bonds, dying from the cold, smoke, and hunger,” but also with “internal fears,” lest he repine against God over the multitude of his tribulations or transgress God’s commandments by becoming angry with those who had done him injustice, revile them, or bear them resentment.

At the same time, a whole mob of other passions raged against him. The battle was gigantic, and the conditions under which the Saint struggled were not only incomprehensible, but even inconceivable to us. He conquered, however, with the alliance of the Lord, Who loved him and Who had given Himself over unto death for the sake of all.

His sentence is mitigated

Saint Maximos saved the entire Russian Church from prejudices, superstitions, and heretical beliefs that held sway at that time in Russia.

While imprisoned in the Monastery of Otroch (1531-1551), he was given relative freedom of communication by Metropolitan Akaky of Tver (following a sign from God), so that this light might not remain “under a bushel” (cf. St. Matthew 5:15).

Thus, while bound in chains for years in a dark, damp, subterranean prison, he tirelessly continued to write, translating sacred texts into Slavonic and composing, among many other things, anti-heretical works, for the sake of protecting and enlightening the Russian people. In addition, with fatherly affection, he once again began preaching, comforting the Christians who hastened to his prison cell to hear his advice and seek his prayers.

Several years after the imprisonment of Metropolitan Daniel, Metropolitan Makary of All Russia released the Saint from his unjust punishment of excommunication, which had lasted eighteen years (1525-1543).

From time to time, he would fervently beseech to be liberated, so as to return to his beloved monastery on Mt. Athos, but never received a response. When Tsar Ivan the Terrible ascended the royal throne, the Greek monk repeated his appeal, but again without positive results. Likewise, Patriarch Dionysios of Constantinople (in 1545), Patriarch Germanos of Jerusalem, the Patriarch of Alexandria (on September 4, 1545), and the Monastery of Vatopaidi all sent requests to the Tsar to release St. Maximos.

In one of his own letters to the Tsar, St. Maximos wrote:

“Please deign, by the Name of the Lord, to show mercy to me, the wretch. Grant me to see the Holy Mountain, where prayer is sent up for the whole world. Restore me to the holy Fathers and to my brethren, who pray on your behalf. Yield in a Christian manner to their entreaties and tears. Do not wish to appear disobedient to the OEcumenical Patriarch, who is entreating you on my behalf.”

And elsewhere:

“Judge for yourself, I beg you, if I am worthy of hatred for all that I rightly corrected, and if I was justly slandered by certain ones as a heretic and denied communion with the faithful and of the Divine Gifts for so many years…. If, then, I speak rightly and credibly, show me, the wretch, your goodness and mercy, as a pious and unbiased judge, and acquit me of the unjust slanders and these ordeals, which I have been suffering for many years now…. Grant me, I implore your reverence, to return to the Holy Mountain, where I toiled in many and various ways both spiritually and bodily in hope of salvation, that I might lay down my bones there in peace.”

And elsewhere:

“Return me, most devout Tsar, to the venerable monastery of the Theotokos of Vatopaidi. Spiritually gladden its holy monks, your servants and fervent intercessors. Do not desire to grieve them.”

It is worth noting that in each of his letters the Saint pleaded to be returned to the Holy Mountain, repeating the phrase: “that I might lay down my bones there in peace.”

Yet his martyrdom continued. His return was deemed dangerous by the Tsar and Church leaders of the time, since the Saint knew all of the negative aspects of the political and ecclesiastical life of Russia, and they were afraid that he would hold them up to public opinion and reveal the ill will they had shown him.

St. Maximus’ crucified life and homilies in the original Greek language

A Fool for Christ



​”Holy Andrew, walking one day along the streets of Constantinople, saw a great and splendid funeral. A rich man had died, and his cortege was magnificent. But when he looked more closely, Andrew saw a host of little black men capering merrily around the corpse, one grinning like a prostitute, another barking like a dog, a third grunting like a pig, a fourth pouring something filthy over the body. And they were mocking the singers and saying: “You’re singing over a dog!” Andrew, marveling, wondered what this man had done. Turning round, he saw a handsome youth standing weeping behind a wall. “For the sake of the God of heaven and earth, tell me the reason for your tears”, said Andrew. The young man then told him that he had been the dead man’s guardian angel, but that the man had, by his sins, greatly offended God, casting his angel’s counsel from him and giving himself over utterly to the black demons. And the angel said that this man was a great and unrepentant sinner: a liar, a hater of men, a miser, a shedder of blood and a dissolute man who had turned three hundred souls to immorality. In vain was he honoured by the Emperor and respected by the people. In vain was this great funeral. Death had caught him unrepentant, and the harvest had come without warning.”  (Excerpted and Adapted by St. Nikolai Velimirovich)

“Not for the faint hearted. A fearful account of holy warfare through the life of a fool for Christ. It is such intensity of spiritual reality undiluted by western liberalism which continues to challenge the soft, easy theosophy which passes for Christianity today.”
For the abridged English version of this truly awesome narrative, go to The Life of Saint Andrew fool for Christ of Constantinople excerpted from the original Byzantine manuscripts, translated and adapted by St. Demetrios of Rostov.
Thou didst choose foolishness for the sake of Christ
And didst make the crafty one foolish.
Thou didst persevere with thy struggle
in the midst of turmoil.
And Christ has brought thee to paradise.
Intercede with Him, O Andrew
For those who honor thee.
+ October 2

Like a Green Olive Tree


“They went to a place called Gethsemane…”

— Mark 14:32

Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. This garden was an olive grove and it still exists today. Gethsemane means “oil press” in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.



Psalm 52:8  “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.”


