by Tudor Petcu
A Romanian writer, Tudor is a graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Bucharest, Romania. He has published a number of articles related to philosophy and theology in different cultural and academic journals. His work focuses on the evolution of Orthodox spirituality in Western societies as well and he is going to publish a book of interviews with Westerners converted to Orthodoxy. In this article, he interviews Klaus Kenneth, whose conversion story you can read HERE, on Elder Sophrony.
1.) First of all, please do tell us when you have met Orthodoxy and why have chosen the conversion to Orthodoxy. Can you say that Father Sophrony of Essex was your main spiritual guide to Orthodoxy?
I have met father Sophrony – and through him Orthodoxy – in Lausanne in 1982, when he was there with father Syméon to translate his book about Saint Siluan in French language. He was just on a pedestrian crossing and I almost ran into him with my car. He invited me and my friend (you know her from my book, Ursula) to follow him and in some of my Youtube talks you might have heard the funny exchange I had with him about his black robe. But more important: I felt on the spot that this man was the person I had always been looking for among all the gurus and teachers around the whole world. His Love was emanating from his being and reached out for my heart and soul.
As I was on my way to another conference in Swiss, he gave me an advice:
Klaus, begin with a little joke, and you will have the audience right in your pocket. I do this also myself.
When I came back from my talk, I told him that and he repeated:
I told you.
We spent about some hours together and his simplicity (like I had experienced before with mother Theresa in Calcutta) was literally embracing me and made us from that moment on friends. I had not the slightest idea, what a spiritual giant he was. He simply applied, what many high ranking clergymen unfortunately have forgotten: It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. His heart and his arms hugged me… and this was only the beginning.
In the following 10 years until his “passing out of our sight“ we deepened my knowledge about Orthodoxy, and he was – and still is through his monks and sisters in Essex – a perfect model for what Orthodoxy really is and means. R&R (rules and rites) are important, but LOVE is above them. If he would have blown up my mind with cold book-knowledge about Orthodoxy, I believe, I wouldn’t be orthodox today.
And to the last part of your question: since the saintly father is now praying for me from ‚on high‘, my spiritual father is his ‚follower‘, father Zacharias (Zacharou), also well known in Romania.
2.) I would be very happy if you could describe in some words your meetings with Father Sophrony. What represents actually Essex for you as an Orthodox?
Let me repeat once more: each meeting with father Sophrony in the following 10 years was marked by his mystic love. He would often come to my room and we would sit up to 2 hours together and share our thought. In the beginning, in my foolish pride, I thought I could teach him with my experiences and religious knowledge. And here is one of the great mysteries of his Love: he let himself ‚teach’ by me. Love always considers the other ‚higher‘ than oneself, so he was not playing a ‚game‘ with me, but was always authentic. This authenticity was teaching me more than many words from the scripture.
Father Sophrony was a ‚living Bible‘, the ‘word’ had become ‘flesh’ in him. This was what he taught me from the very beginning (we spoke in French mostly):
Méfie-toi des gens, qui ont une bibliothèque dans leur tête, mais qui n’ont jamais connu le Christ en personne; qui ont le coeur vide.
My God, I could talk and talk long time about our wonderful exchanges.
The other thing of course was his love. Often we would sit in silence for long minutes and he would only put his arm around me and silently pray. For me this was like he would have an invisible syringe and pump all his love into my soul, heart and body.
He gave me the feeling, to be the most important person for him in the whole world. But of course he was alike with everybody, I suppose. (T)his love never faded away from me, but grew and grew and so when finally father Sophrony ‚disappeared‘, I never felt a ‚loss‘, because such eternal Love cannot disappear. When visitors and pilgrims in Essex go down into the crypt, where he reposes, I think so often: why should I go there? He is not dead. But sometimes I go anyway down and then I embrace the ‚wooden box‘ and – this is not at all spooky – it is like his arms come out and continue to embrace me as so often before. Difficult to describe. Mystic of Love.
You feel it or you don’t. This is what makes the monastery (of St. John the Baptist) so unique. And you can tell immediately, which other monastery in the world was ‚in contact‘ with Essex and father Sophrony: not law but Love reigns. I experienced so many examples there with visitors, but too much to tell here.
3.) What are some reasons for saying that Father Sophrony’s spiritual personality is unique?
Father Sophrony is unique among many Church-fathers, because he was so personal. You can hear so often from clergy:
An Orthodox does not speak about his personal life.
Especially me, I hear that so often, as certain people think I am talking about me, Klaus. But who has read my book knows that my story glorifies Christ. This is why Father Sophrony gave me the blessing for the book.
Yes. if you read Father Sophrony’s books, you find him very personal also. Wasn’t even the Apostle Paul also very personal? Of course. So when you discover Father Sophrony’s books, you can read them easily, but once you go a bit deeper, you find that his writings are of the same quality like Gregory Palamas, Saint John Chrysostom and the like, maybe even deeper!
I would wish, that Father Sophrony would not be canonised as Saint Sophrony of Essex, but as Saint Sophrony the Theologian. He truly was and still is. His impact is incomparably wider than those of ‚his friends‘ Saint Porphyrios or Saint Paisios. Father Sophrony’s books reach around the whole world and even universe. He definitively is unique. Maybe his is also Saint Sophrony the Great. This too fits him perfectly.
4.) Which is the most important spiritual advice that you received over the years from Father Sophrony?
There are so many things he told me. To become a model for others. Never to preach about theological things which I have not experienced first. To be regular in prayer. Always to speak from the heart and not only from the head.
We spoke so much and every time he left my room, I wrote on a paper everything we had shared. Unfortunately – by God’s permission – I lost all these papers. When I told this mishap to father Sophrony, he smiled and said: ‚Don’t worry Klaus, I pray for you and at the given moment you will remember the right word. But even better: read my book ‚To see Him as He is‘, there you find everything we spoke about. He then left and came back with a copy of his book and dedicated it for me. I am happy about it.
5.) What represented Father Sophrony for the evolution of Orthodoxy in England and actually for the Orthodoxy in different Western societies? I am asking you that thinking about the fact that some Westerners converted to Orthodoxy because of Father Sophrony of Essex.
Father Sophrony’s outreach was perfectly measured for us Westerners. We can’t easily follow hard rules and monks tasks like on Mount Athos; this is another class of people. But in Essex you just feel well and free all the time: you impose your own rules, as much as you are able to do. So all over England and other West European countries father Father Sophrony’s influence was felt as highly positive and inspiring. By the way, also myself, I am propagating Father Sophrony’s teaching and love in so many countries. He told me, that I, Klaus, am not made to be a monk (I thought to stay in Essex right away after my first visit), but he knew, what task God had chosen for me. And so, every person who comes to Essex, is in a way doing the same: to share his experiences with those around them.
In a time of rapidly progressing apostasy, Father Sophrony’s heritage is giving so much hope and richness to us Westerners (and to the East and orthodox countries as well). It is so easy to follow him, whereas priests who impose R&R without love and understanding, drive – even orthodox – people away. Believe me, I know, what I am saying here.
6.) Would it be correct in your opinion to say that Father Sophrony was one of the apostles of Orthodoxy?
Father Sophrony was not only an apostle of Orthodoxy, but he was an Apostle at all and in general. For the Roman Catholics as well as for any other Christian denomination and even unbelievers. It will take time to measure fully the greatness of this Apostle of our time and generation. But everyone can find it out already now and personally by reading his life-giving books.