There are many variations in the vision of the uncreated Light. Initially it happens obscurely with the revelation of one’s inner darkness. Then it becomes brighter and transmits divine-life. After that, however, there are fluctuations, withdrawals of divine grace, times when God departs, and then divine grace comes anew. All these things are described by an empirical theologian, who was familiar with these visits and departures of God.
In his writings the Elder speaks about the unexpected advent of the divine Light, which “embraces us with…love”. Later he speaks of “continuous vision of the light”, which stayed with him “for three days”, and on another occasion remained with him “for two weeks”. Here we should recall the teaching of St Gregory Palamas, which we saw above, about illumination and the continuous vision of the Light. This grace, like the grace of experiencing Gethsemane, was a great gift which, as he confesses, “continues…to this day, increasing all the time”. He lived through that period when he was in the Light, and the Light was in him, as a natural state. He goes on to speak about the loss of God’s grace, of the retreat of “the Spirit of the Lord”, of the departure for a long time of “the vision of heavenly Light”, of being forsaken by the Light and of drifting away from “the celestial radiance”.
It is clear from this that Father Sophrony’s experience was very great, and for that reason it is difficult to interpret. We cannot analyse it, and can only cite his own words that reveal this reality.
The Elder usually went through this experience without evaluating it rationally and without attempting to understand or check it by comparing it with the teaching of the Fathers of the Church. He did not theologise about this experience. He did not cling to these states, although he dwelt “in a formless mental sphere”, nor did he engage in introspection in order to analyse the experience theologically. Rather, he loathed himself due to the deep repentance and contrition that possessed him throughout his life. He went for long periods without thoughts, although thoughts would arise when he was talking to others.
The unrestrainable impetus towards painful repentance drew his soul “to insatiable prayer — the sort of prayer where the soul is unremembering, thinks of nothing, but, unbridled, reaches out to God, invisible yet beloved; inapprehensible yet known; inaccessible yet near.”
At the arrival of even one proud thought, he was deprived of the Light. He writes: “Time and again I would pray, drowning in tears of repentance, and then somewhere close by, in the air still, a vain thought would come and I would rise to my feet bereft – tears gone, soul desolate, body vigorous, spiritual life no more.” This, however, taught him how to deal courageously with proud thoughts while they were still approaching. He writes: “After many such disasters the slightest sign of the enemy’s approach would fill me with dread and I would redouble my cries of repentance — Ό Lord, the murderers are come, save me’. Then it was that I understood why the Fathers disliked praise: if praised, even the most perfect of them did not escape damage tcuheir love of God.”
This is why he wrote that “the imaginative mind is not suited to theology.” Anyone who wishes “to stand before God with dipure mind’ must distance himself from “the sphere of the imagination”.
Drawing near to God is linked with painful tension, which is difficult to bear for those whose fallen nature hates suffering. He was “faced with a choice”. He could come to terms with present reality by “wrongly abasing myself”, or he could accept “Christ’s dread summons”. And he writes: “When I chose the latter course I was reborn into life in the Living God.”
Father Sophrony testifies to way in which the soul ascends to God:
“And however high we may ascend in our reaching for Him with the whole strength of our being, we continue joyfully aware of the process of ascending, yet at the same time He appears to us more and more unattainable. And sometimes we grow faint. A kind of despair seizes us, we see ourselves about to fall — and suddenly He, unexpected now, is with us and embraces us with His love. God is wondrous strange.”
The Elder’s writings also identify the basic reason for losing the Light of divine grace, which is called abandonment by God, Godforsakenness. Generally speaking, man cannot endure theoria for long on account of his corruptibility and mortality. God also providentially arranges this deprivation because of someone’s immaturity, and so that he will freely respond even better, by emptying himself more completely and by drinking the cup that He drank. Thus the soul is humbled and its knowledge of the ways of God increases.
In other cases the man himself bears the responsibility, because he does not respond as he should to this great gift of God.
After describing the experience of seeing the uncreated Light for two weeks, the Elder goes on to mention the reason why he lost this great gift. It was because he attempted to understand it rationally.
“One evening a monk from a cell near mine came to me and said, Ί have just been reading the hymns of St Simeon the New Theologian. Tell me — what do you make of his description of his vision of the Uncreated Light?’ Up to that moment I had lived with grateful heart the Lord’s blessing upon me but had not posed any question about the occurrence — my thoughts were fixed upon God to the exclusion of self. In order to answer Father Juvenaly I reflected on what was happening to me at the time. Trying to cover up, I answered evasively, ‘It is not for me to pronounce upon St Simeon’s experience…
But perhaps when grace was with him he was conscious of it as Light. I don’t know.’ I had the impression that Father Juvenaly retired to his cell without suspecting anything more than I had said. But soon after this brief exchange I began to pray as usual. Light and love were no longer with me.”
This rational analysis of the vision of the uncreated Light caused the loss of this gift. He confesses: “It has occurred more than once in my life in God that so soon as I began to perceive with my reason (my ‘left hand’) what was happening to me after God had condescended to me, the Light forsook me.”
Some may regard it as madness to renounce rational analysis at such times, on the grounds that God gave us the ability to reason. This is what Barlaam used to say, and he described the vision granted to the Prophets as “inferior to understanding”. The Elder refutes this view very effectively by writing that, when “this madness'”, that is to say, this refusal to rationalise, left him, he understood the inestimable loss caused to his spiritual being.
There were circumstances in which this logical analysis of the experience would take place at another time, for the purpose of spiritual guidance. It was sometimes necessary for the Elder to say what was happening to him in order to help those monks who had experienced something similar. However, this too was a disaster. As he writes: “This calamity befell me particularly after I was appointed spiritual confessor on Mt. Athos.”
On other occasions the loss of this great grace was due to a subtle proud thought. The Elder was helped by the writings of the Fathers, because he found in them something similar to his own experience. On the other hand, this spiritual reading and knowledge also had its dangers, because, as he writes, “I was plunged into a complex struggle with my self-conceit”, and then “the vision of heavenly Light” would depart, “perhaps for a long time”. He would “suffer deep sadness” on this account.
After the loss of the undying life that he had known during the vision of the uncreated Light, he would return to his previous state and, of course, his repentance and mourning continued. The deified ascend from illumination of the nous and unceasing noetic prayer to theoria of God, and when for various reasons this theoria comes to an end, they return to noetic prayer. After the loss of theoria of the Light, which is the light of the Kingdom of God and eternal life, profound sorrow would fill the Elder’s soul and a kind of distress or alarm would enter his heart. He characterises this loss, especially when caused by subtle thoughts of pride and rational processes, as a “calamity”, as “irreparable loss to my spiritual being”.
—I Know a Man in Christ: Elder Sophrony the Hesychast and Theologian by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos (Excerpt: 117-121)