This is a closing part of the little series dedicated to the help rendered by Mary to all of us. As you have probably understood by the article title, we will talk about Reverend Silouan the Athonite. Recently on our website we touched upon the subject of Ezoosmos – the inner impulse. I believe it would be absolutely fair to attribute the concept of Ezoosmos to the personality’s spiritual path as well, that is in this context such impulse would be an event, e.g. a dream, a vision, or a conversation with someone. Owing to such an event, a person comes to understand he or she is not just a piece of matter, a part of this material world, but something greater…
Such event serves as a sort of an impetus that forces a person to step on the spiritual path, start improving oneself for the better in every day of one’s life, and gradually move in the right direction where he or she has been “pushed”.
Elder Silouan is one of cases when Mary Herself gave an impetus for him to begin spiritual movement. This example is far from being single, but I decided to take his very case. Very few articles are available about Silouan, while Reverend Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) is quite a useful and informative book I would say. Hence, if any of you have not read the book in full, I strongly recommend you to do so – this surely won’t be a waste of time.
Besides the Elder’s life on Mount Athos, the book describes his childhood and youth, which are very, very interesting to read about. His father was a nice man, as the Elder recalls himself:
He was an elder I would like to have beside me. He never got irritated, was always equable and gentle. Just think, he was waiting for six months until an opportune moment to correct me and not to stir me up.
When Silouan was about 4 years old, an interesting guest – a “book pedlar” came to their house, who became memorable for Simeon (Silouan). The man was arguing with Simeon’s father that there was no God.
Little Simeon was particularly staggered by his words: “Where is He, God?” and the boy thought: “When I grow up, I will go around the earth to search for God.” When the visitor left, little Simeon said to his father: “You teach me prayers, while he says there is no God.” The father responded: “I thought he was a clever man, but he proved to be a fool. Don’t listen to him.” However, the father’s answer did not eliminate doubts from the boy’s soul.
At the age of 19, he heard a story of a hermit’s sacred life and of miracles at the hermit’s tomb:
While listening to the conversation, Simeon thought: “If he is a saint, this means God is with us, so I don’t need to go around the earth to search for Him.” At that very thought the young heart inflamed with love for God.
His first impulse proved to be sufficient for just 3 months. Just like in many people, the initial impulse ends rather fast, and a person thinks: “What’s next?” Then everything goes as usual: “I am a mere part of the flock”, “I am like everybody”, “Everybody does so, and I do.” This is a typical feature of youth, and not only youth, and such situation does not change with time – it is the same now as a century ago. At that, if someone is notable he or she usually wants to be notable for the worse, not for the best. As for nowadays, for some reason mostly negative examples are demonstrated, and there are further more and more of such examples. Why? Because people have neither seen nor heard what good means, while there are very few positive examples that should be followed, and such examples unfortunately remain in the shadow. This is how we live.
As for Simeon,
Simeon was in such an unusual state for three months, then it abandoned him, and he again started socializing with his peers, meeting with girls outside the village, drinking vodka, and playing accordion, i.e. living like all other village guys.
In those years he worked with his brothers in prince Trubetskoy’s estate. On holidays he attended a tavern, and sometimes he could drink 3 litres of vodka in one evening, but he never got drunk.
It is unknown whether Simeon would have become a saint as he actually did or life would have taken him in a totally different direction, if it was not for a remarkable occurrence that produced a deep impression on him, affected his entire life, and became memorable for him for many years.
Once after an unchaste leisure he fell into a doze and in a slumber saw a snake getting inside him through his mouth. It felt terribly disgusting, and he woke up. Then he heard the following words:
“You have swallowed a snake in your sleep and feel disgust; this is how badly I feel when I see what you do.”
Simeon did not see anyone but only heard a voice that had uttered the words, and the voice was extraordinary sweet and pleasant. Despite its quietness and sweetness, the voice produced a tremendous effect. The elder was absolutely sure it was the voice of the Mother of God Herself. Until the very end of his life he was thanking Our Lady that She had not disdained him, but had the kindness to visit him Herself and keep him from degradation. He used to say:
“Now I see how the Lord and Our Lady take pity on people. Just think, the Mother of God came from heaven to bring me, the sinful young man to senses.”
