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The Biography of Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov

Elder Sophrony (Sakharov): Biography Facts

Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov

The words of the great Russian saint Seraphim of Sarov “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved” once influenced the minds of many believers around the world.

The book of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) Writings of Starets Silouan gives a detailed presentation explaining this wisdom. This book arouses the desire to read it over and over, because it is written in the spirit, and contains answers to many questions of our time.

Universality of the image of elder Sophrony (Sakharov)

“Simple events in the biography of Father Sophrony point to the universal, all-embracing nature of his personality. His earthly life covers almost the entire twentieth century. Elder Sophrony was born in Russia and later lived in the West. Coming from an urban family, he began his career as a painter. He was brought up as a Christian and later acquired some experience in Eastern mysticism. Being a successful artist in Paris immersed in the educated environment of the Russian intelligentsia, he left everything and lived as a simple monk in a monastery, and later as a hermit in complete poverty. As a priest, he continued to serve thousands of people, giving himself up entirely to this ministry.” (Hieromonk Nikolai (Sakharov))

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Childhood and youth

Elder Sophrony is one of the few ascetics who did not hide his personal experience and biographical facts from people. He has shared a lot about himself in his books and during his talks with the brethren of the monastery that he founded, as well as in his letters to various people.

Sergei Semenovich Sakharov (Father Sophrony's worldly name) was born on September 22, 1896 in Moscow, into a large family of believers. Along with the boy's mother, his nanny exerted a huge spiritual influence on Sergei in his early childhood and adolescent years.

Peace and love reigned in Sergei's family whose members were spiritually refined, sensitive and selfless people. In his youth, Sergei carefully studied many works of Russian classical literature, discovering through works of Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky the depth and tragedy of life.

Drawing was the boy's real passion from early childhood: “I perceived the whole world as pictorial art. The mystery of this vision kept me constantly, as it were, chained to myself ... Sometimes the sense of beauty in me reached an extent where the sense of time was completely lost ... And my thoughts were lost in the feeling of the mystery of nature.”

Sergei Semenovich Sakharov

Paintings by Sergey Sakharov (Archimandrite Sophrony) : Self-Portrait; Still Life with Fruit Dish

At the age of seventeen or eighteen years old, Sergei went through a period of God-forsakenness and even God-fighting, which, alas, was characteristic of many educated people in early-twentieth-century Russia.

The young man began to look for ways to immortality in other areas, reading books about Buddhism, yoga and diving into Eastern mysticism.

In 1915, Sergei Semenovich entered the Academy of Arts. During the First World War, he served for a short time in the engineering troops. From 1918, he continued his studies at the Moscow Higher Art and Technical Studios (the so-called Vkhutemas).

Cheka arrested him twice during the years of the Revolution, but through the prayers of his relatives, he was spared.

In 1921, he left Russia. After visiting Italy and Germany, in 1922 he settled in Paris, where he experienced a rapid rise of his career. The name of the young artist appeared in newspaper headlines in a matter of months.

On Easter in 1924, he experienced a vision of the Uncreated Light, a Divine visitation bestowed, perhaps, only on a few people in generations. This prompted him to leave art and enter the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris.

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Mature years. Monasticism and Spiritual Leadership

On December 4, 1925, Sergei Sakharov joined the brethren of the St. Panteleimon Russian Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece. On March 18, 1927, in the same monastery, he was tonsured a monk with the name Sophrony.

monk Sophrony

Rasophor monk Sophrony (Sakharov)

In 1930, he was ordained a hierodeacon. In the same year, Father Sophrony became a spiritual disciple of the Monk Silouan of Athos. His personal experience, expressed in the phrase: “Stand on the verge of despair, and when you feel that you are falling, step back,” was confirmed by a similar divinely revealed word given to St. Silouan: "Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

In the person of the Monk Silouan, Father Sophrony encountered three basic theological principles — “prayer for the whole world”, “Christ-like humility” and “love for enemies”.

Before his death in 1938, Elder Silouan blessed Fr. Sophrony to “go into the wilderness” — to embark on the path of a hermit life.