“Do you know that God gave us one more commandment, which is not recorded in Scripture? It is the commandment “love the trees.“  When you plant a tree, you plant hope, you plant peace, you plant love, and you will receive God’s blessing.” – Elder Amphilochius of Patmos

According to Met. Kallistos, the Elder frequently assigned the penance of planting a tree on the island (Patmos) for those who came to him for confession. His ministry raised up forests as well as demolished the sins of many.



All Creatures Great and Small

sad puppy

“Once a dog was dying from thirst in the desert. A monk went by and gave him the water he was keeping for himself. That moment Heavens opened and a voice was heard: ‘He who saved the dog will have a multitude of his sins forgiven’.”

Blessed Gabriel the Confessor and Fool for Christ

Source: Fr. Charalambos Livios Papadopoulos

Blessed Gabriel was gentle Saint of our times, compassionate for all Creation. In his youth, he had an unusual entertainment; he used to take a small stick in his hands and ran away. Chirping birds sat on it and followed him all the way. This surprised everyone. Vasiko was a soft-hearted child. He did not allow putting a trap for mice, but caught them in a cage alive and afterwards set them free out of the yard. Read about the rest of his life here


Fr Herman recalls a quiet moment when he was with Fr Seraphim [Rose] and their animals came up to them: Svir [the monastery dog] looking up devotedly and wagging his tail, and a lovely, white-pawed cat named Kisa standing quietly by.“From your point of view,” Fr Herman asked in a reflective mood, “what are animals all about?”

Fr Seraphim replied: “They have something to do with Paradise.”


“Abba Xanthios said, ‘A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge.

—  Sayings of the Desert Fathers


“Geronda, how do animals sense a person’s goodness?”….. “They can instinctively sense if you love them. The animals in Paradise felt the fragrance of Grace and served Adam. Since the transgression, nature groans together with man” St Paisios


“My mind tells me that even the animals are better than me; so, I humble myself and obey them. Very early this morning, being tired from praying all night and exhausted because of my illness, I lay down to rest. After a while, I heard a kitten meowing outside my cell as if she needed something. I really wanted to rest, but I humbled myself and went against my own will. I obeyed the kitten and replied to her calling. I went to open the door. It had started to rain and I let her in so she wouldn’t get wet. What do you think then? Should I obey the animals or not? My thoughts tell me I should.” – St Paisios


“All these things connected with nature help us greatly in our spiritual life when they are conjoined with the grace of God. When I sense the harmony of nature, I am brought to tears. Why should we be bored with life? Let us live life with the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Truth. The person who has the Spirit of God, who has Divine Wisdom, sees all things with love of God and notices all things. The wisdom of God makes him grasp all things and delight in all things.”- Saint Porphyrios





Photos & Selection of the Fathers’ Saying: Orthodoxy and Animals





Faces and Fates


Being immersed in the Beauty of Slavonic Church services, especially the awesome beauty of the Eucharist- the Divine Liturgy  has everything we need. Overpoweringly beautiful and haunting. Such Beauty seems to sum up Christianity. We Christians should be first and foremost Eucharistic creatures.


The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints (Ennismore Gardens, London)


Coming here has been a dream from my youth.  Metropolitan Anthony’s of Sourozh books, especially Living Prayer, School for Prayer, God and man, and Courage to Pray, have sealed my conversion to Christ:

“I met Christ as a Person at a moment when I needed him in order to live, and at a moment when I was not in search of him. I was found; I did not find him.

I was a teenager then. Life had been difficult in the early years and now it had of a sudden become easier. All the years when life had been hard I had found it natural, if not easy, to fight; but when life became easy and happy I was faced quite unexpectedly with a problem: I could not accept aimless happiness. Hardships and suffering had to be overcome, there was something beyond them. Happiness seemed to be stale if it had no further meaning. 

As it often happens when you are young and when you act with passion, bent to possess either everything or nothing, I decided that I would give myself a year to see whether life had a meaning, and if I discovered it had none I would not live beyond the year…”(continue)

Metropolitan Anthony’s presence is so alive here!   You can feel him still serving, from Heaven, at the Altar, especially during the Divine Liturgy.

So many Russian Saints relics here! St Seraphim Sarov, St Silouan the Athonite, Grand Duchess Elizabeth FeodorovnaIgnatius Bryanchaninov, John of Shanghai and San FranciscoXenia of Saint Petersburg, just to name a few ...

Praise the name of the Lord Byzantine Chant


At the homily, the priest spoke about the Feast of the day: the Synaxis of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church

More than 1700 names are commemorated in the Synaxis.  Here is just one of them:

Martyr Catherine Arsky, laywoman

Commemoration date December, 17 (December, 4 old calendar)


Born into a merchant family in St. Petersburg.  In 1920, she survived a tragedy. First, her husband, an officer of the Tsar’s Army and warden of the Smolny cathedral, died of cholera, then all five of their children.  Seeking the Lord’s succour, Catherine joined the brotherhood of St. Alexander Nevsky, founded at the cathedral of the Fedorovskaya Icon in Petrograd, and became the spiritual child of Hieromartyr Leo (Egorov).

Catherine was arrested in 1932 with the other members of the brotherhood (ninety in total).  She was sentenced to three years of labour camp “as a member of a counter-revolutionary organisation.” Upon release, she settled in Borovichi, like Martyr Keira Obolensky.  In 1937, she was arrested and charged with the clergy of Borovichi.  She refused to plead guilty of “counter-revolutionary activity” even under torture.  Was executed by firing squad on the same day as Keira Obolensky.

At the time of execution, she was sixty-two.


For other martyrs and confessors commemorated today, go to Pravmir

On Zeal


A monk must be extremely cautious of carnal and animal zeal, which outwardly appears pious but in reality is foolish and harmful to the soul.

