Fr Sophrony (Sakharov) was born into a bourgeois Moscow family in 1896, was an intellectual to the core, coming in his youth under Hindu influence, then becoming an Art Nouveau painter, emigrating to Paris, later becoming the librarian (1) at St Panteleimon’s Monastery on Athos and a religious philosopher. However, he also clearly learned wisdom from simple monks during his two decades spent on Mt Athos. My first meeting with him took place ten years after he had left the Russian Church in 1965, an event which followed his dispute with the local Russian bishop (like himself also a Parisian from a wealthy Russian family). Thus, I first met Fr Sophrony in 1975 (he was never called Elder in his lifetime and the misnomer ‘of Essex’ (2) came from his foreign admirers afterwards). I often encountered him over the next eight years until 1983. He died in 1993, by which time his priests and the convent that he had founded had become a magnet for intellectual converts.
One of the first things I realized was how much Fr Sophrony was under the influence of the great reviver of Patristic (i. e. Biblical/Orthodox/Christian) theology, Metr Antony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev (1864-1936), who was also the first Senior Hierarch of the Church Outside Russia. It was notably Metr Antony who had opposed Roman Catholic Scholasticism which infested the four Academies of Theology in pre-Revolutionary Russia (‘the graves of Orthodoxy’, as they were then called (3)). Divorced from monasticism and popular piety, Latin philosophy had taken them over from the start (4). Its graduates did not even know what peasant Orthodox knew and could express in simple words. Thus, even such figures as the scholastically-trained Bishop (later Archbishop) Theophan of Kursk could not understand the Patristic teaching on the Redemption (5).
Not only did Fr Sophrony openly speak of and admire the moral dimension of Metr Antony’s explanation of the Dogmas of Orthodoxy (‘dogmas’ of course in the Orthodox sense of ‘revelations of the Holy Spirit’) (6), but also the spiritual dimension. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Patristic understanding of the Redemption, revived by Metr Antony in his work ‘The Dogma of Redemption’ (7), and which spread to his disciples, the future saints like St Hilarion (Troitsky + 1926), St Alexis of Carpatho-Russia (+ 1947), St Nikolai (Velimirovich) (+ 1956), St John of Shanghai (+ 1966) (8) and St Justin (Popovich) (+ 1979). This understanding was also the near-bimillennial understanding of semi-literate peasant monastics like St Silouan the Athonite (+ 1938), one of whose disciples Fr Sophrony had become before he was expelled from Mt Athos after World War II.
For Metr Antony, the presentation of Christ’s suffering on the Cross is Roman Catholic, with its judaizing, legalistic understanding of a feudal wrathful God the Father demanding a blood sacrifice and its humanistic and morbid cult of bodily suffering and blood. Thus, he engaged in his energetic combat against what he called ‘the moral monism’ of the juridical theory of the Redemption, explaining the salvation that comes from Christ’s co-suffering love. What is important in the history of the Redemption is Christ’s sacrifice of love, which preceded the Cross all through Christ’s life, culminating in Gethsemane (9) and then the Cross and the blinding light of the Resurrection. This explains the huge difference in the understanding of the Cross between the Church and Roman Catholicism. For Orthodox at all times the Cross has always been the radiant symbol of victory over death, whereas for Roman Catholics it is the morbid symbol of death and suffering, which is why Protestants, like the Jews of old, rejected it.
In the highly intellectual book about Fr Sophrony’s understanding of Orthodox theology, compiled by his great-nephew (10), it is explained that for Fr Sophrony ‘the Gethsemane event is no less than the event of the cross in the redemptive moment’ (10). The author even explains that for Fr Sophrony Gethsemane was an internal sacrifice and Golgotha was an external one (10). This takes Metr Antony’s teaching even further. Fr Sophrony found confirmation of Metr Antony’s expression of the Orthodox Dogma of the Redemption in St Silouan: ‘St Silouan suggested that the prayer of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane included the whole human race from Adam to the last child born of woman’ (11). Also Fr Sophrony wrote: ‘Christ lived the tragedy of all mankind…before his redemptive prayer for all mankind in the Garden’ (12). And again: ‘Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane is the noblest of all prayers by its virtue and power to atone for the sins of the world’ (12).
