The following is an excerpt from Rosemary Edmond’s introduction to Archimandrite Sophrony’s His Life is Mine. In these paragraph’s she describes the great monk’s journey from Paris, where he had been an artist and a seminarian, to Mt. Athos, where he would take up his vocation as a monk. He speaks of despair and the knowledge of God. The lives of saints are not a rational argument, per se, for the Christian faith – but to me they are among the best arguments.
Little by little it dawned on him that pure intellection, an activity of the brain only, could not advance one far in the search for reality. Then suddenly he remembered Christ’s injunction to love God ‘with all thy heart, and with all thy mind.’ This unexpected insight was as portentous as that earlier moment when the Eastern vision of a supra-personal Being had beguiled him into dismissing the Gospel message as a call to the emotions [note for a short time in his younger life, Fr. Sophrony had explored Far Eastern religions before turning again to the Orthodox faith]. Only that earlier moment had struck dark as a thunderclap, while now revelation illuminated like lightning. Intellection without love was not enough. Actual knowledge could only come through community of being, which meant love. And so Christ conquered: His teaching appealed to his mind with different undertones, acquired other dimensions. Prayer to the Personal God was restored to his heart – directed, first and foremost, to Christ.
He must decide on a new way of living. He enrolled in the then recently opened Paris Orthodox Theological Institute, in the hope of being taught how to pray, and the right attitude towards God; how to overcome one’s passions and attain divine eternity. But formal theology produced no key to the kingdom of heaven. He left Paris and made his way to Mount Athos where men seek union with God through prayer. Setting foot on the Holy Mountain, he kissed the ground and besought God to accept and further him in this new life. Next, he looked for a mentor who would help extricate him from a series of apparently insoluble problems. He threw himself into prayer as fervently as he previously had in France. It was crystal-clear that if he really wanted to know God and be with Him entirely, he must dedicate himself to just that – and still more entirely than he had to painting in the old days. Prayer became both garment and breath to him, unceasing even when he slept. Despair combined with a feeling of resurrection in his soul: despair over the peoples of the earth who had forsaken God and were expiring in their ignorance. At times while praying for them he would be driven to wrestle with God as their Creator. This oscillation between the two extremes of hell on the one side and Divine Light on the other made it urgent that someone should spell out the point of what was happening to him. But another four years were to pass before the first encounter with Staretz [Elder] Silouan which he quickly recognized as the most precious gift Providence ever made to him. He would not have dared dream of such a miracle, though he had long hungered and thirsted after a counsellor who would hold out a strong hand and explain the laws of spiritual life. For eight years or so he sat at the feet of his Gamaliel [the reference is to the great Rabbi Gamaliel who was the teacher of St. Paul], until the Staretz’ death when he begged for the blessing of the Monastery Superior and Council to depart into the ‘desert’. Soon after, the Second World War broke out, rumors of which (no actual news filtered through to the wilderness) intensified his prayer for all humanity. He would spend the night hours prone on the earth floor of his cave, imploring God to intervene in the crazy blood-bath. He prayed for those who were being killed, for those who were killing, for all in torment. And he prayed that God would not allow the more evil side to win.