Worldly people and many living the monastic life, through ignorance and inexperience, often praise such zeal without understanding that it springs from conceit and pride. They extol this zeal as zeal for the faith, for piety, for the Church, for God. It consists in a more or less harsh condemnation and criticism of one’s neighbours in their moral faults, and in faults against good order in church and in the performance of the church services. Deceived by a wrong conception of zeal, these imprudent zealots think that by yielding themselves to it they are imitating the holy fathers and holy martyrs, forgetting that they – the zealots – are not saints, but sinners.

When for your labour in the garden of the commandments God grants you to feel in your soul divine zeal, then you will see clearly that this zeal will urge you to be silent and humble in the presence of your neighbours, to love them, to show them kindness and compassion, as Saint Isaac the Syrian has said. 

Divine zeal is a fire, but it does not heat the blood. It cools it and reduces it to a calm state. The zeal of the carnal mind is always accompanied by heating of the blood, and by an invasion of swarms of thoughts and fancies. The consequences of blind and ignorant zeal, if our neighbour opposes it, are usually displeasure with him, resentment, or vengeance in various forms; while if he submits, our heart is filled with vainglorious self-satisfaction, excitement and an increase of our pride and presumption.

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov

The Arena

Chapter 36

‘No one is saved alone.’

Love all; Pray for all; Weep for all; Repent for all

Starets Zosima, St Silouan the Athonite and St Isaac the Syrian on Salvation of all the World


For St Silouan there is a single and undivided mystery of salvation, at once personal, pan-human and cosmic: everything, like the ocean, flows and enters into contact with everything else. There can be no disagreement between our personal salvation and the salvation of the world. The two form a unity. Our own salvation is necessarily linked to the salvation of every other human being, for ‘our brother is our life’. At the same time, the transfiguration of us humans inaugurates the transfiguration of the cosmos. Not without reason, on the last page of Fr Sophrony’s book on the Starets, do we find a prayer that is all-embracing in its scope: 

O Lord, give unto us this love throughout Thine whole universe (504)


We Must Pray for All: The Salvation of the World According to St Silouan

‘Love all creation’, says Starets Zosima in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov:

Love all creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand within it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.

This ‘divine mystery’ of which Starets Zosima speaks is precisely the interdependence, the reciprocal coinherence, of all created things in God.

Everything, like the ocean, flows and enters into contact with everything else: touch one place, and you set up a movement at the other end of the world.

Such is Dostoevsky’s vision of cosmic unity. The created world constitutes an individual whole, and so the salvation of each individual person is inextricably bound up with the salvation of all humankind and, yet more widely, with the salvation of the entire universe. ‘We are members of one another’ (Ephesians 4:25) needs to be given the broadest possible application. It is not only we humans who depend on each other as the limbs of a single body; but we have bonds of kinship with the animals as well, and also with trees and plants, rocks and earth, air and water. We live in them, and they in us.

Precisely the same sense of cosmic unity is expressed by St Silouan the Athonite:

He who has the Holy Spirit in him, to however slight a degree, sorrows day and night for all mankind. His heart is filled with pity for all God’s creatures, more especially for those who do not know God, or who resist Him and therefore are bound for torment. For them, more than for himself, he prays day and night, that all may repent and know the Lord (352).

The Lord bestows such rich grace on His chosen that they embrace the whole earth, the whole world, with that love (367).

Archimandrite Sophrony, in his book on Starets Silouan, sums up the teaching of the Starets on cosmic coinherence in these words:

The life of the spiritual world, the Staretz recognized as one life and because of this unity every spiritual phenomenon inevitably reacts on the state of the whole spiritual world (101).

We shall not be distorting the meaning of the Starets – or that of Fr Sophrony – if we give to these words an all-inclusive scope: instead of saying ‘the spiritual world’ and ‘every spiritual phenomenon’, we can correctly say ‘the createdworld’ and ‘every phenomenon’. As Fr Sophrony states elsewhere, St Silouan believed that each person who truly prays to God ‘integrates everyone into his own eternal life whatever the geographical distance or the historical time between them’ (233). Indeed, he integrates not only every person but every thing. Nothing is alien to him. In Dostoevsky’s words, ‘Everything, like the ocean, flows and enters into contact with everything else.’

Despite the striking parallels between the Russian novelist and the Athonite monk, it is highly unlikely that St Silouan had ever read Dostoevsky. More probably, the similarities arise because both are shaped by the same living tradition, and both are drawing on the same sources. St Silouan (almost certainly) and Dostoevsky (possibly) have been influenced by a Mesopotamian hermit of the seventh century, St Isaac the Syrian, who writes in a famous passage of his Ascetical Homilies:

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for every created thing. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person’s eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or look on any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation. This is why he constantly offers up prayer full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for enemies of truth, even for those who harm him, so that they may be protected and find mercy.

What exactly does Starets Silouan mean when, faithful to the teaching of St Isaac, he affirms that the saints ‘embrace the whole earth, the whole world, with their love’? Let us note the all-embracing love and prayer that constitute our true vocation as human persons. There is first his firm conviction that God calls every human being to salvation. Secondly, there is his conception of the ‘total Adam’ and, linked with this, his insistence that my neighbour is myself. Thirdly, there is his firm assurance that in God’s total plan it is not only human beings but the entire cosmos that is to be redeemed and transfigured.

‘Divine love desires salvation for all’

‘It was particularly characteristic of Staretz Silouan to pray for the dead suffering in the hell of separation from God’, writes Fr Sophrony, and he goes on to recall an exchange that he overheard between the Starets and a somewhat dour hermit:

I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction, ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’

Obviously upset, The Staretz said:

‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire – would you feel happy?’

‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.

