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Birthday of Our Beloved Saint Sophrony of Essex

Meetings with Father Sophrony

Saint Sophrony of Essex

“I would very much like the Church to raise up for us
more than one “such a living manifestation of God” in man,
through which we thankfully rejoice in the Lord, glorified in His saints,
who is and who was and who is to come (Rev. 1: 8).
(Elder Emilianos (Vafidis) about Schema-Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov)

On July 11, 2023, we commemorated the 30th anniversary of Schema-Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) death. The impact of this Elder's life and character were profound, touching the hearts of countless individuals, even among those who had the privilege of meeting him only on rare occasions.

Hierodeacon Sophrony as an inhabitant of St. Panteleimon Monastery (Holy Mount Athos, Greece)

Hierodeacon Sophrony as an inhabitant of St. Panteleimon Monastery (Holy Mount Athos, Greece)

Anthony-Emil N. Takhiaos (Thessaloniki, Greece) recalls his meetings with Father Sophrony:

"The Elder was of medium height and had a rather unassuming appearance, yet he had refined manners and a serene luminous look in his eyes. He spoke to us in French. After the introductions were made, he invited us to sit down in a modest room. There was a short silence, after which the Elder looked at me with his radiant eyes and asked where I was from. I said that I was from Thessalonica. With a kind of barely restrained impatience, he asked me whether I had visited the Holy Mountain.

I said that I had been there many times and received a blessing to visit Paris from the Holy Mountain fathers whom I knew personally. My answer aroused even greater impatience in the Elder. <...> It was followed by a vibrant exchange about the Holy Mountain Fathers, deeply respected and fondly remembered by Fr. Sophrony.

Cave cell at Karoulia where Elder Sophrony pursued asceticism from 1939 to 1941

Cave cell at Karoulia where Elder Sophrony pursued asceticism from 1939 to 1941

The Elder shared memories of his time spent in the monastery of St. Panteleimon next to Elder Silouan, and later in a hermitage near the New Skete, not far from St. Paul's Monastery, where he was the confessor. He recalled having unforgettable spiritual conversations with Fr. Gerasimos Menagia, a remarkable monk from that monastery, who was once a chemist in Sweden.

I looked at the Elder with joy and gratitude, admiring the spiritual fragrance emanating from him. It carried me back to the beloved atmosphere of the Holy Mountain and revived memories of the venerable fathers I had met there. Being around Father Sophrony felt as if I had never left Athos. We talked about monks and monasteries, about the recent events happening on the Holy Mountain and the specifics of living there. The Elder's nostalgia for these memories was palpable as he spoke about what he had experienced and what was his very life.

e-book-about-St-Elisabeth

The second time we visited Elder Sophrony was on June 17, 1955. Once again my spiritual experience was akin to communing with venerable fathers of the Holy Mountain and sensing the power of their holiness embracing me.

Unfortunately, at that time we took for granted the presence of saints in our everyday lives, which was also the case with Fr. Sophrony. We thought that communicating with this saintly man was a natural reality of life. It was not until later that we realised what a spiritual treasure we had lost.

The last time I saw Elder Sophrony was during Bright Week 1956. A friend called me and said that he was going to attend Divine Liturgy celebrated by Elder Sophrony in the chapel at the Russian cemetery in St. Genevieve de Bois. He asked me if I would like to come along with him. I said that I would join him with great pleasure.

Anthony-Emil Takhiaos

Anthony-Emil Takhiaos († April 10, 2018), awarded numerous honours for his work for the Church, including the Order of St. Vladimir of the Russian Orthodox Church (1968)

By the time the service began, we were already there. There were several Elderly parishioners in the church. Elder Sophrony served alone. He appeared to be beyond space and time. His face showed a spiritual radiance, which reminded me of an episode from the life of St. Sergius of Radonezh, when his two disciples Isaac and Simon were amazed to see the Saint during the liturgy in rays of divine light. It was clear that Elder Sophrony was in a similar state, fully immersed in the spiritual atmosphere of Divine Liturgy, where the Cherubim and Seraphim invisibly co-celebrate with the priest.

