Priests burdened with pastoral cares are torn. On the one hand they know that there is no profit in gaining the whole world, and losing one's own soul. On the other there is the Lord's injunction, 'Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.' 'Freely ye have received, freely give.' Parallel with this goes the idea that the vital need for mankind is to KNOW THE TRUE GOD. But how are we to find Him? So then, if KNOWLEDGE of God is to continue on earth, it is imperative that people should not go astray like sheep without a shepherd. This knowledge is so important that St. Isaac of Syria makes a fearful statement, difficult to understand and painful to grasp: 'Do not liken them that work signs and wonders and powerful deeds in the world with them that elect to fast and pray in the desert. Prefer inner stillness rather than feeding the hungry in the world, and the conversion of many peoples to the worship of God.'
Prefer the apparent inaction of inner silence to feeding the hungry? There are two kinds of hunger - physical and spiritual. '. . . Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it. In that day shall the fair virgins and young men faint for thirst. They that swear by the sin of Samaria, and say, Thy god, O Dan, liveth; and, The manner of Beer-sheba liveth; even they shall fall, and never rise up again.' Now in our day we see dismay everywhere, and increasing despair. More books are published than ever before but, alas, most of them are syncretic, attempting to conjoin heterogeneous elements into a single whole - elements in their very core contradictory and in practice incompatible. Thus our ever-increasing confusion. St. Isaac of Syria believed repentance and the silence of the anchorite to be a surer way to knowledge of God and life in Him. And it is just this - now so rare in the world - that for him was the most important thing of all. The loss of true knowledge of God - given to us by Christ and the Holy Spirit - would damage the whole world irreparably.
I have met many people who were going through a serious crisis on the plane of the spirit. In talking with them I would remember my own crisis which continued for years - years of maximum stress for me. When prayer won the battle in me I abandoned my artistic profession to enter the Theological Institute in Paris, where the students were serious and the professors of the requisite high standard. But prayer 'stifled' me day and night, and so I left the Institute to go to Mt. Athos, where the whole of life is concentrated on divine service and prayer. To attend courses on church matters was impossible for me, since to put my whole mind on the subjects being taught impaired my earlier total striving for God. I realized that if I hungered to know God, I would have to give myself to Him in a greater degree than I had devoted myself to my painting. Divine eternity enthralled me. All the same, on leaving France I took care to burn my boats so that, if I began to have doubts, I should not be able to return to my former life. I did have a moment of temptation - making my way from the sea up to the monastery I was assailed by the thought: Here you are, volunteering for life imprisonment! And that was the one single occasion in my whole life when for an instant my heart hesitated. I am recalling it now though in the course of many decades I have never once looked back on the past. Ahead of me, far distant, lies what I seek, and only a few fleeting days are left to me. My soul has dried up among the vanities of this world, and I need the living waters the proceed from my Creator and 'flow to life eternal'.
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Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), On Prayer, (Essex, 1996) pp. 105-106.