23 October 2019

Saint Sophrony: a new saint
from Mount Athos who
founded a monastery in Essex

Father Sophrony of Essex, founder of the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, was proclaimed a saint by the Ecumenical Patriarch on Mount Athos this week

Patrick Comerford

Patriarch Bartholomew has announced the canonisation of Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) of Essex. The Greek news bulletin Pemptousia, published by the Friends of Vatopaidi Monastery, reported last night that the Ecumenical Patriarch proclaimed the new saint [22 October 2019] during his visit to Mount Athos.

Elder Sophrony (1896-1993) is known as the spiritual child and biographer of the great Saint Silouan the Athonite and the founder of the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex.

Earlier in the week [20 October 2019], Patriarch Bartholomew had proclaimed four other elders from Mount Athos as saints: Elder Ieronymos of Simenopetra (d. 1957), Elder Daniel of Katounakia (d. 1929), Elder Joseph the Hesychast (d. 1959), and Elder Ephraim of Katounakia (d. 1998).

I became familiar with the life and story of Saint Sophrony when I spent a day each summer for almost a decade on a retreat in the monastery, about 75 km south-east of Cambridge. Those visits were organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies as part of the summer schools that were held each year in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

During those visits to the monastery, I regularly visited the crypt where Archimandrite Sophrony, the founder of the monastery, is buried, and have listened to Sister Thecla tell the story of Father Sophrony.

The tomb of Father Sophrony in the crypt in Saint John’s Monastery in Tolleshunt Kinghts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Sophrony was born Sergei Symeonovich Sakharov in Moscow on 23 September 1896, the son of Russian Orthodox parents. As a child, he prayed daily, later recalling that he would pray for 45 minutes without stress.

Sister Thecla has told us how, even as a child, he claimed to have experienced the Uncreated Light, but thought casually that every other child had similar experiences. He read widely, and his reading included Russian greats such as Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin.

With his recognised artistic gifts and talents, he studied first at the Academy of Arts (1915-1917), and then at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (1920-1921). During this time, he used art as a ‘quasi-mystical’ means ‘to discover eternal beauty,’ ‘breaking through present reality ... into new horizons of being.’ Later, this would help him to differentiate between human intellectual light and God’s Uncreated Light.

However, as he came to see the Christian focus on personal love as finite, he fell away from the Orthodoxy of his upbringing and started to explore Eastern mysticism.

He left Russia in 1921, partly to continue his artistic career in Western Europe, but also because he felt isolated in post-revolutionary Russia because he was not a Marxist. He moved first to Italy, then to Berlin, before arriving in Paris in 1922, where his exhibitions attracted much attention from the French media.

However, he was frustrated by the inability of art to express purity, and he realised that rational knowledge was unable to provide an answer to the biggest question of all: the problem of death.

Back in Paris, he realised that ‘I’ in God’s call to Moses (‘I am who I am’) and the Gospel command to love God, were a call to personal relationship. One cannot love a concept, and he found that love is relational.

Having come to realise that Christ’s precept to love God totally is not psychological but ontological, and that the only way to relate to God is personal, and that the necessity of love is personal, he returned to Christianity on Great Saturday, the day before Easter Day or Pascha 1924.

However, his experiences of the Uncreated Light now distanced him from his art. He began studying at Saint Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, where he was among the first students. His lecturers there included Sergius Bulgakov and Nicholas Berdyaev.

Nevertheless, he found formal theological education unfulfilling, and in 1925 he left Paris for Mount Athos. There he entered the mainly Russian Monastery of Saint Panteleimon in the hope of learning how to pray and how to have the right attitude to God.

Father Sophrony was ordained a deacon by Saint Nicolai (Velimirovic) of Zicha in 1930, and soon became a disciple of Saint Silouan the Athonite, who became his greatest influence, despite the fact that Saint Silouan had no formal theological education and was never ordained a priest.

Saint Silouan died on 24 September 1938, entrusting his papers to Father Sophrony. On his instructions, Father Sophrony left the monastery to live first at Karoulia, then at a cave near Saint Paul’s Monastery on Mount Athos.

The outbreak of World War II ushered in a time of intense prayer, so that Father Sophrony’s health deteriorated. During that time, he came to realise the interdependence of all humanity. He was ordained priest in 1941 and soon became a spiritual father to many Athonite monks.

Inside the original monastic chapel in the former Rectory in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

With the end of World War II and the catastrophe that unfolded with the Greek Civil War, Father Sophrony found himself in a difficult quandary as a non-Greek on Mount Athos. Meanwhile, he had not realised his promise and hope to publish Saint Silouan’s works. He left Mount Athos in 1947 and returned to Paris.

In Paris, he moved into a Russian old people’s home in St Genevieve-des-Bois, where he became an assistant chaplain and father confessor, but also had a major operation on a stomach ulcer.

He produced his first mimeographed edition of Staretz Silouan in 1948. He outlined Saint Silouan’s principles of theology, explaining many of his concepts, including prayer for the whole world, God-forsakenness and the idea of all humanity being connected.