He seemed to have completely left the earthly realm and dwelled in the true and heavenly dimension. The Divine Liturgy ended, and the believers began to disperse one by one until there was no one left except my friend and me. Father Sophrony soon came out of the North gate of the altar and stood in front of the Royal doors. He crossed himself three times, bowed, and then stood silently for a while, looking upward. A calm and measured silence prevailed in the chapel. Then Fr. Sophrony approached us and said in a quiet, barely audible voice, "Ah, if only this Divine Liturgy never ended..."

Books by Elder Sophrony

Books by Elder Sophrony have been translated into many languages and reissued dozens of times

We walked out of the chapel brimming with emotion from the Elder's service and his words. I never saw Fr. Sophrony again, but that does not mean that he is not a part of my life. His writings remain a constant testimony of his spiritual presence in my heart. Living memories of him always sustained me in moments of despondency. In 1987, I sent him my book in which I published autobiographical works of Elder Paisius Velichkovsky. Fr. Sophrony responded by sending me his outstanding book "We Shall See Him as He is". The book was inscribed: "With deep respect to Professor Tachiaos, with love and many prayers. †Archim. Sophrony, January 6th, 1988." Fr. Sophrony’s book is a continuation of the ascetic and spiritual tradition of the Russian Holy Mountain monasticism, brilliantly epitomised in the twentieth century by the Elder Silouan and his equally honourable disciple Elder Sophrony. I trust that the prayers that he mentioned in the gift inscription to his book accompany me in my life.

St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex County, United Kingdom

St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex County, United Kingdom, founded by Elder Sophrony in 1959

The Lord counted Father Sophrony worthy to serve among people unfamiliar with Orthodoxy for many decades, opening the way to Him for many souls. Klaus Kenneth shares memories of meeting his future spiritual father [1]:

“One day I was driving through Lausanne with my good friend Ursula. Suddenly a strange figure appeared in front of us: an Elderly, tall, slightly stooped man with a white beard and dressed in a long black robe was crossing the road. Next to him walked his younger companion, dressed in the same manner. Ursula recognized the old man. She asked me to park nearby so we could talk to him. We got out of the car and introduced ourselves. The Elderly monk invited us into a nearby building to talk.

“He is a very famous Elder," Ursula whispered to me.

“What does that mean?” I asked in the same kind of whisper.

“It means he is a spiritual authority and a respected mentor. His books have influenced a whole generation, and he has many followers around the world.”

“So he's a guru?”

“No, of course not. But he's more than that. He can be compared to the apostles, Paul or Peter.”

“You're joking!”

I did not believe her. But when I looked at the old man more closely, I realised that I could really sense a hidden power in him. We entered a strange room, which looked like an office or a study. In order not to get into high things right away, I started the conversation with an ironic remark.

"Life is so beautiful and colourful," I said, "Why do you wear such dark and dull clothes?"

Instead of answering, the Elder made a hand sign and invited me to look out the window.

“Look closely at this street."

I saw a stream of passing cars of different brands and colours. Here's a blue Ford, here's a silver Honda, a red Volkswagen, a black Mercedes, a yellow Fiat taxi, and so on. We looked at the cars in silence for a while. Then he turned to me.

"Which of these cars do you like best?"

"Well, maybe the black Mercedes is the most elegant."

"Exactly, this is why we dress in black," he said with a slight chuckle.

I liked his joke.

Father Sophrony in the 1980s

Father Sophrony in the 1980s

Ursula said she wanted to stay a while to talk to the mysterious elder about something important. Meanwhile, I had to go to the neighbouring town of Neuchâtel, where I had a lecture to give. When I announced this to the Elder, he replied in the same slightly playful tone,

"You know, I have some experience in public speaking. Would you allow me to give you some advice?"

“Sure, do me a favour."

"It's better to start a talk with a little joke to make people laugh a bit. By making them smile, you will win their sympathy. Then you will have the audience in your pocket and ready to follow you anywhere. Try it and tell me if it worked when you come back."

I could see him laughing softly and happily — his whole body vibrated with that laughter. Again I felt something mysterious coming from him. There was something very moving and profound about that man. When I returned from Neuchâtel, I remembered to stop by and tell him that I had followed his advice. Of course, he turned out to be absolutely right in his prediction.

The Elder's name was Father Sophrony, and he was eighty-seven years old. From our very first encounter, my heart knew that I had met a saint. I had not the slightest doubt that a true Christian was standing before me. In a split second, he managed to make a very deep and powerful impression on me. I was struck by his kindness and his insight, which did not prevent him from treating everyone with love.

