by Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia
Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia analyses the soteriological theology of St Silouan the Athonite. Identifying the similar sense of cosmic unity found both in Dostoevsky and St Silouan, the Metropolitan discusses the influence of St Isaac the Syrian on both men, moving on to examine St Silouan's burning desire and constant prayer for the salvation of the whole world and its theological implications.
Members of one another
‘Love all creation’, says Starets Zosima in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov:
Love all creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand within it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.
This ‘divine mystery’ of which Starets Zosima speaks is precisely the interdependence, the reciprocal coinherence, of all created things in God.
Everything, like the ocean, flows and enters into contact with everything else: touch one place, and you set up a movement at the other end of the world.
Such is Dostoevsky’s vision of cosmic unity. The created world constitutes an individual whole, and so the salvation of each individual person is inextricably bound up with the salvation of all humankind and, yet more widely, with the salvation of the entire universe. ‘We are members of one another’ (Ephesians 4:25) needs to be given the broadest possible application. It is not only we humans who depend on each other as the limbs of a single body; but we have bonds of kinship with the animals as well, and also with trees and plants, rocks and earth, air and water. We live in them, and they in us.
Precisely the same sense of cosmic unity is expressed by St Silouan the Athonite:
He who has the Holy Spirit in him, to however slight a degree, sorrows day and night for all mankind. His heart is filled with pity for all God’s creatures, more especially for those who do not know God, or who resist Him and therefore are bound for torment. For them, more than for himself, he prays day and night, that all may repent and know the Lord (352).
The Lord bestows such rich grace on His chosen that they embrace the whole earth, the whole world, with that love (367).
Archimandrite Sophrony, in his book on Starets Silouan, sums up the teaching of the Starets on cosmic coinherence in these words:
The life of the spiritual world, the Staretz recognized as one life and because of this unity every spiritual phenomenon inevitably reacts on the state of the whole spiritual world (101).
We shall not be distorting the meaning of the Starets – or that of Fr Sophrony – if we give to these words an all-inclusive scope: instead of saying ‘the spiritual world’ and ‘every spiritual phenomenon’, we can correctly say ‘the createdworld’ and ‘every phenomenon’. As Fr Sophrony states elsewhere, St Silouan believed that each person who truly prays to God ‘integrates everyone into his own eternal life whatever the geographical distance or the historical time between them’ (233). Indeed, he integrates not only every person but every thing. Nothing is alien to him. In Dostoevsky’s words, ‘Everything, like the ocean, flows and enters into contact with everything else.’
Despite the striking parallels between the Russian novelist and the Athonite monk, it is highly unlikely that St Silouan had ever read Dostoevsky. More probably, the similarities arise because both are shaped by the same living tradition, and both are drawing on the same sources. St Silouan (almost certainly) and Dostoevsky (possibly) have been influenced by a Mesopotamian hermit of the seventh century, St Isaac the Syrian, who writes in a famous passage of his Ascetical Homilies:
What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for every created thing. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person’s eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or look on any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation. This is why he constantly offers up prayer full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for enemies of truth, even for those who harm him, so that they may be protected and find mercy.
What exactly does Starets Silouan mean when, faithful to the teaching of St Isaac, he affirms that the saints ‘embrace the whole earth, the whole world, with their love’? Let us note the all-embracing love and prayer that constitute our true vocation as human persons. There is first his firm conviction that God calls every human being to salvation. Secondly, there is his conception of the ‘total Adam’ and, linked with this, his insistence that my neighbour is myself. Thirdly, there is his firm assurance that in God’s total plan it is not only human beings but the entire cosmos that is to be redeemed and transfigured.
‘Divine love desires salvation for all’
‘It was particularly characteristic of Staretz Silouan to pray for the dead suffering in the hell of separation from God’, writes Fr Sophrony, and he goes on to recall an exchange that he overheard between the Starets and a somewhat dour hermit:
I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction, ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’
Obviously upset, The Staretz said:
‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire - would you feel happy?’
‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.
The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance:
‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all’ (48).
