Saint Silouan and the Mystery of God

by Fr John Breck


To present the life and teachings of Saint Silouan, it has become customary to begin with the few lines recorded about him in the Register of the St. Panteleimon Monastery of Mount Athos, where he spent the last forty-six years of his life. In keeping with monastic humility and simplicity, the Register says only this: “Schema-monk Father SILOUAN. Name ‘in the world’ — Simeon Ivanovich Antonov. Peasant from the province of Tambov, district of Lebedinsk, village of Shovsk. Born 1866. Arrived Athos 1892. Professed 1896. Schema 1911. Performed his duties of obedience at the mill, at [the farm of] Kalomar, at old Russikon, and as steward. Died 11/24 September 1938.”1

Nothing remarkable, nothing even noteworthy. Yet a mere fifty years after his death, the humble monk Silouan was canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate; and today he is venerated throughout the Russian and English speaking worlds. Churches and chapels have been placed under his protection, numerous miracles have been attributed to his intercession, and monks of both East and West have taken his name as they embark on the monastic life.

Simeon grew up as a typical Russian peasant, moving from inchoate faith to unbelief, then to an overwhelming “conversion” that prepared him for his future vocation. As an adolescent, he passed through a period of mild rebellion and moral ambiguity. At one point, defending himself against a local bully, he struck the young man in the chest and nearly killed him. With his friends he consumed great quantities of vodka, apparently with little adverse effect, and his robust frame and remarkable physical strength made him the envy of village boys and the delight of local girls. His biographer, Fr. Sophrony, describes a critical moment in young Simeon’s life in these terms: “Simeon, chosen of God, was called again, this time by means of a certain vision, which followed on a period of wild living. He had dozed off and was in a light sleep, when he dreamed that he saw a snake crawl down his throat. Feeling sick with revulsion, he awoke to hear a voice saying, ‘Just as you found it loathsome to swallow a snake in your dream, so I find your ways ugly to look upon.’ Simeon saw no one. He only heard the voice, extraordinarily sweet and beautiful; but for all its gentleness, the effect it had on him was revolutionary. He was convinced beyond doubt that he had heard the voice of the Mother of God herself, and to the end of his life he gave thanks to her for coming to lift him from his degradation.”2

Following his military service, Simeon sensed a renewed call to the monastic life. He visited the great pastor and preacher, Fr. John of Kronstadt, and requested his prayers in support of his quest. This visit began for him an experience that accompanied him from his home village to the Holy Mountain, and remained with him until the end of his life. It was an experience of acute spiritual struggle, even suffering, which he described as “the flames of hell roaring” about him. During his early years on Mount Athos, Simeon – who at his tonsure took the monastic name of Silouan – was constantly assailed by seductive thoughts and passions of the flesh. He experienced the terrifying power of demonic assaults and the subtle temptation of doubt. At times he also knew a false exaltation, accompanied by visions of light. Such temptations are common, particularly in the early years of monastic life. But Silouan experienced them to a heightened degree, such that his daily existence, outwardly so monotonous and simple, was in reality a crucible in which he slowly passed through the ascetic stages of purification and illumination, toward what Orthodox tradition terms theôsis, the glorification or “deification” of the human person, fulfilled in the image and likeness of God.

While he was still a novice, Brother Simeon was granted a grace that few ascetics ever know: he actually beheld the living Christ. Suffering from spiritual despondency, convinced that God had abandoned him, he entered the mill church one evening to attend Vespers. There he was granted the vision that enabled him to assume his future struggles with extraordinary strength and peace. It was this vision of the exalted Lord that gave him the ability to assume the ultimate challenge of his spiritual life, expressed in words uttered by God himself: “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not!” This admonition – this awesome spiritual challenge – was above all an invitation to humility. It represented the assurance, expressed by the Psalmist, “If I make my bed in hell, Thou art there!” (Ps. 138/9:13). But it was also a call to spiritual warfare: to struggle, with courage and hope, against the onslaughts of demons and personal temptations. And it served as well to provide the foundation for one of his most important teachings: love for one’s enemies. This is a love so selfless and “disinterested” that it actually transforms the other from an enemy into a brother in Christ. It is a love that marked the monk Silouan so deeply that he could implore God ceaselessly: “Grant that all the peoples of the earth come to know Thee by Thy Holy Spirit!”

St. Silouan is in the truest sense “a saint for our day.” His ascetic labors and reclusive life might seem foreign to many Christian people today. Nevertheless, his struggles against his own inner weaknesses, against insidious doubt and temptation, and against the darkest powers of the fallen spiritual world, makes of him both a model and a guide along the only pathway that leads to salvation and eternal communion with the God of infinite love and inexhaustible compassion. This image of Father Silouan is captured particularly well by the troparion and kontakion dedicated to him. These are liturgical hymns that express the essence of his life and vocation, for himself but also for us and for the tormented yet thirsting world in which we live today.

By your prayers you were granted Christ / as your Master on the path of humility. / The Holy Spirit in your heart bore witness to your salvation / and revealed you to be a spiritual guide for all, / you who are filled with the radiance of God. // Our Holy Father Silouan, pray to Christ to save our souls!

During your earthly life / you served Christ, following in his path. / Now in heaven you contemplate the Lord whom you loved, / dwelling with him as he promised his elect. // Our blessed Father Silouan, teach us your holy ways!

