July 2011, Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex
Archimandrite SOPHRONY of ESSEX
On July 11th 1993, Father Sophrony, the spiritual father of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, fell asleep in the Lord. Father Sophrony was well known throughout the Orthodox world as the biographer and compiler of the writings of the famous 20th century spiritual elder, St. Silouan of Mt. Athos.
Father Sophrony was born in Russia on September 23, 1896. Due to great artistic talent, Sergei began his career as an artist and studied at the Academy of Arts between 1915 and 1917, and then at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture between 1920 and 1921. After the Revolution and Civil War he went to live and paint in Paris. Sergei used art as a "quasi-mystical" means "to discover eternal beauty", "breaking through present reality...into new horizons of being". Later, this would help him to differentiate between human intellectual light and God's Uncreated Light. In Paris he was moved to seek a more spiritual life in Christ. He enrolled in the newly-opened Paris Orthodox Theological Institute at the Sorbonne University and in 1926 he set off for the monastic community of Mt. Athos in Greece.
Father Sophrony spent the next twenty-two years of his life on Mt. Athos under the spiritual guidance of St. Silouan. In 1948 he returned to Paris to write the biography of his spiritual father. In Paris he underwent an operation in which most of his stomach was removed. Without hope of living very long, he was given refuge in a Russian old-age home.
Within a short time, several laymen sought his spiritual guidance and joined him in pursuit of a life of prayer. The group of followers grew quickly and included several women and nuns. In the early 1950’s the community relocated to an abandoned church rectory near London. There they founded the Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Essex. Under his guidance, a unique monastic community evolved consisting both of monks and nuns. As a multi-ethnic community; there were members from at least twelve countries. They developed a form of common service which is special to their community and which focuses on the Jesus Prayer.
The burial service of Archimandrite Sophrony took place on July 14, in the church of the monastery, and he was interred in a crypt on the monastery grounds. It is of interest to note that the community had recently discovered from local authorities that the only legal way they could bury anyone on their grounds was to build an underground crypt. When plans were made for its construction, Father Sophrony said, "I will not go until it is ready." The workmen notified the Abbot that it would be ready for the first burial on July 12. When Father Sophrony was told, he replied, "I will be ready." And so on July 11, at approximately 8:00 a.m., during the Divine Liturgy, Father Sophrony reposed in the Lord.