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Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) (23 September 1896 in Moscow – 11 July 1993 in Tolleshunt Knights), also Elder Sophrony, was best known as the disciple and biographer of St Silouan the Athonite and compiler of St Silouan's works, and as the founder of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Maldon, Essex, England.
On September 23, 1896, Sergei Symeonovich Sakharov (Russian: Серге́й Семёнович Са́харов) was born to Orthodox parents in Russia. As a child, Sergei would pray daily, later recalling that he would pray for 45 minutes without stress. Even as a child, Sergei claimed to have experienced the Uncreated Light. He read widely, including such Russian greats as Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin.
Due to great artistic talent, Sergei studied at the Academy of Arts between 1915 and 1917, and then at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture between 1920 and 1921. Sergei used art as a "quasi-mystical" means "to discover eternal beauty", "breaking through present reality...into new horizons of being". Later, this would help him to differentiate between human intellectual light and God's Uncreated Light.
It was around the time of his study at the Moscow School that Sergei would see Christianity's focus on personal love as being necessarily finite; he falls from the Orthodoxy of his youth and delves into Indian mystical religions based on the impersonal Absolute.
In 1921, Sergei left Russia: partly to continue his artistic career in Western Europe, and partly because he was not a Marxist. After first going to Italy, he went to Berlin, and then settled in Paris in 1922.
- 1922: Arrived in Paris. Artistic exhibitions attracted attention of French media.
- Frustrated by inability of art to express purity.
- Saw rational knowledge as unable to provide answer to the biggest question, the problem of death.
- 1924: Due to Sergei's realisation that Christ's precept to love God totally was not psychological but ontological, and the only way to relate to God, and the necessity of love being personal, Sergei returns to Christianity on Great Saturday. Experiences Uncreated Light (in a strength unmatched to the end of his life), distances himself from his art.
- 1925: Finding formal theological study to be unfulfilling, Sergei leaves the Institute and Paris for Mount Athos.
- 1926: Fr Sophrony arrived at Mt Athos, entering the Monastery of St Panteleimon, desiring to learn how to pray and have the right attitude toward God.
- 1930: Fr Sophrony ordained to the diaconate by St Nicolai (Velimirovic) of Zicha. Becomes disciple of St Silouan the Athonite, Fr Sophrony's greatest influence. While St Silouan had no formal system of theology, his living of theology taught Fr Sophrony volumes, which Fr Sophrony would later systematise.
- 1932-46: Fr Sophrony exchanges letters with Fr David Balfour, a Catholic who converted to Orthodoxy. These letters reveal Fr Sophrony's knowledge of many Fathers of the Church, and forces Fr Sophrony to articulate his theological thought, and to demonstrate the differences between Western and Eastern thought. Many of Fr Sophrony's later thoughts would arise out of the same topics addressed in this correspondence.
- 1938: St Silouan reposes (September 24). Following St Silouan's instructions, Elder Sophrony left the monastery grounds to reside in the Athonite desert; first at Karoulia, then at a cave near St Paul's Monastery.
- The Second World War was a time of such intense prayer that Fr Sophrony's health was affected, teaching him the interdependence of all mankind.
- 1941: Fr Sophrony ordained to the priesthood, and becomes a spiritual father to many Athonite monks.
- 1947: Circumstances (possibly to publish St Silouan's works, possibly to complete his theological education, possibly due to deteriorating health, possibly due to difficulties of being non-Greek after WW2) forced Elder Sophrony to move to Paris. Balfour helps him gain a passport.
- The faculty of St Sergius allow Elder Sophrony to sit the examinations of the whole course, providing for his needs; however, upon arrival, this is blocked by faculty insistence on Elder Sophrony denying by silence the grace of the Moscow Patriarchate, which he refused to do.
- Elder Sophrony settles in Russian House, an old-age home, in St Genevieve-des-Bois, assisting the priest and acting as father confessor. He has a major operation on a stomach ulcer.
- 1948: Elder Sophrony produces first mimeographed edition of Staretz Silouan on hand-roneo. In it, Elder Sophrony outlines St Silouan's principles of theology, and explains many fundamental concepts (prayer for the whole world, God-forsakenness and the idea of all humanity being connected).
- 1950: Elder Sophrony works with Vladimir Lossky on the Messager de l’Exarchat du Patriarche Russe en Europe Occidentale until 1957. Lossky influences Elder Sophrony's thought on many contemporary issues and compliments Elder Sophrony's work on Trinitarian thought and its application to the Church and humanity; however, Lossky would not talk about a deified human nature, nor about the idea of God-forsakenness in a positive view, as Elder Sophrony did.
- 1952: Elder Sophrony produces a professional second edition of Staretz Silouan. This book brought much fame to both St Silouan and Elder Sophrony, and included a theological introduction to St Silouan's works, based on Lossky finding no theological value in the Saint's works.
