St. Seraphim of Sarov


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St. Seraphim of Sarov

Seraphim of Sarov is one of the greatest saints of the
Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity. Born in central
Russia during the late 18th century, this spiritually gifted
son of a building contractor seemed from an early age to
live “in another world”. Of “traditional” rather than
“modern” temperament the young Seraphim showed rare
spiritual gifts (especially visions), including a deep
affinity with the ascetic practices of the primitive and
medieval Christian monks of Egypt and Greece.

At nineteen Seraphim joined the Sarov monastery situated
deep in the dense virgin forests of central Russia. Here
young Seraphim continued his scriptural studies, now
augmented with mystical and ascetic literature. During this
period of study and prayer serious illness overtook
Seraphim, who refused medical help and devoted himself to
spiritual remedies. After three years, the holy “Mother of
God” visited and healed him with the touch of her staff.
Soon thereafter Seraphim recovered and began serving the
monastery with great energy, in a short time being fully
ordained as a tonsured monk, deacon and then priest. Here
his spiritual pawers manifested in numerous visions, but
following the stunning death of his monastery superior,
Seraphim removed himself into the solitude ot the wilderness
and the ascetic life of a forest hermit.

His next thirteen years were spent primarily alone in a
hut deep in the Russian forests. Here he created a secret
heavenly sanctuary of sacred sites in the forest woodland
bearing the names of Nazareth, Golgotha, Mt. Tabor, and
other places. Here Seraphim relived the Gospel scenes
amongst the foxes, bears, and wolves that thickly populated
his sanctuary, once standing in prayer for 1,000 consecutive
days and nights in the forest. Toward the end of his forest
hermitage period Seraphim was offered the post of superior
of the Sarov monastery, which he refused, choosing rather to
begin an eighteen year period of isolation and silence. Even
when illness forced him to return to the monastery, he
locked himself in a cell furnished only with an oil lamp
standing before a single icon of the Blessed Virgin.

At the age of sixty-six Seraphim of Sarov began his
extraordinary career as a spiritual “elder” (or staretz).
Emerging from his long trial of prayer and vigil he turned
to the suffering world as a healer, visionary, and spiritual
Master of unusual vigor and radiance. Seraphim is the first
known representative of the Eastern Church’s ancient
tradition of “elders” (or spiritual Masters) to emerge in
Russia. His status as a “staretz” expresses a spiritual
authority arising from the saintliness of the old monk
himself—who read the minds and hearts of supplicants
and performed numerous healings and miracles among the lay
peasants, monks, and nuns who sought his spiritual graces.
He was known as a hard but compassionate taskmaster who
taught that every layman could achieve Christian perfection
in his ordinary life through the practice of prayer,
especially the “Jesus Prayer” of the Desert Fathers of
Egypt—”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,
a sinner.”

Seraphim “was himself a living prayer.” He was buoyantly
happy, simultaneously spending his time in the company of
his “heavenly visitors” and the “poor in spirit” who came to
seek his guidance. Such mystical spirituality of Seraphim’s
was hardly understood by his fellow monks, and Seraphim
found his greatest joy in expressing the intimate details of
his revelations during spiritual instruction of the nuns of
the nearby Diveyev Convent. This was a duty he deeply
loved.

Early one morning a mysterious fire broke out in his cell
from an overturned candle. Seraphim of Sarov was found
kneeling before his favorite icon of the tender Mary; death
had frozen him in prayer. Behind him he left a great and
inspiring legend, and the promise of a joyous and
everlasting life in the Holy Spirit of God:

“When I am no more, come to my grave. As you have time,
come. The oftener the better! All that is on your soul,
whatever may have befallen you, come to me and bring all
your grief to my grave. Bending to earth, as to a living
thing, tell all and I shall hear you. All your sorrow will
fly away and pass! As you ever spoke with the living, speak
here! For you I live and shall live forever!”

