Archimandrite Sophrony was born Sergei Symeonovich Sakharov in Moscow on September 23, 1896. He emigrated to Western Europe in 1921. A year later he would settle in Paris, pursuing his career as an artist. In Paris, the future monk returned to the faith of his fathers, holy Orthodoxy. In 1926, Sergei entered the St. Panteleimon Monastery on Mt. Athos, where he would become a disciple of the great elder, St. Silouan of Mt. Athos. He was given the name Sophrony in monastic tonsure. In 1947, circumstances forced Fr. Sophrony to move to Paris, where he wrote about his elder, St. Silouan. In 1958, he moved to England and founded the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights.
On July 11, 1993, Elder Sophrony reposed in the Lord. Today marks the twenty-second anniversary of his repose.
In honor of his canonization by the Patriarchate of Constantinople yesterday, we offer below two sources coming from his spiritual children who are transmitters of his theology and memory. The first is an aduio recording of Archimandrite Zacharias of Elder Sophrony's monastery in Tolleshunt Knights and Dr. Christopher Veniamin, professor of Patristics at St. Tikhon's Seminary in South Canaan, PA, sharing remembrances and teachings of Elder Sophrony, and the second is an article authored by Dr. Veniamin on the concept of "theosis" in the teachings of Elder Sophrony and his own great elder, St. Silouan the Athonite.
"Theosis" in Saint Silouan the Athonite and Staretz Sophrony of Essex
As a young boy, I had the blessing of serving each Sunday in the altar of the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, Essex, England. One day when I was still a lad of only fifteen or sixteen years of age, following the Divine Liturgy, and whilst standing in the Prothesis of All Saints Church, Father Sophrony asked me why I was looking so thoughtful. Embarrassed that I was preoccupied with such mundane matters, I had to confess that school examinations were on the horizon, and that I wanted to do well in them. To my surprise, however, Father Sophrony did not belittle my worldly anxiety, but gently nodded his head, and agreed that it was indeed important to do well in examinations, and that to do so required much toil and sacrifice. But then he also added, as though to a friend, that "in this world there is nothing more difficult than to be saved."
The force of the truth of these words struck deep in my heart. We often encounter, in ourselves and in others, the attitude which suggests that Salvation is something that we can leave until later; once, that is, we have taken care of more pressing matters. Father Sophrony's perspective was quite different, however. By pointing to the incomparable difficulty of attaining to Salvation, he was clearly placing it at the very top of our list of urgent priorities. And when one pauses to consider all the great achievements of mankind, past and present, whether they be of a scientific or literary character, in the world of politics or finance or physical endeavour. Father Sophrony's words seem bold and even provocative—a hard saying (John 6:60)—but nevertheless fundamentally quite true.
Upon later reflection, I realized that the reason why Father Sophrony's words rang so true that day is because of the wealth of meaning which Salvation has for us in the Orthodox Church. By others, Salvation is often understood simply in terms of "deliverance from sin and its consequences and admission to heaven," in terms of escaping damnation, that is, and reaching a safe place where we can no longer be tormented by the enemy. According to the Fathers of the Church, however, Salvation is not so prosaic a matter, for it involves the "theosis" (the deification or divinization) of the entire human person in Christ; it involves, that is, becoming like unto Christ to the point of identity with Him; it involves acquiring the mind of Christ (as Saint Paul affirms in the second chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, verse sixteen), and indeed it signifies the sharing in His very Life.
In our brief and humble examination of the content and meaning of theosis or deification in Saint Silouan and Staretz Sophrony, I should like to focus on three main areas: 1. Christ as the measure of our deification, 2. Love for enemies as the measure of our likeness to Christ, and 3. Holy Relics as a witness to the love of Christ in us.
1. Christ as the Measure of Our Deification
Christ is the measure of all things, both divine and human. Since the divine Ascension, our human nature has been raised up to the right hand of God the Father. As Father Sophrony points out, in His divine Person, the Son and Word of God was of course always seated on the right hand of the Father, being con-substantial with Him. The divine purpose for the human race, however, is seen in the union of our human nature to the divine Person of Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, in its being raised to the right hand of the Father.
