“Man will never have full knowledge of the mystery of Christ if he, too, has not been through hell”

In a short talk such as this it is not possible to examine all the words of St. Silouan, which are offered as words of God for our generation. It is enough for us to hold on to one word only, and try to go to its very depths. This word then, may become, by God’s grace, a lens through which we can gaze fixed at the endless horizons of the “great mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16), which has been revealed to us. So, today the word under consideration is the word of Christ to Silouan: “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not”, which came as God’s answer to his prayer, “Lord, teach me what I must do that my soul may become humble.” We shall speak about this word, “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not“, because it is central to the teaching of St. Silouan, and also to the understanding of the Way of Christ, that way which first descends and afterwards ascends, and which gives birth to all the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Chronologically, our generation is nearer to the Second Coming of Christ than ever before. That is logical. Moreover, the words of Christ, “Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8), imply that our generation finds itself in greater want and tribulation, and has need of salvation than ever before. What are the tribulations which emphatically constitute the command and distinctive mark of our generation? We can name a few, which according to our poor opinion are the chief ones: pride, the darkening of the mind and its captivity by the spirit of wickedness, despair and the multitude of involuntary afflictions which accompany it, and finally, despondency—the manifest lack of concern for the salvation which God offers every day to the world. This revealing word from Christ Himself: “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair notoffered by St Silouan to his contemporaries who are of like passions, provides the answer to these and many other symptoms. …

But what is the mystery of God which is enclosed in these words: “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not“? It is evident that knowledge of this mystery brought Silouan victory over the power of the enemy, and a perfect likeness to his master, our Lord Jesus Christ. This is what Silouan witnesses to in another part of his writings.

He who has humbled himself, has conquered the enemy. No enemy can come near the man who in his heart esteems himself deserving of eternal fire. No earthly thoughts find place in his soul—heart and mind he lives entirely in God. And the man who has come to know the Holy Spirit, and learned humility of Him, has become like to his Teacher, Jesus Christ, Son of God, and resembles Him.

Why did this word of the Lord free Silouan from the struggle with the enemy, and add to his stature such strength of Spirit and stability of life? This happened because God’s word placed Silouan on the very Way of the Lord Himself. By following the Way of the Lord, one’s heart is “enlarged,” and man becomes unapproachable to his enemies. …

Therefore, the Way of the Lord stretches out through death on the Cross to the infernal regions of hell. It is like descending into the waters of baptism. Baptism is an imitation of the Lord’s Way. We meet Christ and put Him on (Gal. 3:27), and ascend reborn “in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4), since He first descended into the waters and blessed them. By first going down into the waters, in obedience to His commandment, we come up renewed. “Going down” signifies His death, and this is a real death, because we die to sin, and “coming up” signifies our rebirth “in newness of life”. In baptism, we have the tracing of the Way of the Lord, and so it is also when we are commanded to descend into hell: not that we may perish, but so that we may explore even there the wondrous mystery of the divine and humble love which reaches down even into those dreadful region. This is so that, before the greatness of this love, we may humble ourselves unto the end and, in our turn, respond with gratitude to Christ, so perfectly and so powerfully that nothing, no place, not even hell, can separate us from God the Saviour (cf. Rom. 8:35-39). Man will never have full knowledge of the mystery of Christ if he, too, has not been through hell. …

This word, “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not“, is a commandment of the Lord with the intention that we might imitate Him in His descent, whilst at the same time, trusting in His mercy and the eternal salvation which He obtained for us by His ascent. The mere disposition in us to receive this word and fulfil it in our life attracts the grace of God. Aside: The disposition to receive the word of the Lord always attracts grace in us. End of aside. Being a divine Light, this grace discloses and confirms this truth: hell is where man finds himself separated from the God of love. It also discloses sin, injustice, and spiritual poverty. This knowledge brings contrition to the soul. Contrition is a precious gift from God to man; it is the beginning of humility and prepares a “dwelling-place” for God in us. As a property of grace, this contrition gives birth to spiritual courage. … This contrition is spiritual courage, since it is the only state in which man, inspired by the grace of God, dares to stare at his spiritual poverty without despairing, whilst hoping that He who revealed to him the depths of his desolation is also able to carry him across, unharmed, to the other bank where God is. He achieves this through self-condemnation, and the following prophetic attitude: he attributes every justice to God, whereas his own face is covered with shame (cf. Dan. 9:7 LXX). It is for this reason that St. John of the Ladder says that spiritual courage is victory. It is victory because without the courage born of contrition it is impossible for us to behold clearly our spiritual poverty. Then spiritual poverty becomes a gift which lays the foundation for our spiritual ascent: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). St Symeon the New Theologian wonders, “What is more glorious than spiritual poverty, which is the means of obtaining the kingdom of heaven?” …

In the conditions of today’s world the experience of hell is a reality for many people. They often come face to face with titanic impulses and confusion of intellect. The human mind falters, and remains in this pitiful state. It is held captive by the pain of the reality which surrounds it, and easily seeks to break away from it, so as to find comfort in the substitutes which the passions of a world alienated from God offer. This tendency, often encountered in our day, leads to a continually increasing estrangement and diffusion. Aside: That is to say, man does not want to face the hell in which he finds himself, and seeks to escape from it through substitutes, only to find himself more entangled in it than before. End of aside.

