Orthodoxy is not just a system of parishes, monasteries, not just bishops, priests and laity of this or that canonical or non-canonical jurisdiction. Orthodoxy is first of all spiritual tradition, a very special one and, if I can say so, the one that reveals for us a specific side of Christianity which was either unnoticed or sometimes lost by Catholics and Protestants. That’s why in England, in France, in the USA or elsewhere Orthodoxy still remains Russian, although divine services are held not in old Slavic, but in French or English.
It is also very important to understand that Orthodoxy, especially in Russia, speaks to us the language that is very far from simple. In Russ it hadn’t been articulated in verbal form for a rather long time altogether. It was the world of icons and silent prayer. According to Evgeny Trubetskoy, “Russian icon-painters with striking clarity and force put into images and colors what filled their soul – the vision of a different truth of life and a different world-concept”. Further in the same article “Theology in Color” (or “Colorful Contemplation” according to a different translation – or let us say ‘mental vision’ as the Russian word ‘umo-zrenie’ suggests) Trubetskoy goes on, “Trying to express in words the essence of their answer I certainly realize that no words can give a proper idea of the beauty and might of this incomparable language of religious symbols”.
Nec lingua valet dicere, nec littera exprimere (“nor tongue nor pen can show”), says St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) in his hymn “Jesu dulcis memoria”. Claiming the principle according to which words lack power to convey the very essence of religious feeling Bernard is rather approaching Christian East than expressing the principles of religious speculation typical of the Western Christianity, for in his epoch the latter had already gained the capacity to express one’s mystical inspirations in the word.
As distinct from their Western confreres, startsy (elders) and saints of Medieval Russ used to pass their experience from generation to generation orally without leaving any books in contrast to what was habitual in the West. That’s why we do not have anything like “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis or “The Little Flowers” of Saint Francis or our own “Sum of Theology” like the one by Thomas Aquinas. The first books on asceticism appeared in Russia as late as the 18th and 19th centuries. We may only make guesses as far as ascetic experience of the saints from the 10th to 17th centuries is concerned taking into account separate hints from their life stories (as they are known from hagiography). “The Consuetudinary” of Venerable Nil Sorskij against this background is rather an exclusion that confirms the rule.
Let me remind you that we’re speaking of Russians but not of Greeks, whose Philokalia had been taking shape since the 4th and 5th centuries. With regard to the Christians of Byzantium and the Middle East this matter but partly relates to them, for their church authors were neither philosophers nor theologians (in the Western sense of the word!), but poets. Their heritage is very different from that of Holy Fathers of the Christian West for they left to us besides homiletics presumably texts of prayerful, poetic and ascetic contents. Though a contemporary theologian may certainly extract theological statements from them.
Such is poetry of Ephrem Syrin (306-373) known both in the Syrian original and in Greek translations, such is “Great Canon of Repentance” of St. Andrew of Crete (died in 713) consisting of 250 troparions (strophes) and being at the same time a sinner’s poem of repentance and a theological treatise, such are poetical compositions of John Damaskin and his contemporaries. However we should be aware that for the Orthodox mind the main thing is not a theological system, complete devotion to which a believer proves by not making any new theological assertions while professing solely those received from the Fathers, but personal prayer. With regards to this matter A.F. Losev stated in “The Dialectics of Myth”, “Conversation with Him is possible only in prayer. Communication with God in the sense of comprehending (knowing) Him is possible only in prayer, we may ascend to God only through prayer, and the one who doesn’t pray doesn’t know God”. It is not by mere chance that though a splendid master of style Losev repeats the word “only” thrice here.
Such a prayer, as Honoré de Balzac in his novel “Seraphita” says, “links the soul to God, with whom we unite as the root of the tree unites with the soil”. This image characterizes perfectly the very essence of prayer, as the mystics both in the West and in the East understand it. According to archimandrite Seraphim (Sakharov), prayer “links” man to God the Most High. Such a prayer is no longer request/supplication based on the principle “When God wants the order of nature is changed”, but it’s an act of penetration into unfathomable depths of God’s grace and merging of my, or broader, our will with His will according to the principle “Your will be done”.