The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance:

‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all’ (48).

This universal intercession commended by St Silouan, so far from being sentimental or Utopian, has on the contrary a clear Scriptural foundation: ‘God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4). This is the key text that the seventeenth-century Arminians invoked when opposing the strict Calvinist doctrine of double predestination; this is the text that inspired the dynamic missionary preaching of John Wesley in the eighteenth century; and this is equally a saying that the twentieth-century Athonite keeps steadfastly in view:

My soul longs for the whole world to be saved (291)…. Divine love desires the salvation of all (328)…. The Lord’s is such that He would have all men to be saved (368)…. Our one thought must be that all should be saved (379)…. The merciful Lord sometimes gives the soul peace in God but sometimes makes the heart ache for the whole universe, that all men might repent and enter paradise (426).

According to St Silouan, this burning desire for the salvation of all humankind is to be found to a supreme degree in the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary:

She, like her beloved Son, desired with her whole heart the salvation of all (406)…. She loved mankind and prayed ardently… for the whole world that all might be saved (365).

The fact that God desires the salvation of all does not of course mean that our salvation is automatic and inevitable. As the Letter to Diognetus states, ‘God persuades, He does not compel, for violence is foreign to Him.’God’s call to salvation comes in the form of an invitation, which we on the human side are free to accept or to reject. But, although the response varies, the call is universal.

St Silouan’s belief that God does indeed desire the universal salvation of the human race can be summed up in four short injunctions: love all; pray for all; weep for all; repent for all.

(1) Love all. When as a young monk, attending a service in the Church of the Holy Prophet Elijah, St Silouan received a vision of Christ (26), the effect of this vision was to flood his soul with ‘a rare feeling of love for God and for man, for every man’ (34). This all-embracing love remained with him throughout his life: ‘Love cannot suffer a single soul to perish’, he wrote many years later (272). Comprehensive love of this kind he saw as par excellence the characteristic of the saints (not that he would have made any claim to be himself numbered among them):

The holy saints have attained the Kingdom of Heaven, and there they look upon the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ; but by the Holy Spirit they see, too, the sufferings of men on earth. The Lord gave them such great grace that they embrace the whole world with their love (396).

This ardent love, as the Starets envisages it, extends beyond the living to the dead and to those not yet born. In Fr Sophrony’s words:

In seeking salvation for all men love feels impelled to embrace not only the world of the living but also the world of the dead, the underworld and the world of the as yet unborn – that is, the whole race of Adam (108).

For St Silouan, as we have seen from his conversation with the dour hermit, this love for our fellow-humans includes even hell within its scope. Expounding the teaching of the Starets, Fr Sophrony writes:

Dwelling in heaven, the Saints behold hell and embrace it too in their love (116).

This is possible for them, because the love that is at work in their hearts is nothing else than the love of God Himself; and God’s love is present everywhere – even in hell:

God is present in hell, too, as love (115)…. Even in hell Divine love will embrace all men, but, while this love is joy and life for them that love God, it is torment for those who hate Him (148).

In the words of Vladimir Lossky, ‘The love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves’

In thus teaching that the power of love extends even to hell, the Starets is once more following St Isaac the Syrian:

Even those who are punished in Gehenna are tormented with the scourging of love. The scourges that result from love – that is, the scourges of those who realize that they have sinned against love – are harder and more bitter than the torments which result from fear…. The power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have sinned, just as happens here on earth; but those who have observed its duties, love gives delight. So it is in Gehenna: the contrition that comes from love is the harsh torment; but in the case of the sons of heaven, delight in this love inebriates their souls.

‘The power of love works in two ways’: what the saints in heaven feel as joy, those under condemnation in hell experience as intense pain. But it is the same divine love that is present in them both.

If those in hell are not deprived of God’s love, if they are embraced also by the love of the saints, may it not still be possible for them to respond to this love that surrounds them on every side? Is there not still a hope that they may ultimately be saved? St Isaac certainly seems to have believed in universal salvation:as a member of the Church of the East, dwelling safely beyond the confines of the Byzantine Empire, he had no reason to fear the anti-Origenist anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553).

What of St Silouan? Fr Sophrony maintains that the Starets was no Origenist (109), and I agree with him. St Silouan insists that our loving intercession should extend even to those in hell, we are to sorrow ‘over those who are not saved’ (377) and to weep for those ‘who do not know God’ (386). Further than this, however, he does not go. With characteristic reticence, he avoids all speculation about a final apocatastasis. He does not attempt to specify who can be saved and who cannot; that is a mystery known at present only to God. For his part he answers only with the words, ‘ I do not know’:

Father Cassian used to say that all heretics would perish. I do not know about this – my trust is only in the Orthodox Church (483).

When reflecting on the possibility that in the Age to Come there may be some who remain for ever unreconciled, burning in hell-fire, the Starets says simply, ‘Love could not bear that.’ Further than this he does not go.

What of the demons? Might they also be saved, and in that case should we not pray also for them? St Isaac the Syrian, as already noted, affirms that the merciful heart is ‘on fire’ with compassion for the demons, but he does not actually say that we should pray for them. St Silouan speaks in similar terms. We are to ‘pity’ the demons, but nothing is stated about intercession on their behalf:

The Spirit of God teaches love towards all, and the soul feels compassion for every being, loves her enemies and pities even devils because they have fallen away from God (469).

The Starets was emphatically a man of the Church; and so, if asked whether we may legitimately pray for the demons – Fr Sophrony does not in fact record any occasion when he was so asked – surely his answer would have been that the Church has no such practice; and in all such matters we must follow the Church’s rule of prayer. But at the same time it is not for us to set limits to the divine mercy.

