September 22 is the birthday of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), a disciple and biographer of St Silouan the Athonite, founder of the St John the Baptist monastery in the village of Tolleshunt Knights near Maldon (Essex, England). With his spiritual life, understanding of Orthodoxy, asceticism and his love for God and people, Father Sophrony has become a landmark in the spiritual life of our Convent and many other communities.
For many of our Sisters and Brothers, Father Sophrony has become a stepping stone to God and an example that inspires and instructs us until present day. Several years ago, at one of our community meetings where we discussed relevant spiritual topics, a few of them shared some thoughts about their beloved ascetic.
Nun Taisia (Yakovleva):
In 2007, our programmers shared a folder with elder Sophrony’s original talks recorded in the nineties. These recordings contained the Elder's voice, his jokes, and his insights. For me, these talks became a true gift from God. I spent all of my free time listening to them. Today, his very straightforward sermon about the Living God is still a part of my life.
What is it about Elder Sophrony that makes him special among other holy fathers? First of all, his frankness. He speaks openly about his failures, his conclusions, and the results of God's action. Given his old age, it is amazing how colourfully, accurately and in what detail he describes the events from 50 years before. I was very impressed by his talk describing his decision after the death of St Silouan to go into the desert with the blessing of his Elder. He describes in detail who was present at the counsel of the elders of the Monastery then and what exactly they said. Father Sophrony was then asked to wait for Great Lent before leaving his Monastery. For several weeks, my mind was in that place where everyone had gathered to decide the ascetic's fate. I was amazed by Father Sophrony’s humility, patience, forbearance and obedience. It is beautiful with what love he speaks of Abbot Michael, through whom God kept him in his Monastery. In this talk, I saw a true monastic in every sense of the word. Things like this become sources of inspiration that lasts for a long time...
Another such inspiration were the Elder Sophrony's conversations with David Balfour in the library of St Panteleimon Monastery in 1932. They took place during a period of Balfour's deviation from God. These conversations show an incredible height of a man's love for his neighbour. They contain no judgement, no criticism, only the Elder's heartache and, of course, his prayer for the “lost sheep”, and his faith in the salvation of this sick soul. This book showed me that there are no accidents or insoluble problems in life. It became my hope that the Lord would have mercy on me at the Last Judgement.
The Elder's statements about Russia clearly show what a true patriot he was. Living outside his native land, he was always with Russia in spirit. His words spoken in the nineties about the Patriarch, as well as the fate of Russia and the Church are still relevant today.
Sincerely, I congratulate my beloved Elder Sophrony on his birthday! In God, everyone is alive, especially those whose spirit dwelled in Heaven during their earthly lives. I am very glad that God has introduced me to Father Sophrony through his books, his talks and through our spiritual father Andrey Lemeshonok, who often quotes the Elder. It is a great consolation to have such spiritual leaders.
Sr Veronica (Starenkaya):
Most services [at St John the Baptist Monastery] are held in a very unusual way. The traditional services, excluding those held on ecclesiastical feasts, are replaced with the readings of the Jesus Prayer in different languages. It is very dark in the church with only two oil lamps burning next to the icons of the Saviour and the Mother of God. One cannot even see how many people there are in the church. Somehow, you immediately become enveloped in an incredible atmosphere of silence, peace and grace. All attention is focused on the icon of the Saviour. It is illuminated by the burning vigil lamp, which, of course, greatly helps to concentrate.
Our first visit was during the Easter period. After the long reading of the Jesus Prayer, at the end of the service, a dim light unexpectedly came on in the church, and the Sisters in the choir sang the Easter canon in Church-Slavonic (apparently knowing that there were Russian-speaking guests in the Monastery). In contrast to our domestic tradition, where this canon is performed solemnly and loudly, the Sisters sang very calmly. However, [...] it sounded both prayerful and joyful.
Then we had a meal together with the monastic brothers and sisters. The frescoes on the walls had been painted by Father Sophrony and the Sisters of the his Monastery. We were also able to see the famous mosaic, about 3-4 stories high, depicting animals entering the Noah's Ark. It was very beautiful and had such a touching subject.
Then we visited the crypt with Father Sophrony’s tomb. The coffins of other monastics were located next to the Elder's. We all approached Father Sophrony’s tomb, prayed and took his blessing. He is indeed one of our main spiritual leaders. Father Andrey Lemeshonok often refers to the Elder's words in his sermons. We try to follow his instructions.
In this Monastery, I felt at home, although we were hundreds of miles from our Convent. I could feel the unity there. Glory to God for all things!
Matushka Larisa Nezhbort:
It was in 1995–1996, before our Convent or the Sisterhood were founded. During his meetings with parishioners of Sts Peter and Paul Church, Father Andrey Lemeshonok read and commented on the books of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). We then read "Staretz Silouan" and "We Shall See Him as He Is". These meetings gathered and united those who later became the core of the Sisterhood and the Convent. At that time, only two or three years had passed since Elder Sophrony’s death (he reposed in 1993).
