08 April 2018

Two Russian monks from
Mount Athos who influenced
thinking on prayer and love

Saint Panteleimon Monastery on the south-west coast of Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Panteleimon Monastery (Μονή Αγίου Παντελεήμονος) is perhaps the most eye-catching monastery along the west coast of Mount Athos and is the largest of the 20 monasteries on the peninsula.

As it came into sight yesterday on my visit to Mount Athos, I recalled two monks of the monastery – Saint Silouan the Athonite and Archimandrite Sophrony – who were foremost among the teachers of the Jesus Prayer. They have strongly influenced the traditions at Saint John’s Monastery at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex and many of the people I have come to know through courses at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (IOCS) in Cambridge.

This monastery on the south-west side of Mount Athos is often known as Rossikon or the Russian monastery and has historical and liturgical links with the Russian Orthodox Church. However, like all the other monasteries and houses on Mount Athos, Saint Panteleimon answers directly to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and all its monks are naturalised Greek citizens

The monastery was founded by several monks from Kievan Rus in the eleventh century, and was recognised as a separate monastery in 1169. Since then, it has been inhabited mainly by Russian monks, although there have often been large numbers of Greeks and Serbs too among the monks.

The Monastery of Saint Panteleimon was seriously damaged by many fires over the course of its history, and in 1307 Catalan mercenaries set it on fire.

The monastery prospered in the 16th and 17th centuries and benefitted from the lavish patronage of the Tsars. However, a decline set in in the 18th century, and by 1730 only two Russian and two Bulgarian monks were left living in Panteleimon.

A new monastery was built on a new site, closer to the shore, in the first two decades of the 19th century, with financial assistance from Prince Skarlatos Kallimachos, the ruler of Moldova and Wallachia (present-day Romania). The katholikon or main church was built in 1812-1821 and is dedicated to Saint Panteleimon. There are many smaller chapels, and the 19th-century monastery bells are said to be the largest in Greece.

The number of Russian monks in the monastery doubled from 1,000 in 1895 to more than 2,000 in 1913. The monastery was the site of a major theological dispute among the monks in 1913. The Russian Tsar intervened and about 800 monks on the losing side of the debate were deported.

With the outbreak of World War I, the number of pilgrims and monks from Russia went into decline and following the rise of the Soviet Union these numbers were strictly controlled by the Greek government. As a result, the number of Russian monks in the monastery and on Mount Athos generally fell from several thousand in the 1900s to 13 in the early 1970s. In addition, the Monastery was damaged by another major fire 50 years ago in 1968.

With the collapse of the USSR in 1990s, Greece relaxed its restrictions on the number of Russian monks on Mount Athos, and the monastery has since experienced a revival. In 2005, President Vladimir Putin became the first Russian leader to visit the monastery.

Today, there are about 70 Russian and Ukrainian monks at Saint Panteleimon. The monastery ranks nineteenth rank in the hierarchical order of the 20 monasteries on Mount Athos, and it also includes four sketes.

The monastery looks like a small town, with its many and varied buildings and its high domes. The library holds 1,320 Greek and 600 Slavonic manuscripts, 25,000 printed books, and many relics, including the head of Saint Panteleimon, one of the most popular saints in Russia.

Two of the best known former monks of the monastery are Saint Silouan the Athonite and Archimandrite Sophrony.

Saint Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) was born Simeon Ivanovich Antonov in the village of Sovsk. At the age of 27, he left Russia for Mount Athos and became a monk at Saint Panteleimon, where he was given the name Silouan (Silvanus).

After many years of spiritual trial, he acquired great humility and inner stillness. He prayed and wept for the whole world as for himself, and he put the highest value on love for enemies.

Although he was barely literate, he was sought out by pilgrims for his wise counsel. His writings were edited by his disciple and pupil, Archimandrite Sophrony. Father Sophrony has written the life of the saint along with a record of St. Silouan's teachings in the book Saint Silouan the Athonite.

He died 80 years ago on 24 September 1938, and was canonised by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1987.

Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993), also known as Elder Sophrony, was the disciple and biographer of Saint Silouan the Athonite edited his works. He was born Sergei Symeonovich Sakharov in Russia in 1896, and it is said that even as a child he experienced the Uncreated Light.

He studied at the Academy of Arts (1915-1917) and the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (1920-1921). He saw 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. As a student in Moscow, he came to see the focus in Christianity on personal love as being necessarily finite.

He left Russia in 1921 to pursue an artistic career in Western Europe, and settled in Paris in 1922.

In 1924, due to his realisation that Christ’s precept to love God totally was not psychological but ontological, and the only way to relate to God, and the necessity of love being personal, he returned to Christianity on Great Saturday, the day before Easter Day or Pascha.

Bread for the Easter Eucharist prepared on Great Saturday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

His experiences of the Uncreated Light of God distanced him from his art, and he became one of the first students at the Saint Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute, where his lecturers included by Sergius Bulgakov and Nicholas Berdyaev.

He left Paris for Mount Athos in 1925. A year later, Father Sophrony arrived on Mount Athos in 1926, entering the Monastery of Saint Panteleimon, desiring to learn how to pray and have the right attitude toward God.

Father Sophrony was ordained a deacon in 1930, and he became a disciple of Saint Silouan, who became his greatest influence.

With the death of Saint Silouan in 1938, Father Sophrony left the monastery at Saint Panteleimon and went to live in the wilderness on Mount Athos, first at Karoulia and then at a cave near Saint Paul’s Monastery. He was ordained priest in 1941 and became the spiritual father of many monks on Mount Athos.

After World War II, Father Sophrony returned to Paris in 1947 to complete his theological education, and he became a chaplain in an old people’s home in St Genevieve-des-Bois. In Paris, he began editing the writings of Saint Silouan, with their emphasis on prayer for the whole world, God-forsakenness and the idea that all humanity is connected. There too he worked closely with Vladimir Lossky.

Father Sophrony and his friends were involved in buying a property at Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon in Essex, in 1958, and the Community of Saint John the Baptist was formed at Tolleshunt Knights in 1959. He died at the monastery on 11 July 1993.

Among his sayings of Saint Silouan are:

Those who dislike and reject their fellow-man are impoverished in their being. They do not know the true God, who is all-embracing love.

Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.

The soul that is in all things devoted to the will of God rests quiet in Him, for she knows of experience and from the Holy Scriptures that the Lord loves us much and watches over our souls, quickening all things by His grace in peace and love.

The condition of peace among men is that each should keep a consciousness of his own wrong-doing.

Icons and religious goods made on Mount Athos is a shop in Ouranoupolis, the ferry port for Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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