St Paul, the great Apostle of the Word of God made flesh, identifies the divine purpose of the Incarnation with our adoption as sons of God: But when the fulness of the time was come. God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons. God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ" (Gal. 4:4-7).
In Christ Jesus, therefore, we encounter both true and perfect God and true and perfect man. In other words, we see in Him not only the great God and Saviour (Tit. 2:13), but also what or who we have been called to become—sons and heirs of God the Father. St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, in refuting the heresy of the Gnostics of the second century, described the divine purpose succinctly thus: "[I]f the Word is made man, it is that men might become gods."
And the champion of Nicene Orthodoxy, Athanasius the Great, writing in the fourth century, reaffirms the Biblical and Irenaean position: "God became human," he says, "that we might be made gods" (autos gar enanthropesen, ina emeis theopoiethomen). "God became human that we might be made gods." What a daring statement! But what exactly does it mean for us to become gods? Can we created mortals become uncreated and immortal? Is this not an impossibility? An impiety? Or even a blasphemy? In what, then, does our becoming gods, our deification or divinization—our theosis—consist?
As Archimandrite Sophrony explains in his spiritual autobiography, We Shall See Him As He Is: "Christ manifested the perfection of the Divine image in man and the possibility for our nature of assimilating the fulness of divinization to the very extent that, after His ascension. He placed our nature 'on the right hand of the Father.'" Note here that the expression "on the right hand of the Father" (ek dexion tou Patros) denotes nothing less than equality with the Father. Thus, since the time of the divine Ascension of Christ, our human nature has been deified in Him, and raised up to the right hand of God the Father.
Significantly, however, Archimandrite Sophrony also adds the following: "But even in Him our nature did not become one with the Essence of the Uncreated God. In Christ, incarnate Son of the Father, we contemplate God's pre-eternal idea of man." So, in Christ Jesus we find man's rightful place, "on the right hand of the Father," sharing in the divine Life; but, as with the two natures in Christ, man has been called to be united with God without mixture or confusion of any kind, that is to say, we never cease to be His creatures, since He alone is Uncreated. This fundamental distinction is of inestimable significance in Patristic theology.
Nevertheless, in the union of our human nature to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, we also see what in theological terminology is called the communicatio idiomatum, that is, the exchange of natural properties belonging to each of Christ's two natures. This may also be described in terms of the interpenetration of the natural energy of each of the two natures in Christ in the other. As a simple illustration of this we have the Gospel narrative of the Transfiguration in Luke 9:28, where we first see Christ praying, performing, that is, an act which is proper to His human but not to His divine nature; while moments later, we find His humanity sharing in, indeed resplendent with His divine glory, which is proper only to the divine nature. Saint Cyril of Alexandria describes the scene in this way: "The blessed disciples slept for a short while, as Christ gave Himself to prayer. For He voluntarily fulfilled His human obligations (ta anthropina). Later, on waking they became beholders (theoroi) of His most holy and wondrous change."
Staretz Sophrony points out that the union of the human nature in Christ is of course hypostatic or prosopic, that is to say, that Christ is a divine Person, the Person of the Son and Word of God; but, it is equally important to note that the union of the two natures in Christ is also energetic. The significance of this energetic interpenetration of the divine and human natures in each other is of paramount importance for us human beings in that it forms the basis of our own union with God, which is also energetic and not essential or hypostatic. In other words, it proves to us that the example of Christ is also realizable, also attainable, by us human persons, and that theosis to the point of divine perfection, far from being optional, is in fact an obligation. It is in this sense that Staretz Sophrony understands the exhortation: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48).