From 1939 to 1941, Father Sophrony lived in a cave-cell in the desert rocks of Karouli near the monastery of St. Paul. Living conditions there were extremely difficult — even an empty tin can was considered a treasure as it could be used for drinking water.

Father Sophrony Drawing

Elder Sophrony at work

After that, Father Sophrony lived in solitude in the skete of the Life-Giving Trinity and in the St. Andrew's Skete, spending “in the wilderness” a total of eight years — exactly as many as he had spent “at the feet of the blessed Elder Silouan”.

In early 1941, Fr. Sophrony became the confessor of the Greek monastery of St. Paul where in 1941 he received ordination to the priesthood.

In 1941, the Holy Kinot of the Holy Mountain sent a letter to Adolf Hitler with a request to spare its monasteries from destruction. A group of German officers arrived on Athos, on whose report the future of the entire monastic peninsula depended at that time.

It was important that a person meeting them would be spiritual and well educated at the same time. Father Sophrony was chosen for this mission.

With his education, upbringing and modesty, Father Sophrony greatly impressed the German command, and the report that they submitted to Hitler's headquarters after visiting Athos was the most favourable. As a result, none of the monasteries of the Holy Mountain suffered any damage during the occupation.

However, in 1946, during the Greek Civil War, certain Greek nationalist monks began to spread rumors about the collaboration of Father Sophrony with the German Nazis. This merciless persecution was one of the reasons (along with a serious illness) that forced the elder to leave the place of his long-standing ascetic labors and return to France.

The Writings of Staretz Silouan

In 1947, in Paris, Father Sophrony faced a new trial — St. Sergius Institute, where he intended to complete his theological education, requested from him a report about his attitude towards the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Father Sophrony never concealed his sympathy for the Moscow Patriarchate in the post-revolutionary years, considering it a Church of martyrs persecuted for their faith. Due to his transfer to the Western European Exarchate of The Moscow Patriarchate, Father Sophrony, was not admitted to the Institute and began to serve as a priest in the “Russian House for the Elderly ” in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois, 35 kilometers from Paris.

In 1948, Father Sophrony published 500 hand-printed copies of the first edition of his book Staretz Silouan. Four years later, in 1952, the first typographic edition of the book came out. Father Sophrony called the notes of Elder Silouan a revelation that God has given to our age, and considered publishing them “a universal ministry of Orthodoxy”.

Christ in Glory

“Christ in Glory” icon, painted by Sophrony Sakharov, 1974

The book Staretz Silouan has been translated into 22 languages. In Russia alone, it has gone through about three dozen reprints. Many converted to Orthodoxy under the influence of this book. For many it became a guiding star to the true Christian life in the modern world.

Founding an orthodox monastery in the West

In 1956, Father Sophrony established a monastic community on the Kolara farm near Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois in France. However, he was unable to found a full-fledged monastery in France.

In the late 1950s, Father Sophrony attempted to return to Russia and to join the brethren of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, the largest stauropegial monastery, located 70 km from Moscow. However, the Soviet authorities did not allow him to do this, and Father Sophrony was forced to look for another refuge. Unexpectedly, he found it in the small village of Tolleshunt Knights near Maldon, in the county of Essex in the UK.

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monastery in the West

The Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Essex, England, founded by Sophrony Sakharov

In the spring of 1959, he founded there the St. John the Baptist Monastery, under the canonical subordination of the Sourozh diocese (Moscow Patriarchate). In 1965, likely due to a conflict between Archimandrite Sophrony and the ruling bishop Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, the monastery came under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical (Constantinople) Patriarchate with the blessing of Patriarch Alexy I of Moscow and All Russia.

Elder Sophrony became the first abbot of the monastery, which he remained from 1959 to 1974. He then retired from the abbacy, remaining the confessor of the monastery.

From the very beginning, the monastery took shape as a multinational community. Due to this fact, its morning and evening weekday services consist mainly of reading the Jesus Prayer in different languages. However, the spiritual heart of the monastery is the Divine Liturgy. Elder Sophrony has built the spiritual life of the monastery on the foundation of the teachings of St. Silouan the Athonite. One of the monastery churches was later consecrated in honour of this saint.