Father Andrei shared with us how the books of Elder Sophrony and the instruction of Elder Silouan to "keep one's mind in hell and do notwithout despair" resurrected him and greatly supported him in difficult times. Father Andrei did not retell the catechism to us during these meetings. He did not tell us how to cross ourselves properly or what to eat during Lent. Instead, we read these lofty, deep, incomprehensible revelations of Archimandrite Sophrony. The parishioners were ordinary grandmas, aunts, uncles and students, tired after work and study. Yet, we sat in the hall and stood in the aisles, listening very closely to every word.
Studying the creations of Elder Sophrony, Father Andrey wanted to set a high standard for us. On the one hand, Elder Sophrony himself says in his writings that one should not begin with lofty things like prayers for the whole world, etc. so as not to end up being "an empty drum". [According to the Elder], one must begin with small things and naturally evolve to prayer for the whole world. At the same time, he emphasized the need to have "a guiding star", a lofty goal towards which one should take small but real steps every day. He also wrote that repentance, prayer and connection with God constitute the most important channel for union with Him. Another one of the Elder's central thoughts is seeing and hearing one’s neighbour, taking care of every person around you: "Our brother is our life."
I remember going home late at night around the year 2000-2001 and hearing Elder Sophrony’s voice from the open window of the monastic meeting room. At that time, the Internet was not widely spread, and the book of his Spiritual Conversations was not published yet. The Elder's talks were only available on tapes. I remember thinking, "These happy chosen few are sitting there at the feet of Christ together with Mary." It was impossible to listen to these tapes at the Sisters' general meetings, since the recording was very quiet and Father Sophrony’s voice is weak.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, a community of icon painters and altar servers was formed in our icon-painting workshop. I was part of it as an altar server's wife. Daily services then began at four in the morning, and the brothers stayed at the Сonvent overnight, sleeping right in the workshop. We had dinner together sharing noodles, green peas and bread, talking and reading the prayers. We joked and laughed so hard at dinner that the Convent walls shook. It was a good time.
We all still remember one funny incident. We were sitting and listening to Elder Sophrony’s recordings, which we had copied for ourselves. Father Sophrony’s senile voice is weak, and the poor recording was barely audible, besides the Elder makes long pauses, as he is waiting for his words to be translated into other languages (his Monastery is international). Eventually, Elder Sophrony said something important, and one of our brothers screamed, "What? I did not catch that!" At that moment, Elder Sophrony’s voice on the tape said slowly and clearly, "I repeat!.." and he repeated his previous phrase in full. We all fell off our chairs from amazement and laughter. That “dialogue” between Elder Sophrony and our brother really impressed us!
I remember how everyone presented high-quality photographs of Elder Sophrony to one another when they became available. Then his books began to be published one by one. When the Trinity-Sergius Lavra published "We Shall See Him as He Is", Father Andrey said, "This is a victory. This is the general Church recognition of Father Sophrony’s experience within the patristic teaching." At that time, some influential teachers of theology had a negative attitude towards the works of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov).
I always had a photograph of the Elder in a conspicuous place, often turning to him with requests. As icon painters, we were waiting impatiently for the Church of Constantinople to canonize him, wondering who would have the honor of painting his first icon.
Clearly, the current discord between the Russian Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople is unsettling, but I think that with the Elder's holy prayers this division will be cured.
There was a bright period in my life, when I began every Great Lent with listening to Elder Sophrony’s talks, drawing inspiration for ascetic deeds. I knew that [our confessor] father Andrey ate nothing until the first Friday of Great Lent (the consecration of the kolyva), serving and praying at all services of the first week without exceptions. I always thought that it was impossible for me. I thought, "Why would I hurt myself like this?" At some point, it dawned on me: Elder Sophrony lost 3/4 of his stomach (maybe because of the austere fasting) yet he did not think about his stomach, lived up to 96 years, and is now in eternity with God! Then I realized that God Himself takes care of a person who does not pity himself and performs deeds of faith for God's sake. Thanks (among other things) to Elder Sophrony’s talks about the first week of Lent, for a couple of years I was able to fast properly and go to services often. It was a bright time!
To me, the most remarkable event of Father Sophrony’s help was when I was tormented by bad thoughts and unable to get rid of them for a long time. It was extremely hard, painful and sickening to realize how disgusting it was for God to look at me and that it was entirely my fault. …And that if I had really wanted to, I would have got rid of that sin long ago. However, the fact that I had not made me even more guilty before God, and even more disgusting for Him to look at me. This caused me immense loneliness, impotence and despair. During one of this torment's apogees, the words of Elder Sophrony somehow came to my heart (rather than my head). Although it was not a complete redemption, these words brought me sweet peace that I had not known for many years. I still remember them in difficult times: “God knows our every suffering, even when we are wrong. He knows it and He is compassionate."
Today I desire so much that through the prayers of Elder Sophrony, at least a drop of zeal and aspiration for God may kindle in my heart mired in worldly matters.
There is a little blue booklet with Father Sophrony’s own daily liturgical prayers to God. I remember a time when I added them to my prayer rule. Things are different now, but I do hope that this bright time will return.
At least, I hope that these prayers left a trace for me somewhere in eternity.