This universal intercession commended by St Silouan, so far from being sentimental or Utopian, has on the contrary a clear Scriptural foundation: ‘God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2:4). This is the key text that the seventeenth-century Arminians invoked when opposing the strict Calvinist doctrine of double predestination; this is the text that inspired the dynamic missionary preaching of John Wesley in the eighteenth century; and this is equally a saying that the twentieth-century Athonite keeps steadfastly in view:
My soul longs for the whole world to be saved (291).... Divine love desires the salvation of all (328).... The Lord’s is such that He would have all men to be saved (368).... Our one thought must be that all should be saved (379).... The merciful Lord sometimes gives the soul peace in God but sometimes makes the heart ache for the whole universe, that all men might repent and enter paradise (426).
According to St Silouan, this burning desire for the salvation of all humankind is to be found to a supreme degree in the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary:
She, like her beloved Son, desired with her whole heart the salvation of all (406).... She loved mankind and prayed ardently... for the whole world that all might be saved (365).
The fact that God desires the salvation of all does not of course mean that our salvation is automatic and inevitable. As the Letter to Diognetus states, ‘God persuades, He does not compel, for violence is foreign to Him.’ God’s call to salvation comes in the form of an invitation, which we on the human side are free to accept or to reject. But, although the response varies, the call is universal.
St Silouan’s belief that God does indeed desire the universal salvation of the human race can be summed up in four short injunctions: love all; pray for all; weep for all; repent for all.
(1) Love all. When as a young monk, attending a service in the Church of the Holy Prophet Elijah, St Silouan received a vision of Christ (26), the effect of this vision was to flood his soul with ‘a rare feeling of love for God and for man, for every man’ (34). This all-embracing love remained with him throughout his life: ‘Love cannot suffer a single soul to perish’, he wrote many years later (272). Comprehensive love of this kind he saw as par excellence the characteristic of the saints (not that he would have made any claim to be himself numbered among them):
The holy saints have attained the Kingdom of Heaven, and there they look upon the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ; but by the Holy Spirit they see, too, the sufferings of men on earth. The Lord gave them such great grace that they embrace the whole world with their love (396).
This ardent love, as the Starets envisages it, extends beyond the living to the dead and to those not yet born. In Fr Sophrony’s words:
In seeking salvation for all men love feels impelled to embrace not only the world of the living but also the world of the dead, the underworld and the world of the as yet unborn – that is, the whole race of Adam (108).
For St Silouan, as we have seen from his conversation with the dour hermit, this love for our fellow-humans includes even hell within its scope. Expounding the teaching of the Starets, Fr Sophrony writes:
Dwelling in heaven, the Saints behold hell and embrace it too in their love (116).
This is possible for them, because the love that is at work in their hearts is nothing else than the love of God Himself; and God’s love is present everywhere - even in hell:
God is present in hell, too, as love (115).... Even in hell Divine love will embrace all men, but, while this love is joy and life for them that love God, it is torment for those who hate Him (148).
In the words of Vladimir Lossky, ‘The love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.’
In thus teaching that the power of love extends even to hell, the Starets is once more following St Isaac the Syrian:
Even those who are punished in Gehenna are tormented with the scourging of love. The scourges that result from love – that is, the scourges of those who realize that they have sinned against love – are harder and more bitter than the torments which result from fear.... The power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have sinned, just as happens here on earth; but those who have observed its duties, love gives delight. So it is in Gehenna: the contrition that comes from love is the harsh torment; but in the case of the sons of heaven, delight in this love inebriates their souls.
‘The power of love works in two ways’: what the saints in heaven feel as joy, those under condemnation in hell experience as intense pain. But it is the same divine love that is present in them both.
If those in hell are not deprived of God’s love, if they are embraced also by the love of the saints, may it not still be possible for them to respond to this love that surrounds them on every side? Is there not still a hope that they may ultimately be saved? St Isaac certainly seems to have believed in universal salvation: as a member of the Church of the East, dwelling safely beyond the confines of the Byzantine Empire, he had no reason to fear the anti-Origenist anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553).
What of St Silouan? Fr Sophrony maintains that the Starets was no Origenist (109), and I agree with him. St Silouan insists that our loving intercession should extend even to those in hell, we are to sorrow ‘over those who are not saved’ (377) and to weep for those ‘who do not know God’ (386). Further than this, however, he does not go. With characteristic reticence, he avoids all speculation about a final apocatastasis. He does not attempt to specify who can be saved and who cannot; that is a mystery known at present only to God. For his part he answers only with the words, ‘ I do not know’:
Father Cassian used to say that all heretics would perish. I do not know about this – my trust is only in the Orthodox Church (483).
