Tuesday, July 11, 2023

39 - Book Review: "Christ, Our Way and Our Life: A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite Sophrony" by Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou

 Christ, Our Way and Our Life: 
A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite Sophrony

By Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou

Published by Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 2012, pp. 368.

Book Reviewed (from the Greek text) by:
Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

Translated by John Sanidopoulos
Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou, with whom we have known each other for twenty-five years, with a strong and sincere friendship, who is a monk at the Honorable Forerunner Monastery in Essex, England, sent me some time ago his first book, which he published, titled "A Presentation of the Theology of Elder Sophrony", and which is an extension of the thesis he submitted to the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki.

The day I received the book, I immediately recognized it in the mass of mail, opened it, and read its prologue. I was deeply moved, because he referred to the theology of the late Father Sophrony, a great Elder of our time, whom I enjoyed for about twenty years, through his theological books, co-liturgizing with him at the Holy Altar, personal conversations and the unique live communication that I had with him in the Sacred Monastery of the Honorable Forerunner during the summer months. But I considered it "sacrilege" to study this book among the various activities I was involved in and immediately wrote a letter to announce its receipt. Among other things I wrote:

"As soon as I received it, I read the prologue and was very moved, I was transported to that blessed time when we enjoyed the presence, the speech and above all the Divine Liturgy of the Elder. Of course, I singled out the book so that I could read it at the first opportunity, when I find myself for a few days in the surroundings of a Sacred Monastery or in an isolated place, such as the House of the Sacred Metropolis at Venerable David's. This is because I consider it sacrilege that the books presenting the empirical theology of Elder Sophrony are read in workplaces, in the midst of the tumult of episcopal activities and in the breaks between many other tasks. I will pursue it in order to return to those blessed times and study your written text in depth."

Then I found the right time, shut myself up for a few days in a monastery and studied in depth this amazing book that analyzes the theology of the holy and blessed Elder, the late Father Sophrony. I lived all day with the scent of immortality emanating from reading the book. And then I recorded some of my thoughts, without of course adding the personal spiritual benefit I received from reading it.

I could limit my thoughts to three points that are most characteristic.

Firstly. The author of the book, Archimandrite Zacharias, he got to know the personality of this great Elder for about thirty years on a daily basis and for this reason he is his authentic interpreter. Initially, for many months together with Elder Sophrony, he translated the book "Elder Silouan the Athonite" in its first edition from the Russian language, and he had the rare blessing of hearing him analyze the various aspects of the spiritual life. Afterwards, he had the privilege of being entrusted by the Elder with his personal notes, which he later translated and turned into the book "We Shall See Him As He Is", as well as other texts. In addition, he had an Elder who guided him through the narrow paths of the spiritual life, later he had him for many years as a co-liturgist. In other words, she smelled the scent of life and immortality through his constant communication with him. And if one thinks how the Elder was a cheerful volcano, then one can realize the great blessing of always having him near and fed by his living theological discourse.

At the same time Archimandrite Zacharias having been inspired within this atmosphere and perspective, worked on the theology of the Elder and this is evident both during the reading of the book and during the conversation that one can have with Father Zacharias. But what one notices is that he thoroughly and expressively analyzes the theology of Father Sophrony, without referring to miracles performed by the Elder while he was alive, but also after his repose, precisely because as an exponent of the late great Elder he believes that the greatest miracle is the existence of a reborn hypostasis, a reborn man, from whom ceaseless theological discourse emanates that heals man's sick existence. This is because man's problem is basically theological, since he has moved away from Christ, Who is the true life and the real theologian, according to the expression of Saint Gregory of Palamas.

Secondly. The book we are commenting on is a "gospel" for every Orthodox Christian, but especially for every monastic. It shows what the spiritual Christian life consists of and who the true monastic is. And this is necessary in our time, because we have made terrible confusions in our lives, since we confuse the evangelical word with the anthropocentric word, ecclesiology with sociology, the Christian life with the misprints of this great life that Christ brought into the world. The revealed truth, as all the saints lived it and the Elder Sophrony experienced it, is a "consuming fire", it is a double-edged sword, it is the new wine that cannot remain in old skins, it is a rush of new life that is not at all connected to the conventions of this world. Unfortunately, the people have literally secularized this new life, so that it is connected and identified with other religious beliefs.

I believe that it is necessary for all Christians, who seek their salvation, but especially monastics, to carefully study this book by Father Zacharias Zacharou titled "A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite Sophrony" to redefine their monastic vocation and state, and most importantly to be able to then perceive the powerful theology of Elder Sophrony. I say this because some Christians, even monks and theologians, cannot understand the teaching of Elder Sophrony as he himself presented it in some of his published books. Perhaps this happens because the speech of the Elder Sophrony is very condensed and in this way indigestible for contemporary secularized people, who have been enchanted by speeches that make the ear want to hear. Archimandrite Zacharias, however, presents the theology of the Elder with simplicity and digestibility, creatively analyzing his theological thought, without betraying it, and helping the reader to read personally the texts of the late Elder. I am of the opinion that just as the analysis of Elder Sophrony worked for theologians to understand the simple speech of Saint Silouan of Athonite, so did the direct speech of Archimandrite Zacharias help to make the late Elder's condensed speech somewhat comprehensible, as far as faith is concerned.