Elder Sophrony often said that not a single tear shed and not a single word spoken to God from the heart will ever be lost or forgotten in eternity. It matters in the fate of this world even if it seems insignificant, like a small star in pitch darkness.
Priest Oleg Kovalenko:
In 2001, I spent the summer in England and visited the monastery of Father Sophrony for the first time. The Elder had already passed away then, but his disciples remained. My impressions were so strong that it is difficult to put them into words. I spoke about this Monastery several times at our Convent meetings many years ago.
Father Andrey read Father Sophrony’s books and commented on them during his meetings with the parishioners of Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral. I started attending these meetings when he was reading the book "We Shall See Him as He Is". He would read, pause and then comment. This was my first acquaintance with the Elder. Soon, his book "Staretz Silouan" became one of the first Orthodox books that I read.
The writings of Elder Silouan, as well as the comments and explanations of Father Sophrony, are very simple and straightforward. They can be compared to the most complex theoretical physics laid out in simple terms with clear examples and images. On the other hand, Father Sophrony speaks of higher theology, which, according to the Elder, is a state of prayer.
Another thought that Father Sophrony inherited from Elder Silouan is that no work prevents us from loving God. "There is no such work that can humiliate a person." Even if it is a simple job like cleaning the house, cooking porridge, washing dishes or something similar to that. Nothing in these works would make a person look small. Only sin humiliates a person.
During parish meetings, Father Andrey often played a tape with Elder Sophrony’s talks and enthusiastically commented on some passages. It turns out that there were several such cassettes in our Convent, and many listened to them. In our nascent audio studio, Nun Joanna (Orlova) found a professional sound engineer who was able to digitize these recordings and even eliminated the noise.
Several years later, Father Nikolai, hieromonk at the monastery in Essex, presented our Convent with several dozen recordings (their text was included in the two-volume book of Father Sophrony’s Spiritual Conversations). This audio material was then edited in accordance with the books and released by our convent on two CDs.
I often listen to these conversations and occasionally re-read the books. It is especially touching to hear the living voice of the Elder, “…As the apostle Paul said, one must be foolish (See: 1 Cor. 3: 18) in order to believe in the Revelation about the age to come, given to us through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Our Creed ends with the words, "We look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the Life of the age to come. Amen." Repeat this prayer and please do not let anyone steal from us the real meaning of what we say in church. When we say "Our Father", these awesome words bring the consciousness of His presence, making us feel so insignificant, so small! When we say, "We look for the Resurrection of the dead," this expectation contains a living power of faith that will resurrect us. Thus, as monastics, we face the same task every day, despite our age. If we live soberly and consciously before the face of God, then we will receive His real action, known to us as grace.”
Father Andrey often refers to Father Sophrony’s words in his sermons and talks. Indeed, the Elder can be quoted endlessly. I will conclude with his instruction regarding the Prayer for Unity that he composed for the brethren of his Monastery. Father Andrey blessed our lay and monastic sisters and brothers to read this prayer from the very beginnings of our community: “…My testament, my prayer, and my request is that all of you, to whom I entrust the future of the Monastery, may be united as one person. When we establish this desired unity in spirit, then the whole life will go differently, because all of your thoughts, prayers and invocations of the name of God will then be performed in the atmosphere of your unity in God.”
Fr Sophrony’s Prayer for Unity
LORD JESUS CHRIST, Thou, Lamb of God, who didst take upon Thyself the sin of the world, Who by Thine ascent to Golgotha didst redeem us from the curse of the Law and didst restore Thy fallen image; Who didst stretch Thy most pure hands on the Cross, gathering together in one the scattered children of God, and by the descent of the most Holy Spirit didst call all men to unity; THOU, THAT ART the brightness of the Father, before going forth to this great and sacred work for the salvation of the world, didst pray to Thy Father that all may be one, even as Thou art one with the Father and the Holy Ghost: do Thou grant even unto us the grace and wisdom each day to fulfil this commandment, and strengthen us to strive for that love, which Thou didst command of us, saying: “LOVE ONE ANOTHER, AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.” By Thy Holy Spirit give us the power to humble ourselves, one before the other, mindful that he who loveth the more doth humble himself the more. Teach us to pray for one another, in patience to bear one another’s burdens, and unite us with the unbreakable bond of love in thy holy Name. Grant us to behold in our every brother and sister the image of Thine ineffable glory, and never to forget that our brother is our life.
Yea, O Lord, Who hast gathered us together of Thy good providence, make us truly into one family, living with one heart, one will, a single love, as one man, according to Thy pre-eternal counsel for Adam the first-born. Fill our house with the spirit of Thy holy fear, and let the prayers of Thy Most Holy Mother, of Thy Forerunner John, and our hallowed Fathers Silouan and Seraphim overshadow it always, blessing and defending each one of them that dwell therein (Names), preserving us fro pernicious thoughts, from unseemly words or impulses of the heart that might destroy peace and concord; that this house may be builded on the rock of Thy Gospel commandments as a place of prayer, of sanctification and salvation, for ourselves and for all who visit us, our labouring and burdened brothers and sisters, that we may all find rest in Thee, our meek and lowly King, now and for ever; world without end. Amen.