In the following article and interview we meet a living example of purity in spiritual authority. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain, a church that sees itself as proceeding in an unbroken lineage from the earliest days of Christianity. Having split from the Western church in 1054, Eastern Orthodoxy today has over 300 million followers and, with Russia’s new openness to religion, is growing in size and influence. For many years, Metropolitan Anthony’s sermons have been broadcast by BBC radio and television, and he is well known in Europe and Russia as “the voice and face of Orthodoxy.”
Central to Orthodox Christianity is the hesychast tradition, the esoteric practice of silent contemplation under the direction of a staretz, or spiritual father. This tradition is said to go back to the early saints and Christian contemplatives known as the Desert Fathers.
Metropolitan Anthony is himself a contemplative as well as a spiritual father to many. Through his books and talks, he has brought prayer and spirituality to life for innumerable others. While fulfilling the responsibilities of a patriarch in the Church organization, Metropolitan Anthony sees union with the Divine and manifesting this union in the world as his foremost task. His humility and single-minded seriousness of purpose shine through in this portrait of a rare and extraordinary human being.
It’s Sunday morning. As I approach the Russian Orthodox Church, which looks small and unimposing amid the stately Georgian architecture of affluent Knightsbridge in Central London, I am wondering what it will be like to meet Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and a man regarded by many as nothing less than a modern-day saint. In a time when organized religion seems to have fallen into disrepute and spiritual authorities in general are regarded with suspicion and mistrust, what is it that attracts this man’s parishioners to Christian Orthodoxy, and why do they and so many others hold him in such high esteem? As I pause before the pale stone front of his church, it excites me to realize that I am about to find out.
After entering through the heavy wooden door, it takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light within. But then what strikes me is just how many people are here for today’s service—hundreds, and they’re all standing. I’m surprised to see that there are hardly any chairs, though I find out later that this is the norm for services in the Orthodox Church. The atmosphere is rich with the smell of incense and the beautiful voices of an unaccompanied choir.
The walls and pillars are covered with golden icons depicting the Orthodox tradition’s pantheon of saints. Candlelight shimmers in the darkness, reflected by the gold of the icons. A feeling of devotion is palpable as people pray, kneeling periodically on the bare wooden floor, or deep in contemplation, offer a candle and kiss the icons unselfconsciously. Partly in Russian and partly in English, the service lasts for a good two and a half hours, by the end of which I can hardly stand. But the people around me look as attentive as they did at the start.
The Orthodox Church is an Eastern branch of Christianity which has developed in near-total isolation from the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches of the West. Prayer has always been paramount in its tradition as a way of communion with God, and the extraordinary lives of its many saints through the centuries are testimony to its efficacy. In our time the Orthodox Church is increasingly attractive to many Western Christians who feel that it offers a depth of spiritual life not available to them in their own traditions. I’ve been told that recently an Anglican priest together with his entire congregation converted to Orthodoxy in this very church. The priest said during the ceremony that for him it was a homecoming.
Suddenly the congregation crowds expectantly to the front and an elderly archbishop with a gray beard and an ornate robe and mitre begins speaking in English. I know at once that this must be Metropolitan Anthony. As he leans on his staff, eyes closed and seemingly in meditation, his carefully chosen words emerge with a natural warmth and authority. His sermon is short, but his words command attention and have undeniable power and authenticity:
“People usually say that a heretic is someone who holds false and wrong views, but also I say a heretic is someone who doesn’t live what they preach. So let us examine ourselves. Why is it that people who meet us never notice that we are limbs of the risen Christ, temples of the Holy Spirit? Why? Each of us has got to give his own reply to this question. Let us, each of us, examine ourselves and be ready to answer before our own conscience, and do what is necessary to change our lives in such a way that people meeting us may look at us and say: ‘Such people we have never seen. There is something about them that we have never seen in anyone. What is it?’ And we could answer: ‘It is the life of Christ in us. We are His limbs. This is the life of the spirit in us. We are His temple.’ “
Suddenly the service is over and the congregation begins to disperse. When the Metropolitan reappears after a few minutes, the robe and mitre are gone, replaced by a plain brown monk’s habit and a well-worn leather belt. People waylay him and ask with moving devotion for a quick word or a blessing for their babies. As he strides purposefully towards me, I realize how extraordinarily vigorous and solid he is for a man over eighty years old. He takes both my hands together in his and readily agrees to my request for an interview. Then he’s gone, disappearing out a side door.
