Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Essays about Orthodoxy


Thoughts about Freedom
Source:  "St. Silouan the Athonite" by Archimandrite Sophrony,: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (p. 105-111)



I have already recounted the conversation between the Starets and a young student, which partly reveals his views concerning freedom. Here I want to introduce some complementary thoughts that he expressed orally and partly in writing, though in language incomprehensible to most people.

The Starets' life was spent, above all, in prayer, and the praying mind does not think - does not reason - but lives. Its activity consists, not in the manipulation of abstract concepts but in participation in being. The truly praying mind has to do with categories different in quality from those of rational reflection. It is concerned, not with intellectual categories but with actual being, which cannot be confined within the narrow framework of abstract concepts.

The Starets was not a philosopher in the usual sense of the word, but he was a true sage and knew things beyond the bounds of philosophy.

Let us consider, for instance, the experience known as "remembrance of death".  This appellation in the ascetic writings of the Fathers signifies, not Man's usual awareness of his mortality, not just knowing that one day we shall die - it is an especial spiritual consciousness. The first stage begins when we realize how brief is our earthly existence. Now diminishing, now increasing, at times the feeling turns into a profound sense of the corruptibility and impermanence of all earthly matters - an awareness that affects one's whole attitude to everything in the world.  Whatever is not eternal loses all value, and a feeling of the futility of striving after material things takes over.  The mind detaches itself from the outside world, to concentrate within, where the soul is confronted by a searchless abyss of darkness.  This vision plunges the soul into an anguish which generates intense prayer, irresistible by day and by night.  Time ceases to flow, not at first because the soul has glimpsed the light of eternal life, but, on the contrary, because everything is consumed by a sense of eternal death.  Finally, after passing through many and various stages, by the action of grace the soul is lifted into the realm of Divine Light. And this is not philosophical overstepping but life, genuine life, having no need of any dialectical 'proofs'.  this is indefinable, indemonstrable, secret knowledge, yet despite its being impossible to define, like authentic life it is incomparably more powerful and intrinsically convincing than impeccable abstract dialectics.

The Starets would pray,

"Lord, people have forgotten Thee, their Creator, and they seek freedom for themselves. They do not realize that Thou art merciful and lovest the repentant sinner, and dost accord him the grace of the Holy Spirit."

He was sparing of words in his prayer to the omniscient God and did not amplify his thoughts. "Men seek their own freedom", that is to say, freedom outside God, outside true life, in "outer darkness", where there is, and can be, no freedom, for freedom can only exist where there is no death, where there is authentic eternal being - in God, that is.

"Thou art merciful and dost accord them the Grace of the Holy Spirit".  God gives the gift of the Holy Spirit and then Man becomes free.  "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty".

Ontological or, as the Starets called it, experienced knowledge of human liberty is extraordinarily profound in the prayer of grace.  With his whole soul he recognized that there is only one real servitude - the servitude of sin - and one real freedom, which is resurrection in God.

Until Man attains his resurrection in Christ everything in him is disfigured by fear of death and, consequently, by servitude to sin also; while those who have not yet com to know the grace of the resurrection only the "blessed....that have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20:29) escape such disfiguring.

O know of no terms in which to describe the spiritual life, incomprehensible and indefinable in its sources, simple and unique in its essence.  Some people might label it the domain of the superconscious but this word is unintelligible and defines nothing more than the correlation between the reflex consciousness and the world beyond its bounds.

If we move from this indefinable domain into the sphere within the competence of our inner observation and which is even to a certain extent amenable to verification, the spiritual life manifests itself in two ways - as a spiritual state or experience and as a dogmatic consciousness. These two aspects, distinct and even somehow separate in their "incarnation" - in the formula in which they are clothed in our empirical life - in their essence are one and indivisible.  This means that every ascetic act, every spiritual state, is indissolubly linked to a corresponding dogmatic consciousness.

With this connection in mind, I always looked for the doctrinal awareness to which the Starets' might prayer and weeping for the world were tied.  And now I would essay an expression of this awareness of his in language more comprehensible perhaps to the contemporary reader than are the Starets' own words in their holy simplicity.

The Starets both said and wrote that Christ-like love cannot suffer any man to perish, and in its care for the salvation of all men walks the way of Calvary.