Father Sophrony also highlights another mystery concerning the Life of Christ on earth as a model and pattern for our own Life in Christ. This is revealed in the fact that even with the human nature of Christ we may observe a certain growth or dynamism, or, as Holy Scripture puts it, a certain “increase:” And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man (Luke 2:52). Thus, before all things had been fulfilled, even after the hypostatic union of human nature to the divine Person of the Word; even after His assumption of our humanity into His divine Person; even Christ, in His human aspect, appears as increasing in perfection. Hence, He also undergoes temptations (Luke 4:1-13, Hebr. 2:18); and even reached the point of agony (Luke 22:44). This, as Father Sophrony remarks, is due principally to a certain division which may be observed in Christ before His glorious Ascension, owing to the asymmetry of His natures. Following His Ascension, and the sitting of Christ the Son of Man on the right hand of God the Father, we have the new vision of the Christ-Man as equal to God, not of course according to His nature, but according to His energy.
Father Sophrony cautiously notes, however, that this does not refer to Christ's hypostatic "aspect," for the pre-eternal and uncreated Word remained such even after His Incarnation. Nevertheless, in the human "aspect" of His union and existence, we find once again the model and pattern for our own Life in Christ, for, as Staretz Sophrony puts it: "Christ is the unshakable foundation and the ultimate criterion for the anthropological teaching of the Church, Whatever we confess concerning the humanity of Christ is also an indication of the eternal divine plan for man in general. The fact that in the Christ-Man His hypostasis is God, in no way diminishes the possibility for us humans to follow His example (cf. John 13:15), after which in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren (Hebr. 2:17).
"If it is true that Christ is the 'Son of Man,' consubstantial with us, then it follows that everything that He accomplished in His earthly life must likewise be possible for the rest of the 'sons of men.'" And for this reason, Father Sophrony adds that "if we confess His full and perfect theosis, it behoves us also to hope for the same degree of theosis for the saints in the age to come." The fundamental theological concern behind all that we have said so far is soteriological, that is to say, it concerns our Salvation in a most fundamental way. Why? Because of the simple fact that we cannot live with Christ if we are not like Him in all respects. As the great hierophant John the Theologian and Evangelist proclaims: We know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure (1 John 3:2-3).
We shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. So, if we wish to be eternally with Christ, we must become like Him; and this process of becoming Christlike, this purification, invariably involves repentance—a fundamental change in our whole way of life, in our very "mode of being."
Saint Symeon the New Theologian, in his Hymn no. 44 reiterates this point in the following way:
The Master is in no way envious of mortal men that they should appear equal to Him by divine grace, neither does He deem His servants unworthy to be like unto Him, but rather does He delight and rejoice to see us who were made men such as to become by grace what He is by nature. And He is so beneficent that He wills us to become even as He is. For if we be not as He is, exactly like unto Him in every way, how could we be united to Him? How could we dwell in Him, as He said, without being like unto Him, and how could He dwell in us, if we be not as He is?
And again concerning the awesomeness of our inheritance, the great Paul, in Romans, writes the following:
The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ, if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:16-18).
Father Sophrony also makes another very interesting and important observation concerning the example given by Christ and our own theosis or deification. He points to the fact that even though the deification of Christ's human nature was, as Saint John Damascene says, effected from the very moment in which He assumed our nature, nevertheless Christ as Man shied away from anything which might give the impression of auto-theosis, that is to say, self-deification or self-divinization. That is why we see the action of the Holy Spirit underlined at His Holy Birth: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee... therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35); also, the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ at His Baptism in the Jordan (Matt. 3:15); and concerning the Resurrection, the Scriptures speak thus: God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory (1 Pet. 1:21); and finally, Christ Himself, teaching us the way of humility and how always to ascribe glory to Our Heavenly Father, says: If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true. There is another that beareth witness of me; and I know that the witness which he witnesseth of me is true (John 5:31-32).
The same movement may be observed in the Divine Liturgy. The Words of Institution—"Take eat, this is my body," "Drink of this all of you, this is my blood"—by themselves are not regarded as sufficient to effect the consecration of the Holy Gifts; they must be accompanied by the Epiklesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, precisely in order to avoid any notion of self-deification, to avoid, that is, giving the impression that simply by speaking the words which Christ spoke, we are able to transform the Holy Gifts into the precious Body and Blood of Christ. (Of course, at the heart of this movement lies the truth that the action of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is always one and the same: the Three Divine Hypostases always act together, always act in unison, which is an expression of Their consubstantiality.) Thus, it behoves us to beseech God the Father to send down the Holy Spirit, by Whose power the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is effected.
