England’s New Saint:  St. Sophrony of Essex 1896-1993

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God;
consider the outcome of their life  and imitate their faith.  
(Hebrews 13:7)

On November 27, 2019 the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, with His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew, announced the canonization of the Elder Sophrony (Sakarov) founder and elder of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England.  Father Sophrony is venerated as one of the most beloved elders of the 20th century and since his death in 1993 miracles have been recorded at his tomb.  He is especially remembered as the disciple of St. Silouan of Mount Athos who made known his life and teachings.  (see acrod.org “Orthodox Reading Room”; “Lives of the Saints”) 

Father Sophrony was born in Russia in 1896 with the name Sergei.  From a young age he had a natural attraction to prayer from which he devoted much time, unusual for a young boy.  With natural artistic abilities he studied at the Academy of Arts and subsequently at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture from 1915 to 1921.  During this period Sergei fell away from the Orthodox Faith of his youth as he explored Buddhism and Indian mystical religions.  In 1921 he left Russia to continue his artistic career, first in Italy, then Germany and finally settling in Paris in 1922. 

In Paris, his art began to attract positive reviews but Sergei grew increasingly frustrated with the ability of art to transform the human spirit and lead people to a higher level.  Finding renewed meaning in the Orthodox Faith that he had abandoned, he repented and returned to the Church on Holy Saturday of 1924.  He recognized that Christ was the answer to what his soul longed to express through art.  In 1925 he enrolled in the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, but as with his art, he found the study of academic theology unfulfilling.  Seeking to know Christ on a more intimate and less scholarly level, he left Paris in 1926 to become a monk on Mount Athos in Greece.  He entered the Russian Orthodox Monastery of St. Panteleimon and was tonsured a monk with the name “Sophrony”. In 1930 he was ordained a s deacon by St. Nicholas Velimirovich  (see acrod.org “Orthodox Reading Room”; “Lives of the Saints”; “The Serbian Chrysostom”) Here in the monastery he became a spiritual son and disciple of the Elder Silouan, who despite being an uneducated Russian peasant, was a spiritual giant and had a lasting influence on Sophrony. From that time until St. Silouan’s death in 1938, Father Sophrony met with the elder on almost a daily basis to be taught the art of prayer,  the ascetic struggle against sinful passions, and ultimately to union with God.  Following the death of St. Silouan, Father Sophrony followed his elder’s instruction and left the monastery to live in a cave in a remote part of Mount Athos.  Here he remained from 1939 until 1945 spending the time in intense prayer, fasting and spiritual struggle.  In 1941 he was ordained to the holy priesthood and became a spiritual father to many of the monks who lived nearby.

To Paris and England

In 1947 Father Sophrony left Mount Athos to return to Paris for reasons that are not entirely clear:  due to his deteriorating health or possibly to publish the life and writings of his elder St. Silouan.  Nevertheless, he settled in a Russian old-age home where he assisted the local priest and heard confessions.  It was here that he produced the first record of the life and teachings of St. Silouan on mimeographed pages which were professionally published in 1952.  By 1958, Father Sophrony had attracted a group of disciples who were living near him and desiring to join him in way life.  A property was purchased in the village of Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, England and the Monastery of St. John the Baptist was established consisting of homes for both male and female monastics.  From an original group six monastics, the monastery today includes over thirty members and is known throughout England as center for Orthodox life and spirituality.  From it’s very beginning, Father Sophrony wanted to insure that the monks and nuns would not simply live a life focused on the external forms of monastic life but would devote their energies to purifying their souls and seeking union with God.  The daily schedule of the monastery includes the repetition of the Jesus Prayer for about four hours each day and the celebration of the Divine Liturgy three or four times a week along with the other services of the liturgical cycle.  To his disciples and all his spiritual children he emphasized the constant use of the Jesus Prayer:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”.  He taught:  “When the pain of the heart reaches the limits of physical endurance, the invocation of the Name of Jesus Christ brings the peace that keeps man alive”. 

