Suffering and the Bliss of Knowing the Way: St. Sophrony

From his book, His Life is Mine, chapter #7

Sophrony acknowledges the shared human need for inner peace by both Christians and non-Christians. We both share, in a way, a longing for heaven; something beyond ourselves. We have a need to know the way.

He empathizes with those who seek to escape the “banality and emptiness of contemporary world” and understands why so many are turning to Eastern religions and meditative practices.

Sophrony, however, draws a distinction between Christian mysticism (such as the Hesychastic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox church), and non-Christian forms of meditation, many influenced by Eastern mysticism.

Like other meditative traditions, Hesychastic practices aim at achieving inner stillness through dispassion, the practice of virtues and a life of prayer. This is a journey of continuous ascendance and transformation until we finally reach theosis—complete union with God and participation in his divinity.

Sophrony calls this a “profound mystery.”

He tells us that we are “blessed,” as Christians, because “His life is become ours.” We do not simply gain knowledge or divine attributes but participate in his essence. Because we now see the world through his eyes, we can truly see and hear what was hidden from us before, and perceive the unity where there were once only contradictions.

Blessed are your eyes, for they see and your ears, for they hear. (Mt 13.16-17)

While Christians share with all humans the longing for freedom and the quest for peace and joy, there are major differences between Christianity and other spiritual practices, especially in their view of suffering. The problem Sophrony sees in many of these practices is the underlying desire to leap directly to the result—joy and peace—and bypass any pain or suffering.

By contrast, Christianity embraces rather than avoid suffering. It sees the divine wisdom of a complex ecosystem in which opposites and equals have a synergistic relationship with each other, when seen in the right order and perspective.

Suffering, for example, produces humility and empathy, as we understand our shared humanity with all human beings.

An enhance recognition of human suffering begets intense prayer, which transfers all things into the realm of the spirit

Spiritual knowledge, in fact, cannot be achieved without humility. We cannot “empty” ourselves from passions and allow God to dwell within us if our minds are preoccupied with self-generated, rambling and obsessive thoughts of resentment, jealousy, ambition, fear, self-pity or the pursuit of others’ admiration. We cannot be open and receptive to seeing the world through new eyes, if we are attached to our own opinions and proud of our achievements and life choices.

When we become so conscious of our frailty that our spirit despairs, somehow, in an unknown fashion, a wondrous light appears, proclaiming life incorruptible. When the darkness within us is so appalling that we are paralyzed with dread, the same light appears, proclaiming life incorruptible. When the darkness within us is so appalling that we are paralyzed with dread, the same light will turn black night into bright day.

The man “with a humble opinion of himself will be given greater knowledge of the world to come.”

The way to love, Sophrony tells us “lies through the depths of hell.”

Thus the first vision of darkness and mortality changes to a vision of light and light indestructible.

There is no greater tragedy, Sophrony concludes, than the conflict between our world and Christ. He suggests turning on their head our criteria for assessing the quality of our lives. What if, instead of considering pleasure, the absence of discomfort and pain and pleasant or intense emotions as the signs of the good life, we judged our lives by our ability to discern truth and achieve inner peace.

If we assess the quality of life not by the extend of the quality of life not by  the sum of agreeable psycho-physical sensations but by the extent of our awareness of the realities of the universe and, above all, all of the First and Last Truth, we shall understand what lay behind Christ’s words “My peace I give unto you (Jn 14-27)

Those who achieve a state of theosis do not enjoy only positive feelings and a constant state of ecstasy and enlightenment. Both the senses and the soul, good and bad, pain and joy co-exist but they are no longer pulling us in different, contradictory directions. In the light of the truth that we are capable to see, these no longer seem contradictory and, thus, we are not torn by doubt, ambivalence, hesitation or the tumult of being constantly blown in different directions. Our world is whole.

…the soul will be eventually be able to contain within herself at the same time sorrow and joy; despair and hope. There is no more alternating between elation and depression, since all states are gathered into a simple whole. Through knowledge of God the soul has acquired profound peace.

2 thoughts on “Suffering and the Bliss of Knowing the Way: St. Sophrony”

  1. A great post, thank you. I have no religion but much of what you say resonates with my experience. Agreed, one has to go through hell to go beyond it, but I would also say not to linger there or hold on to purgatory where it has no purpose. You appear to me to be one of those rare bloggers who have trod the path.

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    1. Thank you very much for your kind comments. I also had no religion but was moved by the inner journey that Christian spirituality, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy, uncovers. It also resonated with me.

      The early Fathers, and others in this tradition, would totally agree with you on “not lingering” in the suffering. Self-pity and resignations are considered sins. This is why they emphasize repentance and transformation as the key to moving on and growing rather than stagnating and self-destructing.

      I appreciate your comments.

      Like

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