I. Theology and Spiritual Warfare: two pathways towards knowledge of God

Orthodox Tradition is characterized by two currents, two pathways, that lead toward knowledge of God: theology and asceticism. These are often referred to respectively as the “way of speculation” and the “way of experience.” My concern in these reflections is to demonstrate, in the perspective of the teaching of St. Silouan of Mount Athos, that both of these pathways are grounded in a personal and intimate experience of God. It is only such an experience that enables us to acquire authentic knowledge of God, both ad intra, concerning the inner life of the Holy Trinity, and ad extra, relating to the divine “economy” or work of God within creation that leads toward salvation of the world. It is this lived experience as well that enables us to commune with God in the fullness and intensity that leads to theôsis: eternal participation in his divine life.

The Pathway of Theology

From the fourth through the seventh centuries of the Christian era theological reflection within the Church focused especially on christology and pneumatology, as the early patristic writers engaged in a life or death struggle with various heresies. We think especially of Church Fathers such as St Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocians (St Basil the Great, St Gregory of Nazianzus, called “the Theologian,” and St Gregory of Nyssa), and their struggles against Arianism and the “Pneumatomachi,” who denied respectively the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit; of Alexandrian theologians such as St Cyril and his condemnation of the dualistic christology of Patriarch Nestorius; of Antiochenes such as Theodore of Mopsuestia and others who defended the full humanity of Christ against various monophysite christologies; and of St Maximus the Confessor, who defined the doctrine of the two wills of Christ in his struggle against Monotheletism. Each of these great theologians sought to preserve an essential balance between Christ’s divinity and his humanity. As a result of the work of the earlier of these, the “Chalcedonian synthesis” of 451 produced the familiar formula that confessed Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, to be “one Hypostasis (Person) in two ousiai (natures), human and divine.” This formula expresses what we refer to as the “hypostatic union” between humanity and divinity accomplished by the Incarnation.

A parallel development in the domain of trinitarian theology produced an analogous formula: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit constitute “three Persons united in one divine nature or essence.” The first two great Ecumenical Councils – of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) – had already affirmed that the Son and the Spirit are homoousios (“consubstantial” or “of one nature”) with the Father: they share with the Father the same divine essence. These two doctrines, of the Holy Trinity and of the Incarnation of the Word of God, constitute the dogmatic foundation of Orthodox Christianity.

According to the perspective of the apostolic faith, God reveals himself, he makes himself known and accessible, as three divine Persons, united in a single nature, who share a common will and a common purpose: to fulfill the “divine economy” for the restoration and salvation of the created order. This revelation, by which the world acquires knowledge of God, is accomplished above all by the Incarnation of the divine Logos or Word of God. The eternal Word “took flesh” – he assumed the fullness of human nature – by his miraculous conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary, who is known and venerated in the Church as “Theotokos” or “Mother of God.” Jesus of Nazareth, therefore, is known and proclaimed to be the incarnate Word of God, the “God-Man,” whose earthly mission is to reveal the Person and will of God the Father, or in the language of the evangelist John, to “exegete” the Father and make him known in the depths of human experience (Jn 1:18, ekeinos exêgêsato).

According to St Gregory of Nazianzus, by the mind alone one is able to know nothing other than the origin of each divine Person: the Father is “ingenerate” or “unbegotten,” the Son is eternally “generated” by the Father, and the Spirit eternally “proceeds” from the Father. These are expressions based on Scriptural revelation, particularly the witness of the Gospel of John that speaks of the Son as the “Monogenês” or “Only-begotten” of God (1:18; 3:16), and of the Spirit as “proceeding” from the Father (15:26). The Father is thus the absolute Principle of divine being; he is the “source” of the two other Persons, the Son and the Spirit, who share the fullness of the Father’s divine nature.

This theological language – “consubstantial,” “hypostasis” or Person, “ousia” or nature/essence – may well seem to be the cumbersome product of rational speculation, devoid of any experiential grounding. In fact, this language is the fruit of meditation on the Holy Scriptures and of prayer. Together, Scripture and prayer enable us, as sinful human beings, to sound the depths of the mystery of divine life, at least to the degree that God unveils his inner mystery before us. Scriptural revelation, acquired and deepened through prayer as well as through the work of interpretation, enables us to enter into personal communion with God, in order that we might come to know his very Person, as well as his will for the salvation and the glorification of his world. Every authentic doctrine, in fact, is grounded in a living experience of God; and it is this experience alone that enables us to acquire knowledge of God. This means, however, that the theology of the Church – expressed in a language that is prepei theô or “appropriate” to God – is nothing other than a gift from God, inspired and communicated by the Spirit of Truth.

The best example of a theologian who unites in himself both the mind and the heart, both theological reflection and ascetic struggle, is perhaps St John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople from the year 398 until his deposition and exile in 404. In his treatise “On the Incomprehensibility of God,” and especially in his homilies, St John Chrysostom stresses the importance of asceticism in all spheres of daily life, including conjugal, social and ecclesial relationships. All those spiritual giants who are venerated as “Fathers of the Church” in fact base their theology on knowledge of God, acquired not by rational speculation but by personal, living experience. This is the experience of the living God himself, an experience that God in the Person of the Holy Spirit communicates to the faithful through the Scriptures, through personal and corporate prayer, and through spiritual warfare. It is an experience of ascetic purification of the inner being, a purification that leads ultimately to illumination and glorification.