He did not theorise or theologize, nor did he stress his high status in any way, instead he communicated simply, with humour, warmly and sincerely. Above all, he had a spirit of boundless love and respect for his interlocutor. I thought that wise Elders like Fr. Sophrony did not exist in real life, being merely characters in movies and children's books (such as "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Chronicles of Narnia"). At the same time, I was looking for such a person all my life, and when I met him, I was absolutely sure — that was love in the flesh.

Klaus Kenneth

Klaus Kenneth sharing his memories of Father Sophrony (Sakharov)

I was certain that someone like him could only belong to the real, true Church, the one that Christ founded. It was then that I learned that Father Sophrony was a clergyman of the Orthodox Church. This Church, I thought, must have somehow escaped the corruption caused by disputes, scandals, schisms, internal strife, envy, competitiveness, and proselytism. Of course, later I learned that the Orthodox Church was far from immune to these ills. Yet somehow the essence of her teachings still remained unchanged and pure. The Elder appeared to me as a symbol of an ideal community of believers, uniting Christ and all His saints, the Fathers of the Church, and the first apostles. Orthodoxy embraces a whole epoch - from the very dawn of Christianity to our days. Previously I saw only fragments of truth in different churches, but now it all came together in the person of Elder Sophrony.

During my second visit, when I told the Elder about the lecture in Neuchâtel, I felt such joy in communicating with him that I could not hold back my tears. My meeting with the Elder was a gift from God directly to me. Thus Heavenly Father led me to my earthly spiritual father. At the end of our second meeting, I asked permission to take his picture.

He said "no" with a sudden harshness in his voice.

I was confused, not knowing what it could mean. Fortunately, he was quick to explain his unusual reaction to my request:

“You see, dear Klaus, people take pictures of me all the time. There are hundreds of portraits of me, but I don't look like myself in any of them. It's just not me, and I'm tired of it. I hope you'll understand."

I was upset. I liked this man so much! He must have sensed my disappointment and quickly changed his mind.

“Okay,” he sighed. "Take pictures if you like. It's just that I lack humility all along."

Elder Sophrony

Elder Sophrony

"Lack of humility?" I was amazed to see that gracious and universally respected man consider himself not humble enough.

He took off his glasses and prepared to have his picture taken. My heart rejoiced, although I did not yet know that this picture was to go around the world capturing the image of a man cherished by many. After more than two decades, my wife would visit a monastery in the Balkans where the sisters would show her that very portrait, which she would instantly recognize and tell the astonished abbess that it had been taken by her husband Klaus during the first days of his acquaintance with the Elder."

Thousands of people from different countries have come to the Schema-Archimandrite Sophrony for spiritual advice. Healings through the prayers of the Elder did not cease even after his transition into eternity. After enduring a prolonged battle with oncological illness, Elder Sophrony peacefully departed to the Lord on July 11, 1993, within the embrace of the St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex.

As per his request, his body found its resting place in a crypt at the same location. On November 27, 2019, the Orthodox Church of Constantinople officially canonised him as St. Sophrony of Athos. In 2020, St. Sophrony was honoured as one of the patrons during the rededication ceremony of a restored ancient church in the town of San Martin de Bey, located in the northwest of Romania. His legacy continues to inspire and bless those who commemorate his saintly life.

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.

Original article presented by obitel-minsk.ru

Photos from open sources

Additional literature: Elder Sophrony (Sakharov): Biography Facts

Sources used:

1."His face displayed spiritual radiance and light." Memoirs of prof. A. Takhiaos about Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) - Athos (afonit.info)

2. Meeting Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov): What Was He Like in Life? — Nicaea publishing house blog (nikeabooks.ru)

3. Hieromonk Sophrony (Sakharov) (varnitsy.spb.ru)

[1] After being a Buddhist monk, a Hindu guru, a hippie, a teacher, a member of a beat band, and a disc jockey Klaus Kenneth almost entered a Catholic seminary and studied all the world's religions before discovering Orthodoxy as a source of true love - something his soul had been tirelessly searching for.

September 19, 2023
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Hilde Wolf

Thank You so much! Very impressive¡ I have heard and read already about him.
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