Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), also Elder Sophrony, was best known as the disciple and biographer of St Silouan the Athonite and compiler of St Silouan's works, and as the founder of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Maldon, Essex, England.
On September 23, 1896, Sergei Symeonovich Sakharov was born to Orthodox parents in Russia. As a child, Sergei would pray daily, later recalling that he would pray for 45 minutes without stress. Even as a child, Sergei experienced the Uncreated Light. He read widely, including such Russian greats as Gogl, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin.
Due to great artistic talent, Sergei studied at the Academy of Arts between 1915 and 1917, and then at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture between 1920 and 1921. Sergei used art as a "quasi-mystical" means "to discover eternal beauty", "breaking through present reality...into new horizons of being". Later, this would help him to differentiate between human intellectual light and God's Uncreated Light.
It was around the time of his study at the Moscow School that Sergei would see Christianity's focus on personal love as being necessarily finite; he falls from the Orthodoxy of his youth and delves into Indian mystical religions based on the impersonal Absolute.
In 1921, Sergei left Russia: partly to continue his artistic career in Western Europe, and partly because he was not a Marxist. After first going to Italy, he went to Berlin, and then settled in Paris in 1922.
Sergei's 1922 arrival in Paris lent itself to artistic exhibitions of Sergei's works, which attracted the attention of the French media. However, he was growing increasingly frustrated by the inability of art to express purity, and however much he tried he couldn't escape this reality. He also grew to see that rational knowledge was entirely unable to provide an answer to the problem of death.
In 1924, Sergei came to the realisation that Christ's precept to love God with all of one's being was not merely a psychological thing, but ontological; that this total love was the only way to relate to God; and that love had to be a personal thing by definitional necessity, and on Holy and Great Saturday of that year, he returns to Christianity. He experiences the Uncreated Light in a strength unmatched to the end of his life and, as a result, distances himself from his artwork.
Sergei then became among the first students of the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. He was lectured by Fr Sergei Bulgakov and Nicholas Berdyaev, but while both influenced Sergei, problems with each (Bulgakov's sophiology and Berdyaev's anti-asceticism) limited the influence they had on the future Elder.
In 1925, finding formal theological study to be inherently unfulfilling, Sergei leaves the Institute and Paris to become a monk on Mount Athos.
Sergei arrived at Mt Athos in 1926, where he entered the Russian Orthodox Monastery of St. Panteleimon with the intent of learning how to pray and to have the right attitude towards God. He was tonsured with the name of Sophrony. In 1930, Fr Sophrony was ordained to the diaconate by St Nicolai (Velimirovic) of Zicha, and he becomes a disciple of St Silouan the Athonite, who would prove to be Fr Sophrony's greatest and life-long influence. St Silouan had no formal system of theology, being largely uneducated, but his life exuded theology, and this is what taught Fr Sophrony, and what Fr Sophrony would later systematise.
Between 1932 and 1946, Fr Sophrony would exchange letters with Fr David Balfour, a Catholic who converted to Orthodoxy. These These letters reveal Fr Sophrony's knowledge of many Fathers of the Church, force Fr Sophrony to articulate his theological thought, and to demonstrate the differences between Western and Eastern thought. Many of Fr Sophrony's later thoughts would arise out of the same topics addressed in this correspondence.
In 1938, St Silouan reposes. Following the saint's instructions, Fr Sophrony left the monastery grounds to reside in the Athonite desert; first at Karoulia, then at a cave near St Paul's Monastery. During his residence in this desert, World War II began and continued (1939-1945), which proved to be a time of such intense prayer that Fr Sophrony's health was affected. This taught him the interdependence of all humanity. In 1941, Elder Sophrony was ordained to the priesthood. He becomes a spiritual father to many Athonite monks.
- 1947: Circumstances (possibly to publish St Silouan's works, possibly to complete his theological education, possibly due to deteriorating health, possibly due to difficulties of being non-Greek after WW2) forced Elder Sophrony to move to Paris. Balfour helpes him gain a passport.
- The faculty of St Sergius allow Elder Sophrony to sit the examinations of the whole course, providing for his needs; however, upon arrival, this is blocked by faculty insistence on Elder Sophrony denying by silence the grace of the Moscow Patriarchate, which he refused to do.
- Elder Sophrony settles in Russian House, an old-age home, in St Genevieve-des-Bois, assisting the priest and acting as father confessor. He has a major operation on a stomach ulcer.
