Staretz Silouan of Mt Athos
It is a great good to give oneself up to the will of God. Then the Lord alone is in the soul. No other thought can enter in, and the soul feels God's love, even though the body be suffering.
When the soul is entirely given over to the will of God, the Lord Himself takes her in hand and the soul learns directly from God. Whereas, before, she turned to teachers and to the Scriptures for instruction. But it rarely happens that the soul's teacher is the Lord Himself through the grace of the Holy Spirit, and few there are that know of this, save only those who live according to God's will.
The proud man does not want to live according to God's will: he likes to be his own master and does not see that man has not wisdom enough to guide himself without God. And I, when I lived in the world, knew not the Lord and His Holy Spirit, nor how the Lord loves us-I relied on my own understanding; but when by the Holy Spirit I came to know our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, my soul submitted to God, and now I accept every affliction that befalls me, and say: "The Lord looks down on me. What is there to fear?" But before, I could not live in this manner.
Life is much easier for the man who is given over to the will of God, since in illness, in poverty, in persecution he reflects thus: "Such is God's pleasure, and I must endure on account of my sins."
Thus for many years have I suffered violent headaches, which are hard to bear but salutary because the soul is humbled through sickness. My soul longs to pray and keep vigil, but sickness hinders me because of my body's demand for rest and quiet; and I besought the Lord to heal me, and the Lord hearkened not unto me. So, therefore, it would not have been salutary for me to have been cured.
Here is another case which happened to me, wherein the Lord made haste to hearken unto me and save me. We were given fish one feast-day in the refectory, and, while I was eating, a fish-bone found its way deep down my throat and stuck in my chest. I called to the holy martyr St. Panteleimon, begging him to help me, as the doctor could not extract the bone. And when I spoke the word 'heal,' my soul received this answer: 'Leave the refectory, take a deep breath, fill out your cheeks with air, and then cough; and you will bring the bone up together with some blood.' This I did. I went out, exhaled, coughed, and a big bone came up with some blood. And I understood that if the Lord does not cure me of my headaches it is because they are good for my soul.
The most precious thing in the world is to know God and understand His will, even if only in part.
The soul that has come to know God should in all things submit to His will, and live before Him in awe and love: in love, because the Lord is love; in awe, because we must go in fear of grieving God by some evil thought. O Lord, by the power of the grace of the Holy Spirit, vouchsafe that we may live according to Thy holy will.
When grace is with us we are strong in spirit; but when we lose grace we see our infirmity-we see that without God we cannot even think a good thing.
O God of Mercy, Thou knowest our infirmity. I beseech Thee, grant me a humble spirit, for in Thy mercy Thou dost enable the humble soul to live according to Thy will. Thou dost reveal Thy mysteries to her. Thou givest her to know Thee and the infirmity of Thy love for us. How are you to know if you are living according to the will of God? Here is a sign: if you are distressed over anything it means that you have not fully surrendered to God's will, although it may seem to you that you live according to His will.
He who lives according to God's will has no cares. If he has need of something, he offers himself and the thing he wants to God, and if he does not receive it, he remains as tranquil as if he had got what he wanted. The soul that is given over to the will of God fears nothing, neither thunder nor thieves nor any other thing. Whatever may come, 'Such is God's pleasure,' she says. If she falls sick she thinks, 'This means that I need sickness, or God would not have sent it.' And in this wise is peace preserved in soul and body.
The man who takes thought for his own welfare is unable to give himself up to God's will, that his soul may have peace in God. But the humble soul is devoted to God's will, and lives before Him in awe and love; in awe, lest she grieve God in any way; in love, because the soul has come to know how the Lord loves us.
The best thing of all is to surrender to God's will and bear affliction having confidence in God. The Lord, seeing our affliction, will never give us too much to bear. If we seem to ourselves to be greatly afflicted, it means that we have not surrendered to the will of God.
The soul that is in all things devoted to the will of God rests quiet in Him, for she knows of experience and from the Holy Scriptures that the Lord loves us much and watches over our souls, quickening all things by His grace in peace and love.
Nothing troubles the man who is given over to the will of God, be it illness, poverty or persecution. He knows that the Lord in His mercy is solicitous for us. The Holy Spirit, whom the soul knows, is witness therefore. But the proud and the self-willed do not want to surrender to God's will because they like their own way, and that is harmful for the soul.
Abba Pimen said: 'Our own will is like a wall of brass between us and God, preventing us from coming near to Him or contemplating His mercy.' We must always pray the Lord for peace of soul that we may the more easily fulfil the Lord's commandments; for the Lord loves those who strive to do His will, and thus they attain profound peace in God.