(2) Pray for all. Love and prayer go together; if, then, we are to love all human persons, this signifies that we are also to pray for them. So the Starets writes:

I pray Thee, O Merciful Lord, let all mankind, from Adam to the end of time, come to know Thee (319)…. I will pray for the whole human race, that all people may turn to the Lord and find rest in Him (328)…. I beseech Thee, O Lord, let all peoples come to know Thee (332).

The Starets quotes with approval the words of an ascetic monk with whom he once talked:

Were it possible I would pray everyone out of hell, and only then would my soul be easy and rejoice (468).

‘Were it possible’: the Starets does not say that it actually is possible. The Starets sees this all-inclusive intercession as the proper and characteristic vocation of the monk.

The constant prayer for others constitutes the monk’s way of serving society as a whole:

Thanks to monks, prayer continues unceasing on earth, for through prayer the world continues to exist…. When there are no men of prayer on the earth, the world will come to an end…. The world is supported by the prayers of the saints (407-8).

In this connection Fr Sophrony refers appropriately to the sixth-century elder St Barsanuphius of Gaza, who asserts that in his day there were three men who through their prayers were preserving the whole human race from catastrophe (223). Barsanuphius mentions the names of the first two, who significantly are otherwise unknown to the annals of history. He does not say who the third was, presumably because God had revealed to him that it was Barsanuphius himself.

By thus praying for the world, the monk not only helps the Church and human society at large, but he also helps himself. Here the Starets describes his own experience as a monastery steward. Most monks consider that this particular ‘obedience’ renders it impossible to preserve continual prayer and inner peace, for it involves contact with large numbers of people throughout the day. Starets Silouan disagrees. If the steward will only intercede constantly for those under his charge, saying ‘The Lord loves His creation’, all will be well: he will find that he is freed from distractions and can maintain an uninterrupted remembrance of God (418).

In the monk’s relationship with the world, St Silouan distinguishes a double movement. First, through prayer the monk withdraws into himself, shutting out the world, gradually liberating himself from visual imagery and discursive thinking, and so entering into the image-free stillness of the heart. But then, within the depths of his own heart, he rediscovers his solidarity with all humankind and with the whole creation. So the monk’s flight from the world turns out to be not world-denying but world-affirming. In the words of Fr Sophrony:

In his longing for God he ‘hates’ the world and retires totally into the depths of his own heart. And when he does so totally, in order there to do battle against Satan, in order to cleanse his heart from every single passion, in the depths of this heart of his he meets with God, and in God begins to see himself indissolubly linked with the whole of cosmic existence; and then there is nothing alien, nothing that is extraneous to them.

As St Silouan observes, ‘True, Arsenius the Great was bidden to “shun” people but in the desert, too, the Spirit of God teaches us to pray for people and for all the world (296).

(3) Weep for all. True prayer cannot but be costly; loving intercession involves an inner martyrdom, a willingness on our part to accept suffering. As St Silouan says, ‘Praying for people means shedding blood (236); ‘The greater the love, the greater the suffering’ (338). It is not enough simply to read lists of names; we are required to intercede with tears of sorrow. ‘Pray for all’ means ‘Weep for all’:

My heart aches for the whole world, and I pray and shed tears fro the whole world, that all may repent (341)…. My soul weeps for the whole world (371)…. O Lord, grant me tears to shed for myself, and for the whole universe’ (385).

(4) Repent for all. St Silouan would have us go yet further on the path of mutual coinherence. Not only are we required to weep for all, but we should also repent for all. In his view this is part of what St Paul meant when he said, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2). As Fr Sophrony points out, if viewed in purely juridical terms the notion of vicarious repentance – of laying one person’s guilt upon another – makes no sense; it is simply ‘not fair’. But the love of Christ is not limited to juridical norms:

The spirit of Christian love speaks otherwise, seeing nothing strange but something rather natural in sharing the guilt of those we love – even in assuming full responsibility for their wrong-doing. Indeed, it is only in this bearing of another’s guilt that the authenticity of love is made manifest and develops into full awareness of self (120).

Adam’s fall consisted precisely in his refusal to accept that he too was involved in the guilt of Eve’s sin. ‘Adam denied responsibility, laying all the blame on Eve and on God who had given him this wife’, and so he shattered the unity of the human race. If only, instead of justifying himself, he ‘had taken upon his shoulders the responsibility for their joint sin, the destinies of the world might have been different’ (121). We in our turn, when we refuse to repent for others, are repeating Adam’s sin, thus making his fall our own.

Strange though this concept of vicarious repentance may seem to most modern readers, it has in fact an excellent Patristic pedigree. One author who expresses this idea in strong terms is St Mark the Monk (?early fifth century):

The saints are required to offer repentance not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of their neighbour, for without active love they cannot be made perfect…. In this way the whole universe is held together in unity, and through God’s providence we are each of us assisted by one another.

‘Adam, our father’

St Silouan’s consuming desire for the salvation of all stands out in yet sharper relief when we take into account his teaching about what may be termed the ‘total Adam’. This is not, I think, a phrase that he himself employs, but it accurately sums up his point of view.

For St Silouan, Adam is ‘our father’ (451), the ‘father of all mankind’ (448). Following St Paul (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45), the Starets sees Adam the first-formed man as the collective head of the human race, containing and recapitulating within himself the whole of humankind. There are obvious parallels here between St Silouan and St Irenaeus of Lyon, even though the Starets was probably unfamiliar with the Irenaean writings. This solidarity and recapitulation in Adam renders all human persons ‘consubstantial’ and ‘ontologically one’, as Fr Sophrony puts it (123, 51, 217). This ontological unity is not merely abstract and theoretical but specific and actual, ‘for the whole Adam is not an abstraction but the most concrete fullness of the human being’, to quote Fr Sophrony once more (222). It was the denial of this ‘consubstantiality’ that constituted, as we saw earlier, the essence of Adam’s fall.