The Pathway of Spiritual Warfare

A certain number of contemporary theologians have expressed surprise and even dismay at the fact that the Fathers of the Desert, like other representatives of the Church’s ascetic tradition, hardly ever speak of “theology” as such. Their “apophthegmata” or pithy spiritual teachings almost never mention either the inner life of the Holy Trinity or the economy of salvation. Nor do they speak with any frequency of God the Father or Jesus Christ. On the other hand, they often evoke the image of the Holy Spirit. Yet when they do, it is usually to depict him as a rather impersonal spiritual power which assists them in their spiritual combat. They practically never mention the name of the Trinity. And they virtually never reflect on the question which is central to the mystery of redemption, expressed in St Anselm’s question, “Cur Deus Homo?,” “Why did God become man?” Consequently, some persons have even questioned whether the Desert Fathers and other ascetic writers are truly “Orthodox.”

St Isaac the Syrian, for example, only explicitly expresses the Church’s faith in the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God in a blessing that closes his forty-fifth discourse: “… Christ our Lord, he who was the mediator between God and men, who made of the two one, whom the ranks of angels dare not approach in the glory that surrounds his honorable Throne, he who for us came into the world in simple and humble form, as Isaiah says: ‘We have seen him; he had neither comeliness nor beauty.’ Invisible to the creation, he assumed a body, and he accomplished the economy of salvation to give life to the nations which he purified. To him be glory and power unto the ages of ages. Amen.” Nevertheless, in this brief benediction we find a concise summary of the Church’s faith: Christ, the eternal Son of God, mediator between God and man, became incarnate in the flesh; he accomplished his earthly mission through his suffering on the Cross, and thereby he achieved the salvation of the world.

We can say the same with regard to other representatives of ascetic tradition, from the Desert Fathers to St John Climacus, abbot of St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, who died around the year 650. If these great spiritual warriors speak little of the dogmas of Orthodox faith, if they only rarely invoke the names of Christ and the Holy Virgin, if they focus their thought almost exclusively on man and his response to God rather than on God and his initiative towards man, it is not at all because of a lack of interest in “theology.” It is due rather to the fact that their theology is “lived.” It is internalized to the degree that it serves as the foundation, the presupposition and the very principle of all their spiritual teaching. In his introductory remarks to the French edition of St Isaac’s works, Archimandrite Vasilios remarks: “Abba Isaac does not express ‘thoughts.’ He does not utter moral exhortations. Rather, he describes ontological states and changes (‘changing them by Thy Holy Spirit’!).” To assume “spiritual labors” or to ascend the “holy ladder” is to progress along the narrow way which leads to eternal life. It is also to express, in the form of spiritual achievements of an ascetic nature, all the fullness of the theology of the Church and of Holy Tradition. It is to know, in the heart and body as well as in the mind, those profound “ontological changes” that are the fruit of genuine “knowledge of God,” knowledge which is nothing less than communion.

An important hermeneutic principle follows from this knowledge of and communion with God. It is a principle that runs counter to the spirit of modern exegesis but nevertheless represents a profound truth: “In order to interpret the Word of God, it is necessary to know God.” “To have faith is one thing,” St Silouan reminds us, “to know God is something else again.” “To know God” means in effect to participate in the very life of God, by obeying his commandments, by making gestures of love toward one’s neighbor, and by praying even for one’s enemies. “Knowledge,” accordingly, signifies both participation and communion. This is why the ascetics of the desert “know” God with the same depth and intensity, and with the same fullness, as the Church’s theologians. This is also why, in the final analysis, the distinction often made between “theological tradition” and “ascetic tradition” is false or at least deceptive. The true theologian, Evagrius reminds us, is the person who prays. Consequently, the true theologian knows God by virtue of ascetic struggle as much as by intellectual reflection; and the ascetic knows God by the strength of intellect as much as by the discipline of spiritual warfare. For both the theologian and the ascetic, the goal of Christian life is the purification, the illumination and the glorification of the human person: body, soul and spirit. This is the unique pathway that leads toward theôsis, eternal participation and communion in divine life, the life of the Holy Trinity.

II. St Silouan and the Knowledge of God

As a representative of the Church’s ascetic tradition, St Silouan attained knowledge of God by way of personal experience. In his writings, preserved for us by Father Sophrony, Silouan – like his predecessors Paladius, Isaac of Nineva, John Climacus and hosts of others – offers no speculation whatsoever on the life of God ad intra. He shows no apparent interest in the technical aspects of the hypostatic union accomplished by the Incarnation, or in the way in which Christ has accomplished his work of redemption. For St Silouan, the “mystery of God” is a mystery of relationship, a mystery of participation and communion in the life of the God of infinite love and compassion.

Only twice does Silouan invoke the name of the Holy Trinity. On the other hand, the names of Jesus and of the Holy Virgin or Mother of God appear with relative frequency. The appellation he prefers for God is “Lord,” by which he can mean either the Father or the Son. His references to the Holy Spirit, however, and his words concerning the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, are abundant, even though he limits his reflection to the energies of the Spirit, without venturing into the domain of the divine nature or hypostases.

The question which particularly interests us is this: Does St Silouan, in his ascetic and spiritual teachings, represent the same vision of God as is revealed in Holy Scripture and developed in patristic tradition in the form of dogmatic affirmations? Stated in other terms: In addition to his valuable teachings on the ascetic way that leads toward theôsis, does Silouan transmit to us an image or verbal icon of God that corresponds to the one offered by what is properly called the “theological tradition” of the Church?

