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Purity of heart vs a life of passions. Two paths of reaching God (Saint Sophrony the Athonite)

Saint Sophrony the Athonite (+July 11, 1993) talks about two paths of reaching God: the example of purity of the Mother of God and the life of repentant sinners.

Essex Monastery, November 11th, 1991
Audio source. English translation adapted after the Romanian version of Fr. Rafail Noica, Cuvantari Duhovnicesti I (18).

Saint Sophrony:

Question: How do carnal, natural human gifts turn into spiritual ones?
This question arose in connection with what Venerable John of the Ladder writes. He observed the following phenomenon: There are people who suffered to the point of slavery from passionate movements and passions, but in the end they defeated them. It turns out that someone who hasn’t had this struggle, somehow doesn’t even understand what it’s all about. How to explain, for example, that in the case of Venerable Mary of Egypt, St. Mary Magdalene and others, the carnal love that dominated them suddenly turned into divine love? And how many people – perhaps the majority – remain almost untouched in their ignorance! I can’t answer this question either, just as I can’t answer the other questions, “Why?” and “What is to be done?”.

I myself noticed that those who are endowed with some kind of artistic talent get inspired in the spiritual life more quickly than those who do not have such gifts and who sometimes do not even know what inspiration means.

But when we touched on these issues in a conversation with St. Silouan, then all theories collapsed. The question was put like this: “It’s said that a person could possess certain abilities and talents. And if he does not have these talents, then what should he do? He understands nothing, seeks nothing, thirsts for nothing.

And then, together with St. Silouan, we focused on the problem of those enslaved by passions. For some, the passions take on a too violent form that darkens the mind, and man “does what he does not will” [Romans 7:16], as the apostle Paul says. And we noted certain facts when, through ascetic labors, some monastics managed to tame their character – a violent, stormy, passionate one – and became meek and peaceful people: more than those who had been such by nature.

In this conversation, I asked Elder Silouan:
– One would truly say that it is better to be first dominated by passions, and then to start the fight for the purity of life that the commandments of Christ demand.

He said:

– Yes, those who struggle with their passionate nature have some advantage, because for them this question takes on a tragic form and tension. But if we take the example of the Mother of God, then all our theories collapse. She has always been meek and peaceful by nature, and by being so, she became able to receive the Divine Word. Without any passionate storms, from childhood she entered into prayer and reached the highest measures of perfection. If, without being possessed by passions and without suffering from their violent power, the Mother of God ascended to such a level of meekness and holiness, then it turns out that it is not at all necessary to be a bearer of great passions, doubts and, in general, tragic inner conflicts.


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