In Paris, he also worked from 1950 to 1957 with Vladimir Lossky, who influenced his thinking on many contemporary issues, and his Trinitarian thought and its application to the Church and humanity.

In 1952, Saint Sophrony produced a second edition of Staretz Silouan, which brought Saint Silouan to attention of a wider Orthodox public.

Meanwhile, Saint Sophrony had gathered around him a small people who wanted to explore living the monastic life. With the help of Rosemary Edmunds, they bought the Old Rectory at Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon in Essex in 1958. Within a year, the Community of Saint John the Baptist had been formed at Tolleshunt Knights.

From the beginning, this was a mixed community, and the first six members were both monks and nuns. The Monastery of Saint John the Baptist was placed under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1965 and it later became a Patriarchal Stavropegic monastery.

Saint Sophrony continued to publish extensively, and his books included a translation of Monk of Mount Athos (1973), Wisdom of Mount Athos (1975), His Life is Mine (1977), and We Shall See Him As He Is (1985).

The Ecumenical Patriarchate raised Saint Silouan the Athonite to the standing of a saint in 1987.

Meanwhile, the local authorities in Essex informed the members of the monastery community in Tolleshunt Knights that the only way they could bury their dead on their property was to build an underground crypt.

The community building a crypt, and Saint Sophrony said that he would not die until the crypt was ready. When he was told that the crypt would be completed on 12 July 1993, Saint Sophrony let them know he ‘would be ready.’

Saint Sophrony died on11 July 1993, and he was buried on the new crypt on 14 July 1993. On Prayer, a book containing Father Sophrony’s writings on prayer – particularly the Jesus Prayer – was published posthumously.

Mother Elizabeth, the eldest nun on the community in Tolleshunt Knights, died soon after, on 24 July 1993 – Father Sophrony had once said that he would die first, and that she would die soon after.

At the time of their deaths, the monastic community in Saint John’s had grown from six to 25 members. Today, the community has about 40 members from 13 or 14 nations.

Earlier this summer, the community elected Father Peter (Vryzas) as the new abbot, following the retirement of Archimandrite Kyrill. Father Peter is a disciple of Elder Zacharias (Zacharou), who was himself a close disciple of Saint Sophrony. The new abbot was born in Greece in 1977. He joined the monastery in 2002 at the age of 25. His PhD, on the mystery of receiving and transmitting the word of God in the teachings of Saint Sophrony, was recently published as his first book.

Saint Sophrony of Essex … proclaimed a saint by the Ecumenical Patriarch during his visit to Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos this week

Cathedral exhibition tells
the colourful story of the
Order of Malta in Limerick

A colourful exhibition in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, tells the story of the Order of Malta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The current, colourful exhibition in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, looks at the work of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, its Ambulance Corps and its history.

The exhibition, which runs for a month, was organised to coincide with an Ecumenical Service in the cathedral last Sunday [20 October 2019] and the unveiling of a commemorative stone that marks the presence of the order in Limerick City for over 800 years.

This year mark the 85th anniversary of the Order of Malta’s return to Ireland, and the 850th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of the Hospitaller Knights of Saint John in Ireland led by Maurice de Prendergast. Last year [2018] was the 70th anniversary of the order’s return to Limerick and the establishment of its Ambulance Corps Unit in the city.

Sunday morning was a major celebration for the Order of Malta in Limerick. Members of the Limerick unit were joined by the council and members of the Irish Association of the order (SMOM), local dignitaries, and members of the ambulance corps at the ecumenical service hosted by the Dean and Chapter of Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

The Order of Malta claims recognition in international law as a sovereign entity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Today, the Order of Malta Ambulance Corps in Limerick is based at Saint John’s House on Davis Street. But the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta – to give it its full, formal name – dates back to 1099, and has had a presence in Limerick since 1212.

Like the Vatican City, the Palazzo Malta and its other properties in Rome form an independent enclave. The order is recognised in international law as a sovereign entity, maintains diplomatic relations with 107 states, and has permanent observer status at the UN. It has humanitarian missions throughout the world, particularly in areas of conflict.

Local associations in many countries, including Ireland, support the order’s international humanitarian missions but also provide local emergency medical services and training, and support to vulnerable members of society. Volunteers in the ambulance corps are trained in first aid and to provide emergency medical services.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), or simply the Order of Malta, or the Hospitallers, claims it is the oldest order of chivalry in the world. It was founded in Jerusalem in 1099, and since then it has helped to alleviate suffering among the poor and the sick around the globe.

Essentially, the order is an international organisation of Roman Catholics who are members of the laity and who, as knights, dames and donats of Saint John, bear witness to Christ’s words, ‘Love thy neighbour.’ This is expressed in the Order’s motto, Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum, ‘Defence of the faith and assistance to the poor.’

Most members are married and live and work ordinary lives. A small number take full religious vows but are self-supporting. Although members of the order are Roman Catholics, it is not a papal order. It recognises the Lutheran Johanniterorden and the Anglican/Episcopalian Venerable Order of Saint John, sharing the same values and mission, and it works closely with them in humanitarian and charitable activities.