Seraphim’s profound submission and devotion to God
through heartfelt prayer manifested in extraordinary gifts
of spiritual power of an initiatory kind, as is evident in
the extraordinary account of “Spirit-baptism” which follows.
For Seraphim, like the ancient desert fathers, the only aim
of the Christian life “is the acquisition of the Holy
Spirit.” In this story, one of Seraphim’s students tells,
with remarkable clarity, of an instance in which Seraphim
directly transmitted spiritually illumined consciousness and
life-energy to him, after praying silently to God to grace
this disciple with a living experience of what it means to
be acquired by the “Spirit of God.” Along with the greatest
teachings of the early Desert Fathers, the accounts of the
life and teaching of Seraphim of Sarov represent the fruit
of the enlightened life of Spirit-worship proven in the
desert and forest monasteries of the Eastern Church.

A Conversation of St. Seraphim of Sarov with Nicholas
Motovilov Concerning the Aim of a Christian Life:

It was Thursday. The day was gloomy. Snow lay deep on the
ground and snowflakes were falling thickly from the sky when
Father Seraphim began his conversation with me in the plot
near his hermitage over against the river Sarovka, on the
hill which slopes down to the river-bank. He sat me on the
stump of a tree which he had just felled, and himself
squatted before me.

“The Lord has revealed to me,” began the great elder,
“that in your childhood you longed to know the aim of our
Christian life and continually asked questions about it of
many and great ecclesiastical dignitaries.”

Let me here interpose that from the age of twelve this
thought had ceaselessly vexed me, and I had, in fact,
approached many clergymen about it; but their answers had
not satisfied me. This was not known to the elder.

“But no one,” continued father Seraphim, “has given you a
precise answer. They have said: Go to church, pray to God,
fulfill the commandments of God, do good; such is the aim of
the Christian life. Some were even irritated against you as
being occupied with irreverent curiosity and told you not to
seek things higher than yourself. But they did not answer as
they should have. And now poor Seraphim will explain to you
in what really this aim consists. Prayer, fasting, watching,
and all other Christian acts, however good they may be, do
not alone constitute the aim of our Christian life, although
they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this aim.
The true aim of our Christian life, is to acquire the Holy
Spirit of God….”

“How do you mean acquire?” l asked Father Seraphim. “l do
not somehow understand….”

“Still more will I tell you, that you may the more
clearly know what to understand by the grace of God, how to
recognize it and how in particular its actions are revealed
in those enlightened therewith. The grace of the Holy Spirit
is the light which lighteneth man. The Lord has more than
once revealed for many witnesses the working of the graces
of the Holy Spirit in those whom He has sanctified and
illumined by His great outpourings. Think of Moses after his
talk with God on Mount Sinai. People were unable to look on
him, with such unwonted radiance did he shine; he was even
forced to appear before the people under a veil. Think of
the Lord’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor: His garments were
glistening like snow and His disciples fell on their faces
for fear. When Moses and Elias appeared to Him, then, in
order to hide the effulgence of the light of God’s grace
from blinding the eyes of the disciples, a cloud, it is
written, overshadowed them. Thus the grace of God’s Holy
Spirit appears in light inexpressible to all to whom God
reveals its power.”

I replied, “Nevertheless I do not understand how I can be
firmly assured that I am in the Spirit of God. How can I
myself recognize His true manifestation?”

Father Seraphim replied, “I have already told you, my
son, that it is very simple and have in detail narrated to
you how men dwell in the Spirit of God and how one must
apprehend His appearance in us. What then do you need?”

“My need,” said I, “is to understand this well!”

Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders
and said, “We are both together, son, in the Spirit of God!
Why lookest thou not on me?”

I replied, “I cannot look, father, because lightning
flashes from your eyes. Your face is brighter than the sun
and my eyes ache in pain!”

Father Seraphim said, “Fear not, my son; you too have
become as bright as I. You too are now in the fullness of
God’s Spirit; otherwise you would not be able to look on me
as I am.”

Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in
my ear, “Give thanks to the Lord God for His ineffable
mercy! You have seen that I did not even cross myself; and
only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said
within myself; Lord, vouchsafe to him to see clearly with
bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou
vouchsafes” to Thy servants, when Thou art pleased to appear
in the light of Thy marvellous glory. And see, my son, the
Lord has fulfilled in a trice the humble prayer of poor
Seraphim. Surely we must give thanks to Him for this
ineffable gift to us both! Not always, my son, even to the
great hermits, does the Lord God show His mercy….

Come, son, why do you not look me in the eyes? Just look
and fear not! The Lord is with us!”

