The relevance of Saint Silouan’s teaching for today
by Harry Boosalis
Within the lives of many throughout the Western world today, there is a significant increase of interest in spiritual life. Many people are seeking a personal experience of the grace of God. They desire a tangible and dynamic experience of His presence within their daily lives. Furthermore, many today are trying to satisfy this inner need through a variety of methods and means.
The recent growth of the various pseudo-Christian cults and other such religious sects bears witness to this shift in attitudes. The steady interest in ‘spirituality’, whether from the Near, Middle or Far East, is also another indication of the spiritual thirst of contemporary man. Another clear manifestation of this inner human need — with completely negative results — is the rising popularity of satanic and occult practices, as well as the neo-pagan rituals and other such ceremonies of New Age religious movements. Add to this the tremendous interest today of anything even remotely connected with the world of psychic phenomena, and the need for communion with God becomes most obvious. At times it seems as if modern man is searching frantically for God.
This widespread search for spiritual life, no matter how flawed or misguided, reveals the fact that an innate desire for participation in divine life is basic to the human being. Indeed, this is exactly the reason why man was created. Life in communion with God is man’s natural orientation. When this spiritual need is not satisfied through conventional means, then its fulfillment is sought elsewhere.
However, a closer look into the spiritual state of the contemporary Western world will reveal a profound paradox. On the one hand, as has already been noted, there is clearly a growing interest in almost anything that has to do with ‘spirituality’ or the spiritual world. Yet on the other hand, there is also such a flagrant disregard for the divine, as well as an obvious coldness toward Christ, that it could be said that the pursuit for true Christian life has been nearly abandoned in our day. It has become socially acceptable — even academically fashionable — not only to disregard, but even to deride and scorn the teaching and ideals that have been revealed to man in the Gospel of Christ. It seems as if modern man is striving to convince himself that he can live in an abiding and persistent renunciation of the commandments of the Lord.
This subtle spiritual decay, which could characterize our generation, has deluded many into assuming that it is perfectly normal, and perhaps even psychologically more beneficial, to lead one’s life apart from God and separated from His will. In particular, commitment to Christ is seen as a relic of an antiquated morality that deprives modern man from his ‘true’ calling toward fulfillment in worldly pleasures and carnal pursuits. He sees as the goal of his existence the search for superfluous comforts and the maintenance of an inordinate level of a life of luxury.
It might be concluded then, that generally speaking, there exists a certain polarization within the spiritual orientation of contemporary Western man. This is manifested in many cases as a tendency toward either one of two extremes. One extreme is the general disinterest in God and neglect of any form of communion with Him. However, when there is such a vacuum and radical spiritual deprivation in the human soul, it naturally leads to the other extreme: to the anxious search for any kind of ‘spiritual experience’.
At the same time, one sees an increasing number of conscientious believers who are finding true inner fulfillment in Orthodox spiritual life. There are many sincere and dedicated faithful who are no longer satisfied with the static state of spiritual life offered by the majority of Western denominations today. They are searching for a different and deeper spiritual life in Christ. This inner search reveals a general discontent with the vast changes prevalent in the church practices, ethical values and traditionally accepted theological teachings of many of these Western Christian confessions. It appears that the thirst in modern man for authentic spiritual life is becoming more difficult to satisfy through the customary means provided.
Some are seeking out the Orthodox Christian truth concerning the salvation of man. They are growing wary and alienated from the juridical and legalistic tendencies of the Western confessions, while becoming more interested in a mystical relationship with Christ. There are those who are coming to appreciate the fact that there exists another Christian teaching that differs from the conventional denominations of the West. More than a few are coming into contact with the living legacy of the Church Fathers and the mystical teaching of the Eastern Christian tradition, which offers a more profound Christ-centered spiritual life. A growing number of believers see the Saints of the Orthodox Church as examples on which to base their own spiritual lives. For these faithful, the Saints and their teachings are the criteria that point toward the true meaning of life and the ultimate direction that they are to follow as they seek to live according to Christ.
The Saints challenge the believer to reach beyond the conception of salvation that predominates in the West. For the Orthodox Church, salvation is more than the pardon of sins and transgressions. It is more than being justified or acquitted for offenses committed against God. According to Orthodox teaching, salvation certainly includes forgiveness and justification, but is by no means limited to them. For the Fathers of the Church salvation is the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit. To be saved is to be sanctified and to participate in the life of God — indeed to ‘become a partaker of divine nature.’1
Forgiveness of sins is not the end of salvation; it is only the beginning. Salvation leads to mystical knowledge of God and the acquisition of the charisma of love for all mankind. In the words of St. Silouan, “/ began to beseech God for forgiveness, and He granted me not only forgiveness but also the Holy Spirit, and in the Holy Spirit I knew God… the Lord remembered not my sins, and gave me to love people, and my soul longs for the whole world to be saved and dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven, and see the glory of the Lord, and delight in the love of God:’ 2
This is one reason why so many people are attracted to the Orthodox Faith. They are coming to realize that the Saints and the Fathers of the Church give definitive guidance on how to base one’s life in Christ. Through the example of their lives and the testimony of their inspired teachings they embody man’s true spiritual potential. They exemplify the apostolic command: “… but as He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy ‘.”3 This is why the Fathers of the Orthodox Church are of such vital significance for believers today.
