“Through the fire and water the Lord brings us to a place of abundance….it is through pain and suffering that our “unseen and hidden depths of being come to light.”
Elder Sophrony’s Life and Ministry Reflects an Important Truth for a World That Desperately Seeks Meaning and Purpose: Christ, as the True Person, Is the Full-ness of Being, and Mankind, Created in His Image and Likeness, Has Been given the Potential to Fulfill Our True Personhood Through Union with Him.
Christ Therefore Is the Forerunner of Our Restored Humanity, and the Elder’s Message Pertains to the Wondrous Truth of Our Identity as Beings Created in the Likeness of God. This Divine Seed Is Planted in Man’s “deep Heart,” Hidden from Our Fallen Awareness.
It would have remained so, had it not been for the incarnation of the Son of God (Jean-Claude Larchet, The Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, 2012). In his letter to Cledonius St Gregory of Nazianzus explains “For that which He has not been assumed He has not healed.” In humility and love, God the Son chose to condescend and become man, so that our humanity could be united with His divinity.
His life, suffering, death and resurrection revealed to us our true identity as children of God and showed us the path of restoration to man’s pristine condition before the fall of Adam (Larchet). It is when we are united with Christ that we are able to carry out the two great Gospel commandments of love by fulfilling their ontological dimensions (Sophrony, 1997). The hypostatic principle, according to the Elder, is therefore the basis of man’s personhood in God’s image.
In his lectures on the hypostatic principle, Father Zacharias (2015) tells us that Elder Sophrony provided four central points of his theology of the person, a few days before his death:
i. Christ is the true person as was revealed to Moses: “I am He who is.”
ii. Man also is a person created in God’s image and likeness.
iii. The content of the person of Christ is His self-emptying love unto the end, by which he accomplished the salvation of the world.
iv. Man likewise proves himself a person when he acquires love for God to the point of self-hatred, pure prayer which accompanied this, and prayer for the world similar to Christ’s prayer at Gethsemane. (The Elder uses the term self-hatred to express his disdain for every impurity he sees in himself.)
In Hebrews 2:10 we read: “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” To understand the role of suffering in the process of realizing the hypostatic principle in us, we should know a little about where man was when he was first created, what happened after the fall, where he is now, and who he is destined to be. In his book, Larchet provides a comprehensive description of man’s original state: oriented completely towards God to find fulfillment in Him and destined to realize perfection by His deification – that is, becoming god by grace. Man possessed all virtue as a seed in his nature, being in a continual state of prayer and unity with the divine, in ceaseless glorification of His creator and connected to all creation (Larchet).
When Adam sinned by choosing to be his own god, mankind was separated from his creator. Man’s being, no longer directed towards the worship of God became re-oriented towards love of himself. As Larchet describes it, “The mirror of his soul was darkened and ceased to reflect its creator.” With the distortion of the image of man in God and the severing of his union with the divine, the virtues weakened and man forgot his authentic nature and glorious destiny.
Larchet presents a consensus of the Church Fathers, who describe man’s state after the fall as one of spiritual sickness, madness and pathology. Instead of fulfilling their original purpose of turning all of his being towards God, man’s faculties began to seek pleasure and fulfillment outside of Him, avoiding suffering at all costs. The overflowing love of Christ made manifest by His incarnation and hypostatic union with mankind, enabled humanity once again to recover the potential of our original nature, to fulfill our destiny as Christological beings.
Christ reveals to us that when we are united to God, our nature is both human and divine. He is the true archetype of man, and physician and healer of our souls (Larchet). He came not just to deliver us from our sins, but for our healing, which is inseparable from our salvation. Larchet describes this as an ontological restoration of human nature, a reorientation of our faculties, and a re-appropriation of man’s true destiny.
In his third point on the subject of the hypostatic principle, Elder Sophrony states that it is Christ’s self-emptying love, His kenosis, made manifest by His voluntary suffering and death on our behalf, that is the content of His personhood. This is again reflected in Hebrews 2:10. Therefore, to realize the potential of our hypostatic being, we too, as Christo-logical beings, must walk the path of self-denial in our own kenosis. In His Life Is Mine, Elder Sophrony observes that to actualize our being as hypostasis, we need to grow, and this growth is linked with pain and suffering. If we are to fulfill our true person-hood, we must take the same path as the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, who “poured out his life unto death” so that by “His stripes we are healed.”