His Falling Asleep in the Lord

The monastery was informed by the local government that the only way they could bury the deceased monks and nuns on the monastery grounds was if they excavated an underground crypt.  Father Sophrony predicted that he would not die until the crypt was ready.  When informed that the construction would be completed by July 12, he said he “would be ready”.  One of his disciples, Father Zacharias recorded his memories of the Saints’ final days:

Two or three weeks before he died, he invited all the brethren, one by one, to go and sit with him for about an hour in his kitchen, for their last conversation with him.”  Four days before he died, he closed his eyes, and would not speak to us anymore.  His face was luminous and not pathetic, but full of tension; he had the same expression as when he would celebrate the Liturgy…

On July 11, 1993 Father Sophrony peacefully fell asleep in the Lord and was buried in the new monastery crypt on July 14.  Father Zacharias recorded this event shortly after his death:

The second or third day after Father Sophrony’s death, a family came with a thirteen- year- old child.  He had a brain tumor, and his operation was due the next day.  Father Tychon, from Simonopetra (Mt. Athos), came to me and said, “These people are very sad, they came and did not find Fr. Sophrony.  Why don’t you read some prayers for the child?”  I said to him, “Let us go together.  Come and be my reader.  We will read some prayers in the other chapel”.  We went and read the prayers for the child, and at the end Fr. Tychon said, “You know, why don’t you make the child go under the coffin of Fr. Sophrony?  He will be healed.  We are wasting our time reading prayers.”   I told him that I could not do that, because the people would say that he has only just died and we are already trying to promote his canonization.  “So, you do it! You are an Athonite monk; nobody can say anything.”   He took the child by the hand, and made him pass under the coffin.  The next day they operated on the child and found nothing.  They closed his skull and said, ‘Wrong diagnosis.  It was probably an inflammation.’  It happened that the child was accompanied by a doctor from Greece, who had the X-ray plate, showing the tumor, and who told them, “We know very well what this ‘wrong diagnosis’ means.”  The next week the whole family of that child, who were from Thessalonica, came to the monastery to give thanks at the tomb of Fr. Sophrony.  The child has grown, he is twenty-one years old now, and he is very well. 

Some Teachings of St. Sophrony

Do not forget these words:  God has given you time to build your eternal salvation. Do not waste it!

It is essential to read the Gospel, that incomparable book. Then our life will be built up on the basis of the Word of God. And we will begin to think and make decisions in the spirit of the Divine commandments. How beautiful, when one begins to think like the Creator of this world!

The Fathers of the fourth century left us certain prophecies, according to which in the last times salvation will be bound up with deep sorrows.   We must have the determination to overcome temptations comparable to the sorrows of the first Christians. All the witnesses of Christ’s Resurrection were martyred. We should be ready to endure any hardship.

Of course, it is better not to sin. But repentance, if it is like a flame, can restore every loss.  We must preserve the spirit of repentance all our life, right to the end. Repentance is the basis of all ascetic and spiritual life. The feeling, or intuition, of sin can become so acute in us that it really engenders a repentance from the depths of our being.

A Roman Catholic asked me why we Orthodox repeat the Jesus Prayer so often. I told him: “We repeat it because we are slow on the uptake and do not understand. When, however, we understand something, we never leave it.”

God arranges sufferings and trials for the proud man so that he might be saved. To someone who is physically strong He gives an illness to stop him indulging himself. Afflictions crush the heart, and this crushing produces prayer.

The aim in bringing up children is that they may acquire personal love for Christ and the All-Holy Virgin. We ought not to advise them simply to become good people. Also, we have to help them to stay in the Orthodox Church, not merely to avoid sin. The fact that they stay within Orthodoxy is a great thing, and may be the cause of salvation, even if they have made some mistakes in their lives. Children ought to be inspired by love for Christ and the All-Holy Virgin.

It is preferable for children not to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ rather than to partake under compulsion from their parents, without wanting to themselves. If the mother prays during the child’s conception, pregnancy and birth, she gives it spiritual birth as well as physical birth – she gives birth to a spiritual being. There were many atheists in Russia, but the worst atheists were the children of priests. We must make sure that we bring up children in such a way that they do not regard Orthodoxy as difficult and burdensome.

- Father Edward Pehanich