2. Love for Enemies as the Measure of Our Likeness to Christ
Now although Saint Silouan himself, as far as I am aware, does not actually use the term theosis, the deification of the human person in Christ is certainly a golden thread which may be traced throughout his writings. For Saint Silouan, the fundamental criterion by which a person may measure his or her likeness to Christ is love for one's enemies (cf. Matt. 5:43-45). As he says:
"Christ prayed for them that were crucifying him: Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). Stephen the Martyr prayed for those who stoned him, that the Lord lay not this sin to their charge (Acts 7:60). And we, if we wish to preserve grace, must pray for our enemies."
Herein lies the mystery of the divine "mode of being," God's very way of life: humility. Humility on the ascetic plane, explains Father Sophrony, is manifested as regarding one's self as the worst of all sinners, while on the theological plane, humility is revealed as love, which is given freely and completely. Saint Silouan, who was himself possessed of this divine love, humbly warns us to be watchful:
"If you do not feel pity for the sinner destined to suffer the pains of hellfire, it means that the grace of the Holy Spirit is not in you, but an evil spirit. While you are still alive, therefore, strive by repentance to free yourself from this spirit."
The struggle for Christlike love for one's enemies and humility, and against pride, is a very great one indeed; and that is why the saints, the true imitators of Christ and sharers in His love, are great indeed. Saint Silouan writes:
I am a sorry wretch, as the Lord knows, but my pleasure is to humble my soul and love my neighbour, though he may have given me offence. At all times I beseech the Lord Who is merciful to grant that I may love my enemies; and by the grace of God I have experienced what the love of God is, and what it is to love my neighbour; and day and night I pray the Lord for love, and the Lord gives me tears to weep for the whole world. But if I find fault with any man, or look on him with an unkind eye, my tears will dry up, and my soul sink into despondency. Yet do I begin again to entreat forgiveness of the Lord, and the Lord in His mercy forgives me, a sinner.
"Brethren," Saint Silouan continues:
"Before the face of my God I write: Humble your hearts, and while yet on this earth you will see the mercy of the Lord, and know your Heavenly Creator, and your souls will never have their fill of love."
So, we see that the love of Christ fills the very being of His saints.
3. Holy Relics as a Witness to the Love of Christ in Us
But whither does this all-embracing Christlike love lead? The answer for Saint Silouan is a simple one:
Love of God takes various forms. The man who wrestles with wrong thoughts loves God according to his measure. He who struggles against sin, and asks God to give him strength not to sin, but yet falls into sin again because of his infirmity, and sorrows and repents—he possesses grace in the depths of his soul and mind, but his passions are not yet overcome. But the man who has conquered his passions now knows no conflict: all his concern is to watch himself in all things lest he fall into sin. Grace, great and perceptible, is his. But he who feels grace in both soul and body is a perfect man, and if he preserves this grace, his body is sanctified and his bones will make holy relics.
There are, described in this passage, four stages of love, the fourth and highest of which is that which is attested to by the penetration of Divine Grace into the body, into the very marrow of a person’s being. And this is identified by Saint Silouan as the highest state of perfection, the highest state of holiness. "He who feels grace in both soul and body is a perfect man, and if he preserves this grace, his body is sanctified and his bones will make holy relics."
As with Christ's voluntary death, in which it was not possible for the Body of the Logos of Life to see corruption, and which was thus raised together with His human soul on the third day, so too will it be with the bodies of those saints which have known great grace in this life, and who have been able to preserve it. They too, even after death, are not separated from the grace and love of God, neither in soul nor in body, and hence their bodies are revealed as holy relics.
