ARCHIMANDRITE SOPHRONY FALLS ASLEEP IN THE LORD
On this past July 11, Archimandrite Sophrony, the spiritual elder of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights, England, fell asleep in the Lord. Father Sophrony was well known throughout the Orthodox world as the compiler of the writings of St. Silouan and the author of his life. And to those who were privileged to be acquainted with him personally, he was known for the spiritual love and joy which his presence called forth and radiated from him.
Life of Father Sophrony
Archimandrite Sophrony was born on September 23, 1896, of Orthodox parents in Russia. He began a career as an artist, first in his homeland, and after the Revolution he went to Paris. Here the aspirations of his heart moved him to seek a life in Christ. He first enrolled in the newly-opened Paris Orthodox Theological Institute; the formal study of theology, however, did not satisfy his interior longing, and he soon set off for the Holy Mountain where men strive not for thirty-fold, or sixty-fold, but one hundred-fold—for the deification which is possible here and now.
Father Sophrony came to the Holy Mountain in 1926, and it was there that he spent the next twenty-two years of his life; fifteen at the Monastery of St. Panteleimon (where he was a close disciple of St. Silouan the Athonite), and seven years in the desert area. Failing health compelled him to leave his cave, and it was at this time that the idea came to him to write a book about his teacher, Staretz Silouan. With this purpose in view, he returned to Paris, where having fallen ill, he underwent an operation in which most of his stomach was removed. Thus, it was not possible for him to return to the Holy Mountain. Without hope of living very long, he was given refuge in a Russian old-age home, where he assisted the priest who served at the resident chapel.
It was here that a Swiss convert who had read the Way of the Pilgrim and had an interest in the Jesus Prayer, sought out as a teacher an Athonite monk of whom he had heard and who was living at this old-age home. Having met Father Sophrony, he decided to follow him as his guide in Christ, and soon afterward he was joined by another man of like aspirations. These two were allowed to live at the old-age home, and as food, ate what was left over from the patients. Soon a number of disciples gathered around Father Sophrony and they began holding services in which they repeated the Jesus Prayer out loud because of the lack of service books. When their manner of life began to produce a conflict with the functioning of the old-age home, they sought a place to establish a residence. A spiritual child in France donated a house with about ten acres of land that at one time had been a rectory for a nearby church which had not been in use for many years.
A few nuns who also resided at the old-age home, along with several laymen, accompanied Father Sophrony in his move into this location at Tolleshunt Knights near London. This was in the mid-1950s, and at that time, Father Sophrony did not expect to live long.
For many years, visitors from around the world have come to visit the Monastery of St. John the Baptist, as it came to be called. At first, it was primarily to see an Orthodox elder, Father Sophrony, but as time went on and the community grew, many came to visit the community as well. Out of the aforementioned small root, a rather unique monastic community has evolved consisting both of monks and nuns. It is a multi-ethnic community; there are members from twelve countries. They have a form of common service which is special and known only in their monastery — they say the Jesus Prayer together in their cycle of community services.
With the death of Father Sophrony, the number of the community was twenty-five. But thirteen days after the death of Father Sophrony, the eldest nun. Mother Elizabeth, also passed away. She was a little older than Father Sophrony, and being sickly, she was confined to a wheelchair for many years. Knowing that death would soon overtake each of them. Father Sophrony said that he would go first and then she shortly afterwards.
Last days and burial of Father Sophrony
The burial service of Archimandrite Sophrony took place at 2:00 p.m., July 14, in the main church of the monastery, and he was interred in a crypt on the monastery grounds which was especially built for the burial of the members of the community. There were in attendance an estimated four hundred or more persons consisting of hierarchs and presbyters of the local Greek and Russian Churches, along with the local faithful. From overseas, there were monastics from the monasteries of Simonopetra and Gregoriou on Mount Athos, St. Arsenios in northern Greece, St. Silouan in France, and the convent of Karea in Athens. Also present was one of the fathers of our monastery of St. Tikhon in South Canaan — this was a fitting tribute as Father Sophrony shared a spiritual link with St. Tikhon's for many years, having been ordained to the diaconate in 1930 by the former rector of our seminary, St. Nicolai of Zicha.
Serving for the burial were the clergy of the monastic brotherhood of St. John the Baptist, while the responses were sung by the sisters in English, Greek and Slavonic. Father Sophrony was not embalmed, and as is customary with priests and monastics, his face remained covered. Only his right hand was visible which remained soft and retained a healthy color. The burial service, including the last kiss and procession to the crypt (to which only Father Sophrony's monastics went), lasted a little more than four hours. 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." And when the work was well in progress, 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 an early Liturgy held at the monastery, Father Sophrony reposed in the Lord.
Grant rest in blessed repose, O Lord, to Thy servants the newly departed Archimandrite Sophrony and Mother Elizabeth, and make their memory to be eternal!
Source: Hieromonk Gregory. Archimandrite Sophrony
Falls Asleep In The Lord //
Alive in Christ: The Magazine of the Diocese
of Eastern Pennsylvania, Orthodox Church in America.
1993. Vol. IX. N 2. P. 60-61.