When reflecting on the possibility that in the Age to Come there may be some who remain for ever unreconciled, burning in hell-fire, the Starets says simply, ‘Love could not bear that.’ Further than this he does not go.
What of the demons? Might they also be saved, and in that case should we not pray also for them? St Isaac the Syrian, as already noted, affirms that the merciful heart is ‘on fire’ with compassion for the demons, but he does not actually say that we should pray for them. St Silouan speaks in similar terms. We are to ‘pity’ the demons, but nothing is stated about intercession on their behalf:
The Spirit of God teaches love towards all, and the soul feels compassion for every being, loves her enemies and pities even devils because they have fallen away from God (469).
The Starets was emphatically a man of the Church; and so, if asked whether we may legitimately pray for the demons – Fr Sophrony does not in fact record any occasion when he was so asked – surely his answer would have been that the Church has no such practice; and in all such matters we must follow the Church’s rule of prayer. But at the same time it is not for us to set limits to the divine mercy.
(2) Pray for all. Love and prayer go together; if, then, we are to love all human persons, this signifies that we are also to pray for them. So the Starets writes:
I pray Thee, O Merciful Lord, let all mankind, from Adam to the end of time, come to know Thee (319).... I will pray for the whole human race, that all people may turn to the Lord and find rest in Him (328).... I beseech Thee, O Lord, let all peoples come to know Thee (332).
The Starets quotes with approval the words of an ascetic monk with whom he once talked:
Were it possible I would pray everyone out of hell, and only then would my soul be easy and rejoice (468).
‘Were it possible’: the Starets does not say that it actually is possible. The Starets sees this all-inclusive intercession as the proper and characteristic vocation of the monk.
The constant prayer for others constitutes the monk’s way of serving society as a whole:
Thanks to monks, prayer continues unceasing on earth, for through prayer the world continues to exist.... When there are no men of prayer on the earth, the world will come to an end.... The world is supported by the prayers of the saints (407-8).
In this connection Fr Sophrony refers appropriately to the sixth-century elder St Barsanuphius of Gaza, who asserts that in his day there were three men who through their prayers were preserving the whole human race from catastrophe (223). Barsanuphius mentions the names of the first two, who significantly are otherwise unknown to the annals of history. He does not say who the third was, presumably because God had revealed to him that it was Barsanuphius himself.
By thus praying for the world, the monk not only helps the Church and human society at large, but he also helps himself. Here the Starets describes his own experience as a monastery steward. Most monks consider that this particular ‘obedience’ renders it impossible to preserve continual prayer and inner peace, for it involves contact with large numbers of people throughout the day. Starets Silouan disagrees. If the steward will only intercede constantly for those under his charge, saying ‘The Lord loves His creation’, all will be well: he will find that he is freed from distractions and can maintain an uninterrupted remembrance of God (418).
In the monk’s relationship with the world, St Silouan distinguishes a double movement. First, through prayer the monk withdraws into himself, shutting out the world, gradually liberating himself from visual imagery and discursive thinking, and so entering into the image-free stillness of the heart. But then, within the depths of his own heart, he rediscovers his solidarity with all humankind and with the whole creation. So the monk’s flight from the world turns out to be not world-denying but world-affirming. In the words of Fr Sophrony:
In his longing for God he ‘hates’ the world and retires totally into the depths of his own heart. And when he does so totally, in order there to do battle against Satan, in order to cleanse his heart from every single passion, in the depths of this heart of his he meets with God, and in God begins to see himself indissolubly linked with the whole of cosmic existence; and then there is nothing alien, nothing that is extraneous to them.
As St Silouan observes, ‘True, Arsenius the Great was bidden to “shun” people but in the desert, too, the Spirit of God teaches us to pray for people and for all the world (296).
(3) Weep for all. True prayer cannot but be costly; loving intercession involves an inner martyrdom, a willingness on our part to accept suffering. As St Silouan says, ‘Praying for people means shedding blood (236); ‘The greater the love, the greater the suffering’ (338). It is not enough simply to read lists of names; we are required to intercede with tears of sorrow. ‘Pray for all’ means ‘Weep for all’:
My heart aches for the whole world, and I pray and shed tears fro the whole world, that all may repent (341).... My soul weeps for the whole world (371).... O Lord, grant me tears to shed for myself, and for the whole universe’ (385).