Although we’ve hardly spoken, I feel that I’ve just met with a fellow human being rather than with the representative of a powerful institution. Why this is so becomes clearer to me during another visit to the church to listen to the Metropolitan speak at the ordination of a new deacon:
“Let us therefore pray with him and surround him with care, with compassion, because we have sent him like a lamb among the wolves. The wolves are all the temptations that may come with new force to everyone who devotes his life to the service of God. It is also those people to whom he will be sent, of whom some will receive his words with gratitude and some will reject them with anger, because the message he is to bring is a message of total transparency, total surrender to God, and also of a heroic following of Him who has said to us: ‘I have given you an example to follow.’ “Listening to this, I have the feeling that Metropolitan Anthony is speaking as much about himself as anyone else.
Returning a few weeks later at the time we’ve arranged for our interview, I’m surprised that it is the archbishop himself who heaves open the door to greet me. Seeing him again I realize that he is shorter than I had thought, his bearing and presence having given the impression of a man of larger physical stature. I follow him upstairs to the gallery, where we have to climb through all manner of boxes and old clothes—stored here for rummage sales—in order to get to the small space where he keeps a makeshift desk. Since the gallery is tiered and narrow, the seat he offers me is on a higher level than his own, so that I find myself looking down at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and feeling slightly embarrassed by this reversal of protocol. He seems to have no secretary or office and appears indifferent to such material concerns. I notice that his monk’s habit is held together by a safety pin.
The Metropolitan is very welcoming, and although his gaze is steady and penetrating, his eyes often flicker with humor. I find him down to earth, completely natural and quick to laugh, and I sense in him a fearlessness that must come from having gone through the fire himself. Because he is so self-effacing, tending to downplay his knowledge and spiritual attainment, it is sometimes difficult to draw him out about his own inner life. He seems to prefer sharing stories and anecdotes reminiscent of the teaching stories of the Desert Fathers, the early Christian ascetics of the Egyptian desert among whom the Orthodox tradition originated. He relates with amusement that the posters announcing a seminar he once gave at Oxford made it clear that believers were not invited, because it is his experience that believers think they have all the answers and tend not to be open! Having read some of his books and listened to some of his BBC radio and television broadcasts, I know his talks and writings to be an extraordinary and universal testament to the fruits of the spiritual life. But he smiles with a certain relish as he confesses that he never went to theological college.
The son of a Russian diplomat, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh was born in 1914 and spent his early years in Russia and Persia. Because of the revolution, his family emigrated to France, where he eventually became a medical doctor in Paris. He recalls that his father was a powerful spiritual influence on him as he was growing up. Once, when he returned home late from a holiday, his father told him that he had been worried about him. “Did you think I’d had an accident?” he asked. But that wasn’t what his father was concerned about. “That would have meant nothing,” his father answered, “even if you had been killed. I thought you had lost your integrity.” This incident made a profound impression on him, and has stayed with him all his life.
During the Second World War, he served in the French Resistance as well as practicing medicine. Many of his anecdotes about the conditions which really test an individual’s devotion to truth and readiness for self-sacrifice are drawn from his experiences during the war. He took monastic vows secretly in 1943 and was ordained as a priest in 1948. Soon afterward he moved in order to serve his church in England, where he has lived ever since. He became an archbishop in 1962, and Metropolitan (which means bishop of a chief city, or metropolis) in 1966.
By the Metropolitan’s own account, he was “aggressively anti-church” during his teenage years in Paris, and did not believe in God. At a certain point, while at boarding school, it occurred to him that life would be unbearable if it had no meaning. He allotted himself one year in which to discover whether life did have any meaning. He decided that if at the end of that year he had found none, he would kill himself. Months went by and no meaning appeared.
Then one day he was persuaded to attend a talk by a priest who had been invited to address a Russian youth group to which he belonged. He sat through the lecture reluctantly, finding himself disturbed and repelled by the picture of Christianity which the priest presented. Returning home, he read through one of the Gospels to see if it would confirm the negative impression the lecture had given him. As he read he suddenly became aware of a mysterious and overwhelming presence in the room. To his shock and surprise he knew without any doubt that this was Christ. This direct experience was, he says, the turning point of his life, and gave him a certainty which has never left him.
Man’s aim, the end and vocation set before him, is that through and beyond his own union with God, he should make this transcendent yet ever-present God (who enfolds and penetrates all, in whom we live and move and have our being, but who remains unknown to the world, unknowable indeed from without) interior and immanent in man and through man in the world; united with his creature indissolubly, though without confusion, distinct yet not alien, still himself, still personal, still God—yet closer to the soul than breathing itself. . . .
Thus, as he embarks on his course, the Christian must make his peace with God, with his own conscience, with men and things; relinquish all care about himself, firmly purpose to forget himself, not to know himself, to kill in himself all greed, even for spiritual things, in order to know nothing but God alone. . . .
Henceforward the worshipper must free himself from the bondage of the world by unconditional obedience—joyful, total, humble, and immediate; he must in all simplicity seek God, without hiding any of his wretchedness, without founding any hope on himself, in this active self-abandonment to God which is the spirit of watchfulness in humility, in veneration, with a sincere will to be converted, ready to die rather than give up the search.
