What Kind of People Are We?

From Fr. Sophrony’s book On Prayer:

[The author recounts his arrival in France from the Holy Mountain.]

In france, having arrive from Greece, I met with the sort of people I had become unfamiliar with during my twenty-two years on the Holy Mountain-especially during the latter period when I was spiritual confessor to several hundred monks representing every aspect of the ascetic life on Mt. Athos. I make no secret of the fact that I was completely disoriented. The psychology of the monks, their patience and stamina, so far excelled all and everything that I encountered in Europe that I simply could not find either words or outward forms for contact. What monks accept gratefully, in Europe shattered people. Many of them spurned me, considering me abnormally hard-hearted, a distortion, even, of the Gospel spirit of love. And I concluded that  the ‘norms’ of monastic ascetics and those of people of Western culture differed profoundly. There can be no doubt that the most ‘abnormal’ of all, both for the world of the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ and of our own contemporaries, would be Christ. Who can hear Christ, or even more follow Him? What monks acquired after decades of weeping, our contemporaries think to receive after a brief interval – sometimes even in a few hours of pleasant ‘theological’ discussion. Christ’s words – His every word – came to this world from on High. They belong to a sphere of other dimensions and can be assimilated only by means of prolonged prayer with much weeping. Otherwise, they will continue incomprehensible to man, however ‘educated’ he be, even theologically. Someone once said to me: ‘Weighed down by the incomprehensible, one suffocates.’ Yes, we are all, every one of us, stricken when we try our utmost to understand Christ’s word. The Lord Himself said: ‘Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.’ Encountering this constituent of Christ’s word, we gradually comprehend that it opens up to us the eternal spheres of the unoriginate Spirit. And then everything in us that resists Christ’s word, we sense like the presence of death in us. And so, we carry on in a state of profound dichotomy – on the one hand, gratitude like a sweet pain pierces us to the heart; on the other, we feel unbearable shame for ourselves, and are appalled at the remoteness of our goal.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





13 responses to “What Kind of People Are We?”

  1. Catechumen Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    As a question, I wonder if monastics are capable of sustaining a more demanding ascetic struggle because they know that their fellow monastic Brothers and Sisters are enduring the same struggle. How can parishes communally commit to the ascetic struggle?

  2. MO Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Where is that picture from (does it have a name)?

  3. Magdalena Avatar

    How hopeless this makes me feel.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar


    I understood. Don’t feel hopeless. Rather, If I may suggest, just rejoice in God for where you are and what He will do in you. It doesn’t hurt us to have good knowledge of where we are and where we are not. But our hope must always be in Christ is does amazing things in us.

  5. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    It is certainly not surprising–this contrast with the monastic and Christians and other people living in the world, especially in western culture. The monks have patience and stamina in part, I would suspect, because they have a much clearer picture of Who God is and their goal in Christ. In the world there are many delusions and much to blind and distract from that vision. Thank God that, despite everything, Fr. Sophrony, persevered in ministry in the outside world for all our sakes. If this is what it is like for a holy monk, how must it have been for God, the Word, in His Incarnation?

  6. handmaidleah Avatar

    The painting is Mikhail Nesterov’s Holy Rus…

  7. handmaidleah Avatar

    Forgive me – the painting is from Russia and if you look closely you can see St Alexander Nevsky, St Nicholas and St Sergius of Radonezh standing behind our Lord.
    Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) is one of the most famous artists of Russia.

  8. Justin Farr Avatar

    I really needed to read this. Thank you, Father.

  9. Aitor de la Morena Avatar

    Very good text, father Stephen. I can’t help but to see me in the Western theologians’ portrait. But that is because I’ve discovered something that doesn’t make me frustrate in any ascetic attempts: with Saints Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolite, Ignatius’ theology, one understands that it’s God who makes man, and not man who makes himself. Ascetism, then, comes progressively implied in faith. So are deeds, too.

  10. evagrius Avatar

    He should have met the Blessed Brother Andre of Montreal who could have given him a few pointers.

  11. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    “What monks accept gratefully, in Europe shattered people.”

    The secularization of Europe has left Europeans without the spiritual resources they need to recognize that suffering is God’s opportunity.

  12. Aitor de la Morena Avatar

    But Alice, voluntary suffering? Ascetism has been understood wrongly by many across the centuries.

  13. William Avatar

    Indeed, asceticism has been misunderstood by many. But, if we take St. Paul the Apostle as our example, one sees in him a suffering that is all at once involuntary and voluntary (not self-inflicted but at the same time heartily embraced), and certainly he saw it as God’s opportunity. I’m thinking of 2 Cor. 11 and 12 (particularly 12:10). I’m also thinking of Col. 1:24.

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