“For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart (un élan du coeur), it is a simple glance (un simple regard) directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love (un cri de reconnaissance et d’amour) in the midst of trial as well as joy”, little Theresa of Lisieux wrote in her manuscript which was later translated into all the languages under the title “Story of a Soul”. Prayer for Theresa is an aspiration of the heart, a glance and a cry of love, but in no way a request. And indeed what requests could we make in our prayer if “your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him” (Mt. 6:8), as Jesus Himself says in His Sermon in the Mount. And at the same time the etymology of the word “prayer” (la priere, preghiera, προσευχη etc.) is utterly clear almost in all the languages: prayer is a request, supplication. But it is not a request “to make two by two not equal four”, as Turgenev skeptically suggests in his “Prose Poems”, but a supplication for mercy – Κυριε, ελεησον of the Great Litany or Miserere mei Deus of the 50th Psalm, that is “Lord, have mercy” or “Have mercy upon me, O God”.
“Eastern rites, – cardinal Spidlik says in his book La spiritualite de l’Orient chretien, – abound in insistent repetitions of the words “Lord, have mercy on me”, prayerful requests for absolution from sins. They are performed in the atmosphere of true utter repentance. At the same time being far from the atmosphere of depression or pessimism Eastern ascetics preach joyous faith, “if the only evil is sin, it can always be wiped off by repentance”. As Spidlik states, “the atmosphere of true repentance” is possibly the most distinguishable feature of Orthodoxy. We should take into consideration that it is neither divine service in its magnificent beauty, nor the mystery of the Eucharist, which is known to link a man to God into whole unity, but exactly confession, that till now mostly attracts people to church – desperate desire to confess one’s sins and ask for mercy.
In the present paper I’d like to concentrate solely on prayerful practice of Russian Orthodoxy and to tell you how the appeal “Lord, have mercy” reverberates not in the liturgical, but in personal prayer of an Orthodox person. The teaching of so-called Jesus prayer consisting of just a few words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is an indubitable discovery of Russian Orthodoxy. The Greek Philokalia knows this prayer in a slightly different form “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”, while the Russian tradition added the word “a sinner” to the word “me”, reinforcing penitential spirit of this prayer. All the words of this prayer are taken from the different places of the Gospel – from the scream of blind Bar-Timaeus (Mark 10:47) and from a tax collector’s supplication in the Gospel according to Luke (18:13). It is from this very prayer of a tax collector that the word “the sinner” is taken (μοι τω αμαρτωλω).
And it is this very prayer, as startsy (elders) found out, as short and seemingly unartful as it is, that miraculously links a person to Christ. This [practice of incessant prayer] is the content of the book written in the middle of the 19th century, that has become known (in the English-speaking world) under the title “The Way of a Pilgrim” (which is literally translated from Russian as “Candid Narratives of a Pilgrim to His Spiritual Father”). As it follows from the content of the book, its author is an ordinary peasant, neither a priest nor a monk. However a contemporary researcher Ilya Semenenko-Basin gives a guess that it is father Michael (Kozlov) who hides under a mask of a fictitious author. Father Michael Kozlov came from Old believers’ family reunited with Orthodoxy, but who had taken out of their Old-believers’ heritage special love to reading the Scripture, because to Old believers it substituted for the Liturgy.
The original version of the book was published in 1881. Later on the text was revised by several editors, among whom famous Theophanus (Feofan) the Recluse. Today the task of publishers is to place at readers’ disposal such a version of “Candid Narratives” that would resemble the author’s original text as close as possible, for this book is undoubtedly one of real pearls of Russian literature.
“Candid Narratives of a Pilgrim” was translated into all European languages and made a tremendous impression upon an American writer Jerome D. Salinger who devoted remarkable pages to this book in two of his novels. Salinger says that “The Way of a Pilgrim” offers “incredible method of praying” to its reader or teaches “how to pray by this special way”. For a person who belongs to spiritual culture of Christian West the method, suggested by the pilgrim is truly incredible, for the pilgrim tells that “the marvelous thing is, when you first start doing it, you don’t even have to have faith in what you are doing… you don’t even have to think about what you are saying, the starets (elder) said”, and this is what Salinger emphasizes with astonishing insight. “The starets (elder) tells the pilgrim that if you keep saying that prayer over and over again – you only have to just do it with your lips at first – then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active”. Salinger is not quite right when he says that the one who prays should not even think about what he is saying, but on the whole he is quite precise in transmitting the theory of the prayer offered to the pilgrim by his spiritual father.
This observation of Salinger is remarkable indeed that the prayer becomes self-acting, that it becomes independent as it settles in the innermost depth of a praying one and somehow starts living and transforming one’s personality from within. Salinger, who didn’t know Russian of course, read “The Way of a Pilgrim” in the English translation. It also seems utterly important what Salinger says about the word “mercy”, “Especially the word “mercy” because it is such a really enormous word and can mean so many things…” And truly as cardinal Spidlik emphasizes, the cry “God, have mercy” plays a tremendously important role in the Eastern Christianity and is an extremely significant element not only of divine services but also of Eastern-Christian spirituality as a whole.