The Order of Malta claims it is the oldest order of chivalry in the world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, commonly called The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), or simply the Order of Malta, or the Hospitallers, claims to be the oldest order of chivalry in the world.

Pope Paschal II recognised the order in 1113 as an independent sovereign entity under the governance of its elected princely grand master and sovereign council.

Over the centuries, the order’s headquarters have moved from Jerusalem (1099-1291) to Cyprus (1291-1310), to Rhodes (1310-1523), and to Malta (1530-1798). It has been located in Rome since 1834.

The order first arrived in Ireland in 1171. It soon established preceptories or houses that offered medical care services and facilities, in Co Wexford and Co Waterford. By 1174, the order’s Irish headquarters, the Priory of Ireland and Hospital of Saint John was located at Kilmainham in Dublin.

The second great hospital in Ireland was the Preceptory of Any in Co Limerick, which gives it name to the town of Hospital. It was founded by Geoffrey de Mareis or Marisco in 1215. However, the order was present in Limerick City for some years before that. Ancient maps indicate the site of the order’s ‘Frankhouse’ at the corner of Creagh Lane, opposite the corner of the wall of old Saint Mary’s cemetery at the south-west corner of the cathedral and its south door.

From 1212, when the order was confirmed in possession of its church and house in Limerick, it maintained its charitable hospitaller activities in the city. Within a few years, the order had founded over 129 centres in Ireland, including lazar-houses for the care of lepers, in Kilkenny, Carlow, Tipperary, Cork, Limerick, Kerry, Kildare, Meath, Louth and Down. Some historians suggest that the Knights Hospitaller took possession of Saint Mary's Church, Askeaton, after the Knights Templar were suppressed in Ireland in 1309.

The mediaeval Priory of Ireland was a separate institution from the Grand Priory of England, and it reported directly to the Order’s Grand Masters in Jerusalem and later in Rhodes. There is evidence that some Irish Knights had brought the devotion to Saint Brigid of Kildare to the Holy Land.

Many of the Irish priors were colourful characters. Roger Utlagh or Outlawe opposed Bishop Richard de Ledrede’s witch trial of the prior’s sister-in-law, Alice Kyteler, in Kilkenny in 1324.

Like other religious foundations and orders in Ireland, the order was dissolved at the Reformation in 1540. It was restored for a brief period under Queen Mary I in 1557, but was suppressed again with the succession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558.

However, Irishmen continued to join the order in Continental Europe and titular Priors of Ireland continued to be appointed. They included Mathurin d’Aux de l’Escout Romegas (1557-1581), one of the heroes of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 and of the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

During the three sieges of Limerick in 1651, 1690 and 1691, members of the order were present in the city providing medical care and assisting in the defence of Limerick.

Count Laval Nugent from Westmeath (1777-1862) was a key figure in liberating Croatia and the Italian peninsula from Napoleonic domination by 1813, and was made a Roman Prince, an Austrian Count and a Knight of the Golden Fleece. In 1860, he was appointed the titular Prior of Ireland (1860-1862).

The order was formally re-established formally in Ireland in 1934 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

However, the order was not re-established formally in Ireland until the 20th century. During the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932, the representatives of the Order’s Grand Master, Fra’ Ludovico Chigi della Rovere Albani, contacted members of the Old Irish Catholic nobility, such as Charles O’Conor Don of Clonalis, Thomas Gaisford St Lawrence of Howth, Patrick Valentine MacSwiney of Marshanaglass, William Wilson-Lynch of Thomond, and Andrew Bonaparte-Wyse of Waterford.

They were admitted into the order as knights, and the order was re-established in Ireland as the title Irish Association of the Order of Malta in 1934. The first President of the Irish association, Charles O’Conor Don, was a direct descendant of the last High King of Ireland, Rory O Conor (1166-1198).

In 1938, the Irish Association’s Chancellor, the Marquis Patrick MacSwiney of Marshanaglass, and Professor Charles Conor O’Malley of University College Galway, formed the ambulance corps services as the association’s primary charitable activity.

The first unit was established at Galway. Within 10 years, there were ambulance corps units in other Irish cities and towns, and they are still actively engaged in providing emergency medical assistance to local and rural communities. This service provided the blueprint and example for the development of similar ambulance and mobile emergency medical services in other countries.

The Irish Association has since expanded its activities, providing care and support services for the disabled, elderly, marginalised and vulnerable, and providing support for maternity and medical services in the order’s hospital in Bethlehem.

The Irish granite memorial in the grounds of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, on Sunday includes the order’s motto: Tuitio fidei et obsequium pauperum (‘Defence of the faith and assistance to the poor’). The inscription reads: ‘The Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta maintained a Frankhouse on this site 1212-1540.’

The exhibition in Saint Mary’s Cathedral tells the story of this unique presence in Limerick that is mediaeval in its origins and modern in the scope of its work.

The exhibition in Saint Mary’s Cathedral tells the story of a unique presence in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)