He ascribed the fact he had not seen the Heavenly Queen to the impurity in which he was at that moment.
This second call that took place shortly before his military service was of a decisive importance for him and predetermined his choice of the further way. The first consequence was that he radically changed his life, which had had quite a bad trend. Simeon was deeply ashamed of his past and began to repent to God passionately. His decision to take monastic vows after the military service multiplied.
Just a single phrase was said, but it was so powerful and had such a strong effect, the effect beyond time. If we look into it, eventually Simeon became famous as Saint Silouan the Athonite. While he resided on Mount Athos, he was not alone. He communicated with other people, and I would say conversations with him left very sweet memories in the hearts of many people. You can read more about this in Chapter III Appearance and Conversations of the Elder, while I will only refer to several examples.
Father Stratonic came at the appointed hour. The conversation between the two hermits started easily and assumed a desirable character straight away. Both elders were permanently pursuing the same spiritual goal, and their mind was uninterruptedly focused on the issues that were of the paramount importance for them.
Having attentively listened to Father Stratonic the day before, Silouan noted that Stratonic had been saying “from his mind” and his words about the meeting between the human will and God’s will, as well as about penance, were “unclear”. He began the conversation with three questions to which he requested answers:
“How do the perfect speak?”
“What does it mean to give oneself up to God’s will?”
“What is the point of penance?”
Apparently, the marvellous atmosphere of the spirit in which he resided immediately influenced Father Stratonic who felt the importance and profundity of the questions and became thoughtful. After being silent for a while, he said:
“I don’t know... You tell me.”
“They saynothing of their own invention... They say only what the Spirit gives them.”
At that moment, elderly Stratonic was probably experiencing the state described by Silouan. A new mystery of spiritual life, unknown to him before, was coming to light for him. He felt his shortcomings of the past and understood how far he still was from perfection, though thoughts of his own perfection had come to him after numerous meetings with monks when his superiority had been obvious. At that, he had met with many remarkable hermits. He looked at Father Silouan with gratitude.
Thereafter, once the first question was answered in the innermost of his soul from the very experience of such state given to him after Father Silouan’s prayer, the other two questions were already easy for him to digest.
Once the Elder was talking to a student who visited Mount Athos and spoke a lot about freedom. As usual, with kind attention the Elder was following thoughts and feelings of his lively, nice, yet naïve interlocutor. The student’s ideas of freedom certainly boiled down to, on one hand, the quest of political liberties and, on the other hand, an opportunity to act according to one’s impulses and desires.
In response, the Elder recounted his views and findings, saying:
“Is there anyone who does not want freedom? Everyone wants it, but one should know what freedom consists in and how to find it... In order to become free, one should, first of all, “bind” oneself. The more you bind yourself, the greater freedom your spirit will have... You should bind passions in yourself, so that they do not prevail over you. You should bind yourself in order not to harm your neighbour... Usually people seek freedom to do “anything they want”. However, this is not freedom, but the power of sin over you. The liberty of lechery, or intemperate eating and drinking, or rancour, violence and murder, or anything else of that kind is not freedom at all, but as the Lord said, “anyone who sins is a slave of sin”. One should pray for a long time to get rid of such slavery.
We believe the true freedom is when you do not sin, but love God and your neighbour with all your heart and all your power. The true freedom means a “permanent stay in God”.”
Although the Elder’s words were much profounder than the young student could grasp, and although externally those words were very simple, Silouan’s interlocutor left, being strongly impressed.”
Some monks, as well as non-monks who visited Mount Athos or were in correspondence with Silouan, came to value and deeply love him. Such people included bishops, priests that had theological diplomas, and pious laymen, too. We recall a following occurrence. An Orthodox foreigner was staying in the monastery for quite a long time, and was deeply impressed by the meeting with the Elder. He came to love the Elder and often visited him, and monks learned about his visits. Once Hieromonk N., one of the most influential elders and a very well-read and intelligent man, came across that foreigner in the monastery corridor and said:
“I don’t understand why you, the recognized scholars, visit illiterate Elder Silouan. Isn’t there anybody cleverer than him?”