He who does the Lord's will is content with all things, though he be poor or sick and suffering, because the grace of God gladdens his heart. But the man who is discontent with his lot and murmurs against his fate, or against those who cause him offence, should realize that his spirit is in a state of pride, which has taken from him his sense of gratitude towards God.
But if it be so with you, do not lose heart but try to trust firmly in the Lord and ask Him for a humble spirit; and, when the lowly spirit of God comes to you, you will then love Him and be at rest in spite of all tribulations.
The soul that has acquired humility is always mindful of God, and thinks to herself: 'God has created me. He suffered for me. He forgives me my sins and comforts me. He feeds me and cares for me. Why then should I take thought for myself, and what is there to fear, even if death threaten me?' The Lord enlightens every soul that has surrendered to the will of God, for He said: Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me. /.../
No one on this earth can avoid affliction; and although the afflictions which the Lord sends are not great, men imagine them beyond their strength and are crushed by them. This is because they will not humble their souls and commit themselves to the will of God. But the Lord Himself guides with His grace those who are given over to God's will, and they bear all things with fortitude for the sake of God Whom they have so loved and with Whom they are glorified for ever. /.../
When the Mother of God stood at the foot of the Cross, the depth of her grief was inconceivable, for she loved her Son more than any one can realize. And we know that the greater the love the greater the suffering. By the laws of human nature, the Mother of God could not possibly have borne her affliction; but she had submitted herself to the will of God, and the Holy Spirit sustained her and gave her the strength to bear this affliction.
And later, after the Ascension of the Lord, she became a great comfort to all God's people in their distress.
The Lord gave us the Holy Spirit, and the man in whom the Holy Spirit lives feels that he has paradise within him.
Perhaps you will say, 'Why is it I have not grace like that?' It is because you have not surrendered yourself to the will of God but live in your own way.
Look at the man who likes to have his own way. His soul is never at peace and he is always discontented: this is not right and that is not as it should be. But the man who is entirely given over to the will of God can pray with a pure mind, his soul loves the Lord, and he finds everything pleasant and agreeable.
Thus did the Most Holy Virgin submit herself to God: 'Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word.' And were we to say likewise-'Behold the servant of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word'-then the Lord's words written in the Gospels by the Holy Spirit would live in our souls, and the whole world would be filled with the love of God, and how beautiful would life be on earth! And although the words of God have been heard the length and breadth of the universe for so many centuries, people do not understand and will not accept them. But the man who lives according to the will of God will be glorified in heaven and on earth.
We all suffer here on earth and seek freedom, but few there are who know the meaning of freedom and where it is to be found.
I too want freedom and seek it day and night. I learnt that freedom is with God and is given of God to humble hearts who have repented and sacrificed their wills before Him. To those who repent the Lord gives His peace and freedom to love Him. There is nothing better in the world than to love God and one's fellow man. In this does the soul find rest and joy. O all ye peoples of the earth, I fall on my knees to you, beseeching you with tears to come to Christ. I know His love for you. I know and therefore I cry to the whole world. If one does not know a thing, how could one speak of it?
'But how may I know God?' you will ask. And I say that we have seen the Lord by the Holy Spirit. If you humble yourself, the Holy Spirit will show our Lord to you too; and you too will want to proclaim Him to all the world.
I am an old man awaiting death. I write the truth for love of God's people over whom my soul grieves. If I should help but a single soul to salvation, I will give thanks to God; but my heart aches for the whole world, and I pray and shed tears for the whole world, that all may repent and know God and live in love, and delight in freedom in God. O all ye peoples of the earth, pray and weep for your sins, that the Lord may forgive them. Where there is forgiveness of sins there is freedom of conscience and love, even if but a little.
The Lord does not desire the death of a sinner, and on him who repents He bestows the grace of the Holy Spirit, which gives peace to the soul and freedom for the mind and heart to dwell in God. When the Holy Spirit forgives us our sins we receive freedom to pray to God with an undistracted mind, and we can freely think on God and live serene and joyous in Him. And this is true freedom. But without God there can be no freedom, for the enemy agitates the soul with evil thoughts.
O my brethren the world over, repent while there is still time. God mercifully awaits our repentance. And all heaven and all the Saints look for our repentance. As God is love, so the Holy Spirit in the Saints is love. Ask, and the Lord will forgive. And when you receive forgiveness of sins there will be joy and gladness in your souls, and the grace of the Holy Spirit will enter into your souls, and you will cry: 'This is true freedom. True freedom is in God and of God.'
The grace of God does not take away freedom, but merely helps man to fulfil God's commandments. Adam knew grace but he could still exercise his will. Thus too the angels abide in the Holy Spirit and yet are not deprived of free will.