The stress on the verb “keep”, stay your mind in hell, in the first part of the commandment, shows that if one voluntarily and persistently keeps in one’s mind a vision of the general hell of this present life, one is on the way to salvation and healing. This vision should inspire repentance and prayer for the salvation of all those who are in a similar state of suffering. The negative energy which comes from this experience of hell is transformed by this prophetic attitude of self-condemnation into energy for converse with God, which conquers the passions, bringing our life to the ontological level. …

St Silouan’s word truly expresses a great spiritual science, the only one which can effectively oppose the all-destroying corruption and devastation, apocalyptically being perpetrated in these last times by the spirit of wickedness. Through the greater pain of voluntary self-condemnation to hell, and by virtue of the Lord’s commandment, the believer can triumph over every other pain and temptation, and prove the love of Christ to be stronger than death, as is He who “conquered death by death”. Whatever is done willingly and in fulfilment of a commandment of God is inspired by divine wisdom, and leads to eternal victory. This victory renders man above this world, like unto Christ, who, by His extreme humility, overcame the world (cf. John 16:33).

Archimandrite Zacharias

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6 Responses to “Man will never have full knowledge of the mystery of Christ if he, too, has not been through hell”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    For Holy Week I am reading Fr Zacharias’ The Enlargement of the Heart. One of his talks is devoted to St Silouan’s terrifying word “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.” When I first encountered this word several years ago, I knew I was not ready to practice it in any intentional way. I probably still am not. But perhaps one day I shall be.

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  2. Dale Crakes says:

    I found St. John of the Ladder just as depressing as St Silouan. A stronger more positive exposition of baptism and a stressing of “The mere disposition in us to receive this word and fulfil it in our life attracts the grace of God. Aside: The disposition to receive the word of the Lord always attracts grace in us.” would certainly be comforting. The following has a definite Manichean ring to my ear is certainly a depressing way to go totally through life. “The stress on the verb “keep”, stay your mind in hell, in the first part of the commandment, shows that if one voluntarily and persistently keeps in one’s mind a vision of the general hell of this present life, one is on the way to salvation and healing.” I prefer an ongoing theosis while his wording to me has an “I’m Saved” ring to it. As I said at the beginning I find that the literary style at a minimum to be spiritually depressing. Sorry Fr can’t agree with you on this one.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dale, we do not disagree. I am not persuaded that the Lord’s instruction to St Silouan, “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not,” is applicable to even most believers, as Fr Zacharias appears to believe. As one who has struggled with depression throughout all of his adult life, I am certainly reluctant to take the counsel to myself.

      But it is important, I think, to note that the Lord’s word to Silouan is predicated on the absolute love and mercy of God. Only thus is the believer able to trust and cast himself upon the Lord.

      The simple fact is, for many hell is what many Christians experience in their daily lives. No matter what we do, no matter what pills we take, the darkness does not depart. To such especially, perhaps, this word may spoken.

      In the early 30s a hermit monk asked Elder Sophrony, “How will we be saved?” He replied, “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea.”

      I’ll have a cup of Earl Grey, please. 🙂

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      • 407kwac says:

        The emphasis for most of us, I’ll warrant, needs to be on the “despair not” part. Fr. Stephen Freeman has said the giving of thanks in all things accomplishes the same thing–that is, it cultivates the humility of heart that allows us to perceive God.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Thank you for mentioning this. I agree. Fr Zacharias makes this point in his book. In response to one priest’s question about “Keep thy mind in hell …” he replies:

          This is not for everybody—not even for all monks. I remember when I first became a spiritual father I began to grasp a little how this is carried out in life, and I wanted to share it with all my fellows, and I was trying to teach this to one of teh sisters; nad Fr. Sophrony said to me: “You are stupid! This is not for everybody, not even for all monks.”

          But there is another way, for people living in the world: to keep thanking God continually, thus: “I thank Thee, O Lord, for all the things that Thou has done for me,” and so on, adding in the end, “… though I am unworthy.” This brings the same result, the same state. Psychologically, it is more acceptable and has the same effect, because thanking God continually intercedes for our weakness before Him, makes up for our weakness. I believe that this is a more accessible way for people living in the world.

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  3. I do wonder how this fits with St Paul’s exhortation in Colossians to set our mind on things above, where our life is hid with God in Christ. Or the boldness of approach to the Holiest through Christ’s blood in Hebrew. Perhaps looking up spiritually includes seeing our sin through God’s vision as hellish, and in that sense being aware of hell within. I suppose the poverty of spirit which is blessed might be interpreted that way, as is done above.

    It reminds me of a recommendation once given to retreatants in some places: to kneel before a crucifix recalling all the very worst of oneself, then to ask Christ Crucified, “Was it worth it?” I’m still not sure whether this is a proper spiritual practice or not.

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