About Saint Silouan's Saying
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
"Keep thy mind in hell - and despair not"
This short saying was revealed to St Silouan by God as he himself describes:
"The first year after I received the Holy Spirit, I thought to myself: 'The Lord has forgiven me my sins - grace is witness to this. What more do I need?' But that is not the way to think. Though our sins be forgiven, we must remember them all our lives, so as to remain contrite. I did not do this, and ceased to feel contrite, and suffered greatly from evil spirits. And I was perplexed by what was happening to me, and said to myself: ' My soul knows the Lord and His love. How is it that evil thoughts come to me?' And the Lord had pity on me, and Himself taught me the way to humble myself - 'Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not' Thus is the enemy vanquished."
The saying, then, means to keep ourselves humble and contrite in the first instance - "Keep thy mind in hell". This is not a new revelation, and many of the great monastic Saints had similar sayings relating to the importance of being aware of our sinfulness. It does not mean we are to dwell on the details of our sin over and over again, as there is a danger we put ourselves in the same mental state as that which caused the sin in the first place; this can lead to a repeat offence. It also does not mean literally imagining the fires of hell and our own torment - our own imaginings can often be a hindrance to prayerful contemplation. It simply means to immerse ourselves so deeply in the battle with our own bad habits and spiritual sicknesses, that we cannot be distracted by worldly concerns or in judging others. As St Seraphim put it: "We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves"
St Anthony the Great - who lived in solitude in the desert, in a literal struggle with demons - was given the revelation that he had not yet reached the spiritual heights of a simple cobbler in Alexandria. Surprised , but eager to learn more, St Anthony was led to seek out this cobbler and observe his way of life. Seeing nothing remarkable, either in the work he did, the number of prayers he said, nor in his poverty, St Anthony said, 'The Lord sent me to see how you live.' The cobbler, dismayed, replied, 'I don't do anything special. Only, when I am working I look at passers-by and think, "They'll be saved, only I shall perish.'"
This simple, but life-saving, thought has huge ramifications if taken seriously; and it must be taken seriously. To think "I shall perish", how can a person not fall to despair and deep depression? St Silouan recognized this, and this is why those two words, "despair not", are so vital. We must push our self-awareness to the point of knowing that even our best efforts cannot save us, nor keep us in perfect keeping of the commandments; and then allow ourselves to "collapse" into the embrace of God, allowing Him to do the work in us. That work is God's grace, and experiencing this it is impossible to despair
A helpful thought, perhaps, is one of elder Sophrony's who said that we will be condemned for our sins, but once only. If we condemn ourselves, even to Hell-fire, now, in this life, then God will not condemn us when we die. But wherever we make excuses or gloss over our shortcomings, those shortcomings will be left over to be dealt with by God at the Last Judgement. So begin the harsh self-judgement now to prevent the harsher Judgement later!
The degree to which we can "condemn ourselves" differs from person to person. The more sinful pride infects the soul of a person, the less likely they are able to condemn themselves. It seems a crazy thought, because it is, but we are often so proud that we cannot bring ourselves to ask God for help. Judas, after he betrayed Jesus, felt deep remorse, but could not bring himself to go to Jesus and ask forgiveness. Instead, he tried to return the 40 pieces of silver, as though returning the money could undo his betrayal. When this clearly didn't work, he was driven to despair, even to suicide. The Apostle Peter, who also betrayed Jesus, was also driven to deep remorse and he realised nothing he could do could make up for it. In this way, when Jesus was risen and returned to the disciples, Peter did not run away in shame, but joyfully swam to His Lord, knowing he could not turn to anyone else for salvation or forgiveness.
Ultimately, it is a balancing act. Self-examination leads to remorse, which in turn leads to either the soul-saving repentance of Peter or the despair of Judas. St Silouan cautions us to be mindful of our own weaknesses and how much we can bear. For Saint Silouan, near-constant mindfulness of hell was possible. Indeed, he saw it as desirable for himself as it drove away all sinful thoughts and inclinations so that he felt more keenly God's love. For most of us, we must always be willing to withdraw from the abyss and give our minds, souls and bodies relaxation. Our capacity to keep ourselves truly humble changes, so that increasing it becomes a life-long spiritual exercise. Not lying to cover up our mistakes, regular confession to a priest, daily examination of our conscience - step-by-step we can dig deeper, repent more completely and allow God's grace to flow more easily.
"Keep thy mind in hell and despair not" - a simple saying, a harsh saying, but certainly a life-saving one.