Here is a highly characteristic fragment from “The Way of a Pilgrim”: “The prayer consoled me more and more, so that sometimes my heart boiled from my immense love to Jesus Christ, and out of that sweet boiling comforting floods were overflowing all my joints. Memory of Jesus Christ became so deeply imprinted inside my mind, that when I was thinking of events of the Gospel I somehow saw them before my eyes, felt moved and wept joyously, and sometimes I felt such joy in my heart, that I wouldn’t be able to express it. It sometimes happened that for about three days I hadn’t entered any human settlement and in my rapture I felt that I was alone on the earth, the only notorious sinner in front of gracious and merciful God. My solitude consoled me and prayerful sweetness in it was much more perceptible than in public”. When the pilgrim says that “when I was thinking of events of the Gospel I somehow saw them before my eyes” it vividly reminds us of “Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius Loyola and his method of prayerful meditation over the mysteries of the life of Jesus.
It’s important to bear in mind that the teaching of incessant prayer in Russian spiritual tradition has got not only Greek, but Western roots as well. We can’t but remember Lorenzo Scupoli’s book “Combattimento spirituale” or “Spiritual Warfare”, written by a monk-teatin, who died in 1610, and translated into Greek in the 17th century by St. Nikodim Agiorit (from the Holy Mountain). In Greek version AORATOS POLEMOS corresponds rather precisely to the Italian original, though Nikodim translated this book from its Latin translation. St. Nikodim’s book fell into the hands of a Russian spiritual author bishop Theophanus (Govorov) who is usually called Feofan the Recluse. He started translating it from Greek and when he almost finished his translation he suddenly learnt that the book was of the Western origin. Then he started to change the Greek text more daringly and finally published it as a revised edition. When we compare the Italian text with the Russian one we easily see that the original was revised, yet it is still recognizable. It’s significant that among Orthodox readers the book “Unseen Warfare” gained great popularity and turned almost into a handbook. Also today it is widely published and read though many people know that the book is originally Catholic.
Comparative study of three versions of the book (Italian, Greek and Russian) may become a topic for a special research paper, the more so since all three authors are highly remarkable characters. Nikodim is the author of the Greek Philokalia in its final version; besides Skupoli he translated St. Ignatius’s “Exercises” into Greek. Theophanus is the author of Russian Philokalia in 5 volumes, translator of Simeon New Theologian and the author of a biggest correspondence on ascetic themes, published at the beginning of the 20th century in 7 volumes. He lived in a monastery not far from Tambov as a recluse in a literal sense of the word, i.e. he didn’t receive any visitors in his cell and worked on his books that were later to become classic and today are published in great amount of copies.
The problem is that St. Theophanus developed strongly negative attitude to a psychophysical aspect of Jesus prayer and denied any connection between prayer and breath, prayer and heartbeat etc. He didn’t attach any importance to a pose of a praying person, whereas Greek hesychasts for instance thought it good to pray when you sit on a low bench with your knees pressed to your breast so that you would feel your heartbeat. All these methods that make Greek hesychasm somewhat related to Hindu Yoga and methods of prayer practiced by St. Ignatius who recommended that “with each breath in or out, one has to pray mentally, saying one word of the Our Father, or of another prayer which is being recited: so that only one word be said between one breath and another”, St. Theophanus considered absurd and called them “tricks” contemptuously. Therefore when he translated ascetic texts from Greek into Russian he expunged all such sort of advice for those who pray. We may indicate that Russian “Philokalia” is not quite authentic and differs strongly from the Greek one. Comparative studies of the two texts are still almost none.
Lorenzo Scupoli speaks of two types of mental prayer (orazione mentale) that is silent prayer. The first one is domanda attuale, when the words of the prayer are pronounced but mentally. Scupoli calls the second type of mental prayer (orazione mentale) domanda virtuale. It consists in lifting up one’s mind to God (alziamo la mente a Dio) without pronouncing or thinking of anything with one’s mind (senza dire o ragionare di nulla). In fact it is the same “intelligent” prayer that Greek hesychasts practiced. Nikodim renders Scupoli’s text in Greek rather precisely. Theophanus while rendering the text states the following, “You should pray not only with the word but with your mind, not only with your mind, but with your heart as well”. He says that there are three modes of prayer: verbal prayer, mental prayer and heart prayer. “Thorough and authentic prayer, – St. Theophanus says, – is when prayerful feeling links to the word of prayer and prayerful thought”.
