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"Keep your mind on hades and despair not". The ascetic way of St. Siluan the Athonite as a challenge for modern age
By Cyril Bishop of Avida (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople)
Nov 15, 2010, 13:31
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The first speech given at the International scientific theological conference of Russian Orthodox Church «Life In Christ: Christian morality, Church ascetic tradition, and challenges of modern age«. belongs to the Bishop of Avida, Cyril.

Following the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Synodal Act of 26 November, 1987, brother Siluan of Russia, who dwelt in the holy patriarchal and Stavropegiac Panteleimonos Monastery for nearly fifty years, was proclaimed a saint in recognition of his pious accomplishments. This distinction acknowledges Siluan’s God-given gifts of healing the sick and the afflicted as well as of voicing a prophetic teaching in the tempestuous twentieth century, gifts earned after years of ascetic struggle to embody love and become a vessel of the Holy Spirit.

When delving into a study of St. Siluan’s life, it is true that one is not struck by anything extraordinary or impressive. His life was that of a villager who received little formal education and who, upon completing his military duty, went on to dedicate himself to the simple, monotonous order of a simple monk. The kind of holiness that manifests itself through Siluan, thereby becoming accessible to us, is the concealed yet somehow discernible holiness stemming from humility.  For Siluan was neither a trained Professor nor an articulate, multi-lingual bishop. For that matter, he wasn’t even a clergyman. In his simplicity, Siluan proved to the world that what truly matters, what is of utmost importance, in the last analysis is not what one is but who he or she is. Just as important too, as is shown by Siluan’s example, is the means of attaining one’s goals in life.

It would be inappropriate to deny that Siluan’s early life was rather turbulent, replete with moral ambiguity and constant relapses. It was at that point in his life that the first zest for the monastic life weakened, to be followed by incessant moments of sin. But the emotional distress of these affairs exhausted Siluan, who became increasingly plagued by feelings of remorse. The bitter stings of sin, which naturally could not give him fulfillment, at least of the existential sort that propelled Siluan’s search of God since childhood, played a key role in transforming his standpoint over a number of life issues. It was thus that his earlier deliberation to enter the monastic life upon completion of his military duty returned with renewed force. Interestingly, Siluan himself attributes his re-conversion to the monastic ideal to the Theotokos, the one person who did not give up on him during his period of licentiousness but deigned rather to visit him so as to raise him from spiritual slumber. But no matter how strong or sincere his repentance may have been, it will actually take Siluan years of struggle to attain the sight of God, the sight of the uncreated light, without ever getting oblivious to his former lapsed state. Here it must be pointed out, in light of Siluan’s repentance, that it is the personal stories of a long array of penitents like himself that can best testify to the divine character of Christ’s revelation, as opposed to its man-made fabrication. In this respect, the presence of Christ in the lives of His disciples of all times, far from being an artificial construct, comprises rather His response to the human sigh and longing for the attainment of God’s self-disclosure.

Near the end of his military term, Siluan went to see Fr. John of Kronstandt, but failing to find him there, he left him a short message. It said, in less than two lines: «Holy Father, I wish to become a monk. Pray for me, so that the world won’t keep me.» Now, what exactly is this «world» from which Symeon, later to be renamed Siluan at Mount Athos, wishes to be cut off? Is it a town, a village, a group of people or perhaps something altogether different? The New Testament, and St. John the Apostle and Gospel writer in particular, gives us an apt clue of what the «world» in Siluan’s sense refers to: the world is «the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, the pride in riches …» (1 Jn, 2:16). John states firmly that «the world and its desires are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever» (1 Jn, 2:17).

Siluan’s biographer, Arch. Sophrony Sakharov, founder of St. John the Baptist’s Holy Monastery in Essex, England, describes Siluan’s life at St. Panteleimonos Monastery in the following words: «Brother Symeon was led to the spiritual way through the centuries-old tradition of Athonite monasticism, so deeply steeped in the unceasing remembrance of God. This includes: private prayer, continuous confession and communion, study, work, obedience.» Siluan acquainted himself with the new way of life more by immersing himself in it rather than by attending courses. He thereby embarked on a lifelong struggle against the temptations of the flesh and evil thoughts, a struggle marked by resistance to arrogance and vainglory, a titanic inner battle seeking the grace of God. Is it therefore possible for the Church to cease preaching on the spiritual struggle, to ever neglect to exalt personal effort against all kinds of evil, individual and collective alike? As soon as we decline to take up our cross and carry it, we ought to start calibrating the extent of our moral bankruptcy. For our target, as Christians, is very clear: it can be summed up in man’s effort to join Christ in His example, i.e. to assume Christ’s ethos as our personal guideline in life; otherwise put, it is for each of us to be affected as Paul was, who had Christ living within him.

