21 July 2010

Humble love is an essential weapon

Sister Thecla speaking about the life of Saint Silouan the Athonite in the Monastery of Saint John in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, this morning (Photograph : Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

I spent the day in the Monastery of Saint John in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex. This is my third time to visit this monastery, and I was there today with other participants from the summer school in Cambridge organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

We left Cambridge early in the morning, and drove through the beautiful, sun-kissed flat landscape of East Anglia and its pretty villages to arrive at the monastery in time for the Divine Liturgy, served by a Finnish monk, Father Melchisedec. The Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist was founded over 50 years ago and has grown up around the Old Rectory at Tolleshunt Knights near Maldon.

The monastery is under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch, hence the style Stavropegic in its title. The Hegumen or Abbot of the monastery is Archimandrite Kyrill, originally from Australia. This is a mixed community, with about 13 men and about 20 women from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities.

Inside the Resurrection Chapel in the monastery grounds (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

After breakfast with monks and nuns, Sister Thecla, originally from Romania, brought us on a tour of the monastery, including a visit to the first chapel built here by the founder, Father Sophrony, when he arrived from Paris, and told us of the life of his spiritual father, Saint Silouan the Athonite.

Sister Margaret spoke to us in the afternoon about the Passions in the teachings of Father Sophrony. Although Father Sophrony did not originate any new thinking on the passions, he wrote extensively and taught widely on the passions. He got his own knowledge from his discussions with ascetics on Mount Athos, where he lived for 22 years, from confessions, from his spiritual guide, Father Silouan, who had fought against the passions and won, and from his own struggle against the passions, which he described frankly in his books.

She spoke of freedom from passions as an active condition of the soul, of the whole being. It was not an absence, a vacuum, a lack of passions, but the presence of love, Christ living in us.

Control of the passions begins with faith and a sense of the living God. The goal of being freed from the passions is to be filled with Christ. As God is love, so the state of sanctification is a state of love.

She told the story from the Desert Fathers of Saint John the Short-One, who had struggled against his passions. But then he prayed to God for his passions to return because his prayer life had died down. He did not feel as close to God now that his struggles had died down, and he felt he was now missing out on feeling love for the world.

Merely being free of passions is not a sign of being in grace, she said. The focus in the battle against the passions is not on passion but on God, and the more attention there is on God, the more likely we are to be freed from the tensions of the passions.

In the act of practising the Jesus Prayer, we can find we are being attacked by a variety of thought. But when we finish the prayer, the attacks can stop. In the Ladder of Divine Ascent, Saint John Klimakos gives examples of dialogue with the passions, but these are strong souls.

There are many variations on the lists of seven or eight passions. But the main struggle, as Father Sophrony understood it, is against pride. Pride is the source of sin, including conceit, ambition, day-dreaming, fantasies, fear of death or even wanting to put an end to life. But humble love is the essential weapon against the passions.

Saint John Klimakos says heretics cannot learn real humility, because real humility is learned from Christ. When Saint Silouan had his experience of the revelation of Christ, he learned about true humility.

When Saint Silouan had an experience of the revelation of Christ, he learned about true humility ... a wall painting in Saint John’s Monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The passions are good energies used in the wrong direction. For example, she said anger should be directed against evil or own sins and not against others. When we talk about self-emptying in Christianity, kenosis>, we talk about being filled with love, and our model is Christ and is based on our understanding of Christ and of God as Trinity.

She summarised her talk in her conclusion that we should use the energies of the passions to love our neighbours and to love God.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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