In this connection we should indicate the following. The Italian word la mente the same as Latin mens, mentis is not just “mind” or “thought” or “reason”. It is rather “spiritual principle (basis)”, something similar to “all my inmost being” from the first verse of Psalm 103 or to the expression “cordis intima” (depths of the heart) from the Latin hymn “Jam lucis orto sidere” which is at the beginning of the first hour in old Breviary. Thus when Scupoli uses the expression orazione mentale or says alziamo la mente a Dio, he means not only “mind” but also what Russian authors refer to the realm of heart – cordis intima of the Ambrosyan hymn. As for Theophanus the Recluse he oversimplifies this piece of text as he reduces mental-heart prayer only to the domain of feeling.
On the other side in the next paragraph Theophanus mentions a very important thing. “Sometimes by God’s grace the prayer is exclusively heart’s prayer, and this is what spiritual prayer is, being moved in the heart by the Holy Spirit. The one who prays notices it, but he doesn’t perform it – it is self-acting in him”. It’s clear that this statement is based on St. Paul’s words from his Epistle to Romans (8:26) when he says, “we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”. At that we should become fully aware that the teaching of “self-acting” prayer “murmuring” in the heart like a little brook is the top of the entire teaching of practice of Jesus prayer.
At this point it’s already time to speak about serious discrepancy between Scupoli and Eastern tradition of heart prayer. Scupoli knows nothing of “self-acting” prayer. The highest stage of heart prayer for him (altro genere piu preciso di orazione virtuale) is “the heart’s simple look at God” (semplice sguardo della mente a Dio). Summing up spiritual quest connected with the practice of Jesus prayer in Russia archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) – an Athos monk who lived in England for a long time and died at a very old age ten years ago – picked out five stages of Jesus prayer from oral prayer (pronounced by lips) up to self-acting and God-granted prayer, which “moves like tender flame inside us”. We instantly recall cor ardens and the words from the Gospel according to Luke “Were not our hearts burning within us while He …” (24:32).
An important question arises. Speaking about Jesus prayer, “The Way of a Pilgrim” and father Sophrony (Sakharov) both emphasize its sweetness. Russian peasant poet Ivan Nikitin (contemporary of the author of “Candid Narratives…”) had even composed a poem entitled “Sweetness of prayer”. Father Sophrony says that self-acting prayer “acts as an inspiration from above, sweetening the heart”. It reminds us of the verses of St. Bernard “Jesu dulcis memoria dans vera cordis gaudia”. When Bernard exclaims O Jesu mi dulcissime, he repeats almost word for word a Greek hymn where Jesus is called “the sweetest” – γλυκυτατος.
Sweetness of prayer is a theme not alien to Old Testament either. Thus in Psalm 119 (verse 103) it is said, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” Yet the mainstream of Holy Father’s thought is that what most important in prayer is tears of repentance and the feeling of one’s sinfulness – in no way the feeling of sweetness. On the ground of this idea a number of contemporary theologians consider “The Way of a Pilgrim…” and other books on Jesus prayer together with the whole heritage of collected works of archimandrite Sophrony to be among “tempting” books, harmful for their readers. I’m not going to carry on polemics with them – I only want to say that whatever their theologian estimate may be, at this point we are dealing with one of the most characteristic and one of the brightest phenomena of Russian Orthodox spirituality, worthy of the most thorough research today.
Besides those mentioned above the following books are devoted to Jesus prayer. First there’s a small book of collected works “Seeker for Incessant Prayer” compiled by hegumen (father superior) Tikhon (Tzyplyakovsky), which contains quotations from Holy Fathers with an added chapter “Our native ones, our own doers of mental prayer, disciples of Jesus”. The latter is a collection of apophthegms of Russian ascetics devoted to Jesus prayer. In particular here we find quotations from hieroschemamonk father Parpheny of Kiev. It is said that for him “prayerful talk with God was a foretaste of heavenly bliss”. And further on, “This is what he said about his private praying rule performed in his monastic cell: this prayer is more pleasant than honey or honeycomb to me – it’s enjoyable, helpful, saving”. The motive of sweetness of prayer, as we may see, is present here too though not the main one. Among other authors Tikhon quotes father Abrahamy Nekrasov from Arzamas and calls him Seraphim Sarovsky’s disciple. This priest states the following, “May the Name of Jesus Christ like a brilliant never become dim in your heart. May vigilant attention to prayer like a pearl be your soul’s only jewel”. In this quotation special attitude to the very Name of Jesus is evident. For a folk mystic it is very important that the very name of Jesus is a holy object. It is like an un-handmade icon, which is always in the heart of the one who prays.