This unity in the ‘total Adam’ is movingly expressed in the best-known of all St Silouan’s writings, ‘Adam’s Lament’ (448-56). Here the Starets takes up and develops in his own way the liturgical texts for the Sunday before Lent, the ‘Sunday of Forgiveness’, on which the Orthodox Church commemorates the expulsion of Adam from paradise. In particular he has used the ikos appointed for that day:

Banished from the joys of paradise, Adam sat outside and wept, and beating his hands upon his face, he said: ‘I am fallen, in Thy compassion have mercy on me.’…

O paradise, share in the sorrow of thy master who is brought to poverty, and with the sound of thy leaves pray to the Creator that he may not keep thy gate closed for ever. I am fallen, in Thy compassion have mercy on me.

As we read St Silouan’s prose-poem ‘Adam’s Lament’, it becomes clear that this is the lament not just of Adam but of Silouan himself, and not of him alone but of the whole human race. Adam’s sorrowful repentance is our repentance also:

The soul that has lost grace yearns after the Lord, and weeps as Adam wept when he was driven from paradise (326)…. O Lord, grant unto us the repentance of Adam (271).

Nor is this all. It is the lament not of humankind alone but of the entire creation, for all created things are involved in Adam’s fall:

Thus did Adam lament,

And the tears streamed down his face onto his beard,

onto the ground beneath his feet,

And the whole desert heard the sound of his mourning.

The beasts and the birds were hushed in grief (449).

Lo, the whole earth is in travail (452).

The sin of Adam is cosmic in its effects, destroying as it does the primal harmony that prevailed between humans and the rest of creation. So Adam exclaims in his ‘Lament’:

In paradise was I joyful and glad:

the Spirit of God rejoiced me,

and suffering was a stranger 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 (455).

Because of our solidarity in the ‘total Adam’, writes Fr Sophrony, all of us share in Adam’s guilt (120). This does not mean that either he or St Silouan would endorse an Augustinian doctrine of original sin, in a fully developed form. But it does mean that, united as we are as members of a single human family, we are each of us ‘responsible for everyone and everything’, to use the phrase of Starets Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. Yet, if we are subject to a solidarity in guilt, we enjoy egually a solidarity in salvation: in the words of Khomiakov, ‘No one is saved alone.’My personal salvation is bound up with the salvation of the entire human race, and indeed of the whole creation. Fr Sophrony neatly illustrates this interdependence in both sinfulness and salvation by recounting a conversation that he once heard between two Athonite monks:

The first said,

   ‘I cannot understand why the Lord does not grant peace to the world even if only a single person implored him to do so.’

   To which the other replied,

   ‘And how could there be complete peace in the world if but a single malicious man remained?’ (200)

This understanding of the ‘total Adam’ means that, on each occasion when we say the Lord’s Prayer, we offer it not only on our own behalf but on behalf of everyone. As Fr Sophrony says, ‘When we pray “Our Father” we think of all mankind, and solicit the fullness of grace for all as for ourselves’. St Gregory of Nyssa emphasizes this same point when he states that, since we ‘share in Adam’s nature and therefore share also in his fall’, in consequence the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our trespasses’, is something that we offer for Adam’s sake as well as for our own.This fits exactly with St Silouan’s line of thought.

On the basis of this theology of the ‘total Adam’, the Starets is able to give a particularly powerful interpretation to Christ’s command, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 19:19). I am able to love my neighbour as myself, because by virtue of the unity of all humankind in ‘Adam our father’, my neighbour is myself. I am likewise to pray for others as I pray for myself: ‘All my desire’, says St Silouan, ‘is to learn humility and the love of Christ, that I may offend no man but pray for all as I pray for myself (350: italics in the original). In the same way the suffering of the other is my suffering, and my neighbour’s healing is healing for me as well; ‘my brother’s glory will be my glory also.’ ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it’ (l Corinthians 12:26).

This leads St Silouan to affirm in a strong and literal sense that my neighbour’s life is my own: ‘Blessed is the souls that loves her brother, for our brother is our life’ (371: italics in the original). For the one who prays, says Fr Sophrony,

The existence of mankind is not alien and extraneous to him but is inextricably bound up with his own being…. Through Christ’s love all men become an inseparable part of our own individual, eternal existence (47).

Christ has taken up the ‘total Adam’ into Himself and has suffered for him; we therefore should take up into ourselves ‘the life of all mankind’, looking upon every other person as our ‘eternal brother’:

Each of us must, therefore, take heed not only for himself but for this single whole (47-48).

So it is that, according to the Starets, ‘in his deep heart the Christian after a certain fashion lives the whole history of the world as his own history’; for ‘no man is alien to him’ (234).

Exactly because my neighbour is myself, because my brother’s life is my own, I am required to love my enemies.

Only in the light of St Silouan’s teaching on the ‘total Adam’ can we truly appreciate the crucial importance that he attached to love for enemies. I am to love my enemy, because my enemy is myself; I am the other whom I regard as my enemy. His life is mine, and mine is his. Love for enemies is a direct corollary of our mutual coinherence in ‘Adam, our father’.

‘Weep with me, forest and desert’

Sin and salvation, however, are not merely human in scope, but they also involve the entire created order. When Adam fell, the whole creation fell with him; and by the same token our human salvation will inaugurate the salvation of the total cosmos. As Fr Sophrony puts it, ‘Every saint is a phenomenon of cosmic character’ (223). We are not saved from but with the world.

