The Monk of Mount Athos | Book Review
The Monk of Mount Athos is a little book that packs a powerful punch. Written by Archimandrite Sophrony, the first half of the book functions as a short biography of Saint Silouan while the second half is an exposition of his spiritual practices and beliefs. As with most works I’ve read about the saints, I found this book to be a breath of fresh air. The simple lifestyle and humble countenance of Saint Silouan is conveyed in an almost-tangible fashion. This being the case, the book is more like a personal observation of his life rather than abiography.
In the beginning of the book we are told that as a young monk, Staretz Silouan, due to his naivety, was beguiled by a spirit of pride–which lead to a powerful pseudo-spirituality founded on demonic delusions. The young Staretz, as we are told, lived in this state of beguilement for some time until it was revealed to him by his spiritual father. Unsure of what to do, Silouan spent many sleepless nights in prayer. Finally, the answer of how one can attain humility was given to the him: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not.” This phrase is expounded on in the second half of the book. From then on, the Staretz was adamant to be sure that the “light within” him was not “darkness.” (Luke 11:35). The only true criterion for this surety, said the Staretz, is love for one’s enemies.
This book was an incredible encouragement to me. The biography makes it clear that, at one point, St. Silouan lived in sin–and yet after his sinful jaunt, through repentance, temperance, and perseverance, he achieved union with God. I found the Staretz’s teaching on the spiritual discipline of obedience particularly fascinating: if we cannot submit our will to that of our brother (or wife in my case) how can we submit our will to God? Saint Silouan went on to say that by giving up our own will and submitting to, and serving, others, we become more sensitive to the will of God. This book is filled with the Saints’ wisdom and speaks on many other subjects such as humility, love for our enemies, imageless prayer, hesychasm and much more. And these subjects are not spoken of from the vantage point of theory but rather from the vibrance of experience. This book is not a systematic explanation but rather an example of what the Christian life should look like.
The Monk of Mount Athos is a clear stream cutting through the muck of spiritual confusion. The gentle teachings of the Staretz and his focus on the love of Christ are experienced more than read. It is almost as if the Staretz himself is there beside you while reading. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone moderately interested in the Orthodox Church, the saints, or spiritual struggle. You will get more from this book than you will from reading Wikipedia articles or even scholastic explications of the same subjects.