The second book of collected works was compiled by hegumen Chariton. It is called “Mental doing. About Jesus Prayer”. The book was published in 1936, which means after revolution in Finland had already taken place, and at the time when Valaam, one of the most famous monasteries of Russia, was situated on the territory of Finland. Texts by Theophanus the Recluse and bishop Ignatius (Bryanchaninov) predominantly make up this book. Abridged edition of hegumen Chariton’s book was translated into German or rather retold by Alla Selavri and published in Ulm in 1964.
The third book noteworthy for the one interested in practice of Jesus prayer was published in Brussels. Entitled “On the Heights of the Spirit” it consists of Sergei Bolshakov’s notes concerning his encounters with clergymen and lay people, who practiced Jesus prayer. Catholic publishing house Foyer Chretien or “Life with God”, that in Soviet times devoted themselves to publishing Orthodox literature for further illegal transference to the USSR published this book. “On the Heights of the Spirit” is a book about inner silence. The words of father Tikhon, whom Sergei Bolshakov met in Villemoisson express its leitmotif, “The one who performs Jesus prayer always has spring in his soul”.
In 1907 one more book was published just a little less famous than “The Way of a Pilgrim”. This was “On the Mounts of the Caucasus” by schema-monk Hylarion. Once again this was a book that dealt with Jesus prayer. Its author was (like the fictitious author of “The Way of a Pilgrim”) a completely unsophisticated person either. He used to live high in the mountains of the Caucasus and left the whole school of monks after himself, who were nicknamed Name-worshippers (imyaslavtzy), for they worshipped the Name of God. Let us see what schema-monk Hylarion wrote in his book “On the Mounts of the Caucasus”, “When we perform mental-heart Jesus prayer in a penitential mood of the soul and in deep contrition, we actually hear and feel with the feeling of the heart, that the Name of Jesus Christ is He Himself: our divine Saviour, Lord Jesus Christ; and one can’t separate the Name from the Person Named. But they are merging into identity, they are mutually penetrating and are one”.
Hylarion argues that Christ is in His very Name, which thus becomes something more than a holy object being the Name of God – Yahve (the idea which has been the foundation of the whole Jewish mysticism), but it is living presence of the Son of God and in His Person of God Himself among men. This doctrine of Hylarion and his successors gave birth to heated debates both among clergymen and philosophers. The latter sided with Hylarion. There is huge literature on this topic, which would demand a special lecture. Here I’d like just to mention this piece of spiritual literary heritage and try to understand the originality of Hylarion’s doctrine on Jesus prayer.
Hylarion speaks of “unceasingness of inner prayer” that would not leave a devotee under any circumstances, and compares prayer to a brook flowing joyously in its quiet clear streams. Hylarion insists that “anyone who is eager to settle Jesus prayer in his soul should read the Holy Gospel as often and as much as possible until he has acquired all of it inside his memory”. “The Gospel, – Hylarion says, – is an essential means to gain sweetest Jesus as one’s very own in one’s heart, while in Him life eternal and the Kingdom of Heaven is”. “The Way of a Pilgrim” also speaks on how much the reading of the Gospel gives. I have already indicated that Michael (Kozlov) was an old-believer by his origin. Hence is probably his love to reading the Gospel. This point should be specially emphasized due to the fact that in a number of places Theophanus the Recluse as he was revising “The Way of a Pilgrim” erased indications that the author had been reading the Bible and had been spiritually invigorated directly from the Bible.
I’ll give you only one example. The pilgrim says, “All that I had been reading in Philokalia starets (elder) verified by showing different places of the Bible to me and said, ‘look, where it is all taken from’. I was rapt listening to him”. Theophanus removes the very mention of the Bible and says instead, “Starets (elder) commented all I had read in Philokalia in his own words”. This is a typical example of censure that Theophanus the Recluse considered to be antisectarian, for in his time Russian baptism began to spread which had been based precisely on reading the Bible.