The Fathers are not historic personalities confined to a bygone era. They are not simply relics of an antiquated past. On the contrary, they live among us. They live within the Church, pouring out the light of the Gospel of Christ. Through the continuous operation of the grace of the Holy Spirit, in synergy with man’s free-will, the Church is preserved throughout history as a living divine-human or ‘theanthropic’ communion. By attaining to the fullness of their calling in Christ, the Saints have overcome the same obstacles that adversely affect the spirit and mentality of our modem world.
The importance of appropriate guidance in spiritual life is immense. In the present day, the need for true Orthodox spiritual teaching is especially crucial in the face of the influx of the numerous pseudo-Christian religious movements that have invaded society. Under the guise of offering a ‘Christian spirituality’, many deceivers today are leading even well-intentioned believers astray from the authentic apostolic message of the Gospel.
This is why it is imperative to provide those who are searching for a more abundant life in Christ with the opportunity of being exposed to and edified by the time-honored teachings of the Church Fathers of the Orthodox East. The Fathers have bequeathed a rich spiritual tradition to the contemporary world. They share the same Holy Tradition dating from the earliest decades of the apostolic Church. The unanimity of their continuous teaching, nearly two thousand years old, attests to the validity and authenticity of Holy Tradition.
There is a growing number of faithful who are becoming aware of the need for this Tradition. They are coming to realize how crucial it is to develop spiritually in its fertile soil. Holy Tradition is both a font and a haven, where one is not only granted spiritual birth, growth and development, but where one also finds shelter and takes refuge from the commotion of the contending ‘spiritualities’ of contemporary times.
The teaching of St. Silouan is especially relevant because it manifests this Tradition to modem society. His life and teaching illustrate the ultimate meaning of man’s salvation in Christ. Based on the personal experience of his own spiritual strivings, his teaching bears testimony to the truth that contemporary man is capable of acquiring the fullness of the grace of the Holy Spirit, through which countless Saints have been saved and sanctified throughout the history of the Church. St. Silouan embodies the heights of Orthodox spiritual life, which he experienced on twentieth-century Mount Athos. He serves as a link in the long line of spiritual tradition that unites modem man with all the great ascetic Saints throughout the centuries of the Orthodox Church.
The life and writings of St. Silouan are becoming increasingly popular among a wide variety of people from many different backgrounds. While many have the impression that the Saints lived ‘saintly’ lives from their youth, St. Silouan shows that this is not always the case. He indulged in many of the same activities and pursuits that could characterize the youth of today. Even if some of these may appear as rather mundane, they are nonetheless among the more notable aspects of his life to which many readers can relate. For instance, it is recorded that in his youth St. Silouan was fond of music, socializing with the opposite sex and even drinking with his friends. In fact he was known for his great tolerance for alcohol, especially vodka.4
His good looks and popularity even led him into sin. As Elder Sophrony relates, “Young, strong, handsome, and by this time prosperous, too, Simeon [St. Silouan’s name ‘in the world’] revelled in life. He was popular in the village, being good-natured, peaceable and jolly, and the village girls looked on him as a man they would like to marry. He himself was attracted to one of them and, before the question of marriage had been put, what so often happens befell late one summer evening.” 5 St. Silouan never forgot his sin and he repented greatly for his fall. He prayed fervently for a clear conscience. According to his biographer, while he was away on military service, the young woman fell in love with another man and together they lived happily and raised a large family.6
A further incident that highlights St. Silouan’s familiarity with the common experiences of today’s youth concerns his great physical strength. It is reported that during a village celebration, the young Simeon was approached by two brothers. The older one — tall, strong, bad-tempered and drunk — tried to grab away Simeon’s accordion in order to show off in front of the others. St. Silouan himself explains what then happened:
“At first I thought of giving in to the fellow but then I was ashamed of how the girls would laugh at me, so I hit him a hard blow in the chest. His body shot away and he fell backwards with a heavy thud in the middle of the road. Froth and blood trickled from his mouth. The onlookers were all horrified. So was I. ‘I’ve killed him,’ I thought… It was over half an hour before he was able to rise to his feet, and with difficulty they got him home, where he was bad for a couple of months but luckily didn’t die” 7 Elder Sophrony concludes, “… this physical strength, which was later to stand him in such good stead in the accomplishment of many exceptional spiritual feats, now led to his committing his gravest sin, which he afterwards so sorely repented” 8
These incidents from St. Silouan’s youth, such as the drinking, the romance, his fondness for music, and the brawling — mundane and coarse as they appear — may actually appeal to the general reader. These are things that many people can immediately and intimately identify with in their own personal lives. His life shows that even the common man from the most ordinary of backgrounds, who has tasted the brutal bitterness of sin, can indeed still hope to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit and attain to holiness in Christ. For many readers today this is a source of great inspiration as they struggle in pursuit of their own salvation.
