Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Psychotherapy




Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov



From: http://www.pigizois.gr/agglika/sofronios/05.htm


What is the essence of Christian contemplation? How does it arise and where does it lead? Who or what is contemplated, and in what manner?

As I was taught, true contemplation begins the moment we become aware of sin in us. The Old Testament understood sin as the breach of the moral and religious precepts of the Law of Moses. The New Testament transferred the concept of sin to the inward man. 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 accurately 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. With death waiting at the end, another thousand years of life would seem but a deceptive flash.

Sin is not the infringement of the ethical standards of human society or of any legal injunction. Sin cuts us off from the God of Love made manifest to us as Light in Whom there is no darkness at all (cf. 1 John 1.5). To behold one’s pitiful reality is a heavenly gift, one of the greatest. It means that we have already to a certain extent penetrated into the divine sphere, and have begun to contemplate- existentially, not philosophically- man as he is in God’s idea of him before the creation of the world.

The horror of seeing oneself as one is acts as a consuming fire. The more thoroughly the fire performs its purifying work, the more agonising our spiritual pain. Yet, inexplicably, the unseen Light gives us a sense of divine presence within us: a strange secret presence that draws us to itself, to a state of contemplation which we know is genuine because our heart begins to throb day and night with prayer. It cannot be too often repeated that divine action has a twofold movement: one, which seems to us the first, plunges us into darkness and suffering. The other lifts us into the lofty spheres of the divine world. The range of our inner being expands and grows. But when the downward movement prevails, the cry is forced from us: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God’ (Heb. 10.31).

To begin with, we do not understand what is happening. Everything is new. We only later, and gradually, come to comprehend God’s gift to us. Christ said to Peter: ‘What I do thou knowest not now; but shalt know hereafter’ (John 13.7). Impressed by the world revealed to her, which the heart did not yet know, the soul is both attracted and afraid. How can we describe the dread of losing God Who has so unexpectedly entered and enriched our life? Dismay at the thought of returning to the dark pit in which we existed until God’s coming to us stimulates a desire to cleanse ourselves from all that could hinder the Spirit of God from taking up His abode in us for all eternity. This dismay is so immense that it brings total repentance.

Repentance does not come readily to carnal man; and none of us fathoms the problem of sin which is only disclosed to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit. The coming of the Holy Spirit is an event of supreme importance. Fallen man meets with God all-Holy. The notion of sin is possible only where God is regarded as Absolute Hypostasis. And, likewise, repentance for sin is possible and appropriate only where there is a personal relationship. Encounter with a Personal God- that is what the event signifies. The sinful man experiences at one and the same time fear and exultation. It is new birth from on High. An exquisite flower unfolds within us: the hypostasis-person. Like the Kingdom of God the person ‘cometh not with observation’ (Luke 17.20). The process whereby the human spirit enters into the domain of divine eternity differs with each one of us.

The soul comes to know herself first and foremost face to Face with God. And the fact that such prayer is the gift of God praying in us shows that the person is born from on High and so is not subject to the laws of Nature. The person transcends earthly bounds and moves in other spheres. It cannot be accounted for. It is singular and unique.

Absolute Being is Hypostatic; and man, the image of the Absolute, is hypostatic. God is Spirit, and man-hypostasis is spirit; yet spirit which is not unconnected, abstract, but given concrete expression by the corporal body. Just as the Divine Logos took on Himself human flesh and thereby showed that God is not a fantasy of man’s imagination, born of ignorant fear of unknown phenomena, but actual reality. So, too, the human hypostasis is actually real. The Divine Spirit embraces all that exists. Man as hypostasis is a principle uniting the plurality of cosmic being; capable of containing the fulness of divine and human life.

The person does not determine himself by opposition. His is an attitude of love. Love is the most profound content of his being, the noblest expression of his essence. In this love lies likeness to God, Who is Love. Per se the person is excellence surpassing all other cosmic values. Rejoicing in the freedom that he has discovered, man contemplates the divine world.

Scientific and philosophical knowledge may be formulated but the person is beyond definition and therefore incognisable from without, unless he himself reveals himself. Since God is a Secret God, so man has secret depths. He is neither the author of existence nor the end. God, not man, is the Alpha and Omega. Man’s godlike quality lies in the mode of his being. Likeness in being is the likeness of which the Scriptures tell.

O Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit;
Most High God, King and Creator of all eternity,
Who hast honoured us with Thy Divine image,
and didst describe in the visible form of our nature
the likeness of Thine invisible Being:
Enable us to find mercy and grace in Thy sight
that we may glorify Thee in the undying day of Thy
with all Thy Saints throughout the ages.

When our spirit contemplates in itself the ‘image and likeness’ of God, it is confronted with the infinite grandeur of man, and not a few of us- the majority, perhaps- are filled with dread at our audacity.

In the Divine Being the Hypostasis constitutes the innermost esoteric principle of Being. Similarly, in the human being the hypostasis is the most intrinsic fundamental. Person is ‘the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible…which is in the sight of God of great price’ (1 Peter 3.4) - the most precious kernel of man’s whole being, manifested in his capacity for self-knowledge and self-determination; in his possession of creative energy; in his talent for cognition not only of the created world but also of the Divine world. Consumed with love, man feels himself joined with his beloved God. Through this union he knows God, and thus love and cognition merge into a single act.

God reveals Himself, mainly through the heart, as Love and Light. In this light man contemplates the Gospel precepts as the reflection on earth of celestial Eternity, and the Glory of Christ as of the only-begotten of the Father- the glory the disciples saw on Mount Tabor. The personal revelation makes the general revelation of the New Testament spiritually familiar.

This personal revelation may be granted suddenly. But though suddenly received man can only assimilate it by degrees, after long ascetic struggle. From the first instant the vital content of the revelation is clear and the soul feels no impulse to explain in rational concepts the grace experienced. But as a matter of course she aspires to ever deeper knowledge.

The divine nature of this personal vision is startlingly authentic, though words may fail to convey it. Yet the knowledge it offers has an objective sui generis character which we repeatedly observe down the centuries in the lives of many individuals largely identical in their experience and self-determining. ‘Where two or three are gathered together’ (Matt. 18.20)- there we have objectivity. ‘There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved’ (Acts 4.12), Peter declared categorically to the Sanhedrin. John spoke of ‘that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life’ (1 John 1.1). And Paul who said that at present we know only ‘in part’ (1 Cor. 13.12), nevertheless decrees that ‘if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed’ even though he be ‘an angel from heaven’ (Gal. 1.8,9).

As love, the hypostasis requires other hypostases. We see this from the revelation of the Holy Trinity. It is the same in the case of man. Having created Adam, ‘the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone’ (Gen. 2.18). But can created being meet with the Creator? When the human person stands before Him Who named Himself ‘I AM THAT I AM’ (Exos. 3.14), his spirit, his whole being not only glories but agonises over his own littleness, his ignorance, his wrong-doing. Suffering in his lot from the moment of his spiritual birth. Conscious that the process of transforming our whole earthly being is still far from complete, the spirit wearies.

Christian faith is the result of the presence within us of the Holy Spirit, and the soul knows Him. The Holy Spirit convinces the soul that she will not die; that death will not possess her. But the body, as the material instrument of the soul, is subject to decay.

Only sin can stifle the Divine breath within us. God Who is Holy does not blend with the darkness of sin. When we seek to justify a sinful action we ipso facto sever our alliance with God. God does not constrain us but neither can He be coerced. He retires, leaving us bereft of His luminous presence. Of course, man cannot altogether avoid sinning; but he can avoid the consequences of sin- separation from God- through repentance. With repentance and the consequent increase of grace within us, the reality of the Divine World preponderates over the visible cosmos. We contemplate the FIRST REALITY.

O Father, Son, and Spirit;
Triune Godhead, One Being in three Persons;
Light unapproachable, Mystery most secret:
Lift our minds to contemplation of Thine unfathomable judgements
and fill our hearts with the light of Thy Divine love,
that we may serve Thee in spirit and truth
even unto our last breath.
We pray Thee, hear and have mercy.

Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (2001) (2nd ed.) His Life is Mine. Chapter 5: Contemplation. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Article published in English on: 11-10-2006.

Last update: 11-10-2006.