In order to answer the question, I should like to propose a brief florilège of passages, drawn from the known writings of the staretz and grouped under seven related headings. It is my hope that by this accumulation of passages, devoid as they are of any systematic reflection on the nature of God and on relations among the Persons of the Holy Trinity, we shall see how thoroughly Silouan presupposes the dogmatic foundation of Orthodox faith. It is this unspoken but very present perception of the fundamental truths of the faith that provide such richness and such immediacy to his teachings on prayer, on ascetic struggle, and on the quest for humble repentance that enabled him to keep his mind in hell, yet not despair…3

1. Longing for God

St Silouan’s approach to the mystery of God begins with the concept of “longing,” the desire of heart and soul for eternal communion with him who, by his very nature, is Love. “My soul yearns after the Lord and I seek Him in tears” [269 et passim]. It is this profound longing for God that endowed Silouan with the strength and vision necessary to assume the rigors of monastic life and transform it into a pilgrimage that leads into the Kingdom of Heaven. This desire, however, can to a certain degree be fulfilled even in the present life. Taking up the patristic interpretation of Luke 17:21 (“The Kingdom of God is within you”), St Silouan affirms, on the basis of his personal experience, what theologians refer to as “realized eschatology”: “When the soul is in the Holy Spirit she is content and does not weary after the things of heaven, for the Kingdom of God is within us: the Lord has taken up His abode in us” [323]. Like Jesus’ own disciples, Silouan knows the Holy Spirit to be a personal and very present reality. On the eve of his passion, the Lord spoke to his followers concerning the Spirit-Paraclete (the “Advocate” or “Comforter”). “You know him,” he assured them, “for he dwells with you, and will be in you” (Jn 14:17). It is by this same Spirit that the Lord takes up his dwelling in the depths of the believer’s heart, to show forth in him and through him the first fruits of the heavenly Kingdom, fruits that in the present age satisfy the most ardent longing of the human heart.

2. “May All the Peoples of the Earth Know Thee!”

The inner yearning that pressed Silouan towards a tireless quest for the face of God was not in the least way egotistical. His desire for God was characterized by a boundless love for all mankind, for every man and woman created in the image of God and consequently called to acquire the divine likeness. This is why iconographers inscribe on sacred images of the holy staretz a phrase – formulated in various ways throughout his writings – that expresses a fundamental supplication: “Merciful Lord, grant that all the peoples of the earth come to know Thee by the Holy Spirit!” The tone of the petition is perhaps best captured in this passage from the chapter on “Yearning for God.” “O merciful Lord, bestow Thy grace on all the peoples of the earth, that they may know Thee; for without Thy Holy Spirit man cannot know Thee and conceive of Thy love” [273].

If St Silouan dared to pray in this way, it is because he knew that God himself desires nothing less than universal salvation. The Creator is at the same time the Redeemer. He who fashioned the world in the beginning is also he who poured out upon his creation all the fullness of his self-sacrificing love, for the life of the world and for its eternal salvation (Rom 5:5; Jn 3:16-17). “O Lord,” Silouan cries out, ” turn Thy people to Thee, that all may come to know Thy love and in the Holy Spirit behold Thy gentle countenance. Let contemplation of Thee gladden the hearts of all men while still here on earth, that beholding Thee, that which Thou art, they may become like unto Thee” [347]. In this beautiful yet simple petition the holy father has given eloquent expression to the entire mystery of the “divine economy,” the work of the triune God, who creates the human person in his divine image, calls the fallen child of God to repentance, fills the human heart with joy and gladness by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, and leads that blessed and restored child into a new existence, effecting a new creation, marked by the “likeness” of the God of inexhaustible love.

3. Love for Enemies

This leads to an aspect of Silouan’s teaching that represents for him the central message of the Gospel: love for one’s enemies, love for all those who hate us and who seek to do us harm. As he develops this theme, he stresses the basic reciprocity that exists between the human person and the Spirit of God. “He who will not love his enemies cannot come to know the Lord and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit” [275]. Yet reciprocally, “he who does not possess the Holy Spirit has no wish to pray for his enemies” [315].

That is, one can only love one’s enemy by the power and love of the Spirit, who dwells within the human heart. Yet at the same time, love for one’s enemies is the precondition that renders a person capable of receiving the Spirit. Without love, there is no Spirit; yet without the Spirit, there can be no love…. How can we resolve this apparent paradox? It can be done by taking into consideration the fact that for St Silouan God is behind every movement of the human heart. All of our good works and freely bestowed gestures of love depend entirely on divine initiative. To be sure, God is infinitely discreet, in the sense that he never imposes his will but leaves our freedom intact. This is essential, since without freedom there can be no love. Coercion and obedience, yes; but not love. Nevertheless, as the spiritual tradition of the Church affirms, “God is closer to us than our own heart.” If God respects our freedom to the point where we can reject and betray him, he nonetheless loves us to the point that nothing will separate him from those who place in him their faith, confidence and hope. In creating us, God awakened within our “secret heart” a longing for heaven, a longing which Silouan experienced and described with remarkable eloquence. This longing, this nostalgic desire to enter into eternal communion with God, inspires and encourages us as well to turn toward our neighbor, including those perceived as enemies. Love, then, in all its forms and all its expressions, is ultimately the work of God within us.

Those who respond to the needs of the neighbor and permit themselves, however minimally, to offer themselves through acts of love to other people – and especially to the enemy – actualize and vivify within themselves the gift of the Holy Spirit they received at baptism. Thus Silouan can affirm, in all simplicity: “day and night I pray the Lord for love [for my enemies as well as for those who love me], and the Lord gives me tears to pray for the whole world” [363]. Thereby, the holy staretz faithfully reflects the love of God for his sinful and fallen world: that sublime, sacrificial love offered “for the life of the world and its salvation.”