The life chosen by St. Siluan, the life of every monk determined to cleanse himself from passions that block his entrance to God’s Kingdom, constitutes an affront to the modern, consumerist lifestyle. It is flagrantly obvious that modern society aims to please human sensations by seeking bodily pleasures. It glorifies greed, arrogance, and vainglory, at the same time obstructing interpersonal relations based on respect for the other and for all otherness. In this age of crass materialism and machine rule, known for crashing the human spirit and diminishing our worldview to the size of our perceptions, the future of humankind is increasingly imperiled on account of scientific interventions on the atomic and molecular level. The moral dilemmas arising from this dazzling new situation are unprecedented as they are difficult to handle. Closer to our current experience, we are trained as citizens to become homo economicus, seekers of maximized profit. This also raises a number of disturbing paradoxes: we may work less nowadays, but we are growing more and more tired; we may have more in our possession than previous generations did, yet feel we are poorer, longing as we do for more; we have more luxuries and conveniences at our disposal, but nevertheless we are more stressed out and worried than ever before. All these aspects of contemporary civil life are on the opposite end from the monastic life, which is bent on renouncing human alienation in its struggle to be graced with a real foretaste of eternity.

St. Siluan’s solitary life could be roughly divided into three phases, matching the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt: the crossing of the Red Sea, the time period in the desert, and the entrance to the Promised Land. Each of these eras is symbolically rooted, as I just mentioned, in the biblical story of the Jewish people. The first period comprises Siluan’s calling from God, marked by an accompanying joy granted by the Holy Spirit. «I did not bring anything with me to the Monastery other than my sins, and I have no idea why the Lord has given me, at that early phase in my monastic career as a novice, such a plentitude of the Holy Spirit’s Grace, which filled my soul and body with immense joy.» He further goes on to say that «the received Grace was akin to the one enjoyed by the martyrs, while my body longed to suffer from Christ.» Those who are ignorant of Grace do not seek it. Those that seek to accumulate wealth and leadership for themselves in this world are blind, literally captives of earth. They are similar to the village rooster, so content as he is to be confined within a small, apparently safe yard. The eagle, by contrast, who soars the clouds, knows many lands, seeing as he does forests and meadows, rivers and mountains, seas and cities. If we cut the eagle’s wings and have him live in the narrow yard ruled by the rooster, he would no doubt spend the rest of his life in misery and homesickness for the skies.

The second period in Siluan’s monastic career corresponds to the very difficult time of the withdrawal of Grace, experienced as what his biographer, Archimandrite Sofrony called [Siluan’s] abandonment by God. Such an agonizing development in one’s monastic life as the eclipse of God and His Grace is a recurrent theme in the literature of Christian spirituality, repeatedly spoken of by Makarius of Egypt, Diadochos Fotikes, Isaac the Syrian, Maximus the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, and many more Church Fathers. In this context, St. Siluan fuerhtermore mentions the experience of St. Seraphim of Sarov, who was completely transformed as soon as he was graced with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit. But when Seraphim was subsequently deprived of divine grace, he went out to the desert and for the next three years he prayed atop a rock, saying «God, have mercy on me, a sinner.» Bereft of the Spirit’s Grace, man is downgraded to the status of animals. Apart fro the benefit of Grace, the soul falls ill. In their ignorance, people display an exorbitant appreciation for the secular sciences, and are similarly overjoyed on the occasion of meeting earthly rulers in person. Nevertheless, the truly important feat for all of us would be to come to know the Lord and His will through the Holy Spirit. Surely, this precious encounter with the living Lord cannot be compared to anything that secular knowledge and worldly benefits can endow us with. Without the Holy Spirit, the soul is dead, even if is totally filled with all the knowledge in the world.

The time period marked by God’s absence from one’s life is excruciatingly painful, a long moment of rough spiritual struggle. This phase signals the beginning of an onslaught of dark thoughts and temptations. Prayers and supplications are now going unheard. Heaven appears to be closed and God likewise seems to be deaf to human entreaties. Every aspect of life becomes a hardship. The body is now more easily afflicted by disease, while everything surrounding the suffering person (from nature itself to animals and other humans) appears hostile. In such instances, the sorrow felt by the soul in its total ignorance of Christ’s eventual return, is literally unbearable.

