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Members of one another (Part VI)

February 7th, 2019

In the monk’s relationship with the world, St Silouan distinguishes a double movement. First, through prayer the monk withdraws into himself, shutting out the world, gradually liberating himself from visual imagery and discursive thinking, and so entering into the image-free stillness of the heart. But then, within the depths of his own heart, he rediscovers his solidarity with all humankind and with the whole creation. So the monk’s flight from the world turns out to be not world-denying but world-affirming. In the words of Fr Sophrony:

In his longing for God he ‘hates’ the world and retires totally into the depths of his own heart. And when he does so totally, in order there to do battle against Satan, in order to cleanse his heart from every single passion, in the depths of this heart of his he meets with God, and in God begins to see himself indissolubly linked with the whole of cosmic existence; and then there is nothing alien, nothing that is extraneous to them.

As St Silouan observes, ‘True, Arsenius the Great was bidden to “shun” people but in the desert, too, the Spirit of God teaches us to pray for people and for all the world.

Weep for all. True prayer cannot but be costly; loving intercession involves an inner martyrdom, a willingness on our part to accept suffering. As St Silouan says, ‘Praying for people means shedding blood, ‘The greater the love, the greater the suffering’. It is not enough simply to read lists of names; we are required to intercede with tears of sorrow. ‘Pray for all’ means ‘Weep for all’:

My heart aches for the whole world, and I pray and shed tears for the whole world, that all may repent…. My soul weeps for the whole world…. O Lord, grant me tears to shed for myself, and for the whole universe’.

Repent for all. St Silouan would have us go yet further on the path of mutual coinherence. Not only are we required to weep for all, but we should also repent for all. In his view this is part of what St Paul meant when he said, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2). As Fr Sophrony points out, if viewed in purely juridical terms the notion of vicarious repentance – of laying one person’s guilt upon another – makes no sense; it is simply ‘not fair’. But the love of Christ is not limited to juridical norms:

The spirit of Christian love speaks otherwise, seeing nothing strange but something rather natural in sharing the guilt of those we love – even in assuming full responsibility for their wrong-doing. Indeed, it is only in this bearing of another’s guilt that the authenticity of love is made manifest and develops into full awareness of self.

Adam’s fall consisted precisely in his refusal to accept that he too was involved in the guilt of Eve’s sin. ‘Adam denied responsibility, laying all the blame on Eve and on God who had given him this wife’, and so he shattered the unity of the human race. If only, instead of justifying himself, he ‘had taken upon his shoulders the responsibility for their joint sin, the destinies of the world might have been different’. We in our turn, when we refuse to repent for others, are repeating Adam’s sin, thus making his fall our own.

Strange though this concept of vicarious repentance may seem to most modern readers, it has in fact an excellent Patristic pedigree. One author who expresses this idea in strong terms is St Mark the Monk (early fifth century):

The saints are required to offer repentance not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of their neighbour, for without active love they cannot be made perfect…. In this way the whole universe is held together in unity, and through God’s providence we are each of us assisted by one another.

~Adapted from Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, We Must Pray for All: The Salvation of the World According to St Silouan (http://www.bogoslov.ru/en/text/2314168.html).