4. Theôsis is to Acquire the “Likeness” of God  

The “realized” quality of Silouan’s eschatology appears in a striking way as he speaks of the likeness of God. St John the Theologian and Evangelist had already affirmed that the vision of Christ at his Parousia, his glorious Second Coming, would transform us into his likeness. This is a theme that appears as well in Jewish mysticism: “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). Yet according to Christian ascetic tradition, this likeness is realized already in the present life of the believer, insofar as he or she embarks faithfully on the way of holiness. “The Lord so loved His people,” Silouan declares, “that He hallowed them by the Holy Spirit and made them like unto Himself” [349; cf. 98-101]. Further on he stipulates just how that hallowing action takes place: “The Holy Spirit,” he says, “teaches the soul to fight the good fight; gives the strength necessary to fulfill the commandments of the Lord; establishes us in all truth; and has so adorned man that he has become like unto the Lord” [404].

From statements such as these one might conclude that the holy staretz has confused “image” and “likeness,” since according to a large part of the patristic witness every human being is a bearer of the divine image from conception, whereas acquisition of the divine likeness requires an inner, ascetic movement that leads progressively toward sanctification and deification. Expressed in rather more technical language, we may say that the “image of God” is a function of human nature, whereas the “likeness of God” is acquired by the hypostasis or human person. Created in the image of God, men and women bear that divine image within the depths of their being throughout their life; it is indelible, we may even say indestructible, even in the blackest heart and the most corrupt existence. The “likeness” of God, on the other hand, describes the human vocation. Every person is called to seek God’s likeness – that is, to acquire the divine attributes, such as wisdom, justice, goodness, beauty, love – and to do so by willingly assuming an arduous spiritual struggle against the passions, a struggle which is quickened by an attitude of humble obedience and continual prayer.

Silouan affirms that we already achieve the divine likeness in this life: that it is accorded to us as a gift of God’s love, conveyed by the Holy Spirit. “The grace of the Holy Spirit,” he insists, “makes every man like unto the Lord Jesus Christ while still here on earth” [281]. Elsewhere he adds, on a note of exaltation, that the Holy Spirit has so beautifully adorned us that we have already attained the likeness of God [404].

This does not at all mean that St Silouan confuses “image” and “likeness.” For he knows full well that the synergy or cooperation between God and the human creature is a-symmetrical. The initiative in the work of sanctification, as in that of redemption, remains wholly in the hands of God. The “likeness” of God is a gift that he alone can bestow, one that the human creature can only receive with tears of gratitude and joy. Synergy, insofar as it involves human persons, thus requires a certain passive receptivity. It involves accepting, as a free gift yet on the basis of active repentance, the divine grace that makes us “like unto God.” Repentance is our essential contribution in the process of acquiring the divine likeness. For, as St Silouan declares, “He who is in the Holy Spirit is like unto the Lord even here on earth, but the man who does not repent, and believe, resembles the enemy” [281]. The cooperation which man offers to God thus consists of an act of perpetual conversion. In response to this humble gesture, God grants the believer the gift of the Spirit, already in this earthly life. He bestows upon him the grace of the divine “likeness,” and with it, the first fruits of deification.

Inverting the prophecy of St John, quoted above, we can say that it is precisely this anticipated theosis which enables the human person here and now to behold the Lord “as he is.” This is also what enabled St Silouan to rejoice in the vision of the Lord during a critical moment of his novitiate. By that vision he was transported to heaven in ecstasy, he experienced the ineffable sweetness of divine love, and he came to know within himself the presence and power of the life-giving Spirit. Heaven itself was present to him.

5. The Economy of Salvation: “Cur Deus Homo?”, “Why did God become man?”  

Although St Silouan makes only occasional allusions to the Incarnation of the Son of God, he nevertheless demonstrates a profound understanding and appreciation of the redemptive work that Jesus accomplished during the course of his earthly ministry. The mystery of the redemption expresses above all the ineffable and boundless love of him “Who first loved and suffered for us” [426].

This mystery unfolded according to the movement of the Gospel: from the Incarnation to the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross, and finally to the “glorious Resurrection” from the dead. God the Father sent his only Son to dwell among men, that he might reveal the person of the Father, and that he might suffer for us, in order to obtain the forgiveness of our sins and eternal salvation. And after his Ascension into heaven, the Son sent the Holy Spirit upon the earth, in order that we not be abandoned as orphans, but might be saved through repentance [314 (cf. Jn 14:18); 336-7; etc.]. The possibility of this gift of salvation Silouan holds out to all persons without exception: “Glory be to the Lord that He gave us repentance. Through repentance we shall all, every one of us, be saved” [347].

He declares as well, taking up a familiar theme from the writings of the apostle Paul, that salvation is accomplished by grace and not by works. The mercy of God and his “pure goodness” accomplish our deliverance from the consequences of sin, and not ascetic labors or works of charity, however important those may be [440]. “The grace of God,” he adds, “does not take away freedom but only helps man to fulfill God’s commandments. Adam knew grace but he could still exercise his will” [342]. Asceticism and charity are indispensable, as is obedience to the divine commandment, not as a cause of our salvation but as a response to divine initiative: the movement of God toward us, to which we can only respond with tears of thanksgiving.

Salvation requires ceaseless spiritual struggle; yet salvation remains a wholly free gift. St Silouan illustrates this antinomy by means of the following anecdote.