“To understand Father Silouan one should be a “scholar”,” the guest responded not without pain in his soul.
Still not understanding why “learned” people respected and attended Elder Silouan, the same Hieromonk N. remarked while talking with Father Methodius, the monk who had been managing the monastery bookstore for many years:
“I wonder why they visit him. Most likely, he does not read anything.”
“He reads nothing but does everything, while others read a lot but do nothing,” Father Methodius answered.
Furthermore, we should take into account that everyone who talked to the Elder had their circle of contacts, and Silouan’s Wisdom surely reached that circle, or rather circles. In the spring of 1930, Elder Silouan got acquainted with Father Sophrony, whose mundane name was Sergey Sakharov. Father Sophrony became the Elder’s disciple and in 1948 (several years after the Elder’s death) published the first edition of the book Elder Silouan in 500 copies. In 2015, the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius released already the fourth edition of the book, so today everyone who desires can become familiar with the Elder’s Wisdom, and I believe the book simply cannot have indifferent readers. Yet, contemporary readers owe this all to the single phrase once uttered by Mary: “You have swallowed a snake in your sleep and feel disgust; this is how badly I feel when I see what you do.” At that, only God knows how many thankful readers this book will eventually have. The effect beyond time.
The Elder’s writings about the Mother of God
When I was a young novice, once I was praying in front of an icon of the Holy Mother of God, and Jesus’ Prayer entered my heart and started sounding there by itself. There was another occurrence, when in the church I was listening to readings of the Book of Isaiah, and when the words “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean” (Isaiah 1:16) were being read, I thought: “Maybe, the Mother of God once sinned at least in thought.” Marvellously, along with the prayer a voice distinctly said in my heart, “The Mother of God never sinned even in thought.” Thus, the Holy Spirit testified Her purity in my heart.
The above extract is very interesting. Let me assume the icon in front of which young Silouan was praying belonged to the Orans iconographic type, and in the process of prayer he happened to activate the working AllatRa sign depicted on icons of such type.
… Oh, I wish we all knew how the Blessed Virgin loves everyone who follows Christ’s commandments and how she pities and grieves over those who do not improve. I experienced this myself. I do not lie, but say in the face of God Whom my soul knows: I do know the Blessed Virgin in my spirit. I have not seen Her, but the Holy Spirit let me know Her and Her love for us. If it were not for Her mercy I would have perished long ago, but She felt like coming to me and making me understand, so that I would no longer sin. She told me: “I feel badly when I see what you do.” Her pleasant, quiet, gentle words really influence the soul.
More than forty years have passed, but my soul is unable to forget those sweet words, and I have no idea what I, the impious sinner, can render for this love of me and how I will ever thank the Blessed, Merciful Mother of God. She is truly our Protectress before God, and even Her name only makes the soul happy. At that, the entire heaven and the whole earth rejoice of Her love.
This is a wonderful and incomprehensible thing: She lives in the heaven and incessantly sees God’s glory, but She never forgets us, the petty, and Her mercy covers the whole earth and all peoples.
Perhaps, there will be those among readers of this article who will say, “Why was Silouan so sure it was Mary who said the words he heard? He did not see anyone.” I guess (though it’s only my personal opinion) that a person who hears Her voice is simply unable to confuse it with any other voice and will definitely remember it with gratitude for his or her entire life, just like Elder Silouan. As a matter of fact, this Voice can change a person for the better, and not only the person oneself, as the aforesaid indicates.
Is Mary’s Voice heard nowadays? It seems to me it is, since now people need Her help as never before. Probably, today the Voice sounds a little bit differently than the Elder described it: “Her pleasant, quiet, gentle words…” Now Her Voice is ringing as the Voice of the “Commander in Chief” who summons all Good People to stand up under Her Sign.
“… Everyone who hears is Summoned, and together represent the power that can change the whole world.” The creating power coming from God is
Who knows, maybe in the crossroad times there will appear a worthy woman who will step in for Mary at the post of help and care for humanity, whereas She will occupy a deserved place near God as it should be.
Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). Reverend Silouan the Athonite. Edition 4. The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, 2015