This cosmic understanding of sin and salvation has a firm basis in Scripture. St John the Baptist, for example, greets Jesus with the words, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). The Forerunner does not say ‘the sins’, but he says ‘the sin’ (in the singular) ‘of the world’. Beyond the personal sins of individual humans, there is a deeper sinfulness that involves the world as a whole. St Paul in his turn states that the entire created universe is at present ‘in bondage to decay’ and ‘groans as if in pangs of childbirth’, waiting ‘with eager expectation for the revealing of the children of God’. When we humans enter into our ‘glorious liberty’ in Christ, then the whole creation will also be set free (Romans 8:19-22). Our fall, that is to say, entails the fall of all creation, and our redemption will likewise bring liberation to creation as a whole. The New Testament concludes with a comprehensive vision not only of a ‘new heaven’ but of a ‘new earth’ as well (Revelation 23:1).

The same understanding of the cosmic dimensions of Christ’s saving work finds expression in the service books of the Church. Let us take as an example a text with which St Silouan was certainly familiar: the ‘Praises’ or ‘Encomia’ recited at Matins on Great Saturday in front of the Epitaphion depicting the dead Christ laid out for burial.[17] In the first place the ‘Praises’ emphasize that Christ’s death and resurrection bring forgiveness and new life to all the human race:

Uplifted on the Cross, Thou hast uplifted with Thyself all living people; and then, descending beneath the earth, Thou raisest all that lie buried there.

Stretched out upon the Wood, Thou hast drawn us mortals to unity; pierced in Thy life-giving side, O Jesus, Thou art become a fountain of forgiveness unto all.

We notice how the atonement is not selective but universal in its scope. But the ‘Praises’ go further than this, proclaiming that Christ’s death upon the Cross has transformed the entire created order:

The whole creation was altered by thy Passion: for all things suffered with Thee, knowing, O Word, that Thou holdest all in unity.

This is a remarkable statement, but it does not stand alone. The ‘Praises’ return frequently to the theme of this all-inclusive co-suffering:

Though Thou wast shut within the narrowest of sepulchres, O Jesus, all creation knew Thee as true King of heaven and earth.

The whole earth quaked with fear, O Word, and the daystar hid its rays, when thy great Light was hidden in the earth.

Of old the lamb was sacrificed in secret; but Thou, longsuffering Saviour, wast sacrificed beneath the open sky and hast cleansed the whole creation.

O hills and valleys, the multitude of humankind, and all creation, weep and lament with me.

The sun and moon grew dark together, O Saviour, like faithful servants, clothed in black robes of mourning.

Come, and with the whole creation let us offer a funeral hymn to the Creator.

The whole earth mourns with us humans for the dead Christ laid in the tomb; and to an equal degree the whole earth is raised to new life, along with us humans, through the Saviour’s resurrection from the dead. Paschal salvation extends beyond the human realm to the world of nature, involving animals, trees, hills and valleys, sun and moon, and the totality of the material creation.

Faithful to this all-inclusive understanding of Christ’s redemptive work, the Starets believes that our personal salvation is integrally connected with the salvation of the whole world. The precept ‘Love all’ means that we are to love the entire creation: humans first, but also animals, plants, and each and every part of nature. Ours is to be a ‘love without limits’, to borrow the title of one of Fr Lev Gillet’s books. We are to feel ‘compassion for the whole universe and every living creature… a love for every one of God’s creatures’, says St Silouan. ‘Weep for all’ means that ‘you will shed abundant tears for your fellow-man and for every thing that hath breath, and all creation’ (427). ‘When the soul learns love of the Lord, she is filled with compassion for the whole universe (443); and when she mourns for the withdrawal of God’s grace she calls on all creation to lament with her:

Weep with me, forest and desert. Weep with me, every creature created by God, and comfort me in my grief and sorrow (365).

In St Silouan’s teaching concerning the bonds that unite us humans to the rest of creation, there are three points that I find particularly interesting:

(1) The Starets underlines the spiritual value of the human body. While he adopts a negative attitude towards the passions, he is fundamentally positive in his estimate of our human physicality. We are to hate, not our bodies as such, but the sinfulness that corrupts them. In its present fallen state the body may appear to us as our adversary, but in its true and natural condition, as originally created by God, it is our helper and our friend. God calls us to a total sanctification:

The Light of the Lord will be in the souls and minds and bodies of the Saints (290)…. The Holy Spirit pervades the entire man – soul, mind and body (353) (italics in the original).

Advancing on the spiritual way, a person becomes ‘sensible’, consciously aware, of the grace of the Holy Spirit in body as well as soul (283); the ninth of the ten ‘rewards’ that the monk receives from God ‘even here on earth’ is that ‘he feels the grace of God in his body, too’ (501)/ ‘The man with grace in soul and body knows perfect love’ (368).

‘Perfect love’, then, leads to the transfiguration of the body:

The fourth and perfect kind of love for God exists when a man possesses the grace of the Holy Spirit in both soul and body. His body is then hallowed, and after death his earthly remains become relics (343).

The Starets mentions from his own experience an instance of bodily glorification:

At Vespers during one Lent at the Monastery of Old Russikon-on-the-Hill the Lord allowed a certain monk to see Father Abraham, a priest-monk of the strict rule, in the image of Christ. The old confessor, wearing his priestly stole, was standing hearing confessions. When the monk entered the confessional he saw that the grey­haired confessor’s face looked young like the face of a boy, and his entire being shone radiant and was in the likeness of Christ (403-4).

In this way St Silouan’s theology of the human person is firmly holistic. Divine grace embraces the total person, soul and body together; the body is deified along with the soul. This has an immediate relevance for his attitude to the material creation. It is through our bodies that we relate to our physical environment, which passes within us and becomes part of us through the exercise of the five senses. If, then, sanctification involves not only our soul but our physical nature, it follows that through our body we can experience the material world as holy, and through our body we can in turn transmit holiness to the material world around us. Our body is the essential intermediary between our inward being and the world of nature; and, because our body can be filled with grace, it is clear that our own sanctification forms a single mystery with the redemption of the material creation.