To enjoy the power of Christ’s victory over death in the Resurrection of our true personhood, we must first endure the suffering of our cross, that the old man might be crucified with Him (Romans 6:6). Father Zacharias tells us in his lectures on the hypostatic principle that it is through pain and suffering that our “unseen and hidden depths of being come to light.” Isaiah 53 similarly says that “after He has suffered, He will see the light of life.”
Father Zacharias explains that to purify ourselves from our “luciferic” faith in ourselves, we “must overcome the fallen nature that abhors pain and become akin to Christ in his suffering.” Thus, we may be united to Him. As we read in Psalm 66, “through the fire and water the Lord brings us to a place of abundance.”
God invites us to participate in our healing by cooperation with His divine grace and will. He asks us to voluntarily pick up our cross, and to deny ourselves and our fleshly passions in a kenosis of continual repentance. Larchet writes that the asceticism of the Orthodox Church and the gifts of grace from the sacramental therapies – and particularly baptism and communion – illuminate the path we must walk to benefit from salvation and return to our original health.
The kenosis or death of the self requires an obedient and faithful acceptance of suffering, a willingness to endure what is needed for the healing of our soul. As noted earlier, in turning away from God, man turned towards love of self, using his faculties to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. The self-denial of ascetic practices and discipline help us to subdue these fallen inclinations, so that our hearts may open to communion with God (the grace of His energies) and our spirit can be reoriented to Him.
Suffering in its various forms is a type of asceticism, in that it involves a discomfort and displeasure that awakens man from the sleep of his fallen state. In these times of pain and weakness, our humble abandonment to the will of God in the midst of our powerlessness invites the glory of His power and love to be made manifest in us. This brings healing to our soul and liberates us from the bondage of the passions that dominate our will. We can hear this truth in these beautiful words famously attributed to St. Augustine: “In my deepest wound, I beheld your glory.”
In the world in which we live, pain, suffering, tragedies, disease and death continually surround us. If we haven’t yet been touched by adversity, there always remains an underlying anxiety: we know that it is inevitable. The world offers its own pain medication, a plethora of sleeping aids that can consume or numb the pain, addict us or distract us, and chase away the remembrance of death.
Our successes, careers, talents, family, material wealth, health – all bring comfort to the soul, but all are fleeting. Each one can be taken away in an instant, bringing us the pain of separation from the things that give us meaning, and revealing the fragility of the foundation of our being when it is laid outside of God.
However we try to obscure it, the reality of suffering is unavoidable. It surrounds us in people, places and events that awaken us momentarily from the haze of our distorted perceptions. Metropolitan Nikolaos, in his book When God Is Not There, observes that “life offers the medicine of forgetfulness, but there are places where we cannot forget, e.g., airports, prisons, mental institutions, hospitals, nursing homes.”
Like these places, which hold within them death, sickness, separation and pain, our trials or the trials of those around us can open the door for grace to enter. This grace stirs in us a desire to turn and seek the One Whom our soul was created to love.
Understanding our nature and the beautiful gift of personhood that God has placed in our depths radically reframes our understanding of suffering and adversity. In doing so, it does not offer direct answers to the question of why we are suffering – this is knowledge reserved for God alone, as we witness in the story of Job.
Instead, we can understand suffering as a necessary vehicle for the actualization of our true being through the testing of our faith. We read in 1 Peter 1:6–7: “In this you greatly rejoice . . . though you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
When, on the other hand, we set our sights on the avoidance of suffering at all costs, we deny ourselves grace-filled opportunities to grow into our hypostasis. In enabling others to do the same – although this may be well-intentioned – we may only be helping them avoid an experience that could bring them closer to the truth of their hypostatic calling.
Suffering not only provides an opportunity for the revelation of Divine Love within us, but also for those around us (Nikolaos). The humble acceptance of God’s will in those who suffer is a powerful revelation of God’s love and presence. Metropolitan Nikolaos observes that suffering generates love in the people around us, and we become bonded together in mutual compassion.
When people offer their love to those who suffer, it can bring with it a powerful grace of consolation that overcomes the weight of suffering. In this shared space, a tangible love is revealed. Muse (2011) relays the concept of the dialogos, as the transformative encounter between persons where Christ’s presence “in the midst of two or three” converts dialogue into “trialogue” and provides noetic illumination through a meeting of the uncreated with the created.
Christ-in-our-midst is revealed in true hospitality and communion between persons as He brings a mutual awakening of our hearts into deeper truths of being. This can be especially therapeutic and powerful when we share together in each other’s suffering.