"The Lord gives the monk the love of the Holy Spirit, and by virtue of this love the monk's heart sorrows over the people because not all men are working out their salvation. The Lord Himself so grieved over the people that He gave Himself to death on the Cross. And the Mother of God bore in Her heart a like sorrow for men. And She, like Her beloved Son, desired with Her whole being the salvation of all. The same Holy Spirit the Lord gave to the Apostles, to our holy Fathers and to the pastors of the Church."

In the really Christian sense the work of salvation can only be effected through love - by attracting people. There is no place for any kind of compulsion. In seeking salvation for all men, love feels impelled to embrace not only the world of the living but also the world of the dead, the underworld and the world of the as yet unborn - that is, the whole race of Adam.  And if love rejoices and is glad at the salvation of a brother, it also weeps and prays over a brother who perishes.

I asked the Starets how anyone could love all men, and where it ws possible to find the love that made man one with all men.  He answered:

"To be one with all, as the Lord said, 'that all may be one' (John17:21), there is no need for us to cudgel our brains: we all have one and the same nature, and so it should be natural for us to love all men; but it is the Holy Spirit Who gives the strength to love."

The power of love is vast and pregnant with success but it does not override. There is a domain in human life where a limit is set even to love - where even love is not supreme. This domain is freedom.

Man's freedom is positive, real. It concedes no determination in his destiny, so that neither the sacrifice of Christ Himself nor the sacrifices of all those who have trodden in His footsteps necessarily lead to victory.

The Lord said, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth" (that is, crucified on the Cross), will draw all men unto me" (cf. John12:32). Thus Christ's love hopes to draw all men to Him, and so reaches out to the last hell. There may be some - whether they may be many or few, we do not know - who will meet even this perfect love, this perfect sacrifice, with rejection even on the eternal plane, and declare "I want no part in it". (It was their recognition of this abyss of freedom which prompted the Fathers of the Church to repudiate the determinist theories of the Origenists. Belief in Apocatastasis, understood as universal salvation predestined in the divine purpose, would certainly rule out the sort of prayer that we see in the Starets.)

What was made known to the Starets in his vision of Christ for him outweighed all doubt and hesitation. He knew that it was the Lord Almighty Who had appeared to him. He was sure that the humility of Christ which he had come to know, and the love which filled him to the limits of his strength, were the action of God the Holy Spirit.  He knew in the Holy Spirit that God is boundless love and infinite mercy, yet the knowledge of this truth did not lead him to conclude that "anyway, we shall all be saved".  Awareness of the possibility of eternal damnation remained deeply ingrained in his spirit. This was because when the soul is in a state of grace the measure of man's freedom is disclosed to it.

Absolute freedom means being able to determine one's being on all levels, independently, without constraint or limit in any form. This is the freedom of God - man does not have it.

The temptation with freedom for the creature created in the Divine image is to fashion his own being, determine himself in all things, become a god himself, and not just take what is given, because that would entail a feeling of dependence.

The Starets used to say that even temptation, like any other, can be surmounted through faith in God.  Faith in a good and merciful God, faith that He is beyond all perfection, attracts grace to the soul, and then there is no oppressive feeling of dependence - the soul loves God like its very own Father and live through Him.

The Starets was unlettered but no-one could surpass him in craving for true knowledge. The path he took was, however, quite unlike that of speculative philosophers. Knowing this, I followed with the deepest interest the way in which the most heterogenous theological problems were distilled in the alembic of his mind, to emerge in his consciousness as solutions.  He could not develop a question dialectically and express it in a system of rational concepts - he was afraid of "erring in intellectual argument"; but the propositions he pronounced bore the imprint of exceptional profundity. One found oneself wondering "whence came his wisdom?"

The Starets' entire existence testified to the fact that knowledge of the highest spiritual truths is to be found in the keeping of the Gospel commandments, not in superficial schooling. He lived by God, and received enlightenment from God, from on high.  His knowledge came not from abstract understanding but from life.

At the beginning of this chapter I set out to expound the Starets' teaching but in the process it has occurred to me that I might better attain my purpose by describing, so far as possible, his spiritual experience, since, on the one hand, as the action of the Great God this experience, in each of its concrete historical manifestations bears within itself something eternally new, and, o nthe other, all his thoughts concerning the most profound religious problems occur as the consequence of his ascetic prayer and of visitations of divine grace.

Christianity is not a philosophy, not a doctrine, but life, and all the Starets' conversations and writings are witness to this life.


Source:  "St. Silouan the Athonite" by Archimandrite Sophrony,: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (p. 105-111)

Article published in English on: 14-4-2009.

Last update: 14-4-2009.