This traumatic period of the loss of divine Grace lasted in Siluan’s case for fifteen whole years. Yet, bereft as he may have been of God’s presence throughout this whole time, Siluan was afforded access to various affairs that for the vast majority of people are to remain inexplicable mysteries beyond comprehension, and just as resistant to verbal account. Otherwise put, such experiences beggar any objective description at all, and language fails us totally, for it simply lacks the required resources by which to convey what is by nature transcendent and so utterly personal. After 15 years of personal torment, then, Siluan was afforded this (well-known, by now) revelation in his prayer:  «Keep your mind on Hades and despair not.» For many people, this phrase may be totally meaningless, just as, alternatively, it may be a sheer lunacy for others. But for some, doubtlessly less in number, this phrase relates the hidden mystery (hidden from the so-called ‘wise’ of this world) of humankind’s fall and redemption. The way to the truth, no less than the very truth itself, have been preached to the world for two millennia now, but their recipients are few and the listening flock ever small.

Be that as it may, what does this sentence, «Keep your mind on Hades and despair not,» really mean? The Lord suggested to Siluan that he descend to Hades and Siluan, in turn, calls this downward movement the «great science,» which put his soul to the rest. By plunging into Hades, the soul is humbled and the heart breaks. By the same token, evil thoughts are removed from one’s mind, and divine Grace finds a place to dwell inside the faithful person. Just as Christ with his passion plunged into Hades, only to be raised again triumphant towards Heaven, so does He now calls Siluan to walk into hell, with everything that such a downward spiral entails (the inner darkness and loneliness of one’s total isolation from every communion with God and fellow humans), so as to accomplish a spiritual victory akin to that of his Lord. Real saints deem themselves unworthy before God, whereas to all those assured of their inner worth asking for a lift to Heaven, the Lord says «you know not what you are asking for.» Hades is the spiritual realm that isolates man from God, manifesting one’s spiritual bankruptcy. It must be kept in mind, however, that this is a hopeful situation, for an awareness of one’s own bankruptcy fills the soul with remorse; it is the first-fruit, the very beginning of repentance, thanks to which God can now make a dwelling to the grieving soul. St. Symeon the New Theologian calls this state a «spiritual gallantry» because in it, the faithful person is not given to despair but is capable instead of conquering his fears and sorrow, finding new hope in God’s mercy. Genuine contrition leads, according to St. John the Sinanite, to exoneration from divine judgment and eternal condemnation. As St. Paul put the matter, «But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged» (1 Cor. 11:31). A self-condemnation in hell is the best way for human beings to avoid their condemnation. Self-criticism breeds contrition, leads to repentance, defeats enemies, frees us from the fetters of sin and renders the humbled person a participant of the Holy Spirit. The same view was held by St. Gregory Palamas, who noted that humility and self-criticism are the spiritual resources for overcoming all evil. Our temporary, self-inflicted condemnation thus spares us the horror of God’s upcoming judgment. In a manner similar to Siluan’s other famed Church Fathers such as Anthony the great, Sisoes, Makarius, Poimen, to mention but a few, consented to undergo this experience of Hades in their earthly lives. In particular, Siluan had in mind an incident that had occurred to St. Anthony as he praying to God, asking for a clue as to the height of virtue he had attained by that time. It was then pointed out to him that, in fact, «Anthony you have not yet reached the pinnacle of virtue accomplished by this [plain] shoemaker in Alexandria. Curious, Anthony set out to meet this man in Alexandria and learn about his way of living. The shoemaker told Anthony that he gave 1/3 of his earnings to the Church, and kept the other 1/3 for his own needs. Anthony, who had relinquished his entire fortune and lived in the desert, was naturally not impressed, and so revealed to the shoemaker that he was sent there by God to observe his conduct. The shoemaker, who revered Anthony, answered rather apprehensively: «Abba, I don’t think I have ever done anything good in my life, which is why every time I get up from bed to get to work, I say to myself that the entire city, from the youngest to the oldest member, shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, because of their good deeds. I, on the other hand, am the sole person who’s going to inherit hell as a result of my sins. And I go over the same line right before bed time: all shall be saved, save for myself.» The Alexandrian shoemaker spoke plainly, as meekly and straightforwardly as did Anthony, Sisoes, Poemen, and other Church Fathers. Yet the power of their simple discourse, like its latent depth, are in fact off limits to those deprived of such experiences, i.e. to all those who have never felt the agony of Hades and are incapable of self-criticism. But anyone who spares himself or herself the sorrow of self-criticism is by definition cut off from the Holy Spirit and the divine Grace that the Paraclete dispenses. St. Siluan is categorical in this matter: «it was the Lord Himself who taught me how I ought to humble myself. ‘Keep you mind in Hades and despair not.’ This is how our spiritual enemies are defeated. But as soon as my mind overlooks the fires of hell, the dark thoughts resurface all over again.»

