I heard this from Archimandrite Zacharius, the disciple of the Elder Sophrony:
The Elder Sophrony once said that if a man would give thanks always and for everything, he would have kept the saying which Christ gave to St. Silouan: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”
I pondered this statement for a long time. For more than 30 years I had been aware of the famous dictum of St. Silouan – and though it sounded profound I never understood it. Only when thinking about this explanation reported by Archimandrite Zacharias did the saying become clear. Life brings many things to us – good and bad – joyous and calamitous. Sorrow is inescapable in this life.
But if in the midst even of sorrows (which bring their own taste of hell) we are able by grace to give thanks to God, then we will have found the way to despair not. I have in my lifetime been witness to a few great souls who gave thanks to God for all things and in all things and their witness was filled with the grace of God.
Thanksgiving is more than a day – it is the only means to the true Life.
In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thess. 5:18).
I am appending an earlier article: “Grace and the Inverted Pyramid,” on the teachings of St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony, particularly in their understanding of our union with Christ in His descent into Hades. I hope it is helpful for those who may not have seen this before.
Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.
Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart
The teaching of St. Silouan, itself a continuation of the unbroken Tradition of the Church, was continued in the life and writings of the Elder Sophrony. Today it continues in the life and teachings of the elders and community of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, of whom Archimandrite Zacharias is an example. His recent visits to the United States to conduct retreats have now become books which continue to expand and confirm the teaching of St. Silouan and the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Christian faith.
One of the strongest elements drawn out in both the life and teachings of St. Silouan is just this word of humility as illustrated in my opening quote. To be a follower of Christ is to accept a “downward path,” to follow Christ into the depths of His humility. This is not a new word, but echoes that of the Apostle (which itself seems to have been a hymn which the Apostle was quoting):
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phillipians 2:5-11).
This clear teaching of the Apostle, which only echoes the utterly consistent teaching and example of Christ, has a history of being obscured within Christianity – with Christians forgetting this essential teaching and following after a human Lordship and model of salvation.
In a wide variety of places and situations, Christians have thought to establish some image of the Kingdom of God (or even the Kingdom itself) here on earth through means other than the path of humility set forth by Christ and the faithful Tradition of the Church. The result has been varied – but has often been merely a tyranny in the name of God, which is no better than a tyranny in the name of something else.
I am reminded of a statement by Stanley Hauerwas, Protestant theologian and professor at Duke University:
The Christian community’s openness to new life and our conviction of the sovereignty of God over that life are but two sides of the same conviction. Christians believe that we have the time in this existence to care for new life, especially as such life is dependent and vulnerable, because it is not our task to rule this world or to “make our mark on history.” We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children. For it is the Christian claim that knowledge and love of God is fostered by service to the neighbor, especially the most helpless, as in fact that is where we find the kind of Kingdom our God would have us serve.
In countless lectures and seminars in which I participated while a student at Duke’s Graduate School of Theology, I heard Hauerwas echo this quote with the assertion that “so soon as Christians agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.” This violent outcome is a complete perversion of the “downward Way” described by Archimandrite Zacharias and the Orthodox Tradition. Our goals are thus never measured by the “outcomes of history” but by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
This same contradiction, in narrative form, can be found in Dostoevsky’s classic chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor lashes out at Christ for His failure, as measured in the outcomes of history, and justifies Christians’ use of tools such as the Inquisition as an improvement over the weakness of God. The argument of that famous chapter, as well as the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” mark the high-point of Dostoevsky’s summary of the argument against God and the Orthodox Christian faith. The answer to that diatribe is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.
Oh YES! It is through suffering that we understand God’s mercy. And it is through this that we can truly understand the Psalm:
Pss.130 Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD. * Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. * If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? * But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. * I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. * My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning. * Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. * And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
“More than a day…” aptly describes the thanklessness of many days. But we fail to see the goodness of God in suffering and loss as well as joy and plenty.
O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, and the urban traffic endures again today. O give thanks to the Lord for He is good, and 200 more Iraqi’s and allied forces lose their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom. O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, and my enemies deride me or my children speak ill of me.
O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, and my household has sufficient food for the day. O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, and I can fill my lungs with oxygen with every breath that I take. O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, and I know that God is good to me…always.
Even the joys of this life, when not treated with thankfulness, bring about hell in a person.
Victor, this indeed is true. Thankfulness unites us to God. Without Him, even our joys haunt us in their ephemeral nature. Only God preserves goodness for us.
I understand with what Fr. Silouan is saying when he says “Keep your mind in hell and despair not”.
However, an even better way is to avoid the pit of hell in the first place. We do this by denying Satan and his agents the hooks they seek, through constant prayer and by abiding in the Holy Spirit.
I can’t find this quote anywhere, but I remember reading this many years ago; I don’t remember where:
“Every action of every day should cause you to remember and praise God, and if you do this you will be praying ceaselessly and your soul will be always joyful.” –St. Peter Damascene
If you unite yourself with Christ, we are united with Him in His love for all humankind, and are even united with Him in His descent into Hades. Thus we are “Baptized into His death,” which is the fullness of His death and we are “raised in the likeness of His resurrection.” But this is not only the sacramental action, but also the way of life (the Cross is the Way of Life). See also Philippians 2:5-11.