The Lord appeared to Silouan’s patron saint, Simeon Stylites, when Simeon was only seven years old. The child asked him, “Lord, how wast Thou crucified?” The Lord stretched out his arms and replied, “Thus did they crucify me; but it was my desire. And do thou crucify thyself with me every day” [427]. Silouan, by his own account, knew this kind of crucifixion because of his lack of humility. “Because of my pride,” he declares, “the Lord twice let the enemy attack my soul, such that my soul stood in hell” [cf. 434]. Nevertheless, the gracious gift of God’s free grace, received from within a spiritual abyss, allowed him to hear the words that would transform his anguish into joy and confidence: “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not!” [430]. From the depths of his misery, and with an attitude of total humility, Silouan accepted daily crucifixion with Christ, and thereby he obtained forgiveness and salvation. “Put no faith in feats of your own, however much you may have striven,” declares this great ascetic; “God has mercy on us, not for our achievements but gratis, because of His goodness” [440].

The divine motivation that issues in salvation is the ardent love that pours forth from God’s heart. This is a love that seeks to embrace and transfigure the whole of creation. “Thou Thyself didst seek me out, a sinner, and give me to know Thy love,” Silouan acknowledges. “Thou madest me to see that Thy love for us brought Thee to the cross and to suffering and death for our sakes. Thou gavest me to know that Thy love led Thee down from heaven to earth and even into hell, that we might behold Thy glory!” [287]. Such is the cry from the heart of one who seeks the Lord “with tears.” It is a cry whose elegant simplicity and dogmatic fullness leads one to recall the offertory prayers of our eucharistic liturgies.

God became man in order to accomplish our salvation. The work of “salvation,” however, is far more extensive than merely freeing the believer from the bonds of sin and death. This liberating act constitutes only the negative aspect of salvation: the aspect that renders a person “justified” before the God of justice. According to Eastern Christian tradition, salvation comprises several dimensions, beginning with forgiveness and concluding with a personal and eternal communion between God and his human creature. “Our joy is Christ,” Silouan exults. “By His sufferings He has inscribed us in the Book of Life, and in the Kingdom of Heaven we shall be with God for ever, and we shall see His glory…” [289]. And he adds the petition: “Grant us to praise and thank Thee world without end. Thou didst give us Thy most holy Body and Blood, that we might live with Thee for all eternity, and be where Thou art, and behold Thy glory!” [311].

6. The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit.  

If Silouan invokes only rarely the names of Christ and the Holy Trinity, he nonetheless offers us a veritable summa on the Holy Spirit. By studying his teaching concerning the third divine Person, we touch the heart of the mystery of God and can grasp the fullness of the redemptive work that has been accomplished for us and for creation as a whole.

“The Lord came down upon earth to give us [the] fire of the grace of the Holy Spirit,” Silouan declares [302]. The image of the Spirit that he conveys to us is profoundly “charismatic” in the best sense of the term. The Spirit appears as a divine fire, an irresistible power coming forth from the Father, which seizes the human soul in order to translate it from hell to Heaven, from darkness to everlasting Light [101, 313, 319, 434-435]. It is by the Holy Spirit that we know and confirm the most fundamental truth of the apostolic faith, “that Jesus Christ is God.” Yet in the experience of St Silouan, this affirmation includes a profoundly personal aspect, based as it is on his direct experience with the living Lord. “The holy Apostles and a multitude of people beheld the Lord in the flesh,” he says, “but not all knew Him as the Lord; yet it has been given to me, a poor sinner, through the Holy Spirit to know that Jesus Christ is God” [353].

The expressions Silouan uses to describe the person and work of the Spirit reveal not only a charismatic power, but a personal countenance, a living face, which bears the traits of gentleness and humility. “Our joy is the Holy Spirit, so pleasant and delectable. He bears witness to the soul of her salvation” [289]. “When our prayer is received by the Lord, the divine Spirit bears witness to it in the soul; he is gentle and peaceful….”.4 Thus the Spirit can be qualified as good, gentle, delightful, the author of peace. In his essence, however, he is love itself. “The Holy Spirit is wondrous sweet and pleasing for soul and body. He gives us to know the love of God, and this love is of the Holy Spirit” [330]. And again: “Where there is love – there is the Holy Spirit” [318]; indeed, Silouan can affirm, “the Holy Spirit is love” [270].

Yet although the holy father often evokes the name and activity of the Spirit, that divine Person remains a mystery, both in the world and in the human heart. His face remains veiled, his countenance hidden, his personal identity enveloped in the mystery of the incomprehensibility of God. Even as he reveals the faces of the Father and the Son, the Spirit himself remains invisible. It is only in the age to come, Vladimir Lossky tells us, “that this divine Person, now unknown, not having His image in another Hypostasis, will manifest Himself in deified persons: for the multitude of the saints will be His image.”5

St Silouan is highly sensitive to this aspect of Christian pneumatology. Nevertheless, he insists that in the present age the Spirit does manifest himself – if not visibly, still in a personal and intimate way – to the soul that knows humility. “We suffer,” he insists, “because we lack humility. The Holy Spirit dwells in the humble soul, bringing freedom, peace, love and blessedness” [424]. Despite the mystery that surrounds this divine Person, then, he reveals himself by his actions. “The Holy Spirit has pity on us, forgives and heals us, enlightens and rejoices us. And the Holy Spirit is to be known through humble prayer” [293f]. Taking up the theme of the “likeness of God,” Silouan elaborates on this reflection concerning the activity of the Spirit. “We [like the pastors of Christ’s flock] are in the likeness of the Lord. Men ignore this mystery but St John the Divine told us clearly: ‘We shall be like him,’ and this not only after death but even here and now, for the merciful Lord has given the Holy Spirit on earth, and the Holy Spirit lives in our Church, lives in all virtuous pastors; lives in the hearts of the faithful. The Holy Spirit teaches the soul to fight the good fight; gives strength necessary to fulfill the commandments of the Lord; establishes us in all truth; and has so adorned man that he has become like unto the Lord” [404].