Elder Sophrony once said that “suffering can destroy or beautify.” “We must see both of these potentials when we encounter others.” The four points of the hypostatic principle give us who are caregivers the lens by which we can perceive what those in our care are experiencing.
We must always be able to bring into our mind what is going on in a person’s life, the wider context, rather than simply be dazzled by the presence of pain and suffering. We know that it is God’s “good pleasure” for His image to be restored in us and for man to be transformed into His likeness and united in Him. We were created for a purpose, and that purpose is an identity, the fulfillment of our personhood.
Father Zacharias tells us in his lectures that “man’s ontological content develops in the measure of his participation in the fullness of the Energies of his Maker.” We must come alongside others who are suffering and help illumine their darkness by guiding them to respond to God’s invitation of synergy with His divine grace.
Metropolitan Nikolaos, in When God Is Not There, shares many examples in which the glory of God was made manifest in the midst of difficult circumstances. He observes that “embracing our suffering will give rise to newly discovered sensitivities and will unfold realities which cannot otherwise be seen.”
He shares stories of trials that are rendered powerless against inner joy, and of lives that declare a hidden wonder and profound thanksgiving that seem illogical to the rational observer. In the midst of crisis, however, our souls can become overwhelmed with the pain we are facing, rendering us unable to perceive the divine plan of God hidden in our depths and woven into our being. As a helper, it is our role to share humbly in the sufferings of others, with our eyes open to the movement of God’s grace that manifests truth and revelation in both persons sharing this sacred space.
One of the most difficult things to experience in suffering is the apparent absence of God in the midst of the pain. In encountering people who have endured immense tragedy, I have felt their pain as they wrestled with questions about God’s presence or absence in times of suffering.
I have experienced this disorientation in my own life. Metropolitan Nikolaos suggests that it is not a question of whether God is there, but whether we are aware of His presence, and whether we are able to see when He manifests Himself in the chosen time. He observes that our ability to see depends on the purity of our vision to perceive “God’s moment for our soul.”
This, he says, requires faith in the promise of His continual presence, patience, and an ongoing struggle to purify our sight, so that we may see Him in the humble places of our life. As Orthodox caregivers, we can help others in the struggle against self-preoccupation, and help them expand their vision beyond their suffering to His presence manifested in their lives. When someone does this, he is better able to accept and submit to the most difficult of circumstances and can find himself in a state of peace and blessedness even in the darkest of hours.
On a recent visit to the St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex, England, Father Peter shared with me – as we sat in Elder Sophrony’s study – that, though we must suffer to fulfil our personhood, when it is possible for us to alleviate the suffering of others, we must do whatever we can. Certainly, we see that Christ had deep compassion on those who were suffering and healed both the souls and bodies of the multitudes who came to Him in need.
That said, we do not seek to escape or obscure the reality of the present pain, or to facilitate a codependent relationship. Instead, we must find the place where, in a dialogue of shared suffering and true compassion, we make meaning that uncovers our personhood. We do so as we traverse the valley of the shadow death, moving towards the destiny of the soul – seeking the rod and the staff of the Good Shepherd for guidance and comfort. By doing this, in the offering of our self to others, we allow God to draw near in His divine consolation.
In my own Christian ministry, I meet with a person who suffers from depression, anxiety and panic attacks. He often feels burdened by the weight of his suffering and struggles to fit in with others. As a result, he feels lonely and outcast in the Church environment. To many, however, it is clear that He is gifted with a special love for God and a rare compassion for others.
It is not difficult to see how God is using the experience of suffering to grant him a purity of heart that is a blessing to those around Him – at least those who are able to recognize it. Being able to redirect his focus to this gift of love, and to see how God is using it to affect others, helps alleviate his pain, and helps him avoid a fixation on how much it hurts.
Father Peter further observed that there are two pathways to the actualization of our true personhood. The more difficult path is found in the saying of St. Silouan: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not.” In a paper that examines the psychosocial implications of St. Silouan’s dictum for survivors of political violence, Professor Renos Papadopoulos explains that this saying tells us not only to refrain from running away from the extreme pain of these devastating situations.
It also encourages us to trust that a “persistent focus on them will activate a certain process of transcendence that would bring about a radical transformation.” That said, Father Peter noted that not everyone is spiritually ready for this road, and that there is another way that is equally effective: that is, through thanksgiving. During my time at the monastery, Father Zacharias also emphasized to me the role of thanksgiving in the healing of the soul.
