How might we approach assisting others who are suffering, in ways that are empathetic but not pitying, as their servant and not their savior—in ways that are healthy—while at the same time developing our own spiritual foundation from which to serve? St. Silouan presents a powerful paradigm for life, which can assist us in accomplishing all of these goals.
He tells us to “keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.” Contained in this is a constant awareness of our sinfulness and fallen state, yet also at the same time a trust and faithfulness in God’s supreme love for us. The former provides many spiritual benefits in our spiritual formation while the latter draws us ever closer in relationship with God through faith and hope.
How does this work? Archimandrite Sophrony explains it in this way: “Spiritual pain is the source of the energy needed to resist the pull of earthly attractions for the sake of that other divine and eternal world (Sophrony Wisdom 7).” It is a way to conquer sin within us (11), a way to resist the passions, especially pride and vanity, and to learn humility. Additionally, it can help us shift our vision from what is earthly and temporal to what is heavenly and eternal. Our “approach to the divine mysteries lies through the humility and the kind of kenosis that we see in Christ… (7).” And ultimately it is Christ who we emulate when we keep our minds in hell but despair not, much in the same way that He emptied himself, crying tears of blood when he prayed in Gethsemane, and when he suffered on the cross and descended into hell before rising again.
By this practice we keep our mind in focused awareness of our sinfulness in the face of God and this protects us and keeps us from the deceptions of pride and vanity. If we can consciously and intentionally accuse ourselves of our sin we nullify the accusations that come from others, destroying the power that sin has over us, and restoring our freedom in Christ. We see our enslavement to the passions in contrast to the holiness of God and this brings us to a state of terminal humility—a humility that is our end, or telos as human beings, and a humility which casts out the passions, killing them and leading us to true life.
In a way, this concept is like mindfulness of death in its effect; as a method which keeps our mind and heart in the house of mourning, where we are told wisdom is to be found, rather than in the house of mirth, which could be equated to all of the ‘worldly’ pursuits. All of the spiritual benefits which derive from this practice, but in particular humility, engender in us a peacefulness, and a love for others that can be healing.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible to look and see the hell that exists around us, and within us, due to sin, without feeling tempted to despair, and perhaps even succumbing to this temptation. However, it is not inevitable that we feel despair at this, because God is love and He loves us, and He desires that we know Him and know His profound love for us (cf. Archim. Sophrony, St. Silouan, 194). We learn of His love by faith and hope, through the action of grace in the Holy Spirit and by our actions of obedience to God. In particular, by the action of “keeping our mind in hell, and despairing not” we can work away at our pride in order to manifest an attitude of humility, which allows us to approach and know God and His love for us, further protecting us from falling into despair in the face of the world’s suffering. And as we attain this state we can share it with others to assist them also in resisting the temptation of despair.
Furthermore, St. Silouan describes this power of grace which helps us avoid falling into despair as we keep our mind focused on the abyss, he states: “When we properly condemn ourselves to eternal infamy and in agony descend into the pit, of a sudden some strength from above will lift our spirit to the heights (Sakharov 104).” This grace of God strips us bare, shows us our spiritual poverty but also gives us courage to overcome ourselves and see ourselves as God sees us (Archim. Zacharias, Enlargement of the Heart, 74).”
Finally, “by descending into hell, we do nothing other than follow the trail of the Lord Himself. However, the way of the Lord leads to life, and for this reason we should not despair (Archim. Zacharias, Christ Our Way & Our Life, 268).” We can hope in this because it is the way of Christ—strength in weakness, victory over death by His death, descent into hell leading to eternal life.
This is the life opposed to self-exaltation, like the path that infamous angel took before he was cast to the depths. Instead, this is the reversal of his path, this one empties us of pride, leading us first into the depths so that we can be raised up again, and along the way gain humility and other spiritual gifts which allow us to walk alongside those who suffer, not seeing ourselves as saviors or heroes but as simple servants doing what is expected of us for the love of God and our neighbor.
Archimandrite Sophrony. Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan, 1866-1938. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1974.
Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan The Athonite. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1991.
Archimandrite Zacharias. The Enlargement of The Heart: ‘Be Ye Also Enlarged’ in the Theology of Saint Silouan the Athonite and Elder Sophrony of Essex. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 2013.
Archimandrite Zacharias. Christ, Our Way and Our Life. St Tikhon’s Monastery Press. 2003.
Nicholas V Sakharov. I Love, Therefore I Am: The Theological Legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 2002.