According to Silouan’s own experience, the Spirit enables us to know the Lord, and he elicits from us love for the Lord. Without the Spirit, he adds, “man is but sinful dust” [281]. But with the Spirit, the staretz insists, “all things are good, all things are joyful, all things are well!” [305]. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to believe that life in the Spirit is nothing but peace and blessing. Silouan knew all too well the torment of the soul abandoned in hell, exiled far from the presence of God. And he knew that the pathway back to God could only be traveled by the strength, the grace and the abiding presence of the Spirit within him, working out his sanctification. “Everyone who would follow our Lord Jesus Christ is engaged in spiritual warfare,” he declares. “The Saints by long experience learned from the grace of the Holy Spirit how to wage this war. The Holy Spirit appointed their footsteps and gave them understanding and the strength to overcome the enemy; but without the Holy Spirit the soul is incapable even of embarking on the struggle, for she neither knows nor understands who and where her enemies are” [423].

The grace of the Spirit, therefore, is essential, in order to guide and strengthen us throughout our life-long spiritual struggle. The discernment of the Spirit enables us to recognize “who and where” are our enemies, meaning passions and temptations, as well as demonic powers and those who hate us. But it is the love of the Spirit that grants us victory and renders us conquerors in the image of Christ: a victory so total that even the flesh, the physical body, can experience sanctification. “The fourth and perfect kind of love for God,” Silouan holds, “exists when a man possesses the grace of the Holy Spirit in both soul and body. His body is then hallowed, and after death his earthly remains become relics” [343]. It is in this way that the departed bear witness to the ultimate work of the Holy Spirit, which is to effect in the human heart and soul – but also in the human body – a veritable transfiguration in view of the final resurrection. It is this divine operation that confirms the intuition of Lossky and the entire patristic tradition, that in the age to come the face of the Spirit will finally be unveiled, to be fully manifested in the radiant splendor of deified human persons, the multitude of saints.

7. Trinitarian Theology: Relations Among the Three Divine Persons.

According to St Silouan’s experience, articulated through his teaching, the Spirit’s work of salvation focuses on a single major activity, which is to communicate to us “knowledge of God.” “In the first year of my life in the Monastery,” he relates, “my soul apprehended God in the Holy Spirit. The Lord loves us greatly. This I know by the Holy Spirit whom the Lord gave me in His singular mercy” [269]. Like all great mystics, Silouan keeps the content of this knowledge of God in the secret depths of his heart. The evangelists note that Jesus often went apart from the crowds, and even from his disciples, in order to spend an entire night in prayer. With the exception of his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, we know nothing of the dialogue that occurred between the Son and his Father. If the Gospels preserve this intimacy with such discretion, it is all the more appropriate that the saints should reveal only in the rarest of instances the visions and auditory sensations they enjoyed concerning the inner life of God. For we are speaking of a mystery that surpasses all understanding, a mystery which by its very nature is ineffable, unutterable.

It is precisely this inexpressible character of the mystery of God that explains Silouan’s discretion and reticence concerning what is properly called Trinitarian theology: that is, all speculation about relations between the three divine Hypostases, the hypostatic union of the two natures in the Person of the incarnate Word, and the redemption accomplished on the Cross by the Son of God. We should by no means interpret this silence as indicating a lack of interest, or that Silouan was unfamiliar with the subtleties of Orthodox dogmatic theology – although doctrinal formulation of these matters by contemporary theologians is hardly his concern. Silouan’s passion is for God rather than for words about God….

Having said this, however, we need to stress as well that Silouan’s knowledge of the mystery of divine life and being conforms wholly to the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church, despite the fact that he does not concern himself with dogmatic precision. For example, he is at ease using the term “Lord” or “God” indifferently to designate both the Father and the Son: “The Lord schools the soul for whose sake His arms were stretched upon the cross in great suffering, that she might be humble”; “O Lord,” he continues, “do Thou, our delight, our Heavenly Father, give us the strength to love Thee” [325]. And again: “The soul that has acquired humility is always mindful of God, and thinks to herself, ‘God created me; He suffered for me; He forgives me my sins and comforts me” [336f]. Nevertheless, this should not be interpreted as though Silouan made some sort of confusion between the two Persons of the Father and the Son. His language is due rather to the profound conviction – which represents the touchstone of Orthodoxy – that Jesus Christ himself is God, that the eternal Son of God the Father assumed the fullness of human nature (to take up a defining term of Chalcedon) atreptôs, that is “without change,” without in any way abandoning the fullness of his divine nature. “The Father so loved us that He gave us His Son: but such was the will of the Son, too, and He became incarnate and lived among us on earth. …not all knew Him as the Lord; yet it has been given to me, a poor sinner, through the Holy Spirit to know that Jesus Christ is God” [353].

It is significant that in speaking of God and the three divine Persons, Silouan often has occasion to use the expression “humble.” In point of fact, the most characteristic image of God he preserves in his teaching, which perhaps marked him personally more than any other, is precisely this image of divine Humility, and particularly the humility of the incarnate Son. “The Lord, King of heaven and earth and all creation,” he reminds us, “humbled Himself and bore obedience to His Mother and St. Joseph” [412]. This humility, which Jesus manifested throughout the entire course of his earthly mission, is a quality possessed by the eternal Word both before and after his incarnation. “The Holy Spirit,” Silouan confesses, “has given my soul to know the humility of Christ which He bade us learn of Him, and my soul is drawn to Him without cease. O the humility of Christ! Fountain of indescribable joy in God!” [277] Then he adds, “My soul thirsts after the humility of Christ, and yearns for it day and night” [278f]. And again: “Men are ignorant of the power of Christ’s humility, and that is why they aspire to the things of this earth” [278]. How remarkable – and appropriate – this expression is: “The power of Christ’s humility”! This extraordinary experience of divine power, expressed as humility, leads the holy staretz to utter the supplication, “O pray for me all ye Saints and all ye peoples, that Christ’s holy humility may come to me!” [305].