Father Peter recounted a story that Father Zacharias told him about visiting someone who had been recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her whole body was swollen, and she was in severe physical and emotional discomfort. Father Zacharias asked the lady to focus on the smallest things for which she could give thanks, including the very breath that was keeping her alive.
Father Zacharias visited her again sometime later. Her countenance had completely changed, so much so that he thought she had been given good news regarding her health. In fact, her prognosis was still the same. As she practiced thanksgiving, however, God had opened her heart and given her the strength to endure and the peace and grace to be thankful in all conditions. He also told a story of a girl who had endured great tragedy and was suicidal, finding nothing to live for.
When he asked her if there were anything for which she was thankful, she was in such darkness that she could find none. Father Zacharias asked her to focus on any positive experiences and encounters she had in her childhood and her life up until this point. After some time reflecting, she was able to find several experiences that gave her life meaning. This opened up her heart to the many blessings in her life that she previously couldn’t see. This gave her a desire to live once again.
A week after my visit to Essex, I met with a high-school friend in Scotland who had two years before lost his brother to suicide and the year after his father to a tragic accident. His ten-year relationship with his girlfriend had also ended in the previous six months. I met with him shortly after Christmas, knowing that this was a hard time of year for him and his family.
For the most part, he confided about what he had been going through, and I listened and encouraged him to reflect on where he was. In the past, he had shared with me that he was an atheist. I was surprised then, to hear that following the death of his father (who was a devout Catholic), he spent some time in his father’s Church. While there, he had felt an incredible peace. He knew that he wasn’t just imagining something, and so he felt compelled to move from atheism to agnosticism.
We began to talk about suffering. I told him about some of the things I had been learning. Then I asked him if there was anything in life that he was able to feel thankful for. He told me that his sister had asked him to make a list, and that, even though he was facing such sorrow, he had thought of something very small and it made him smile. He told me that he was thankful for steak pies, a traditional British meat pie. We laughed together and, as small as his observation seemed, it was a real turning point in our encounter.
We were able to take a step into the light. It seemed that we had a refreshed sense of hope for the future. A few weeks later, I received a message from him that our meeting, along with another couple of events in his life, had been a turning point in the way he felt about his life, following this period of mourning and sorrow. This encounter was a wonderful confirmation of all that I had been learning about the role of suffering in awakening the soul to an encounter with God, and the powerful place of thanksgiving in healing.
To conclude, even if the present or past circumstances of a person’s life have brought devastation and pain, we can be sure of the unchangeable and wondrous truth of mankind’s true identity. No amount of tragedy can remove the imprint of God on our soul. We must become conduits for Christ the Physician, who came to heal and restore our personhood.
We must look for signs of life, and know that, however hidden, they are there. With the grace of God, we can come alongside others and help piece together the fragments of their being. The goal is a wholeness of self that can participate in the divine energies of God, necessary for healing of the soul. The Holy Spirit can enable us to see the precious treasure that stands unshaken amidst the wreckage of life, revealing an identity defined not by what is suffered, but by the truth of what remains.
AUTHOR: Tina Cooper
Tina Cooper is a Coptic Orthodox Christian who currently lives with her husband in Long Beach, California, where she works as a volunteer coordinator for Orthodox non-proﬁt, Project Mexico and is active in a local homeless ministry. She holds Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Psychology from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and is currently studying in the Master of Theology program in Pastoral Care & Counseling at the Antiochian House of Studies.
Archimandrite Sophrony. His Life Is Mine. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.
Archimandrite Sophrony. We Shall See Him as He Is. Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2006.
Archimandrite Zacharias. “The Hypostatic Mode of Existence in the Life and Ministry of Elder Sophrony.” Riverside, California: Patristic Nectar Media. http://patristicnectar.org/other_teachers.html. 2015.
Archimandrite Zacharias. “The Hypostatic principal as a gift of the triune God.” Riverside, CA: Patristic Nectar Media. http://patristic-nectar.org/other_teachers.html. 2015.
Larchet, J. Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, volumes 1 and 2. Montreal: Alexander Press, 2012.
Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaia. When God Is Not There. Montreal: Alexander Press, 2013.
Muse, S. When hearts become flame: an Eastern Orthodox approach to the dialogos of pastoral counseling. Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2011.
Reposted with permission Antiochian.org.