Here it is clear that Fr Sophrony had been illumined by St Silouan, but then later found the understanding of his illumination in the works of Metr Antony, who had himself already been illumined some two generations before Fr Sophrony through the monastic tradition inside Russia. The source of the illumination of them all was one and the same: Church Tradition, that is, the Holy Spirit (13). Christ is Gethsemane was indeed ‘sorrowful unto death’ (Matt. 26, 38), for there He took on Himself morally all the sufferings of the 100 billion members of mankind from Adam to the last person in history, and so ‘sweated clots of blood’ (Luke 22, 44) (14). This redemption was then completed when Christ nailed our sins to the Cross, where terrible physical sufferings were added to the immense moral suffering, such that death came quickly, to the astonishment of Pilate (Mk 15, 44). Our mind cannot even begin to encompass this.
- In 1979 the late Abbot Misail of St Panteleimon’s offered me the post of librarian there, as no-one had yet filled the place vacated by Fr Sophrony over thirty years before.
- Intellectuals from abroad regularly come to St John’s Church in Colchester, Essex, looking for ‘Essex’, as if it were not an area of 1,300 square miles, but some tiny village! It is doubtful if more than a few hundred of the 1.3 million people in Essex have ever heard of ‘Fr Sophrony’.
- For this quotation and the decadence of the age, see S. A. Nilus, Collected Works, Moscow 2002, Vol 4, Pp. 811-812.
- In Paris in the 1970s I was told how in the 1930s there were Russian ‘theologians’ at the St Sergius Institute who would debate theology in Latin. This was considered to be a compliment! The St Sergius Institute did unfortunately inherit the philosophical and theoretical decadence of the pre-Revolutionary Academies, which, sadly, is now reviving both inside and outside Russia. See my article on ‘Shanghai Theology’: http://www.events. orthodoxengland.org.uk/?s=shanghai+theology
- Archbishop Theophan finished his life in 1940 in repentance in a cave in France for having naively slandered Gregory Rasputin, which slander had led to his sadistic murder by British spies in 1916 and then the palace coup known as ‘the Russian Revolution’; his repentance was related to me in France in the 1970s by those who had known him.
- English Translation, ‘The Moral Idea of the Main Dogmas of the Faith’, Synaxis Press, Canada, 1984
- English translation, Monastery Press, Montreal 1979
- See especially St John’s ‘What did Christ pray for in the Garden of Gethsemane (in Russian in Church Life, No 4, 1938), which fully endorses the teaching on the Redemption of his great abba Metr Antony.
- See P. 113 of ‘The Moral Idea of the Main Dogmas of the Faith’, Synaxis Press, Canada, Second Edition, 2015.
- ‘I love therefore I am’, St Vladimir’s Press, Crestwood, 2002, Pp. 176-77. Alarmingly, the back cover of this very inaccessible academic study (which owes its title to a heterodox French philosopher!), claims that ‘the theology of Fr Sophrony (sic!) conveys the message that Christianity is not just an academic discipline’!! Does this mean that there are actually people who imagine that Christianity is an academic discipline?!
- johnsanidopoulos.com/2015/10/an-interview-with-elder-sophrony-about_ 8.html
- ‘His Life is Mine’, P. 39 and P.91, Reprint, Crestwood.
- Obviously, here we ignore the near-contemporary Californian polemical misunderstandings (notably of the then recent convert, Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) in ‘Orthodox Life’ in 1973, ‘On the New Interpretation of the Dogma of the Redemption’, edited by the late Gleb Podmoshensky). This new interpretation was not that of Metr Antony, but that of Fr Seraphim himself, who had somehow imagined that Metr Antony rejected the Cross. This was then repeated by some in Crestwood, where the book on Fr Sophrony’s understanding of the Orthodox Tradition was published (!), stating that Metr Antony was a ‘stavroclast’(!), that is, that he rejected the Cross. If true, then Fr Sophrony was also ‘a stavroclast’! Anyone who saw Metr Antony humbly bowing down in front of the Cross on the Third Sunday of Lent or at the Exaltation of the Cross in the Russian church in Belgrade at the end of his life (and I knew people who saw this), will know that this misunderstanding can soon become slander for the self-justification of personal passions. If Metr Antony was a stavroclast, then so were St Nicholas of Zhicha (who well knew St Silouan the Athonite) and his friends St John of Shanghai and St Justin of Chelije, Fr Sophrony (Sakharov) and, for that matter, all the Church Fathers! The origin of such misunderstanding is in the Roman Catholic conditioning inherent in scholastic or academic ‘theology’ and the (sadly, sometimes deliberate) misreading of Metr Antony’s writings.
- See especially St Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book X, Section 36 on and Pp. 49, 113-114, 171, 174, 206 and 266 of the above-quoted ‘The Moral Idea of the Main Dogmas of the Faith’, Synaxis Press, Canada, Second Edition, 2015.