The Bliss of Knowing the Way- Elder Sophrony of Essex


‘O Israel, happy are we: for things that are pleasing to God are made known unto us. Be of good cheer, my people’ (Apocrypha: Baruch 4.4, 5). And if we consider how much more we Christians are endowed by the Lord than were the prophets and righteous men of the Old Testament, we, too, must lift up our voices and cry in grateful triumph: ‘Blessed are we, hallowed Christians, for the Lord hath desired so to be united with us that His life is become ours.’

The Lord Himself bore witness to this when He told the disciples: ‘Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them, and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them’ (Matt. 13.16, 17). And St Peter declared that to the prophets ‘it was revealed that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven’, adding, so great were the good tidings, ‘which things the angels desire to look into’ (1 Pet. 1.12).

St Paul, also, in his epistle to the Ephesians, wrote that ‘knowledge in the mystery of Christ which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men…was now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit’ (cf. Eph. 3), and went on to tell them that to him had been given grace to ‘preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God.’ So tremendous, so profound is the mystery that even to the ‘principalities and powers in heavenly places the manifold wisdom of God must be made known by the church according to the eternal purpose which the Father purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord: In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.’

In our day non-Christian mysticism attracts many who despair at the banality and emptiness of the contemporary scene. They are ignorant of the true essence of Christianity. Christianity entails suffering; but through suffering we penetrate the mysteries of Being. Suffering makes it possible to comprehend one’s own humanity and freedom. In times of distress the Christian remembers that ‘the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain’ (Rom. 8.22) and his spirit is conscious of the same life flowing through all of us. To extend the range of our consciousness makes us kin with millions of fellow-beings scattered over the face of the earth. An enhanced recognition of human suffering begets intense prayer which transfers all things into the realm of the spirit.

I once read a newspaper account of an engineer testing the jet engine of a ‘plane who carelessly stepped into the air stream which caught and lifted him high off the ground. Seeing what had happened, his assistant quickly switched off the engine. The mechanic fell to the ground, dead. Something similar happens to the man of prayer: after being caught up into another sphere he returns to earth ‘dead’ to much that is of this world. A new life full of light has manifested itself in him, and now the infantile pastimes which occupy the vast majority cease to hold any interest or attraction for him. If we assess 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, of the First and Last Truth, we shall understand what lay behind Christ’s words, ‘My peace I give unto you’- said to the disciples a few hours before His death on the cross. The essence of Christ’s peace lies in His perfect knowledge of the Father. So it is with us: if we know the Eternal Truth all the torments of this life will be confined, as it were, to the periphery of our being, while the light of life proceeding from the father will reign within us.

No success or temporary well-being can bring genuine peace if we continue ignorant of Truth. There are not many people with enough spiritual courage to step aside from the trite path followed by the herd. Courage is born of steadfast belief in Christ-God. ‘This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith’ (1 John 5.4).

Those with no experience of prayer find it hard to believe how prayer broadens the horizons of the spirit. Sometimes prayer consumes the heart like fire; and when the heart succumbs to the burning flame, unexpectedly there falls the dew of divine consolation. 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 paralysed with dread, the same light will turn black night into bright day. When we properly condemn ourselves to eternal infamy and in agony descend into the pit, of a sudden some strength from Above will lift our spirit to the heights. When we are overwhelmed by the feeling of our own utter nothingness, the uncreated light transfigures and brings us like sons into the Father’s house.

How are these contrasting states to be explained? Why does our self-condemnation justify us before God? Is it not because there is truth in this self-condemnation and so the Spirit of Truth finds a place for Himself in us?

Even remote contact with the Divine releases the soul from all passions, including envy, that vile offspring of pride. The man who continues with a humble opinion of himself will be given greater knowledge of the mysteries of the world to come. He will be delivered from the power of death. United through prayer with Christ, he realises that in eternity the whole content of being will belong to him, too, through the perpetual dwelling in him of the Holy Spirit- of the Trinity, it would be truer to say. Father, Son and Holy Spirit will make Their abode with him. By virtue of this, every good or word or deed, from whatever source, will become part of his eternal divinised life. Thus, in the words of St Paul ‘as having nothing yet we possess all things’ (2 Cor. 6.10). If anyone performs deeds to the glory of God which bring him both temporal and eternal renown, the man of prayer feels not envy but joy at our common salvation. My brother’s glory will be my glory, also. What blessedness to behold fellow humans radiant with the Holy Spirit! Yet even this is but a pale reflection of our joy in the Kingdom to come where, in a superabundance of love which never diminishes, the spirit of man will embrace the fulness of god-man being.