Here we are confronted with an overwhelming mystery: that man is not truly man, not truly a human person or hypostasis, without his body. For this reason, even great saints patiently await the Second and Glorious Coming of Christ, when by Grace they will become united once more with their bodies. There will not be a Judgment for them; for they have already been judged—by holy self-condemnation. The Second Coming of Christ, then, will be for them the moment of their full realization as persons, and thus the inauguration of their full and perfect participation in the Life in Christ, which is at one and the same time the Life of the Most Holy Trinity.
The sole exception to this, of course, is the Mother of God, the Theotokos, who, as the Mother of Life, even after death, could not be held by the grave, but, like her Son, "passed over into life." She, therefore, even now, as a fully realized human hypostasis, enjoys the blessed Life to which we have all been called.
In our first section, we noted an important passage in Saint Paul, from his Epistle to the Romans, concerning sonship, suffering and the final glory. Please allow me to repeat it once more:
The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:16-18).
The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us, that is, in our adoption as sons, in our Salvation, in our theosis in Christ. That is why Saint Gregory Palamas affirms that "except for sin nothing in this life, even death itself, is really evil, even if it causes suffering." Speaking of the torments that the martyrs were willing to endure, Saint Gregory explains that "the martyrs made the violent death which others afflicted on them into something magnificent, a source of life, glory and the eternal heavenly kingdom, because they exploited it in a good way that pleased God."
Christ's word is charged with His divine energy, life and power; so too are His divine actions and His Life on earth as Man. When we fill ourselves with His words, and strive earnestly to live according to His command and example, to love even our enemies as He did—as He does—so too do we, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, enter into the sphere of Life which is contained in them. There is, as Father Zacharias puts it, "an exchange of lives" which takes place. We thus become, in our souls and in our bodies, partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) through union with His flesh, His humanity—sharers, that is, in the very divine Life of Christ Himself, which is at the same time the Life of the Most Holy Trinity.
We are saved not as individuals but as persons, as members of the Body of Christ, of which Christ is the Head. We are united with Him—and through Him, with the other members of His Body.
Notice the following words from Father Sophrony's We Shall See Him As He Is:
"Through His incarnation the everlasting Logos of the Father gives us to partake of His Blood and His Flesh in order thereby to pour into our veins His eternal Life, that we may become His children, flesh of His Flesh, bone of His Bone (cf. John 6:53-57)."
In Holy Relics, therefore, we do not see dead bones—far from it. In Holy Relics we see the result of communion with the Lord, the result of sharing the very Life of the Most High God (cf. Rom. 9:5) —communion with Him Who is Self-Life, Life Itself (autozoe). United with Christ, then, though we pass through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23:4), we pass from death to Eternal Life. This is the point at which the created meets the uncreated, the point at which earth meets "heaven face to face," and the point at which we created, mortal human beings are transfigured by Him into Divine Life.
Thus are the perfect. Thus are the saints. Thus are they whose very bones have preserved grace to the end. Holy Relics are the earthly remains of those who have been taught by none other than Christ Himself to love their enemies even unto death, the death of the Cross, which is His glory, and which by grace becomes their glory too. Love for enemies is not a moral injunction, it is the fundamental criterion for the Christian way of life. This is Salvation. Yea, this is theosis.
Truly, then, "in this world there is nothing more difficult than to be saved." But as we begin to perceive Salvation as theosis, so too do the dry bones seen by the Prophet Ezekiel begin to receive Life:
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, and caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest. Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live... And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord (Ezek. 37:1-14).
[I] shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live; Even so, come. Lord Jesus (Rev. 22:20).
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Originally delivered at the St. Tikhon 's annual lecture series, September 30, 1997.
Originally published in Alive in Christ: The Magazine of the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania, Orthodox Church in America. 1997. Vol. XIII.3, pp. 22-27.
This article is now available as the first chapter of the book The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation: “Theosis” in Scripture and Tradition (Dalton, PA: 2014, repr. ed.) from Dr. Veniamin's Mount Thabor Publishing and is also available as a single piece in Kindle.