Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | November 11, 2010

Archimandrite Zacharias: “Remember Thy First Love”

I have been blessed to come across a copy of a new book by Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou): “Remember Thy First Love: The three stages of the spiritual life in the thoeology of Elder Sophrony”. And as always, it is a great pleasure to read his writing. At first, much seems to pass by with such sweetness that before you notice, you begin to realize the nuggets he tosses out really deserve far closer attention. He has a gift for writing, but also a gift of insight no doubt borne of the tradition of the heart. As I found reading his earlier books fruitfully focused my attention on the “deep heart” and the turn of this phrase as found in scripture, my expectations have been lifted, and in fact I find joy in turning to these pages each night – even in the middle of also reading P.G. Wodehouse’s “Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen”.

And my first contribution is that I found the new rule to my reading of not underlining or marking up a book of this sort just wouldn’t work. There are so many fine points he makes in first laying out his three steps and the identifications and comments on these that close readers will find it hard to resist following a similar course. I’ll come back to that perhaps, but there is much more that he works on here, and one nugget seems particularly on point for much of what we struggle with as navigate along our path. I find myself increasingly reluctant to distinguish our path from others – not just because the ground here seems to move under any feet that trod it, but also out of charity. I mean, let’s face it: In an America saturated with marketing and particularly marketing of “the best!!!” complete with Starbucks and all the other accoutrements of modern life, our claims don’t amount to much more than a hill of beans to most folks. We’re just another one of many.

Okay. So maybe we’ve been around the block a time or two. And if you ever get overwhelmed with the prospect of “figuring it all out” (one’s faith), Orthodoxy offers an approach common to traditions followed by trades, musicians, and… well.. even religious folks. Many have thought it was the text, and in truth, they’ve done quite a lot with it… and indeed much of what they have done is good. But the difference between a Merck Manual and a doc experienced in bringing health to his patients is the difference between a book and a living faith. The latter is flesh and blood, and the experience of it gives a depth of meaning to the text that simply cannot otherwise be comprehended. And the key in many ways that like the Merck Manual, our Gospels are written looking back by those who have travelled a road… to guide those who might follow and move ahead. But their meaning is all but hidden in so many ways and in so many different levels, and only as we change and gain experience can our spiritual GPS become attuned and assisted by their words as we grow to experience what is spoken of, to recapitulate within ourselves even the tiniest bit.

And this is what makes Archimandrite Zacharias so helpful: His account is like all great travel writers, and unlocks a structure and understanding of the journey that speeds us along the way. And so I think that what ends up distinguishing Orthodoxy is not just its experiential vision of scripture, but how its journeymen have committed themselves to being a part of a common adventure in God rather than travelling alone – as so many others would, or like others who gather in packs but diminish the fullness of their travels by following a pre-marked path where the scripted wonders are somehow less compelling for their pretense of their prescribed takeaways. Most of the time, I’ll admit to not finding eternity in a grain of sand… but then again, I make no pretense to other than being Thickheaded.

But for those who travel this odd course, let me share something of his insight:

“The manifestations of the Holy Spirit also teach us the attitude of heart that is in keeping with the gift of grace. When the Lord bestows upon man the delicate gift of His humble Holy Spirit, the man’s right response is to conceal it and ponder it in his heart. If he decides to display his gift out of pride, no only will he lose it, but he will also provoke his brother. To air our graces is to transgress against the second commandment of God, because in doing so, we invade the space of our brother. We ought always to give all the space to those around us and keep only minimal space for ourselves. Elder Sophrony was aware of this spiritual principle at work even in the bosom of the Holy Trinity. When Christ came, He said nothing about Himself, speaking only those things which the Father had given Him to speak. Similarly, the other Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, does not utter anything of His own but bears perpetual witness to Christ, for He delights in bringing to our remembrance all that Christ has spoken. Here we recognise the total interdependence of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, their self-emptying (kenosis) on the eternal plane, as Father Sophrony expressed it. Each Person – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – bears witness to the other two Persons, never putting Himself forward, but giving maximum space to the other two. In Saint Silouan the Athonite Father Sophrony provides a note about this great culture which survives to this day on the Holy Mountain. The monks, rather than manifesting their inner state, attempt to hide any gift of grace within themselves. This is a matter not only of preserving oneself from vainglory or self-satisfaction, but also of a sacred duty of respect for the spiritual space of others. The note is concise, but it expressed the essence of the tradition and indicates the disposition of heart that is most accomodating to the Holy Spirit.

Let us consider the monastic way for a moment. It is perhaps the quickest route to the deep heart in that the ‘earthquake’ which prepares man for God’s grace is lived more acutely in monasticism than in any other context. Father Sophrony echoes the entire tradition in saying that it is first and foremost through obedience that this earthquake takes place. Humanly speaking, it may seem unreasonable to depend on the will and guidance of someone else. But if a monk obeys his spiritual father from the heart, out of love and with complete trust rather than a kind of mechanical discipline, he is living according to the essence of the monastic way, as Father Sophrony perceived it. Obedience is the perfection of the way of humility in the image of the life of the Holy Trinity: we forsake our independence by delivering our soul into the hands of the one who is responsible for our salvation. Such humility cannot fail to bring the deep heart to the surface. But if obedience is withheld, and the monk lives independently – and this is an easy trap to fall into especially if he does not provoke any scandal, because then he will pass unnoticed – his deep heart will never be discovered. But when we depend not on our own will but on the will of God expressed through him to whom we have been entrusted, who has ‘the rule over us’, then we become as lambs led to the slaughter. We surrender our life, our will, in imitation of Him who, without opening His mouth, went to the shearer as a lamb to be slain. If we cling to our independence, on the other hand, some vanity, some secret pride remains which denies us true knowledge of our heart. No one can ever discover his deep heart if he is satisfied with the thought of his own glory. When we speak of the discovery of the deep heart, we mean that the great mystery which belongs to the spiritual realm, when the whole of man’s being becomes heart. A man may weep daily for long years without even knowing his deep heart: the finding of the deep heart is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and when this gift is granted everything is transformed – man is reborn and passes from death to life.”

Even if we do not share this experience directly, I believe we have an awareness of this sensibility within the Church – even as we become catechumens, and wonder at the reverence with which it is held. “There is something different, something intangible, something beyond words… but this something that draws us near.” And so it is that like many, I think Archimandrite Zacharias describes how we came to an awareness of what is hidden within our walls, within our services, and within our people… even within our Gospels… and how we ourselves come to join in hope of finding our own deep hearts. He will endeavor to point a way – not the only one – but a way, and it is the Lord Himself who leads. The good Archimandrite makes this as clear as he can with all the annotations to scripture. And in so many ways, this is precisely why I and others became Orthodox and why no doubt we remain so… no matter what. Thank God we are not alone. May the Good Lord have mercy on us all.


  1. This is where I am right now. I appreciate your insight.

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