Friday, May 30, 2014

Elder Sophrony and Major Tom

By John Sanidopoulos

Many years ago I had an existential crisis that seemed to separate me from my surrounding environment, and it felt as if I was living in a state of non-reality and disconnection. I came to call this Major Tom Syndrome, because when I listened to the song "Space Oddity" by David Bowie, which describes the tragic and lonely demise of the fictional cosmonaut Major Tom in outer space, it reminded me of that state I was in. Years later I came to find out that Major Tom Syndrome is actually a term used to describe a persons disconnect with reality, but it is more of a willful disconnection, such as through drug use, which had nothing to do with what I had felt.

Ever since Stanley Kubrick's Space Odyssey, which inspired David Bowie's "Space Oddity", the idea of facing a terrifying and lonely challenge in outer space, which was frighteningly described in the famous tagline to the film Alien - "In Space No One Can Hear You Scream" - has become a way of talking about a deep existential crisis. A more clinical and psychological way of speaking of this state is called "Dissociative Disorder". In fact, Marilyn Manson combined the imagery of David Bowie's Major Tom character with the feelings of Dissociative Disorder, which he was diagnosed with, in his song "Dissociative". Such "syndromes" and "disorders" however usually come down to being nothing more or less than an existential crisis, a "hole in the soul" as Manson elsewhere calls it, or as Edgar Allen Poe describes it, "a dream within a dream". Many Church Fathers call it "despair" in its most awful form.

Elder Sophrony Sakharov also had a similar experience in his youth, which he describes in his autobiography We Shall See Him As He Is. In despair over the thought of the possible eternal death of the soul, he wrote:

Perpetual oblivion, as the extinguishing of the light of consciousness, filled me with horror. This state of spirit settled in me, against my will.... My ever increasing consciousness of death attained such force that the world, this world of ours, seemed like a mirage liable at any moment to vanish into an everlasting void.

He goes on to describe his inner detachment from his environment:

I can remember myself as I was then, behaving in everyday life like any one of my contemporaries though there were moments when I could not feel the earth under my feet. I could see it with my eyes in the ordinary way but in spirit I was moving over a bottomless abyss.

Elder Sophrony then compares this horrifying state he was in to what seems like David Bowie's character, or alter ego one could say, Major Tom, which he describes as follows:

Oh, the terrors of that blessed period! No one could have the stamina voluntarily to subject himself to such an ordeal. It makes me think of the cosmonaut who pleaded frantically with those below to save him from death in space. The radio registered his groans but there was no way of going to his aid. Perhaps I may be allowed to draw a certain parallel between what that poor cosmonaut went through, and my own experience when I felt myself sinking into the black pit.

It seems that Elder Sophrony thought the story of the cosmonaut was an actual account, but in fact what he seems to be describing is David Bowie's fictional Major Tom in "Space Oddity". When I first read this, after my own personal crisis, I felt I could relate, but I also found how peculiar it was that we both described it in a similar way.

Bowie's interpretation of Major Tom evolved throughout his career, from a literal astronaut in 1969 to an oblique autobiographical symbol of himself in the 1980 song "Ashes to Ashes", in which Major Tom is described as a "junkie, strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low," which describes Bowie's addiction to drugs and his soul-searching. Other musicians, like Peter Schilling in 1983, have tried to give poor Major Tom a happy end by saying he was "coming home", which could either refer to coming back to earth, or going to heaven. But Elder Sophrony felt a way out of his crisis was to not appeal to "ground control" for help, but to God. He continues:

But my spirit appealed not to the earth below but to Him Whom I did not yet know but of whose Being I was convinced.

God hid Himself from Elder Sophrony in order for him to discover that man in his profound suffering is a noble creature called to a higher state of being, a higher reality, where divine life and light can be found. This he discovered in the neptic teachings of the Orthodox Church Fathers. Ultimately this is the cure for so-called Major Tom Syndrome.