As a monk of the strict Athonite tradition, St Silouan had been formed by an austere physical discipline. But never did he interpret this ascetic self-denial in a dualistic sense. The monk’s aim, in the words of St John Climacus, is precisely ‘a body made holy’. He seeks the sanctification of the body, not its destruction.

(2) St Silouan gave careful thought to our relationship as humans with the animals. This is only to be expected. He had grown up in an agricultural community. The Holy Mountain which then became his monastic home abounds in living creatures, in birds, butterflies, snakes and jackals, and also (at any rate in the days of the Starets) in wolves and wild boar, not to mention the domestic animals, the horses and mules, that the monasteries used to keep in great numbers before the advent of the tractor and the jeep. Animals were his constant companions.

His attitude towards them is marked by two characteristics: by loving compassion and by realism. He displays both gentleness and detachment. Loving compassion inspires him to write:

Once I needlessly killed a fly. the poor thing crawled on the ground, hurt and mangled, and for three whole days I wept over my cruelty to a living creature, and to this day the incident remains in my memory….

One day, going from the Monastery to Old Russikon-on-the- Hill, I saw a dead snake on my path which had been chopped in pieces, and each piece writhed convulsively, and I was filled with pity for every living creature, every suffering thing in creation, and I wept bitterly before God (469).

At the same time the Starets urges us not to grow unduly attached to animals, and not to bestow on them the love that we ought rather to give to God and to our fellow-humans:

Feed animals and cattle, and do not beat them – in this consists man’s duty of kindness towards them; but to become attached, to love, caress and talk to them – that is folly for the soul (470).

‘I left that passage out from the first English edition,’ Fr Sophrony once said to me. ‘I knew the English would never be able to understand that.’

Incidentally, St Silouan nowhere suggests that there is anything intrinsically sinful in eating animal flesh. As an Athonite monk he would not have eaten meat, but there are many days in the year when the monastic rule permits fish. There was even a time, so he tells us, when he had to struggle against an almost obsessive desire to consume fish (470-1). If the monk abstains from meat, this is for ascetic and disciplinary reasons, not because meat-eating is in itself wrong. Indeed, the Orthodox Church had never advocated vegetarianism as a general principle.

St Silouan’s compassion for the suffering of animals did not make him lose sight of the truth that God has given this world to us humans for our use. Man, as he puts it, is the ‘supreme creation’ (376). In Fr Sophrony’s words, ‘The world itself was created for man.’ Of course this does not in any way justify a cruel and selfish exploitation of our natural environment. On the contrary, in our enjoyment of the world, we are to show the utmost humbleness and sensitivity. God has indeed given us ‘dominion’ over the animals (Genesis 1:28), but dominion does not signify tyranny.

(3) The compassionate love of St Silouan extends beyond animals to plants: ‘Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees’ (Revelation 7:3). On one occasion when the two of them were walking together, Fr Sophrony struck out with his stick at a clump of tall wild grass. The Starets said nothing, but he shook his head doubtfully; and at once Fr Sophrony was ashamed (94). In his own writings St Silouan says:

That green leaf on the tree which you needlessly plucked – it was not wrong, only rather a pity for the little leaf. The heart that has learned to love feels sorry for every created thing (376).

The Spirit of God teaches the soul to love every living thing so that she would have no harm come to even a green leaf on a tree, or trample underfoot a flower of the field. Thus the Spirit of God teaches love towards all, and the soul feels compassion for every being (469).

Thus cosmic compassion, this sense of our human responsibility towards the whole of creation, makes the Starets very much a saint of our own time, living as we do in an era of global pollution. His words, written over half a century ago, are marked by prophetic insight. With good reason the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, in the timely statement on Orthodoxy and the Ecological Crisis published in 1990, includes St Silouan the Athonite among the witnesses that it cites, along with the Prophet Isaiah, St Isaac the Syrian and Dostoevsky.

Yet there is a tension, even a paradox, in St Silouan’s attitude towards the created order. He urges us to ‘love every created thing; and emphasizes the beauty of nature:

From my childhood days I loved the world and its beauty. I loved the woods and green gardens, I loved the fields and all the beauty of God’s creation. I liked to watch the shining clouds scurrying across the blue sky (286).

If we lose our sense of wonder before the beauty of nature, so he believed, this suggests that we have at the same time lost our sense of God’s grace (96).

On the other hand, the Starets maintains that the true monk ‘forgets the world’ (501). So he writes:

After I came to know my Lord, and He made my soul His prisoner, everything changed, and now I no longer want to contemplate the world (286)…. My soul… has no wish to look upon this world, though I do love it (381)…. My soul is filled with love of Thee and knows no desire to look upon this world, beautiful though it be (284).

Such is St Silouan’s order of priorities. However much we value the beauty of the creation, we should feel an incomparably greater love for God the Creator.

*  *  *  *

For St Silouan, then, there is a single and undivided mystery of salvation, at once personal, pan-human and cosmic: everything, like the ocean, flows and enters into contact with everything else. There can be no disagreement between our personal salvation and the salvation of the world. The two form a unity. Our own salvation is necessarily linked to the salvation of every other human being, for ‘our brother is our life’. At the same time, the transfiguration of us humans inaugurates the transfiguration of the cosmos. Not without reason, on the last page of Fr Sophrony’s book on the Starets, do we find a prayer that is all-embracing in its scope:

O Lord, give unto us this love throughout Thine whole universe (504)

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