addiction, ascension, becoming a monk, Christianity, Eastern Orthodox, faith, hell, lord jesus christ, mt athos in greece, Mt. Athos, novice monk, Orthodox Christian, piety, prayer, religion, saints, society, spiritual clarity, St. Silouan, theology
Saint Silouan approached the Icon of Christ to ask for clarity of mind and a return to the grace he had once experienced. For fifteen years Silouan had been involved in rigorous ascetic practices so that he might once again be granted a vision of the Savior like he did as a novice monk. Since that time God had seemed all but silent, unlike Silouan’s mind which continuously struggled for peace. God would grant Silouan the peace he desired on this day, but with unique counsel.
As Silouan prayed before the Icon, a large devil appeared in front of him and soon Silouan was in a room filled with evil spirits; the same spirits he had been struggling with for the previous decade and a half. Silouan pleaded with our Lord, asking why he was shown devils when he held such a faithful prayer life. God spoke to him. As the demons seemed to be moving in on him, Silouan heard the words, “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.” At once, the young monk found spiritual stillness and the evil spirits left him. Buy why? These words are difficult to understand, especially in our modern world filled with increasing levels of noise and distractions. Distractions claiming that the modern man is adequate as an individual and can find all answers to all things within himself. To comprehend what these words mean for us today, let us first go back and see how Saint Silouan arrived at this encounter.
Silouan was born in a Russian village in 1866 and when he was twenty-six years old he entered a monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece. All through his young adult life he struggled with spiritual pursuits and a short while after becoming a monk he was given the grace to behold a vision of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Silouan was filled with a joy indescribable. He wondered how a young novice, poor and uneducated, could find favor such as this with his God; but this blessing of grace did not last long. He quickly found he was unable to attain this state of spiritual clarity again and was afterwards tormented by evil thoughts and spirits. If one has ever experienced the true love of Christ and felt it slip away from them, they would be able to understand the pain that accompanies this great loss; there is no greater agony. In the beginning steps of my Christian life, I, for various reasons, strayed away. I often found myself tormented by the spirit of depression and anxiety. After one catches a glimpse of eternal peace in Christ, it becomes difficult, maybe impossible, to find it anywhere else.
Wisely, Silouan sought council with a spiritual father at the monastery, Father Anatoly. He told the experienced monk of his vision and how he was now deprived of the grace he experienced. Father Anatoly provided spiritual council but wasn’t completely careful with his words. In his excitement about Silouan’s vision, he said, “If you are like this now, what will you be by the time you are an old man!” On hearing this praise from the more experienced monk, Silouan began a long struggle with pride and a desire for glory which is especially dangerous for all young people let alone a young monk.
For the next fifteen years Silouan engaged in a vigorous ascetic life so that he could again reach the state of grace given to him with the vision of Christ. He prayed ceaselessly, often throughout the night. He would sleep in short intervals on a stool so that he could awake in prayer; he hoped if he held himself to a strict rule of prayer, he would be able to reach the pinnacle of grace, a vision of Christ, he had been granted before. Silouan thought his pious efforts, the devotion he maintained in his personal prayer life, would lift him to the heavenly state where he looked upon the Son of God—but Silouan required a lesson in humility first.
The struggle Silouan experienced is similar to the struggles we all face in the modern world. Sure he was a poor and uneducated youth living in 19th century Russia. Yes, instead of entering a public university or finding a job as a young man he entered a monastery. But a struggle with pride and vainglory is common to all of us living in the 21st century, especially in America. Many of us at some point in our young adult life experience some sort of spiritual awakening or an increase in spiritual awareness. Living in an historically Christian society, we usually look into the teachings of the Christian Church. For many a simple glance is all that is given, but for some, there is a serious interest in the promises of Christ. These first moments are often filled with wonder and joy. Questions seemed to be answered and an eternal perspective is drawn, but it isn’t long before the cares of the world begin to call us back. We begin to replace the areas in our lives where God was beginning to fill and let all the distractions of the modern world push Him out. Anything can take God’s place– school, work, music, movies, theology, church programs, and prayer. Obviously none of these activities are evil in themselves but when they prevent us from allowing Christ to remain foremost in our lives, they will drag us down with the devils. When God is pushed to the background we become susceptible to all sorts of sinful acts and this is where much of our culture has found itself. Many of us feel as though we are currently living in a very real hell, afflicted by various addictions and degraded by unwanted desires.
But the pious are in the most danger. We believe our theological studies, our regular Church attendance, and our strict prayer rules can lift us up to a perfect vision of Christ and then wonder why we are still afflicted by prideful thoughts and base desires. “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not.” These are the words God gave to Silouan when he attempted to reach God through his own piety. God would not allow this. He let Silouan remain with the devils for a time. He reminded Silouan that even the Son was required to descend into the depths of hell before He was to ascend to the Father. Christ lowered himself to these depths in order to meet us there and that is where we are to find Him. When we find ourselves outside of a state of grace, we must “keep our minds in hell” and realize Christ will lift us up and so we must “despair not.” No amount of education, labor, entertainment, or pious activity will lift us to heaven if we do not realize we are only worthy of hell. When this realization comes, Christ will meet us in hell in order to lift us out. Only then will all those others activities find their true place and actual fulfillment in our lives. May Saint Silouan pray for us.