Saint Silouan the Athonite
(By Archimandrite Sophrony)
St Vladimirs Seminary Press, Cresswood NY
Reviewed by Emmanuel N. Stamatiou
Saint Silouan the Athonite is especially relevant today because of the significance of his teaching for contemporary man. He was born in Russia in 1866, arrived in Mount Athos in 1892 and entered the Russian monastery of Saint Panteleimon. He fell asleep in 1938 and canonized a saint in 1988. Special attention is given to his teaching on the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit, spiritual warfare, the significance of suffering, humility, love for all mankind and prayer for the salvation of the entire world.
As a novice he lacked the experience to know what was happening. One night a strange light filled his cell, even piercing his body so that he saw his entrails. Voices told him to accept the light, “it proceeds from grace.” “You are holy,” they said. But he understood something was wrong. He knew it was luciferic and after months of torturing assaults by devils he began to despair. One day during vespers he prayed fervently before the icon of Our Lord and beheld the living Christ. The grace of the Holy Spirit drained him of all his strength and when the Lord vanished so did the flames of hell that roared around him. He underwent a profound change in his soul, a rare feeling of intense love for God and for man flooded his soul. However, when grace began to recede the battle with intrusive thoughts set in again. In spite of intense prayer he continued to see visions of demons, monstrous shapes in the dark and even in daytime. He lost the grace that initially came to him in abundance.
Fifteen years after the Lord appeared to him, St Silouan continued to struggle at night with prayer, tormented again by devils. As he was standing in his cell, he bowed down to worship when he saw a demon standing in front of the icon waiting to be worshipped. His cell was filled with the stench of evil spirits. He sat down and prayed, “Lord what must I do to stop them hindering me?” And in his soul he heard, “The proud always suffer from devils.” “Lord,” said Silouan. “Teach me what I must do that my soul may become more humble.” Once more his heart heard God’s answer. “Keep your mind in hell and don’t despair.” Silouan understood this to mean that to truly attain the heights of humility one must constantly regard himself unworthy of paradise and condemn oneself to hell. But where is “hell” to be found? St Silouan was not simply referring to hell as a “place” in a metaphysical way. He was referring to the continual encounter with the torments of condemnation. He said that when man explores the secret recesses of his heart and becomes conscious of his sinful nature he descends into the abyss of his own personal hell, his own consciousness and sees for himself his degradation, the way he really is and undergoes incomparable pain, suffering, grief and tears. Yet at the same time, it is in these depths of profound humility that the believer begins to ascend. The deeper one dives into the abyss of hell, the higher he is lifted up to God. However, the danger is when he plunges his mind into his heart and descends into the torments of hell he may find things he does not want to encounter and despairs as the true state of his soul unfolds.
The most beautiful of St Silouan’s teachings is, “The greater the love, the greater the suffering of the soul. The fuller the love, the fuller the knowledge of God. The more ardent the love, the more fervent the prayer. The more perfect the love, the holier the life.”
Perfect love is beyond our reach. Only God is perfect love and love is a gift from God. We must turn to God continually in prayer for understanding and help. God answers man in his heart through the grace of the Holy Spirit. But most people neither hear nor understand God speaking in their hearts, they listen to the urging of passions which inhibits the soul and with their clamour drown the still small voice of God.
St Silouan’s teaching in this book on prayer, humility, peace, grace, the will of God, repentance, knowledge of God, love, spiritual warfare and intrusive thoughts are so heartwarming that the grace flowing from his words impels the soul to love God and the soul will not be able to tear itself away from Him. The soul will, “yearn for the Lord and seek Him in tears”.
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