(4) Repent for all. St Silouan would have us go yet further on the path of mutual coinherence. Not only are we required to weep for all, but we should also repent for all. In his view this is part of what St Paul meant when he said, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2). As Fr Sophrony points out, if viewed in purely juridical terms the notion of vicarious repentance – of laying one person’s guilt upon another – makes no sense; it is simply ‘not fair’. But the love of Christ is not limited to juridical norms:
The spirit of Christian love speaks otherwise, seeing nothing strange but something rather natural in sharing the guilt of those we love – even in assuming full responsibility for their wrong-doing. Indeed, it is only in this bearing of another’s guilt that the authenticity of love is made manifest and develops into full awareness of self (120).
Adam’s fall consisted precisely in his refusal to accept that he too was involved in the guilt of Eve’s sin. ‘Adam denied responsibility, laying all the blame on Eve and on God who had given him this wife’, and so he shattered the unity of the human race. If only, instead of justifying himself, he ‘had taken upon his shoulders the responsibility for their joint sin, the destinies of the world might have been different’ (121). We in our turn, when we refuse to repent for others, are repeating Adam’s sin, thus making his fall our own.
Strange though this concept of vicarious repentance may seem to most modern readers, it has in fact an excellent Patristic pedigree. One author who expresses this idea in strong terms is St Mark the Monk (?early fifth century):
The saints are required to offer repentance not only on their own behalf but also on behalf of their neighbour, for without active love they cannot be made perfect.... In this way the whole universe is held together in unity, and through God’s providence we are each of us assisted by one another.
‘Adam, our father’
St Silouan’s consuming desire for the salvation of all stands out in yet sharper relief when we take into account his teaching about what may be termed the ‘total Adam’. This is not, I think, a phrase that he himself employs, but it accurately sums up his point of view.
For St Silouan, Adam is ‘our father’ (451), the ‘father of all mankind’ (448). Following St Paul (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45), the Starets sees Adam the first-formed man as the collective head of the human race, containing and recapitulating within himself the whole of humankind. There are obvious parallels here between St Silouan and St Irenaeus of Lyon, even though the Starets was probably unfamiliar with the Irenaean writings. This solidarity and recapitulation in Adam renders all human persons ‘consubstantial’ and ‘ontologically one’, as Fr Sophrony puts it (123, 51, 217). This ontological unity is not merely abstract and theoretical but specific and actual, ‘for the whole Adam is not an abstraction but the most concrete fullness of the human being’, to quote Fr Sophrony once more (222). It was the denial of this ‘consubstantiality’ that constituted, as we saw earlier, the essence of Adam’s fall.
This unity in the ‘total Adam’ is movingly expressed in the best-known of all St Silouan’s writings, ‘Adam’s Lament’ (448-56). Here the Starets takes up and develops in his own way the liturgical texts for the Sunday before Lent, the ‘Sunday of Forgiveness’, on which the Orthodox Church commemorates the expulsion of Adam from paradise. In particular he has used the ikos appointed for that day:
Banished from the joys of paradise, Adam sat outside and wept, and beating his hands upon his face, he said: ‘I am fallen, in Thy compassion have mercy on me.’...
O paradise, share in the sorrow of thy master who is brought to poverty, and with the sound of thy leaves pray to the Creator that he may not keep thy gate closed for ever. I am fallen, in Thy compassion have mercy on me.
As we read St Silouan’s prose-poem ‘Adam’s Lament’, it becomes clear that this is the lament not just of Adam but of Silouan himself, and not of him alone but of the whole human race. Adam’s sorrowful repentance is our repentance also:
The soul that has lost grace yearns after the Lord, and weeps as Adam wept when he was driven from paradise (326).... O Lord, grant unto us the repentance of Adam (271).
Nor is this all. It is the lament not of humankind alone but of the entire creation, for all created things are involved in Adam’s fall:
Thus did Adam lament,
And the tears streamed down his face onto his beard,
onto the ground beneath his feet,
And the whole desert heard the sound of his mourning.
The beasts and the birds were hushed in grief (449).
Lo, the whole earth is in travail (452).
The sin of Adam is cosmic in its effects, destroying as it does the primal harmony that prevailed between humans and the rest of creation. So Adam exclaims in his ‘Lament’:
In paradise was I joyful and glad:
the Spirit of God rejoiced me,
and suffering was a stranger to me.
But when I was driven forth from paradise
cold and hunger began to torment me.
The beasts and the birds that were gentle
and had loved me turned into wild things,
and were afraid and ran from me (455).