The experience of hell is nowadays a concrete and very real situation faced by an awful lot of people who find themselves coping with all kinds of dead-ends, including many that they have created for themselves. Beset with ever pressing problems, human beings very often look to various forms of escapism as a way of gaining momentary relief from pressure, usually by resorting to hedonism and luxuries, which function as artificial substitutes of life. As a result of this consumerist attitude to life, people are increasingly alienated from God and from one another. The first half of the Lord’s injunction to Siluan, suggests that making Hades the temporary dwelling place of one’s mind, along with repentance and humility, are the sole means of healing one’s soul. The other half of the Lord’s instruction is meant to provide hope for a final redemption. By willingly embracing self-condemnation and voluntarily descending to Hades in obedience to Christ’s command, the faithful Christian manages to overcome temptations and, more importantly, shows that one’s love for Christ is far stronger than death, as Christ Himself first taught us by His own example, when for our sake He trampled death by death. Thus, too, is humankind proven to be above the world and its natural decay and determinisms, emulating Christ in His decisive victory over death, accomplished by an act of utter humility.

Following his Lord-given revelation, Siluan resumed his earlier, steady spiritual course in prayer and peace of mind. Divine Grace now stays with him, and he senses God’s presence at all times, often looking on in astonishment as God intervenes miraculously in Siluan’s life. Still, it took him 15 more years to overcome the human vacillation between his earlier self and his deified state. As Siluan himself relates in his writings, «Lord, I cannot thank you enough for your new, unspeakable mercy, for you disclose your mysteries to an ignorant sinner like myself.» As timer passed, the monk began to feel sorrowful for the world as well as for those who are ignorant of Christ.  «The world perishes, shackled in its self-inflicted despair … Lord, I cannot your work all by myself … Grant that the whole world know you.» Having been taught the love of Christ by the Holy Spirit, Siluan said, «To pray for people is akin to shedding your blood.» «To love as Christ did, is to drink from the same «cup» that Christ asked His Father at Gethsemane to spare Him from. The love of Christ is a bliss that transcends every good on earth, but at the same time it is a passion, a torment unto death.»Focusing as he does his mind on his heart by means of pure prayer, and plunging deeply into the heart’s domain, Siluan sees that the being of humankind is not something foreign or alien to his own existence; he thus accepts all people as an intrinsic part of his own being. More importantly, he now begins to grasp Christ’s commandment to «love thy neighbor as thyself» in terms other than those of a mere moral rule. Because the preposition «as» does not concern the volume of love but refers rather to the ontological unity of all people. By the same token, on Judgment Day Christ will identify Himself with the «least» of society’s members. For in His very being, Christ encapsulates humankind in its entirety, and so suffers for the «entire» Adam. As Siluan says, «the monk implores God for the sake of all humanity … The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, grants the monk the love of the Holy Spirit and it is on account of this love that the monk’s heart is always sad for the people, as not everyone is saved. The Lord Himself was so sorrowful for the people, that He gave up His life on the Cross. But the Theotokos, too, was equally as distressed in her heart for the salvation of the people … Now, it is the selfsame Holy Spirit that the Lord gave to the Apostles and the saintly Fathers of our Church and to its ministers. This is really what our ministry to the world consists of. It is also why neither Church ministers nor monks should become entangled in secular problems and concerns but must imitate instead the Mother of God, who stayed in the sanctuary, in the «holy of holies,» studying the Lord’s commandments day and night and prayerfully interceded for the people.

The par excellence prayerful people are the Saints. Siluan believed that it was thanks to their prayers and intercessions that God preserves the world. So pleasing are the Saints to God that He listens to their prayers with approval, thereby keeping us from harm’s way in the process. Had it not been for these warm, earnest prayers, the world or parts of it might have suffered an arid fate long ago. «The world is held together through the prayers of the Saints, and should these grow weaker, the world is doomed to perish …» muses Siluan. The Saints are endowed with the love of Christ, which in itself is a divine force. It is precisely this force which holds creation intact. The very moment that saints cease to be born on earth, the world shall suffer destruction: this is what dawned upon Siluan throughout his many years of continuous, unabated prayer for the sake of the world. The elder Sofrony admits as much himself, having being blessed with the opportunity to spend precious time next to Siluan and see for himself the wonderful renewal of life that Christ bestowed upon His faithful disciples. Their hearts had become an amazing meeting point for both peace and sadness, a place where joy for creation as grace and a deep concern for the being of humankind and the tragedy of its continuous fall coincided. From this we may gather that monastic life is comprised of two things: love for God and love for fellow human being. When the monk retreats from the world, ready to embark on his lifelong struggle with passions, in actual fact he makes a declaration of his unflinching love for God. But then, as he progresses in his spiritual life, the monk comes back to the world in a renewed way, having learned to see people not through his physical eyes but through the eyes of the soul, filled as he is with a bottomless love that pours out onto everyone. His vision is now sharpened enough to see every single human being as a Person, namely as a unique, unrepeatable, and inexhaustible entity, as an intrinsically worthwhile being that’s precious in God’s eyes. Saint Siluan was filled with compassion and deep sorrow for all people, for whom he implored the mercy of God. On this point, it is apposite to recall a conversation that Siluan once had with a hermit who was certain that God would punish all atheists in hell. In reply to the hermit’s adamant legalism, Siluan asked him whether he would be able to remain peaceful and content even in paradise, seeing so much as a single sinner tortured in hell. To this question, Siluan added that «love cannot endure such an eventuality … we must therefore pray for everyone.» Hence it is far from accidental that the Churchmen involved in missionary and pastoral work, spreading the light of Christ around them, have committed themselves to the requirements of the ascetic ethos, as a constant struggle against the passions.