Let us not forget, however, that the way to this superabundant love lies through the depths of hell. We must not be afraid of this descent since without it plenitude of knowledge is unobtainable.

Sometimes the trials and difficulties which befall put us in the position of a traveller who suddenly finds himself on the edge of an abyss from which it is impossible to turn back. The abyss is the darkness of ignorance, and terror at being captive to death. Only the energy of a saintly despair will get us across. Upheld by some mysterious strength, we cast ourselves into the unknown, calling upon the Name of the Lord. And what happens? Instead of smashing our heads against unseen rocks, we feel an invisible hand gently carrying us over, and we come to no harm. Throwing ourselves into the unknown means trusting to God, having let go of all hope in the great ones of the earth and setting off in search of a new life in which first place is given to Christ.

Traversing the abyss of the unknown can also be likened to swinging along a cable stretched from one side to the other. The hands of Christ crucified link the far ends of the abyss. The soul that has been given the dread privilege of travelling along this cable can find no words to describe it, just as those who have passed beyond the grave cannot tell us of their experience on the new plane.

The spiritual vision just outlined dissolves into contemplation of the crucified Christ. His arms are outstretched to gather all peoples into one, to link the far concerns of the world; His body, hanging on the cross, forms a stupendous bridge between earth and heaven. Uniting in Himself both God and Man, He calls upon us to follow in His steps. It is not a simple matter to portray what meets the spiritual eye at such times. Just as a heavy body precipitated beyond the range of terrestrial gravity becomes subject to the mechanics of space and moves at a speed impossible on the surface of the earth, so it is with our spirit when prayer in its upsurge towards God overcomes the passions which pin us down, to move in the luminous sphere of the Divine and contemplate the sublime and hitherto unknown. In the depths of our consciousness we apprehend the unoriginate Truth, and the Spirit testifies to our immortality. Thus the first dread vision of darkness and mortality changes to a vision of light and life indestructible.

The touch of Divine love in the heart is our first contact with the heavenly side of the abyss. Delivered from the power of death, our spirit no longer trembles in the face of death. Nevertheless, the love that has entered the soul is not free from fear of another kind- fear of somehow hurting a fellow-being and, perhaps even more, of grieving the Holy Spirit by an impulse of the heart, a thought or a word. Only through a more abundant measure of grace which manifests itself in love for enemies does the spirit become kin, as it were to God. Yet even with such love as this we can still run into difficulties with people, since the very presence of divine action within us in a strange fashion provokes hostility in those who do not love God. There is no deeper, more tragic conflict that the conflict between this world of ours and Christ.

Those who are not reborn from on High will never understand those who are. There appears to be nothing outstanding about Christians, who may often seem morbid or hypocritical. The regenerated soul is more sensitive to all spiritual phenomena- more deeply wounded by all that is contrary to divine love: by calumny, violence, murder and so on. Together with this, a patient attitude to every ordeal makes the regenerated soul more able to apprehend the ‘wisdom that is from above’ (Jas. 3.17). In some hidden place within her she finds ‘a well of water springing up into everlasting life’ (John 4.14). Prayer is like a strong hand clinging fast to God’s raiment, at all times and in all places: in the turmoil of the crowd, in the pleasant hours of leisure, in periods of loneliness.

At first the struggle for prayer seems to be beyond our strength but if she persists the soul will 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 single whole. Through knowledge of God the soul has acquired profound peace.

Strange are the ways of the Lord. Man by himself cannot discover them. God, by His appearance, revealed to us the peculiar path to eternal salvation. He gave us an example in all things. He taught us how the Holy Spirit acts in us. He filled us with imperishable light away from which there is no true knowledge anywhere, no salvation for anyone. From Him we learned of the unlimited possibilities for those who were created in His image.

O God and Father, without beginning;

Thou Who art blessed throughout all ages;

Who hast revealed unto us the mystery

of the way of Thy salvation:

Renew our nature, by Thy Word abiding in us,

and make us the temple of Thy Holy Spirit,

that being ever guarded by Thy might

we may give glory to Thee in a worthy manner,

now and for ever.

Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (2001) (2nd ed.) His Life is Mine. Chapter 7: The Bliss of Knowing the Way. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

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