Posted 11 December 2006 - 06:33 PM
'The Principle of Operation of Eldership
'In Fr. Sophrony we may find various types of obedience within the monastic community. On the one hand, there is the "administrative" obedience to the abbot, which may or may not have charismatic significance. The abbot may impose various tasks on the members of the monastic community in accordance with the general needs of the community and of each individual. The degree of personal element may vary in this type of obedience. On the other hand, in accord with the eastern tradition, there is an obedience to the spiritual father, which rests on personal guidance. Fr. Sophrony points out that the elder may be an ordained priest or a nonordained person. His own elder - St. Silouan the Athonite - was not ordained. (In similiar fashion, nor was Elder Joseph the Hesychast [+1959] - note, mine.) Alongside guidance by Silouan, Fr. Sophrony had his father-confessor. However, Silouan himself did not connect the sacrament of confession with eldership, to the extent that he would come for confession and advice to any father-confessor at the monastery and follow the counsel obediently.
'For Fr. Sophrony, the elder, whether ordained or not, must necessarily meet certain requirements. Through the purity of his heart, he must have the ability to discern the voice of God and his will in his own heart. He should be a mediator between God and the novice. There are various levels of intensity, or depth, of one's commitment to the elder. On the one hand, one may inquire only about cardinal issues in the circumstances of the choice in life. On the other, there is a more intensive obedience, which is recommended by Fr. Sophrony. In daily life the novice consults the elder about every kind of issue, and whatever the elder recommends and advises the novice will follow, or obey.
'It includes the practice of confession of thoughts. Monitoring thoughts includes examining initiative and intentions. Thus, before any action is undertaken on the part of the novice, it is either approved or disapproved by the elder. Fr. Sophrony justifies this intensity by the conviction that in the monastic life there are no trivial issues: "Everything is important." This echoes St. Anthony the Great, who advises the monk "to ask the elders about every step which he takes in his own cell and about every drop of water he drinks." (Birth into the Kingdom, pg. 141; cf., Anthony, Ad fil. mon., PG 40:1082D; Cassian, Inst. 4:10, 132-34; Barsanuphius, Repl. 344, 186-87.)
'In accordance with tradition, Fr. Sophrony gives to obedience the highest place on the scale of ascetic virtues. For him, obedience is "the basis of monasticism." As a virtue it is even higher than chastity: "Many think that the main distinction between monastic and common ways of life is celibacy. But I, following the ancient fathers and modern ascetics, attribute greater significance to obedience, since often people live their life as celibates, without becoming monks either in terms of sacrament, or in spirit." (Birth into the Kingdom, pg. 135)
'Freedom From and Freedom For
'Fr. Sophrony echoes the the fathers in his conviction that obedience overcomes the fallen human condition and sustains the novice's freedom from and for.
'Fr. Sophrony agrees with patristic anthropology in admitting the sinfulness of the present human condition. Obedience is a way to eschew the effects of this condition. Echoing Dorotheus, Fr. Sophrony maintains that the personal attempt to discern directly the will of God is hampered by one's sinful condition: "the majority of people do not hear the voice of God in their heart, do not understand it and follow the voice of passion living in their soul and suppressing the lowly voice of God by its noise."
'The spiritual father is free from partiality of judgement concerning the issue in question, and is capable of seeking the will of God with an impartial heart: "He can see [things] more clearly [than the one who poses the question], and is more easily accessible to the action of God's grace." (St. Silouan the Athonite, pg. 80; cf., Dorotheus, Instr. 5.63, 252-54)
'This does not presume that the spiritual father needs to possess infallibility, or perfection. It is God who is believed to act through the spiritual father.
'Moreover, obedience provides a necessary framework for the development of pure prayer. If the novice is free from the responsibility of making decisions concerning issues that arise, then obedience helps him to remain impartial. This results therefore in liberation: the present reality no longer controls his existential concerns. Since he is not involved in the decision making, the novice's mind is no longer preoccupied at the level of "earthly cares." He can entirely give his mind over to prayer and meditation. This liberation affords him the possibility of achieving the state of pure prayer.
Fr. Sophrony states:
"Monasticism above all means the purity of the mind, which is unattainable without obedience. That is why there can be no monasticism without obedience. It is possible to receive great gifts of God - even the perfection of martyrdom - outside the monastic condition; but purity of mind is a special gift of monasticism, unknown on other paths, and the monk can only reach this state through obedience." (Birth into the Kingdom Which Cannot Be Moved, in Russian, edited by Fr. Nicholas Sakharov, Essex, 1999)
'Fr. Sophrony observes the impact of the purity of the mind on other aspects of monastic life. Thus, via control and purity of one's mind, chastity, vigilance, and a humble predisposition are maintained. At this point Fr. Sophrony refers to a similiar idea in Climacus, who states that obedience leads to the contemplation of God. (Scala parad. 4, PG 88:681A.)
'Purity of mind and heart, achieved through obedience, makes one more "sensible to the tender voice of God within us, to perception of his will." By allowing one to put aside all earthly care, obedience brings about the state of dispassion and therefore "true freedom," just as it does in Barsanuphius and Climacus. (Birth into the Kingdom, pg. 137; cf., Climacus, Scala parad. 4, PG 88:709B; Barsanuphius, Repl. 226, 140)
'The novice's conscience is not burdened by responsibility for his actions, becoming thereby irreproachable for this action, or "inaccessible to sin." Fr. Sophrony's formula encapsulating this principle is borrowed from the sayings of the Athonite fathers: "God does not judge twice." That is, God will require an answer for any action faithfully accomplished only from the elder responsible for commanding it.
'Eldership as a Sacrament
'The examination of Fr. Sophrony's writings in relation to eldership as a "charismatic" sacrament of the church again confirms his dependence on the fathers. However, in his approach this idea becomes an explicit definition: "Obedience is a spiritual sacrament in the Church, and therefore the relationship between the elder and the novice has a sacred character." The divine action is ineffably at work: "Notwithstanding its inadequacy, the spiritual instruction, if accepted with faith and effectively heeded, will always lead to an increase of good." (St. Silouan the Athonite, pg. 80)
'In the case of unbelief on the part of the novice, obedience loses its sacramental significance. This echoes the above-mentioned patristic idea: the novice's relation to the elder is absolute divine-like trust.
'In Fr. Sophrony the balance between the participation of the elder and the novice (which was lost within the Russian tradition) is restored. Eldership depends on the spiritual proficiency of the elder on the one hand, and the faith of the novice on the other: God acts in proportion to the novice's faith. Yet God acts through the elder. The elder must seek in his heart the voice of God and not say things from his own mind. Fr. Sophrony expresses this perception of the will of God as "feeling of the divine will."
'In another passage, echoing St. Seraphim of Sarov, he refers to the first thought that arises in the heart of the elder after prayer as an indication of divine will. As for the questioner's predisposition, he should accept the first reply of the elder as being in accord with divine providence. However, Fr. Sophrony does not go so far as to suggest that the elder is infallible in his decisions. The spiritual father always remains a vehicle of the divine action and not the source. The desire to comply with the will of God is required on his part. The spiritual father "seeks in prayer enlightenment from God." This harmony between God, the elder and the novice is expressed thus: "A spiritual confessor's reply will usually bear the imprint of imperfection, but this is not because he lacks the grace of knowledge but because perfection is beyond the strength and grasp of the one inquiring of him." (ibid., pg. 80)
to be continued