There are hundreds of thousands of people who have lived holy lives known only to their closest friends and family. These saints are not the ones who were heroically martyred or who were famous for excellent preaching or who were great teachers or evangelists. They lived their lives in humble submission to God’s will, suffering the same temptations and spiritual struggles that we all have. But in their quiet way they achieved victory over the world and now intercede for all of us in our journeys. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos is one of these quiet, spiritual “giants”.
St. Silouan’s story would be known only to God if it were not for his disciple, Archimandrite Sophrony, who wrote down the stories of his life that St. Silouan had told him and who found some of the saint’s thoughts written on scraps of paper in his cell after his repose. He published these in two works: A Monk of Mt. Athos and Wisdom From Mt.Athos.
St. Silouan began life in 1866 in a typical Russian peasant family of nine living in a small village. His father was illiterate but very devout, and it was from him that young Simeon (as his parents named him) first learned of God and his ways. However, his first crisis of faith was also brought about inadvertently by his father. A traveling book salesman who passed through their village was invited to spend time in their home. Because he could not read, Simeon’s father was fascinated by books and those who could read them. The salesman was not a believer and loudly expressed his conviction that God did not exist. When this man left their home, Simeon asked his father why he was made to say his prayers if there was no God. His father responded that the man had been a fool and that Simeon should pay no attention to what he had heard.
But the seed of doubt had been sown and for many years afterward, Simeon was skeptical of the teachings of the Church. These doubts were later put to rest by the simple witness of an unsuspecting woman. By this time, teenaged Simeon was working as a carpenter in the construction business with his brother. The cook who prepared the midday meal for the workers told of her pilgrimage to visit the tomb of a holy hermit and of the many miracles that had occurred at the tomb. This was confirmed by many of the older workers and Simeon suddenly realized that, if such things really happened, then it must mean that God did indeed exist and that he was present in this world. It was with this realization that Simeon first felt called to the monastic life.
The young man knew that he needed first to complete his mandatory military service before he could enter a monastery. He also had to experience many more battles in this world before he was ready to pursue spiritual warfare. Some of these experiences lured him away from the call to monasticism. Simeon was a very large and handsome young man and admired by all the village girls. He was attracted to one girl in particular and was inclined to marry her when his military duties were over. He did not wait for military service to be over, however, before experiencing the pleasures intended for the marriage bed. While he was away as a soldier, the girl married someone else, and Simeon struggled with this pull of the passions for many years.
The worst of his experiences happened in an altercation with a group of rowdy young men. Simeon was walking down the street with friends, playing his concertina, when one of the other men tried to steal it from him. In the fight that ensued, Simeon struck the man with such force that he was unconscious for some time. Simeon felt great remorse at having nearly killed a man, but he nevertheless continued to live a life incompatible with Christian purity and especially with a monastic calling.
Finally, it was the Mother of God who brought Simeon to his senses. He had a dream of a snake crawling down his throat and he reacted with revulsion. As he awoke, he heard a voice say to him: “Just as you found it loathsome to swallow a snake, so I find your ways ugly to look upon.” Simeon knew that this was the voice of the blessed Theotokos and he was immediately acutely aware of his sinful ways and the need to repent.
From then on, Simeon’s life changed. Prayer and repentance made him less talkative, less boisterous. His quick anger was subdued and he was able to counsel others to do good things. Near the end of his military duty, he and a friend traveled to see St. John of Kronstadt whose blessing they sought. Simeon left a message saying that he wanted to be a monk and asking for prayers that the world would not hold him back. Very shortly thereafter, he was aware of a mighty force like the “flames of hell” all about him. He knew that St. John was praying fervently for him.
As soon as his duties as a soldier were over, Simeon departed from his village for Mt. Athos. There, he was received at the Monastery of St. Panteleimon and began his life as a monk. At first, he was overjoyed at the feeling of peace he received after making his first confession there and being assured of God’s forgiveness. But soon, his mind began to be assaulted by devils. On the one hand, he was tempted to pride by being told how holy he was; on the other, he was thrown into despair by being told that he would never be saved. This spiritual torture went on for many months. The voices told him to go out into the wilderness to reach spiritual perfection by himself, but the abbot refused when he requested this.