- 1958: Elder Sophrony had many people living near him and seeking the monastic life. A property at Tolleshunt Knights, Maldon, Essex, England was inspected.
- 1959: Community of St John the Baptist formed at Tolleshunt Knights under Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh. Monastery has both monks and nuns, and numbers six.
- 1965: Monastery of St John the Baptist, with blessing of Patriarch Alexy, moved under the Ecumenical Patriarchate's omophorion. Later, the Ecumenical Patriarchate would upgrade the Monastery to Stavropegic.
- 1973: Publication of a more complete translation of Monk of Mt Athos (the life of St Silouan).
- 1975: Publication of Wisdom of Mt Athos (the writings of St Silouan).
- 1977: His Life is Mine published.
- 1985: We Shall See Him As He Is published, to mixed reviews: the West generally enjoyed the book, the Russians generally criticised the book. Some criticism was so stinging that it, along with illness, discouraged Elder Sophrony from writing again.
- 1987: Ecumenical Patriarchate glorifies St Silouan the Athonite.
Events of and after his death
The monastery had been informed that the only way that it could bury people on its property was to build an underground crypt, which it proceeded to build, and in which Elder Sophrony said that he would not die until the crypt was ready. Then, having been told of the expected completion date of 12 July 1993, Elder Sophrony stated that he "would be ready". On 11 July 1993, Elder Sophrony died, and on the 14th was his funeral and burial, attended by monastics from around the world. At the time of Fr Sophrony's death, there were 25 monastics in the monastery, a number that has grown since then.
Mother Elizabeth, the eldest nun, died soon after, on the 24th. This was in accordance with Elder Sophrony's words that he would die first, and she would die soon after.
On Prayer, a book containing Elder Sophrony's writings on prayer - particularly the Jesus Prayer - was published posthumously.
- The Undistorted Image: Staretz Silouan, 1866-1938, 1948, 1952. Faith Press, 1958 (ISBN B0007IXVB0).
- The Monk of Mount Athos: Staretz Silouan 1866-1938, Mowbray, 1973 (ISBN 0-264-64618-5). St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997 (ISBN 0-913836-15-X).
- Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Siloan 1866-1938, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1975 (ISBN 0-913836-17-6).
- His Life is Mine, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977 (ISBN B000B9E2WW). St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997 (ISBN 0-913836-33-8).
- We Shall See Him As He Is, 1985. Essex, England: Stravropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 1988.
- Saint Silouan, the Athonite, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press; reprint edition, 1999 (ISBN 0-88141-195-7).
- On Prayer, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998 (ISBN 0-88141-194-9).
- Christ, Our Way and Our Life by Archimandrite Zacharias. "A Presentation of the theology of Archimandrite Sophrony." (ISBN 1-878997-74-2).
- I Love Therefore I Am by Nicholas V. Sakharov. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003 (ISBN 0-88141-236-8).
- I Know a Man in Christ: Elder Sophrony the Hesychast and Theologian by Hierotheos (Vlachos). Holy Monastery of the Birth of the Theotokos, 2015 (ISBN 9-60707-089-5).
"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. It is impossible to escape tribulation in this world but the man who is given over to the will of God bears tribulation easily, seeing it but putting his trust in the Lord, and so his tribulations pass."
"There are three things I cannot take in: nondogmatic faith, nonecclesiological Christianity and nonascetic Christianity. These three - the church, dogma, and asceticism - constitute one single life for me." - Letter to D. Balfour, August 21, 1945.
"If one rejects the Orthodox creed and the eastern ascetic experience of life in Christ, which has been acquired throughout the centuries, then Orthodox culture would be left with nothing but the Greek minor [key] and Russian tetraphony." - Letter to D. Balfour.
"There are known instances when Blessed Staretz Silouan in prayer beheld something remote as though it were happening close by; when he saw into someone's future, or when profound secrets of the human soul were revealed to him. There are many people still alive who can bear witness to this in their own case but he himself never aspired to it and never accorded much significance to it. His soul was totally engulfed in compassion for the world. He concentrated himself utterly on prayer for the world, and in his spiritual life prized this love above all else." -- St Silouan the Athonite, p. 228.
"In my young days ... I had been attracted to the idea of pure creativity, taking the form of abstract art. ... I derived ideas for my abstract studies from life around me. I would look at a man, a house, a plant, at intricate machinery, extravagant shadowscapes on walls or ceilings, at quivering bonfire flames, and would compose them into abstract pictures, creating in my imagination visions that were not like actual reality. ... Fortunately I soon realised that it was not given to me, a human being, to create from 'nothing', in the way only God can create. I realised that everything that I created was conditioned by what was already in existence. I could not invent a new colour or line that had never existed anywhere before. An abstract picture is like a string of words, beautiful and sonorous in themselves, perhaps, but never expressing a complete thought..."—Preface to St Silouan the Athonite