But let us now return to the author of the book “On the Mounts of the Caucasus”. Hylarion says that experienced doers of prayer often repeat not the whole Jesus prayer, but only its first words “Lord Jesus Christ”, and some of them even repeat only the name “Jesus”, “If someone, – Hylarion says, – has lodged the name of Jesus in his heart, he carries the very root of the prayer, it’s very essence around with him”. “The mind, – Hylarion says, – should be held in the words of the prayer and be naked and alien to any image or thought” – but this is the domanda virtuale, which consists in praying without pronouncing or thinking of anything with one’s mind (senza dire o ragionare di nulla), as Lorenzo Scupoli depicted it in his “Spiritual Warfare”.
The nature of the Caucasus occupies a very big place in the book of schema-monk Hylarion. “Lo! I went out at noon, – he narrates, – and here I stand at the edge of the rock where our cloister is, high above the level of the river. Dazzling beam of the Sun blending with white purity of the snow doesn’t let me look at the mountains. They look as if they have turned into an ocean of light, shine and excessive radiance. What a solemn and gorgeous sight!.. If such amazing shine comes from created light, what must the Light uncreated be like?.. The Light eternal, the primeval Light of the Godhead?..”
The author is undoubtedly a poet. He rejoices at the sun, mountains, clouds and landscapes, he observes animals that abound in these mountains. He reminds me of the sage you can see on a Chinese engraving. That sage stands somewhere on a steep of a hill, and majestic scenery opens up before his eyes. Being “above all the vales of the earth”, – as Hylarion says, – a hermit contemplates the God created world as if from the outside, as if he didn’t belong to it. Like the author of Psalm 104, often cited by Hylarion.
Starets (elder) Silouan who lived on Mount Athos was Hylarion’s contemporary. That very simple monk who came from a Russian village and hadn’t got any education told his disciples what it meant to pray for the whole world, for believers and unbelievers, what it meant to feel pain for the whole mankind and broader for the whole nature and for the whole universe. “To pray for people is to shed blood”, – starets Silouan said. We are obliged to the teaching of starets Silouan that Christian spirituality in Russ went far beyond the church walls – God is not only in church and among the believers, He is everywhere, His grace covers all, everyone and everything need Him though not all may always know of it. As a matter of fact starets Silouan offered a new reading of the Gospel.
We can’t pass over in silence one of starets Silouan’s sayings about the Holy Spirit and His influence on a human being, “The Holy Spirit is very much like mother, mother so sweet and dear. Mother loves her child and pities for it, and thus is the Holy Spirit – He pities for us, and forgives us, heals us, and teaches us, and cheers us, and the Holy Spirit is experienced in humble prayer”. This remark of starets Silouan, so unexpected and probably even unacceptable from a lawyer’s point of view reminds us of the fact that in Hebrew the word “Ruah” – Spirit – is neither masculine as in Latin or Slavic, nor neutral as in Greek, but precisely feminine. And as for the revelation of the Holy Spirit “in bodily form like a dove”, as the Gospel depicts or the Christian tradition in general which expresses the invisible through a visible image, then this is not a male dove, but a female dove – περιστερά in Greek and colomba in Latin.
It is clear that starets Silouan, being a common peasant, knew nothing of the matter, nevertheless he felt the whole of it intuitively. He was first in the Orthodox tradition to speak of the nature of God as surpassing masculine Self and incorporating indubitable feminine principle. He comprehended also that the Holy Spirit who is granted upon the believers during the epiclese “pities for us, and forgives, heals, and teaches, and gladdens” each of us like mother. “We live on earth and we do not see God and we can’t see Him. But if the Holy Spirit comes into the soul, we’ll see God as holy archdeacon Stephen saw Him”, starets Silouan says in another place recalling a well-known text from the book of “Acts” (6:8–15). “You can see God, yet not with your eyes but with your heart”. Not only does starets Silouan share this famous statement with many mystics both from the East and from the West, but he speaks about it constantly.
The paradox of God is that He is not only omnipotent, but also infinitely vulnerable. The recently deceased eldest eparch of the Russian Orthodox Church metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Bloom) who lived in London and was starets Silouan’s direct successor said in one of his books, “If you want to make friends with God, then learn from a little fox (from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s book) how to make friends with someone who is very sensitive, very vulnerable and very shy”.
“The Way of a Pilgrim” strikingly enables us to feel, to perceive God, to live through encounter with Him with all our being or, if we use metropolitan Anthony’s expression, to “make friends with Him”. This is what Alexey Losev says when he insists that we may comprehend God only in prayer. At another place, as he points at corporality and moreover at physiological character of religiousness, Losev tightly links religion to a concrete personality of a concrete human being with his (or her) “unconditioned reflexes” if we may say so, in other words, not with what is acquired in the process of communication with other people under their influence, but with what grows out from within each of us.