Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov)

The news from around the world is strange and disturbing, as so often recently: the atrocities of Daesh in Syria, the Lebanon and now Turkey, the appalling behaviour of G4S staff in our own country, further discoveries of climate change. It is hard to know how to pray in the face of such a torrent of bad news, when the heart contracts with grief and helplessness, and sleep seems far off... Yet if ever we are called to prayer, surely it is in times like this.

Very often we when we hear these words “call to prayer” we are tempted to understand them in a very direct intercessory sense. We think of “claiming”, “rebuking”, “pronouncing the judgements of God”; and if like me we are called to a very different way of prayer, we conclude that the call, if call it is, can’t be addressed to us.

Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov lived through the years of the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Cold War. A Russian, he prayed in community at Mount Athos, and later at The Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, England, and like most Orthodox religious, he was a contemplative. Sophrony wrote, and taught, on the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and it was to this practice that his life was given.

I feel that we all sometimes - and I am one of the worst - have far too narrow a sense of what prayer is. Paul wrote, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8.26-27)

We cannot, humanly, know how to pray in the direct, petitionary sense under these - or many - circumstances. Coming before God with our list of demands, and our advice on how best to fulfil them, simply won't do, given the extraordinary complexity of world events, and the limited nature of the human mind. Sophrony understood this. He wrote, "Sometimes prayer seems to flag, and we cry, 'Make haste unto me, O God' (Ps. 70.5). But if we do not let go of the hem of his garment, help will come. It is vital to dwell in prayer in order to counteract the persistently destructive influence of the outside world." (His Life Is Mine p.64)

I notice that Archimandrite Sophrony's His Life Is Mine is back in print from St Vladimir's Seminary Press, and available on Amazon. I'm delighted to see this, as Sophrony was one of the most useful writers on the Jesus Prayer in modern times. Below are a few passages I've collected that seem to speak to our condition:

Real prayer, of course, does not come readily. It is no simple matter to preserve inspiration while surrounded by the icy waters of the world that does not pray...

Of all approaches to God prayer is the best and in the last analysis the only means. In the act of prayer the human mind finds its noblest expressions. The mental state of the scientist engaged in research, of the artist creating a work of art, of the thinker wrapped up in philosophy - even of professional theologians propounding their doctrines - cannot be compared to that of the man of prayer brought face to face with the living God. Each and every kind of mental activity presents less of a strain than prayer. We may be capable if working for ten or twelve hours on end but a few moments of prayer and we are exhausted.

Prayer can accomplish all things. It is possible for any of us lacking in natural talent to obtain through prayer supranatural gifts. Where we encounter a deficiency of rational knowledge we should do well to remember that prayer, independently of man's intellectual capacity, can bring a higher form of cognition. There is the province of reflex consciousness, of demonstrative argument; and there is the province where prayer is the passageway to direct contemplation of divine truth...

Prayer offered to God is imperishable. Now and then we may forget what we have prayed about but God preserves our prayer for ever...

When it is given to man to know the overriding value of prayer as compared with any other activity, be it in the field of science, the arts, medicine or social or political work, it is not difficult to sacrifice material well-being for the sake of leisure to converse with God. It is a great privilege to be able to let one’s mind dwell on the everlasting, which is above all the most splendid achievements of science, philosophy, the arts and so on. At first the struggle to acquire this privilege may seem disproportionately hard; though in many cases known to me the pursuit of freedom for prayer becomes imperative...

Intense prayer can so transport both heart and mind, in their urgent desire for the eternal, that the past fades into oblivion and there is no thought of any earthly future - the whole inner attention is concentrated on... God. It is a fact that that the more urgent our quest for the infinite, the more slowly we seem to advance. The overwhelming contrast between our own nothingness and the inscrutable majesty of the God Whom we seek makes it impossible to judge with any certainty whether we are moving forward or sliding back. In his contemplation of the holiness and humility of God, man’s spiritual understanding develops more quickly than does his ability to harmonise his conduct with God’s word. Hence the impression that the distance separating him from God continually increases... Prayer becomes a wordless cry, and regret for the distance separating him from God turns to acute grief...

The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside...

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in - we know the power of true prayer...


  1. Anonymous8:49 pm

    Sophrony's writings bring to light a very different type of Christianity than that to which we are accustomed in the West. They will be disturbing to some in their strange intensity. I believe that he spent the whole of World War II in a cave on Mt Athos praying for the world. However, we might well wonder what this prayer consisted of.

    The Buddhist scholar Edward Conze said that one of the few good things to have happened in his lifetime was the rediscovery of meditation. The Jesus Prayer is sometimes thought of as a Christian equivalent of Eastern practices. Sophrony, who also experimented with Eastern techniques when young, constantly warned against this assumption. To many it may have the same tranquillizing effects as a mantra, for others it will induce the very opposite, as appears to have been the case with Sophrony himself as far as we can tell from his writings. He seems to have thought of it as a practice only for the courageous, as it could lead absolutely anywhere, though that never stopped him recommending its use.

    1. Thank you - yes, I had heard that of Fr Sophrony also. "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of..."

      Your point about Sophrony's warning regarding misunderstanding the Jesus Prayer is well-made. Ever since JD Salinger, the West has been prone to getting it a bit aslant. It's a prayer, though, and I think there's a tendency for it to be answered, regardless of the pray-er's initial intentions!

  2. Thanks for this essay! Lord, teach us how to pray.

  3. Anonymous6:55 pm


  4. Thank you, Bill and Anonymous!