- 1948: Elder Sophrony produces first mimiographed edition of Staretz Silouan on hand-roneo. In it, Elder Sophrony outlines St Silouan's principles of theology, and explains many fundamental concepts (prayer for the whole world, God-forsakenness and the idea of all humanity being connected).
- 1950: Elder Sophrony works with Vladimir Lossky on the Messager de l’Exarchat du Patriarche Russe en Europe Occidentale until 1957. Lossky influences Elder Sophrony's thought on many contemporary issues and compliments Elder Sophrony's work on Trinitarian thought and its application to the Church and humanity; however, Lossky would not talk about a deified human nature, nor about the idea of God-forsakenness in a positive view, as Elder Sophrony did.
- 1952: Elder Sophrony produces a professional second edition of Staretz Silouan. This book brought much fame to both St Silouan and Elder Sophrony, and included a theological introduction to St Silouan's works, based on Lossky finding no theological value in the Saint's works.
- 1958: Elder Sophrony had many people living near him and seeking the monastic life. A property at Tolleshunt Knights, Maldon, Essex, England was inspected.
- 1959: Community of St John the Baptist formed at Tolleshunt Knights under Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh. Monastery has both monks and nuns, and numbers six.
- 1965: Monastery of St John the Baptist, with blessing of Patriarch Alexy, moved under the Ecumenical Patriarchate's omophorion. Later, the Ecumenical Patriarchate would upgrade the Monastery to Stavropegic.
- 1973: Publication of a more complete translation of Monk of Mt Athos (the life of St Silouan).
- 1975: Publication of Wisdom of Mt Athos (the writings of St Silouan).
- 1977: His Life is Mine published.
- 1985: We Shall See Him As He Is published, to mixed reviews: the West generally enjoyed the book, the Russians generally criticised the book. Some criticism was so stinging that it, along with illness, discouraged Elder Sophrony from writing again.
- 1987: Ecumenical Patriarchate glorifies St Silouan the Athonite.
Events of and after his repose
The monastery had been informed that the only way that it could bury people on its property was to build an underground crypt, which it proceeded to build, and to which Elder Sophrony said that he would not repose until the crypt was ready. Then, having been told of the expected completion date of 12 July, Elder Sophrony stated that he "would be ready". On the 11th, Elder Sophrony reposed; and on the 14th was his funeral and burial, attended by monastics from around the world. At the time of Fr Sophrony's repose, there are 25 monastics in the monastery, a number that has remained steady since then.
Mother Elizabeth, the eldest nun, reposed soon after, on the 24th. This was in accordance with Elder Sophrony's words that he would repose first, and she would repose soon after.
On Prayer, a book containing Elder Sophrony's writings on prayer - particularly the Jesus Prayer - is published posthumously.
- The Undistorted Image: Staretz Silouan, 1866-1938, 1948, 1952. Faith Press, 1958 (ISBN B0007IXVB0).
- The Monk of Mount Athos: Staretz Silouan 1866-1938, Mowbray, 1973 (ISBN 0264646185). St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997 (ISBN 091383615X).
- Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Siloan 1866-1938, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1975 (ISBN 0913836176).
- His Life is Mine, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977 (ISBN B000B9E2WW). St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997 (ISBN 0913836338).
- We Shall See Him As He Is, 1985. Essex, England: Stravropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 1988.
- Saint Silouan, the Athonite, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press; reprint edition, 1999 (ISBN 0881411957).
- On Prayer, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998 (ISBN 0-88141-194-9).
- Christ, Our Way and Our Life by Archimandrite Zacharias. "A Presentation of the theology of Archimandrite Sophrony." (ISBN 1-878997-74-2).
- I Love Therefore I Am by Nicholas V. Sakharov. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003 (ISBN 0-88141-236-8).
"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. But the Lord Himself guides with His grace those who are given over to God's will, and they bear all things with fortitude for the sake of God Whom they have so loved and with Whom they are glorified for ever. It is impossible to escape tribulation in this world but the man who is giver over to the will of God bears tribulation easily, seeing it but putting his trust in the Lord, and so his tribulations pass."
"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.
"There are known instances when Blessed Staretz Silouan in prayer beheld something remote as though it were happening close by; when he saw into someone's future, or when profound secrets of the human soul were revealed to him. There are many people still alive who can bear witness to this in their own case but he himself never aspired to it and never accorded much significance to it. His soul was totally engulfed in compassion for the world. He concentrated himself utterly on prayer for the world, and in his spiritual life prized this love above all else." -- St Silouan the Athonite, p.228.
|Abbot of the Patriarchal Stavropegic
Monastery of St. John the Baptist