By Seraphim Danckaert
St. Silouan the Athonite (1866–1938) is one of the most beloved recent saints, having been canonized in 1987.
A simple monk who nonetheless attracted pilgrims from all over the world, his teaching emphasized the absolute necessity of love and humility for authentic Christian life.
As is evident from the story below, the saint believed these virtues should guide all aspects of Christian witness, including how we interact with and preach the truth to those in error or heresy.
Father Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterised by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything they held sacred. He always remained himself, he was utterly convinced that “salvation lies in Christ-like humility,” and by virtue of this humility he strove with his whole soul to interpret every man at his best. He found his way to the heart of everyone to his capacity for loving Christ.
I remember a conversation he had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work. This Archimandrite thought highly of the Staretz and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain. The Staretz asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people.
The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, gesticulated with his hands and swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly, “I tell them, ‘Your faith is all wrong, perverted. There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.’”
The Staretz heard him out, then asked, “But please tell me, holy archimandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ – that He is the true God?”
“Yes, they do believe that.”
“And do they honour the Holy Mother?”
“They honour Her, but they teach erroneous things about Her.”
“And what about the saints – do they acknowledge their existence?”
“Yes, they do, but ever since they have severed themselves from the Church, what kind of saints could they have?”
“Do they perform services in Churches? Do they read the word of God?”
“Yes, and they also have temples and services, but if you could only see how inferior their services are to ours – how cold, how soul-less they are!”
“Holy archimandrite, their souls obviously feel that they are acting correctly in believing in Christ, in honouring the Holy Mother and the saints – whom they invoke in their prayers. That is why, when you tell them that their faith is illegitimate, they will not listen to you… But if you told the people that they are right in believing in God, that they are right in honouring the Holy Mother and the saints, and in going to church for services and praying at home, that they are right in reading the Word of God and all the rest, except that here and there they have a few incorrect theories which should be corrected, then everything will be just fine and pleasing to God, and by the Grace of God, everyone will be saved…. “God is Love”, and that is why a sermon needs to always spring from love. Only then will the preacher and the listener both benefit. But if you censure them, then the souls of the people will not listen to you and no benefit will be achieved.”
As the saint reveals in this passage from Saint Silouan the Athonite, in today’s context a polemical approach to those in theological error is not only bound to fail, it is incongruous with the precepts of Christian love and humility — and a detriment to spiritual growth.
What do you think about St. Silouan’s teaching?
~The Sounding, Orthodox Christian Network (OCN), http://myocn.net/st-silouan-athonite-talk-heterodox/. Seraphim Danckaert is Director of Development at OCN. He holds a M.Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and is a Ph.D. candidate in theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.