The broad appeal of the writings of St. Silouan is based on a combination of other factors as well. The fact that he was uneducated and ‘almost illiterate,’9 having attended the village school for ‘just two winters,’10 attracts many readers because it reinforces the idea that the heights of Orthodox spiritual life are open and accessible to all. It illustrates the truth that one does not need a degree in theology to attain to the knowledge of God and to come into communion with Him. His writings reveal that spiritual progress is not a matter of academic endeavors. Rather, it is a matter of the heart, a heart directed toward God. This too appeals to many people.
Even though the writings of St. Silouan touch upon the deepest theological truths, they do not intimidate the average layman. He speaks not in the language of philosophers, but rather in the timeless tongue of the Holy Spirit. This language of love, which flows so freely from his pen, is a potent means of communication that the reader finds easy to comprehend and embrace. This certainly contributes to the popularity of his writings.
From the practical perspective of style and language, the writings of St. Silouan could be compared to the words of Christ, especially as conveyed in the Gospel of St. John11. The Fourth Gospel is remarkable for the way in which it speaks of the mysteries of eternal life and of the unfathomable love of God toward man, while using the simplest words in a most lucid manner. Such stylistic traits could also characterize the writings of St. Silouan. When reading them, one is immediately impressed with his gentle disposition and humble approach to such lofty themes.
The style of his writings could also be compared to the Book of Psalms: “Often his language is like that of the psalms, which is natural since it springs from unceasing prayer. The rhythm is slow, as is characteristic of profound prayer.” 12 Elder Sophrony, who not only published St. Silouan’s writings in Russian but also translated them himself into Greek, as well as oversaw their publication and translation into a variety of other languages13, notes farther, “He used few words, but this, too, is perhaps a proof of his veracity. He used few words but they are capable of penetrating into the heart and regenerating man’s soul. He used few words but one can go on discussing them at length… “14
However, the growing popularity of St. Silouan is due directly to the relevance of his spiritual teaching for today. It is important to keep in mind the historical setting in which he lived and wrote. The first few decades of the twentieth century were a time of unparalleled change. Having died in 1938 at the age of 72, St. Silouan lived through the tumult and upheaval that were to forever alter the course of history. This was the era encompassing not only the First World War and the Russian Revolution, but also the events leading up to World War Two. Such large-scale destruction and horrific atrocities taking place on european soil were never before seen by human eyes.
This radical change was not limited to the political and social spheres, but also in a philosophic sense, it was indeed the dawn of a new age. From a strictly historical perspective, St. Silouan was a contemporary of Freud (1856-1939), Lenin (1870-1924) and Nietzsche (1844-1900), to name but a few. The blatantly anti-Christian principles that these men stood for, and the ‘intellectual revolution’ they inaugurated, were to contribute directly to the reversal in the spiritual and moral values of modem man. Philosophically speaking, it could be said that man was ‘finally freeing’ himself from the God of the Christians and striving, precariously, toward his self-deification.
Ironic as it seems, while the ‘new humanism’ (i.e., the pseudo-religion of man attempting to forge his own destiny apart from God) was gaining considerable ground at the dawn of the twentieth century, the unique value and inherent dignity of the human person seemed to recede simultaneously into oblivion. The ‘triumph of nihilism’ was looming on the horizon, and together with it the onslaught of its offspring — utter hopelessness and despair.
This was the modem mentality that St. Silouan undoubtedly took into account as he wrote down those God-inspired thoughts that came to him after much prayer. He was addressing a world at war, a war raging not only in the trenches of modem Europe, but also on the battlefield of the human soul.
The message that he attempted to convey during those early decades of the twentieth century is somehow even more relevant now as man ‘progresses’ on through the dawn of the new millennium. Although St. Silouan addresses the particular needs of the turmoil of his time, the fundamental themes he touches upon, such as the infinite love of God toward man, the inner workings of the human soul and the nature of the spiritual struggle, remain relevant for all believers everywhere. In this lies the significance of St. Silouan’s teaching for today.
From Orthodox Spiritual Life According to Saint Silouan the Athonite by Harry Boosalis
- See 2 Peter 1. 4.
- Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, Essex, 1991, pp. 270-271.
- 1 Peter 1. 15,16.RSV.
- See Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 13.
- Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 12.
- See Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 16.
- Saint Silouan the Athonite, pp. 14-15.
- Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 14.
- Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 263.
- Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 52.
- Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 266.
- Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 263.
- For a complete listing of the various translations of the writings of both St. Silouan and Archimandrite Sophrony, refer to the on-going bibliography compiled by Patrick Stange in Buisson Ardent — Cahiers Saint-Silouane l’Athonite vols. 1, 2, 4 and 5, Pully, 1995, 1996, 1998 and 1999, pp. 51-68, 66-95, 90-93 and 83-85 respectively.
- Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 266.