Brother Simeon had been given work in the monastery’s mill as an obedience. There he lifted and carried heavy sacks of flour, all the while praying the Jesus Prayer to counter the attacks of the demons. He slept no more than two hours at night, but prayed constantly to try to overcome the temptations and despair that he was experiencing. Finally, when he was at the lowest point of hopelessness, he was granted a vision of the Risen Christ. As he stood in the chapel adjoining the mill, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and surrounded by a divine Light. He knew that he was in the presence of Christ and experienced His love and forgiveness. In the words of his disciple, Sophrony: “…in the person of Staretz Silouan God was giving the world a fresh example, a fresh statement, of the boundlessness of His love, in order that through him, too, men paralyzed by despair should find new courage…”
After receiving this vision, Brother Simeon was overjoyed with everything he saw around him. The world and everything in it was beautiful. But before long, his mind began to darken again and the demons returned with their taunting and temptations. He was given permission to seek the advice of an ascetic who lived the life of a hermit some distance from the monastery. This staretz gave him much good advice but one remark of his became the next stumbling block. He said that he was amazed at the experiences of such a young man and wondered what he would be like when he was old. This remark produced pride in the mind of the young monk.
Finally, in another intense battle with demons, the monk heard God’s voice in his heart telling him that the proud always suffer from devils and that he should keep his mind in hell and not despair. This seems like strange advice, but the monk – now Father Silouan – recognized the truth in these words. He needed to rid himself of pride and by keeping his mind on the fires of hell, he could more easily raise himself above the temptations that lead to that condition.
Fr. Silouan spent the remainder of his forty-six years in the monastery struggling against pride, struggling to repent of sin, which is separation from the will of God. He continued to spend very little time in sleep and to pray constantly. Even though he had only attended school briefly, he spent much time in the monastery reading and studying holy Scripture and the writings of the Fathers of the Church. In his later years, he was given the job of steward for the monastery and he built a little cell for himself near the storehouse where provisions were kept. Here he could spend most of his time in solitary prayer. Elder Sophrony tells us that he continued in all the outward routine of the monastery – attending all the services, receiving Communion two or three times a week – but that he followed the admonition of St. Paul to “pray without ceasing”. In the early hours of the morning of September 11, 1938, as Matins was being prayed by the other monks, Father Silouan passed from this life of ascetic struggle. He was glorified by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1988 in commemoration of the Millennium of Russian Christianity.
Some of St. Silouan’s spiritual wisdom which Elder Sophrony has passed on have to do with discovering the will of God. “The quest to know God’s will is the most important thing in a man’s life, since when he happens on the path of the will of God he becomes incorporate with divine, eternal life… The man who has the love of God in his heart, prompted by this love, acts in accordance with dictates which approximate to the will of God.”
On distinguishing good from evil, the saint taught that “the certain sign by which to recognize good from evil is not so much the end, which may appear to be holy and sublime, as the means selected to achieve the end…Evil always and inevitably contains an element appearing to have a positive value, and it is this which seduces man…[but] good not obtained by good means is not good.”
We may wonder what importance the life of this monk – who spent his life in spiritual warfare against the devil’s interior assaults – could have for us. We must first remember that a monk living in the solitude of a mountaintop monastery is not completely separate from the world. In all his constant prayers, St. Silouan was praying for the world, for the living and the dead and we believe that God hears such fervent prayers. Because of the witness of Elder Sophrony, we can be inspired and instructed by the wisdom of St. Silouan. Fr.Sophrony has passed this wisdom and that which he has acquired on to his disciple, Dr. Chrisopher Veniamin (professor of patristics at St. Tikhon’s Seminary). This is the way that Holy Tradition has been passed on in every age from the Apostles until now.
As he prayed for this world while he was in it, we can be assured of the continuing prayers for us by this holy monk who is now closer to the throne of God. Holy Silouan, pray for us.
[Sources: Recently Canonized Orthodox Sints; their Lives and Icons by Dr. Jane M. DeVyver; The Monk of Mount Athos by Archimandrite Sophrony.]