If Silouan came to know the humility of Christ by virtue of the action of the Holy Spirit, it is because the Spirit himself possesses this same attribute. Thus he can pray: “O Lord, vouchsafe unto us the gift of Thy holy humility. O Lord, give us freely of Thy humble Holy Spirit” [301]. Divinity itself is characterized by the virtue of humility.

In order for the human soul to acquire the humble Spirit of God, it must itself become humble. “When the soul by the Holy Spirit sees the Lord, how meek and lowly He is, she humbles herself thoroughly” [310]. Accordingly, Silouan exhorts all those who seek God from the depths of their heart to place themselves on the way of humility. “Brethren,” he implores, “let us humble ourselves and then we shall behold the glory of the Lord while here on earth, for the Lord gives the humble man to know Him by the Holy Spirit” [426]. If we are to rejoice, as did Jesus’ disciples, at the vision of the Lord’s transfiguration, if even in this life we are to behold “the glory of the Lord,” we can do so only by assuming the way Silouan chose for himself. That way, as the troparion in his honor so eloquently declares, is to follow Christ as our “Master on the path of humility.”


The knowledge of God that St Silouan possessed, like all true knowledge of the ultimate Mystery, was granted to him by revelation and personal experience rather than by intellectual speculation. He obtained it through his contemplative mind (nous) but not through his rational mind. “That which is of heaven,” he asserts, “is made known through the Holy Spirit, whereas earthly things are discovered by the [rational] mind – but the man who would discover God with his mind, through science and learning, is in a state of beguilement [spiritual delusion or planê], for God is to be known only through the Holy Spirit” [445].

Silouan knows God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as the God of justice and majesty, but especially as the God of tenderness, mercy, humility and love. The Lord is both Creator and Redeemer, the Source of all that exists and the Author of its salvation. He participates directly and intimately in the life of his creation, as he does in the life of human persons. He governs every aspect and every moment of our daily life. He sounds the depths of our spirit and our soul. He is aware of every movement of our heart. In his boundless goodness, the Lord forgives our sins. He purifies and sanctifies both body and soul as he elicits from deep within us an insatiable yearning for intimate and eternal communion with himself. By the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son reveal themselves to us, and by this same Spirit they set us on the pathway that leads to life. This is an arduous pathway that engages us in a constant struggle against the passions as well as against the demons. It is a pathway that leads us into the depths of hell before it elevates us into the glory of heaven.

“Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not,” the Lord told the humble monk Silouan. This troubling yet liberating commandment is only comprehensible in the light of Silouan’s own experience, which he expresses most specially in the eloquent and beautiful, semi-autobiographical poem entitled “Adam’s Lament” [448-456]. Describing the way that leads from the Fall to repentance, expressing the suffering of the heart that senses its alienation from the God of Love, Silouan closes this poetic hymn with a meditation that summarizes in a few brief phrases the movement of God toward man and man toward God. “Adam lost the earthly paradise and sought it weeping. But the Lord, through His love on the cross, gave Adam another paradise, fairer than the old – a paradise in heaven where shines the Light of the Holy Trinity. What shall we render unto the Lord for His love to us?”

In the thought and experience of St Silouan, knowledge of God is grounded in the conviction that God knew him first of all, just as God loved him first of all (cf. 1 Jn 4:10). Silouan’s entire monastic life, including his spiritual teaching, is based on this most fundamental certainty. Therefore he can invite all those who, like himself, experience a profound longing for the Kingdom of Heaven to undertake their pilgrimage in a spirit of self-abnegation and love. “O brethren,” he exhorts, “let us forget the earth and all that is therein! The earth entices us from contemplation of the Holy Trinity, which our minds cannot apprehend, by which the saints in heaven behold the Holy Spirit” [364]. And he adds, “Therefore, let us love the Lord, who first loved and suffered for us” [426]. To St Silouan, Christian life consists in an effort to penetrate the mystery of God, not by means of scientific or rational inquiry, but by means of an ardent quest for Him who has created us, saved us, and loved us beyond all measure. This is a quest that involves us in an inner pilgrimage marked by repentance and prayer, one that gives free expression to tears of longing. “My soul yearns after the Lord, and I seek Him in tears” [269].

Addressing the Object of his most profound desire, Silouan offers a prayer that eloquently summarizes the significance of his own quest and reveals the depths of his knowledge of God. It is a knowledge that conforms fully to that of all the theologians and of all the ascetics of Orthodox tradition. “Where hast Thou taken up Thy habitation, my Light? Thou seest how I seek Thee, weeping. Hadst Thou not revealed Thyself unto me, I could not seek Thee as I do now. But Thou Thyself didst seek me out, a sinner, and give me to know Thy love. Thou madest me to see that Thy love led Thee down from heaven to earth and even into hell, that we might behold Thy glory!” [287]

1 Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999), p. 9.

2 Ibid., p. 15.

3 The numbers in brackets refer to pages in the edition mentioned in note 1.

4 Omitted from English edition; taken from Starets Silouane, Moine du Mont-Athos (Paris: Ed. Presence, 1973), p. 275.

5 The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), p. 173.


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