There can be no doubt that St. Siluan the Athonite, who fell asleep in the Lord on September 24, 1938, is a beacon of monastic hope, an exceptional monk justly crowned with the illumination stemming from God’s uncreated energies. One may well argue that his life mode, the ascetic way, is more or less foreign to our own lifestyle, as Christians living in the world. This doesn’t mean, however, that the ascetic tradition of the Orthodox Church is a matter of indifference to sincere Christians, much less that as parishioners, we have no use for it. On the contrary, shreds of asceticism run throughout the lives of Christians, no matter where these are being carried out – for, as disciples of Christ, we are called to reconsider our relation to the world and the use of it for our benefit. We are not deniers of the world proper, as if we were Manicheans of some sort, but simply deny the present, lapsarian shape of the world, i.e. its unjust and cruel social structure based on greed, arrogance, lustful desires and hatred. Spirituality, both in and out of the monastery, necessarily passes through the cross, though of course in the multitude of particular contexts involving each one of us.

It can hardly be disputed either, that with Christ, the new Adam, a new cosmic reality asserts itself into the world, a new ontology, often referred to as the «new creation.» The salvation accomplished in Christ does not amount to the fulfillment of a set of ethical precepts; it rather constitutes a radically novel ontological condition, a participation into a new form of being, in which humankind can join as a result of our physical transfiguration following the salvific work of the Lord, Jesus Christ. As members of the Church, of Christ’s extended body in history, Christians partake of the Lord’s grace and glory. The essence of Christianity is not its moral teachings but the very person of Christ Himself, who inaugurates the new creation. Accordingly, to live the Christian life is to let Christ dwell within us, after the example of St. Paul, in which case human nature is restored to original splendor as temple of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The life of St. Siluan aptly demonstrates that Christianity cannot be associated with theories of morality which reduce salvation to «good works» and various more human accomplishments. What truly matters for human salvation is the Christian’s partaking of the new creation, their transference from time and temporality to eternity, from creation to the uncreated realm and the sharing into the uncreated energies of God. A further lesson we can draw from St. Siluan’s life is that all the ethical precepts and commandments which he strived to fulfill were never ends in themselves but only signposts on the way to salvation. Salvation, properly speaking, is the faithful person’s openness and receptivity to the Grace furnished by the Holy Spirit, the physical glimpse of the uncreated light as experienced in the aforementioned first and third stages of the monastic life. Only thus can we account for the last-minute salvation of the thief on the cross as a result of a mere repentance, however genuine or sincere, just as we can also begin to realize how it can be possible for whores and tax collectors to lead others to salvation, while the Pharisees, the so-called pious observers of the Law, can well be excluded from God’s Kingdom. Virtues are a natural trait of the human being when being graced with the presence of the Holy Spirit, while in the earlier stages of monasticism, virtues are yet but a goal to be reached. Their accomplishment presupposes a life filled with strife and deprivation, to be sure – it is for this reason precisely, that moral commandments can never be disregarded as «superfluous,» although it is just as true that they must be adjusted to the particular, concrete circumstances of each Christian’s life, in accordance to the pastoral spirit of the Church. The faithful person is being instructed by moral precepts, but is not expected to be enslaved to them. After all, neither the Church’s identity, nor her truth, are reducible to the precise observation of rules. The Church is Christ Himself, from Whom everything comes and everything is likewise referred to. Christians, as the sanctified members of the body of Christ manifest their Lord in history with their own sanctification, thereby proving that the Christian faith is not a fleshless ideology but an incarnate reality.

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