Many people are ignorant of the way of salvation: they walk in darkness and do not see the Light of Truth. But He was, is and shall be, and in His mercy calls all men to Himself. 'Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden. Know me, and I will give you rest and freedom.' This is true freedom-to be in God. And I did not know this before. Until I was seven and twenty I simply believed that God was, but I did not know Him; but when my soul knew Him by the Holy Spirit I was consumed with longing for Him, and now day and night I seek Him with burning heart. The Lord wants us to love one another: in this-in love towards God and our fellow-man-lies freedom. In this lie both freedom and equality. With society as it is graduated on this earth, there can be no equality; but that is of no importance to the soul. Not everyone can be an emperor or a prince; not everyone can be a patriarch or an abbot, or a leader; but in every walk of life we can love God and be pleasing to Him, and only this is important. And the man who loves God most in this world will have the most glory in the Kingdom. He who loves most will the most strongly yearn and reach for God, and be closest to Him. Each will be glorified according to the measure of his life. And I have discovered that love varies in strength.
When a man fears God lest he grieve Him in some way-that is the first degree of love. He who keeps his mind pure of intrusive thoughts knows the second degree of love, which is greater than the first. The third and still greater kind of love is when a man is sensible of grace in his soul. The fourth and perfect kind of love for God exists when a man possesses the grace of the Holy Spirit both in soul and body. The body is then hallowed, and after death the earthly remains become relics. This is what happened in the case of the holy Martyrs and Prophets and venerable Fathers. The man who loves in this wise is proof against carnal love. He may lie beside a woman without feeling the smallest desire for her. Love of God is stronger than love of woman-to which all the world is attracted save those who are filled with the grace of God, for the sweetness of the Holy Spirit regenerates the entire man and teaches him to love God to the utmost. In the fulness of her love for God, the soul has no contact with the world; though a man live on earth among other men, in his love for God he forgets everything that is of this world. But our trouble is that through the pride of our mind we do not continue in this grace, and so grace forsakes us, and the soul seeks it, weeping and sobbing and saying, "My soul longs for the Lord.'
An excerpt from the book, The Wisdom of Mount Athos, reprinted by kind permission of the publisher, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, from whom the book and its companion volume, Monk of Mount Athos by Archimandrite Sophrony, are available. Each approx. 120 pps.; $7.95 per volume plus p&h .
The Staretz was born in 1866, into a peasant family in the Russian province of Tambov. His early religious inclinations were eclipsed by youthful carousing but reappeared with added intensity after he had a dream in which a snake crawled down his throat and he awoke to hear a voice saying, "Just as you found it loathsome to swallow a snake in your dream, so I find your ways ugly to look upon." Finishing his military service in 1892, he went straight to Mt. Athos, where he entered the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon. Expecting to find there a haven secure from the storms of life, he was alarmed at the carnal desires that assailed him. He found refuge in the gift of unceasing prayer, but this provoked the Evil One, who redoubled his assaults, driving the novice into a veritable inferno. For six months he suffered hell-like torments and came to the threshold of despair. In this state he went to Vespers one evening and there, in the church, he had a vision of Christ. The fire of Divine love enraptured his soul and he was transported in spirit to heaven. He had tasted hell and now Paradise was revealed to him and the soul's resurrection. Such a sublime experience invited a susceptibility to pride. The intensity of grace visited upon him began to fade, and when he begged to know how to regain it, he received from the Lord the key to holiness: "Keep thy mind in hell and despair not." Overwhelmed by God's mercy, he yearned that all men should come to know Christ's love, and this became the prevailing concern of his prayers for the rest of his life.
In his lifetime, Staretz Silouan was not widely known. He was an "ordinary" Athonite monk; even after his tonsure into the Great Schema in 1911, he remained in his obedience as steward of the monastery. The eminent Serbian hierarch, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, with whom he corresponded, thought very highly of him, and some of the monks from the Serbian monastery of Chilandar sought him out for counsel, but his posthumous renown and his glorification by the Ecumenical Patriarchate fifty years after his repose on September 10/23, 1938, are due to the labors of his disciple of eight years, Archimandrite Sophronius, who compiled an instructive and inspiring account of the Staretz' life, together with his notes on the spiritual life. Staretz Silouan was almost unlettered; his was a revealed theology, born from experience rather than erudition, a refreshing contrast to our too frequently intellectualized spirituality. In his "Foreword, " Archimandrite Sophronius writes: "The fact that [Staretz Silouan] remained untouched by the falsities of our contemporary civilization makes him irresistibly convincing."