What St. Silouan has said is, indeed, the teaching of the Fathers, certainly within the Tradition of prayer and asceticism. The books by the Elder Sophrony or Archimandrite Zacharias are probably the best contemporary sources on the topic.
It is not Satan in Hell that we do battle with so much as our own drive to non-being. It’s the deepest level of repentance, as well as uniting ourselves in prayer for all.
I understand your point – but am speaking about it in a slightly different manner. Read this article and see if it explains it better.
Thank you for your response.
Like St. Mary of Egypt and St. Zosimas, we offer to God whatever we have in our heart. It is up to Him to judge it’s true worth.
May Christ be glorified in all we do!
I recently read in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground this definition: man is a two-legged creature who is ungrateful. It struck me particularly, and so does this article in saying that thankfulness is the foundation of the Christian life. They make sense.
Damaris, how true.
Is this photo of St. Saba Monastery in the Judean Desert near Jerusalem?
Wonderful as always.
I am reminded of two God fearing women I have known, at different times. Both were afflicted with years and ailment. One I had the privilege of watching suffer with cancer till she succumbed.
The way in which these women were thankful in all, praised God in all, and were near to him was more powerful to me than any argument. When I was going through a period of doubt regarding God himself this memory stayed with me. It has as much to do with my staying with God as anything.
After watching those two I concluded that, at least in some cases, God asks us to suffer so that others can watch. We should suffer with gladness and always honoring and praising God. That we can be that same light to others.
Now of course I have suffered various things since. And I have never suffered anywhere as close to the manner they did. Nor have I been the way they were. Rather I’ve been a poor sufferer and I fear pointed some the other way from watching me instead of toward God.
Lord have mercy on me.
I don’t mean to change the topic but I feel this goes along with the topic. This Sunday my wife and I become official catechumens at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Winnipeg. It is part of the OCA and we feel very thankful for their guidance in our lives and Christ who is the lifegiver of all. Father pray for us as we continue our journey. and thank you for the help you have been.
I have much to learn about suffering. As a new Orthodox Christian (4 years), I am finding it difficult to put aside the 25 year old baggage.
I am blessed to be in constant contact with one of Elder Sophrony’s spiritual children for whom I am helping write his memoirs of his time with the Blessed Elder. He has just been diagnosed with stomach cancer. His life has been nothing but blessed suffering.
He emanates peace.
I struggle with my tears.
Regarding the inverted pyramid, about which Greatshema monk S has taught me, I have recently posted to my blog an art project (for a class I am taking) in which I tried to capture what my Orthodox Faith means to me. It is dedicated to Father S.
Thanks be to God.
Is there a difference between giving thanks ‘for’ all things and ‘in’ all things. The only reason I bring it up is because my bishop has said that giving thanks ‘for’ all things is a form of masochism that God does not ask of us, while giving thanks ‘in’ all things is the way of life you descibe.
“In a wide variety of places and situations, Christians have thought to establish some image of the Kingdom of God (or even the Kingdom itself) here on earth through means other than the path of humility set forth by Christ and the faithful Tradition of the Church. The result has been varied – but has often been merely a tyranny in the name of God, which is no better than a tyranny in the name of something else.”
Dear Father, bless! Thank you again for a wonderful post. How freeing to realize that all we have to offer God is our thanks. Everything we have comes from Him.
I wanted also to comment on your quote above. I observe that a “tyranny in the name of God” is not only no better than any other–in meaning it is far worse because it functionally attributes to the Holy Trinity the attributes of the Evil One. I believe that this understanding is what underlaid Jesus’ strong opposition to the tyranny of the Pharisees in His own day.
This tyranny takes many forms in our modern context. My own experience has been with its expression in various nominally “Christian” groups (“nominal” insofar as the formal doctrinal expressions of orthodox faith in Christ as Son of God and in the Trinity were adhered to), where “authority” was exercised in God’s name in a very top down way. This has ranged from very overt abuse and extremely domineering control of members to extremely subtle manipulation. It seems to me that the root of such abuses has had to do with pride, an unholy fear of man resulting in a strong need to have an appearance of righteousness that overrrides any concern we may have for the reality as illustrated in the Gospels by the humility of Christ. As the lives of the Saints attest, the humility of true righteousness results in radical identification of ourselves with sinners, with the “least of these.”
Religious tyranny in the name of God is a very seductive mindset among all genuine Christians, and it need not take a political form in the secular culture. The paradox is that this mindset could never arise unless there were a sincere desire for the manifestation of God’s righteousness in a given context. It is a particular temptation of those who rise to positions of leadership, whether formal or functional, in religious circles. Since this is a sin I am particularly sensitive to because of my experience, I also assume it is one to which I am particularly tempted and prone! May the Lord have mercy on me and on all so burdened!
The Scripture says both, as do the Fathers. There is a way to give thanks for all things that is not masochistic.
I wonder whether the saying by Elder Sophrony includes giving thanks for sin, for others’ suffering, and even if someone were to wind up in hell
I would appreciate hearing what you think about it, or what you think Fr. Zacharias might have answered.
Such things are mysteries and contradictions. I would not suggest to someone that they give thanks for such things to start with – only as God reveals to the heart how this is possible. Doing it with mere rationality would be worthless. Doing it against the heart and rationality would be harmful.