Another characteristic feature of St John the Baptist Monastery is the fact that it consists of a male and female monastic communities, united by joint worship and spiritual guidance.

Fr Sophrony

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov)

In the last thirty years of his life, Father Sophrony wrote the books We Shall See Him as He Is and On Prayer. Hegumen Nikolai (Sakharov), the great-nephew and spiritual child of the Elder, once spoke with insight about the meaning of these books: “The books of Father Sophrony help many people who have reached a dead end in life to find a way out... Our theology is tested when we are at an impasse in life… For me personally, the breath of eternity is felt in the theology of Father Sophrony.”

Besides working on books, the Elder considered it necessary to hold spiritual conversations with the brethren and sisters of the Monastery (sometimes guests were also present), which in essence can be called the Elder’s testament. It is a great favour of God that these conversations have been recorded.

Spiritual conversations with monastics

Still during the earthly life of the Elder, tape recordings with his conversations came to Russia and soon began to be replicated throughout the country. In 2003, a two-volume book titled Spiritual Conversations was published. The book was based on the recordings made by the Essex Monastery. For many people in need of the Elder's spiritual guidance, the Conversations have become a revelation about “what spiritual life is and how to tune in to it”.

The titles of the conversations (despite being conditional) indicate the main problems of our era — On Delusion, On Integrity in Spiritual Life, On Humility, On the Question of the Union of Churches, On Building a Monastery.

Elder Sophrony

Everything that Elder Sophrony taught people, in an effort to pass on his experience to future generations, was born from innermost prayer. During these conversations, the Elder often repeated, “I am waiting for a word from God.” He bewailed the scarcity of human words incapable of fully conveying the spiritual reality.

Some of Elder Sophrony's conversations were in one way or another connected with Russia. This connection is sometimes hidden. For example, referring to the conversation On Managing a Monastery, the Elder himself said, "I have said this with regard to Russia."

Father Sophrony repeatedly said that the main thing for the Russian Church is preserving its structure, that is, to remain faithful to the Patriarch and the spiritual authorities acting within its framework. Speaking about Patriarch Alexy II, the Elder said that he was a “God-given Patriarch”, foreseeing the feat of His Holiness at the difficult time after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, as he lead the ship of the Russian Church through the turn of the era.

Elder Sophrony admitted in his conversations that all the years on Athos and then in Europe he “prayed with deep mourning for Russia”. Later, he rejoiced when the Church began to receive the freedom of restoration. He was worried however about the loss of the ascetic spiritual tradition during the years of persecution, warning his disciples against narrowness and isolation within the “national Church”.

Elder Sophrony's Service to the Laity

The love that Elder Sophrony showed people was impossible to forget. One meeting with him made an indelible impression on people, which continued to live in their hearts for many years.

More than once, Father Sophrony, suffering from diseases of the flesh almost all his life, with his prayers raised incurable patients from the bed of death. Through his prayers, obvious miracles took place. One of the most significant of them is the conversion of a great number of Western people to Orthodoxy.

Father Sophrony

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov)

In his humility, Father Sophrony tried to hide his gift of clairvoyance, but people often noticed how something that the Elder mentioned in passing would later be revealed in its true meaning, as a warning or affirmation in trials.

Father Sophrony's gift of discernment, or spiritual advice, manifested itself primarily in the fact that he opened the horizons of spiritual life to people, showing them the importance of neither being bogged down in details nor clinging to their problems. “We must go further”, Father Sophrony repeated and conveyed his own state of constant spiritual burning to those coming to him.

The spiritual gifts of the Elder were also made manifest in the “material” sphere — he painted icons, frescoes, and authored a number of remarkable liturgical prayers.

Staretz Silouan

Icon of St. Silouan of Athos, painted by Sophrony Sakharov

On July 11, 1993, at the age of 96, Father Sophrony passed away to the Lord. On November 27, 2019, the Patriarchate of Constantinople canonized him as Saint Sophronius of Essex.

Sophrony Sakharov

The community founded by the Elder continues the work of his service to people. Pilgrims from all over the world flock to the St. John the Baptist Monastery that has become one of the most important centers introducing the West to Orthodoxy, and a powerful testimony to its universal truth. 

September 20, 2023
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