WIE: What is the importance of a spiritual father or master in guiding a sincere person who wants to go further in their spiritual life, who wants to be serious about God?
Metropolitan Anthony: As in every walk of life, before you can walk independently you must be taught how to walk and in what direction. If you have someone who is more experienced than you are, knows perhaps more or better, it’s natural that you should learn to listen. And the point of obedience, which we always think of in terms of being like a little dog who is given commands and obeys them—it isn’t that at all. Obedience is a word that means listening. If you learn to listen to someone else, not only to the words he speaks but to the mood and meaning he tries to convey, you become freer of your self-centeredness, of your narrowness, and you become capable of listening not only to this man but to every person, and to the totality of life, and to God. Because unless you learn to listen to one person you cannot learn to listen. But on the other hand, it is not everyone who knows a little and can teach a great deal. If you find a great spiritual guide you are lucky, but they don’t grow like grass.
WIE: In the modern world there have been many people who’ve assumed the role of mentor or teacher and abused their power, so that people have become suspicious of genuine spiritual authority.
MA: One must learn at the same time to listen with openness, and never to renounce one’s right to say, “I cannot follow beyond this point.” Because otherwise you will obey the guidance of people who have no basis for guidance, who have no reason to guide you. It doesn’t mean you have a right to judge everyone, to say, “I know better.” But it means that you must be very sure that this person knows what the answer is to your question, to the question you are asking.
WIE: I read your beautiful introduction to The Way of a Pilgrim, the famous classic of Russian Orthodox spirituality. You wrote there about the importance of a relationship with a master who is well qualified to guide one on the way.
MA: Yes, but the master doesn’t always tell you, “You do this and you do that and you will arrive at such and such a point.” At times he’s an example to you, at times there is something in him that makes you follow. I remember how I found my spiritual father. I came to a church late for the service and I saw a man coming out. There was in him such serenity, such centeredness and light that I came up to him and said, “I don’t know who you are, but would you be my spiritual guide?” And afterwards he hardly ever gave me guidance, but I’m sure he prayed for me, and I found that I was like a little skiff tied by a long rope to a great boat. He was moving in that direction and I was moving behind him, but there was always this rope between us. I saw him once or twice a year, and whenever we met I discovered I had come to a point where he was. Not in the same degree, but like a little circle and a big circle: both are a circle, but there is a difference of size, of scale. Before he died he sent a note to me, “I know now what the mystery of contemplative silence is, I can now die.” And he was dead within three days.
WIE: He was obviously an important influence on you.
MA: Yes, but he must be ashamed of me now because I have not born fruit of what he was. But he is really an image for me.
WIE: Often people don’t like the idea of obedience to authority, but you are talking about being inspired by and following the example of another.
MA: If only people thought less in terms of drill and doing what they are told, but thought instead, “If I want to learn to play the piano, I must ask someone to direct every finger of mine.” The same is true about everything we want to learn. You cannot learn the piano by simply banging and hoping it will come out right.
WIE: For the Orthodox Christian and the Orthodox Christian path, what is the ideal goal or result for a human being?
MA: I think I would answer in a way that may sound very stupid: to become a real human being. Because habitually we are not real human beings, we are human animals. We develop our intellect, we have our emotions, we have a wavering will. This is not real harmony. This is not wholeness. The perfect wholeness to us is the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. The aim of the Christian life is to become disciples, people who learn from him, not only obedient in the sense of being well drilled but obedient in the sense of being able to listen deeply, to understand his thought, his heart, and to grow into the full measure of our humanity, which is His humanity.
WIE: What would it mean to grow into the full measure of one’s humanity, the full measure of Christ’s humanity?
MA: I think the ideal would be to love one’s neighbor with all one’s being—if necessary at the cost of one’s life—and to know and love God with all of one’s being, because it is His life and His love that finds perfect expression in us when we are sufficiently open.
Doing the will of God is a discipline in the best sense of the word. It is also a test of our loyalty, of our fidelity to Christ. It is by doing in every detail, at every moment, to the utmost of our power, as perfectly as we can, with the greatest moral integrity, using our intelligence, our imagination, our will, our skill, our experience, that we can gradually learn to be strictly, earnestly obedient to the Lord God.
Unless we do this our discipleship is an illusion and all our life of discipline, when it is a set of self-imposed rules in which we delight, which makes us proud and self-satisfied, leaves us nowhere, because the essential momentum of our discipleship is the ability to reject our self, to allow the Lord Christ to be our mind, our will and our heart. Unless we renounce ourselves and accept his life in place of our life, unless we aim at what St. Paul defines as “it is no longer I but Christ who lives in me,” we shall never be either disciplined or disciples.
from Living Prayer