Thirdly. Reading Father Zacharias's book, once again I was ecstatic before the living empirical theology, but also the powerful theological discourse of the late Elder Sophrony. The whole book, without mentioning it, is a hymn and a summary, a quintessence of the great theology of Elder Sophrony, which is an empirical, strong, genuine, rare theology. It is prophetic, apostolic, patristic, venerable. Elder Sophrony was indeed an amazing figure, a rare personality, a monk-theologian who is born once in a hundred years, to put it mildly. He himself lived the experience of the Prophets, Apostles and Fathers, to the most intense degree, since he had the courage and boldness to rush towards God with dizzying speed, and to enjoy rare experiences, to be possessed by a deadly thirst for God. This theology that is presented in the works of the Elder cannot easily be found in other persons, or at least, to soften the word, the circumstances were not found to describe such experiences that other great Fathers of the Church lived. And the most important thing, in my opinion, is that Elder Sophrony lived the already existing experience of the other Fathers in an intense way, but also expressed it in a different way, so that many times in the subjects that he analyzes and are also presented by other holy Fathers, one may encounter original things, which however are included within Orthodox anthropology, ecclesiology, Christology.

It is not easy to present the central points of the teaching of Elder Sophrony, as they are analyzed in the book of Father Zacharias.

Elder Sophrony lived empirically the value of the person/hypostasis, in God and the so-called hypostatic principle in man, because after personal experience he came to the experience of hypostasis. In this sense he knew from experience the satanic energies, the destructive energy of the imagination and the whole life of the person/hypostasis. In his texts one sees the great value of the kenosis of the Word, but also that genuine Christianity is connected to the experience of this kenosis, the descent into hades, which is in fact the way of the Lord. When one follows Christ on the path of this kenosis and hades, then for him Christ Himself becomes the path. In the Elder Sophrony one sees the theology of the memory of death as a gift, self-hatred, the gift of tears and repentance, in all their theological dimensions, the coming and removal of Grace, which is attributed to the term God-forsakenness, the transition of man from the psychological to the ontological level, the difference between human and divine humility, the vision of the uncreated Light presented with new interpretive analyses, noetic hesychasm and prayer of Jesus, monasticism as a gift of the Holy Spirit and the great importance and value of the Gethsemane prayer, not only for Christ, but also for Christians.

The whole book of Father Zacharias is a hymn to the living, brave, strong, masculine, apostolic and patristic theology of the Elder Sophrony. Through this text, the figure of a great Elder of our time emerges in a simple, uncluttered, pure manner, who is akin to the great Prophetic, Apostolic and Patristic figures. Reading it, one rejoices, glorifies God, grieves, prays, repents, pities oneself, mourns, is optimistic, grateful.

I can add that the book of Father Zacharios can also function as an introduction to the study of the entire work of Elder Sophrony, and it is amply proven that the late Father Sophrony is a saint. How can he not be a saint when in his earthen vessel he lived, to the greatest extent possible, the vision of the uncreated Light, and then followed the path of the Lord, namely the descent into hades, to experience the flames of hades in his flesh, his great kenosis, and then he followed him to Tabor, to the Garden of Gethsemane, after he acquired this kenotic prayer for the whole world, in extreme dimensions, and of course he ascended and experienced the mystery of the Cross and the glory of the Resurrection. Among these theological existential alternations he experienced self-hatred to the perfect degree, despair against God, God-forsakenness as a gift, the memory of death as a gifted state, which he felt to be "hot as an amorphous mass of red-hot metal" in his being, the experience of the abyss of sin and the abyss of divine mercy, the deadly thirst for God and the incomprehensible rush towards the divine Being.

I will not hesitate to write again that Elder Sophrony is a SAINT, with rare experience and rare records of this experience. For example, what he says about the uncreated Light in some places is new, perhaps because Saint Gregory Palamas was writing from a different perspective, with the perspective of countering Barlaam's heretical views.

Elder Sophrony had the courage and audacity to say shortly before leaving this world: "I have told God everything. I'm done, whatever I had to do. Now I have to leave." He reached such a degree of repentance, but also such a degree of deification! And then he had the inspiration and ecclesiastical attitude to write a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in which he asked for his blessing to depart "toward the desired Light of Christ's Resurrection", which shows that the institution of the Church respects in absolute degree great spiritual gifts.

Very humbly and being aware of what I am writing, I would like to suggest to all readers, especially monastics, to study the book of Archimandrite Zacharias titled "A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite Sophrony" with much attention and deep silence, because there you will encounter the explosive physiognomy of the great hesychast and seer, the venerable father Sophrony the great, but also his theology that heals every sick existence, they will meet the theology of the way of Christ and the Orthodox revealed tradition to the most authentic degree, and this theology will work as a comparison with other traditions and as a rebirth of their existence.
Saint Sophrony intercede for us.
11 September 2000