Homily for the Feast of St Sophrony of Essex, 11 July, 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

On 27 November, last year, Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), the founder of the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, was declared a saint by the Œcumenical Patriarch. His feast day is 11 July, the day of his death, his ‘heavenly birthday’, as we can now call it. For me, this is rather special, as he is the only one declared to be among the Saints, whom I met during his earthly life. I cannot, alas, say that I got to know him very well—there are many among our contemporaries, not just those who became monks and nuns of the Monastery in Essex, who met him frequently, and got to know him well. I met him just twice, once in (I suppose) 1964, when, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I joined a trip organized by the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, of which I was already a member. To say that I ‘met’ him then is true, but only marginally so: I was introduced to him along with the rest, a mixed group most of whom I have forgotten. It was in the very early days of the monastery, just the original group: in addition to Fr Sophrony himself, three monks and a nun (I think). There was only the Old Rectory, one room of which had been turned into a small chapel, which then sufficed. I hardly met him, but an image remained with me. The next time was about twenty years later, in 1984, when I went to stay there with a former Greek student of mine, by then a priest, responsible for the parish in Colchester: the idea was to stay in the monastery over the weekend, and go together to his parish. I had no expectation of meeting Fr Sophrony—having been told, anyway, that he did not see people at weekends—so imagine my surprise on the Saturday morning when a young monk knocked on my door and said that Fr Sophrony wanted to see me. I went along with him and was shown into a room with a table, behind with Fr Sophrony was sitting, flanked by Fr Kyrill, the (Australian) igumen (or abbot), and Fr Symeon, French-Swiss, his translator into French (who had, only weeks before, sent me a copy of fr Sophrony’s Voir Dieu tel qu’il est, the first book in which Fr Sophrony spoke of his own experiences, instead of introducing to the world his own spiritual father, the Athonite monk, St Silouan, glorified in 1988, a particle of whose relics our parish was given as a blessing in 2002 by Fr Kyrill). It felt like a scene from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I sat down and was asked by Fr Kyrill what I wanted to ask the starets. Given that minutes before, I had no notion of seeing him, I had to think quickly, and asked if Fr Sophrony could talk to me about Fr Silouan. The reply came (Fr Sophrony spoke in Russian and was translated) that the starets has written about Fr Silouan. I had the inspiration to reply that yes, I have read all that Fr Sophrony has written about Fr Silouan, but that it would be different to hear his living words, as he talked about his starets. That seemed to be the right answer, for Fr Sophrony with some eagerness told me about Fr Silouan. I didn’t learn anything that I had not read already; but it was quite different hearing him speaking, even though his actual words, in Russian (which I didn’t know then at all), had to be translated. I didn’t ask him anything about my own spiritual life and problems (though there were plenty). The next day I was again summoned, and this time Fr Sophrony spoke of the difficulties the monastery from facing—from bishops!—and also about attacks on himself; Voir Dieu tel qu’il est (later published in English as We shall see God as He is, and even later in the original Russian) was having quite a hostile reception, especially from his fellow Orthodox. I also met Fr Sophrony at meals, and we talked then. It was an extraordinary experience, but if you ask what it meant to me, the answer is: not much, and everything. He gave me no advice (I hadn’t asked for it); the only personal thing he said was that my books (I had published two by then) were works of real theology, and I must go on writing them (it amazed me that a hermit, as Fr Sophrony was by then, should be reading my books!). So: not much… but also everything, for a sense of his care for me, even his appreciation of what I was trying to do in my books (much read, but not much regarded by my Anglican colleagues, for I was then still Anglican and would remain so for another five years), and also a sense of his continuing prayer for me—that has remained with me. Later on, when I came to Durham, by then Orthodox, my links with the community in Essex were strengthened: two of the monks have studied here with me in Durham.

So what did, what does, Fr Sophrony mean to me? I have learnt a lot more about him since then, especially from a series of books written about him by one of nuns there, Sr Gabriela, an iconographer, taught iconography by Fr Sophrony (especially Seeking Perfection in the World of Art [2014], and ‘Being’: The Art and Life of Fr Sophrony [2016]). As a young man, he studied art in Moscow, with Kandinsky among others, and came to Paris where he exhibited his art and continued his studies; there he established an avant-garde group called ‘Being’. He returned to his native Orthodoxy, spent a year at the newly-established Institut St-Serge, and then left for the Holy Mountain, where he met Fr Silouan, and became his disciple. Eventually he left the Holy Mountain, came to the West to make Fr Silouan’s message known to the world, and ended up founding the monastery in Essex. But that is just information, however interesting. Something of what I make of Fr Sophrony as thinker and theologian you can find in my book, Modern Orthodox Thinkers (2016: pp. 299–314 on SS. Silouan and Sophrony).

St Sophrony was someone who, from his early twenties, felt drawn to devote himself to prayer; he speaks profoundly about the prayer of the heart, and the use of the Jesus Prayer—the weekday prayer-life of his community revolves round recitation of the Jesus Prayer in a way unusual in Orthodox monasticism. Prayer of the heart is about discovering our spiritual centre—the heart—discovering the depths of our being—not our individual being, but a being that unites us with all other human beings, so that our prayer is prayer for the whole of humanity, is prayer that enters into the dark depths of human existence, the confusion, lack of any sense of meaning, a sapping of the human will—the whole experience of what it means to be fallen, something that human kind experienced with tragic poignancy in the last century with wars and revolutions. Into that hell true prayer of the heart descends, and comes close to despair as it realizes how alienated from God his dearest creation, the human, created in his image, has become. Close to despair, feeling all the anxiety of human existence, the heart still prays, still urgent calls upon God. This paradox struck St Silouan again and again; eventually the saint heard from Christ words that gave meaning to his struggle: ‘Keep your mind in hell, and despair not’—do not try to escape the hell of God-forsakenness, but, in prayer, remain there without despair, for the sake of the whole of humanity. That was the heart of what St Sophrony learnt from St Silouan; it answered his longing for prayer that had drawn him to the Holy Mountain; it was this that he brought back to the West, and is enshrined in the community he founded in Essex (when I travelled in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, I often got the impression that the two foci of Orthodoxy were Mount Athos and Essex!).

St Sophrony records somewhere these words of St Silouan:

A single saint is an extraordinarily precious phenomenon for all mankind. By the mere fact of their existence—unknown, maybe, to the world but known to God—the saints draw down on the world, on all humanity, a great benediction from God.

So then, every saint is a phenomenon of cosmic character, whose significance passes beyond the bounds of earthly history into the sphere of eternity. The saints are the salt of the earth, its raison d’être. They are the fruit that preserves the earth. But when the earth ceases to produce saints, the strength that safeguards it from catastrophe will fail.

Today we celebrate St Sophrony of Essex, tomorrow St Paisios the Hagiorite—truly the earth is still able to produce saints! Glory be to God! Amen!