‘When we love someone we like uttering the name of the beloved and never tire of repeating it’, says Archimandrite Sophrony. My wife’s name sounds sweeter than any other name I know, and it brings feelings of wellbeing and happiness. There is no other name that evokes healing, joy, and comfort so perfectly. ‘It is infinitely more so with the Name of God. When we love in human fashion our love grows because we perceive more and more grace in the face of our loved one. His likeness becomes ever more precious, and happiness makes us notice new traits all the time. Thus it is with the Name of Christ Jesus. Gradually, our interest captured, we uncover fresh aspects of Him through His Name; and are ourselves impregnated with the reality, the knowledge contained in His Name. And this knowledge is essential to eternal life’. Growing up in late imperial Russia, Sophrony dedicated himself first to Buddhist yoga and meditation, then to the Paris art scene of the early 1920s and then to study at the Paris Orthodox Theological Institute, looking for ways to draw closer to God and find meaning in life. ‘The soul knows but cannot contain Him, and therein lies her pain’, he wrote in His Life is Mine. ‘Our days are filled with longing to penetrate into the Divine sphere with every fibre of our being’. Eventually Sophrony found God on Mount Athos, where he became a hermit under the spiritual direction of Staretz Silouan and gave the rest of his life to constant prayer.
The Jesus Prayer is a common formula in Orthodox Christianity, and variations of it can be found throughout the liturgy. It is short enough to be prayed with the rise and fall of the breath, and is often repeated as a mantra as a way of ‘praying without ceasing’ (1 Thess 5:17): ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. Sophrony does explain the hesychast techniques Orthodox mystics use when they pray, but far more important for him is the meaning of the prayer, and of the name of Jesus in particular, which he unpacks with reverence and care, because ‘He Who is beyond all Name in His Essence reveals Himself to the reasonable beings created by Him under a plurality of Names: Light, Life, Wisdom, Beauty, Goodness, Truth; Holy, Eternal, Omniscient, Almighty, Righteous, Hallowed; Saviour, Redeemer; and many another. In and through each of them God, the One and Indivisible, comes close to us’, he tell us. The Jesus Prayer is not a technique that can be learned, like yoga or transcendental meditation, Sophrony insists, it is the expression of a loving relationship with God: ‘It is not enough to pronounce the sound of the human word, which alters with the language used. It is essential to love Him Whom we invoke’. Sophrony speaks of ‘the ontological connection between the Name and the Named – between the Name and the Person of Christ’. To call on God’s name is to communicate with Him, to bring Him before us as we speak with Him.
Contemplative prayer is also difficult and painful. ‘True contemplation begins the moment we become aware of sin in us’, Sophrony writes, giving us some insight into his personal struggles alone in his cave on Mount Athos. ‘The way to this superabundant love lies through the depths of hell. We must not be afraid of this descent since without it plenitude of knowledge is unobtainable’. He explains that ‘to apprehend sin in oneself is a spiritual act, impossible without grace, without the drawing near to us of Divine Light. The initial effect of the approach of this mysterious Light is that we see where we stand ‘spiritually’ at the particular moment. The first manifestations of this Uncreated Light do not allow us to experience it as light. It shines in a secret way, illuminating the black darkness of our inner world to disclose a spectacle that is far from joyous for us in our normal state of fallen being. We feel a burning sensation. This is the beginning of real contemplation – which has nothing in common with intellectual or philosophical contemplation. We become acutely conscious of sin as a sundering from the ontological source of our being. Our spirit is eternal but now we see ourselves as prisoners of death’.
Sophrony’s prayer life was not just about his own salvation, and during the Second World War, Rosemary Edmonds tells us in the Introduction, ‘he would spend the night hours prone on the earth floor of his cave, imploring God to intervene in the crazy blood-bath. He prayed for those who were being killed, for those who were killing, for all in torment. And he prayed that God would not allow the more evil side to win’. Sophrony writes that ‘at first we pray for ourselves; but when God by the Holy Spirit gives us understanding our prayer assumes cosmic proportions. Then, when we pray ‘Our Father’ we think of all mankind, and solicit fullness of grace for all as for ourselves. Hallowed be Thy Name among all peoples. Thy kingdom come for all peoples that Thy Divine life may become their life. Thy will be done: Thy will alone unites all in love of Thee. Deliver us from evil – from ‘the murderer’ (John 8.44) who, far and wide, sows enmity and death’. Prayer is the most effective way we can combat evil in this world, Sophrony insists, as we call the name and person of Jesus to act on every circumstance we find ourselves in.
‘O Holy Spirit, mysterious Light;
O Light inscrutable, Light beyond all name:
Come and abide in us.
Deliver us from the darkness of ignorance;
and fill us with the stream of Thy knowledge.
O Lord Jesus Christ, Light everlasting;
Who from the Father didst shine forth before all worlds;
Who didst open the eyes of the man that was born blind:
Do Thou open the eyes of our hearts;
and grant us to behold Thee, Our Creator and our God’.
Paintings by Aristarkh Vasilyevich Lentulov.