After these words I looked in his face and there came
over me an even greater reverential awe. Imagine in the
center of the sun, in the dazzling brilliance of his midday
rays, the face of the man who talks with you. You see the
movement of his lips and the changing expression of his
eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone grasp your
shoulders; yet you do not see the hands, you do not even see
yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading
several yards around and throwing a sparkling radiance
across the snow blanket on the glade and into the snowflakes
which besprinkled the great elder and me. Can one imagine
the state in which I then found myself?

“How do you feel now?” Father Seraphim asked.

“Unwontedly well!” I said.

“But well in what way? How in particular?~

I answered, “I feel a calmness and peace in my soul that
I cannot express in words!”

“This, my son,” said Father Seraphim, “is that peace of
which the Lord said to His disciples: My peace I give unto
you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you. If ye were of
the world, the world would love its own; but because I chose
you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. But be
of good cheer; I have overcome the world. So to them that
are hated of the world but chosen of the Lord, the Lord
gives that peace which you now feel, the peace which, in the
words of the Apostle, passeth all understanding. What else
do you feel?” asked Father Seraphim.

“An unwonted sweetness!” l replied.

He continued, “This is that sweetness of which it is said
in Holy Scripture: They shall be satisfied with the
plenteousness of Thy house, and Thou shalt give them drink
of Thy sweetness as out of the river. See, this sweetness
now overflows and pours through our veins with unspeakable
delight. From this sweetness our hearts melt and we are
filled with such blessedness as tongue cannot tell. What
else do you feel?”

“An unwonted joy in all my heart!”

Father Seraphim continued, “When the Spirit of God
descends to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His
outpouring, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable
joy, because the Spirit of God turns to joy all that He may
touch…. In the world ye shall be sorrowful; but when I see
you, your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one taketh
away from you. Yet however comforting may be this joy which
you now feel in your heart, it is nothing in comparison with
that in which the Lord Himself said by the mouth of His
Apostle that this joy neither eye hath seen, nor ear heard,
neither have entered into the heart of man the good things
which God hath prepared for them that love Him. The earnest
of that joy is given to us now, and, if from this there is
sweetness, well-being, and merriment in our souls, what
shall we say of that joy which has been prepared in heaven
for them that weep here on earth? You too, my son, have had
tears enough in your life; see now with what joy the Lord
consoles you while yet here! What else do you feel, my
son?”

I answered, “An unwonted warmth!”

“But why warmth, my son? See, we sit in the forest, the
winter is out and about, the snow is underfoot, there is
more than an inch of snow on us and still the snowflakes
fall. What warmth can there be?”

I answered, “Such as there is in the bath-house, when
they pour the water on the stone and the steam rises in a
cloud.”

“And the smell?” he asked me. “Is it the bath-house
smell?”

“No!” I replied. “There is nothing on earth like this
fragrance. When in my dear mother’s lifetime I was fond of
dancing and used to go to balls and parties, my mother would
sprinkle me with scent which she had bought at the best
fashion-shops in Kazan. But those scents did not give out
such fragrance!”

Father Seraphim, smiling kindly, said, “My son, I know it
just as you do, and I purposely ask you whether you feel it
so. It is the very truth, my son! No pleasure of earthly
fragrance can be compared with that which we now feel, for
the fragance of God’s Holy Spirit surrounds us. What earthly
thing can be like it? Mark, my son! You have told me that
around us it is warm as in the bath-house; but look, neither
on you nor on me does the snow melt, and above us it is the
same. Of course this warmth is not in the air but in us. It
is that very warmth about which the Holy Spirit in the words
of the prayer maks us cry out to the Lord: Warm me with the
warmth of Thy Holy Spirit! Warmed therewith the hermits have
not feared the winter frost, being clad, as in warm coats,
in the cloak of grace woven of the Holy Spirit. So in very
deed it must be, for the grace of God must dwell within us,
in our heart, because the Lord said: The kingdom of God is
within you. By the kingdom of God the Lord meant the grace
of the Holy Spirit. See, this kingdom of God is now found
within us. The.grace of the Holy Spirit shines forth and
warms us, and, overflowing with many and varied odors into
the air around us, regales our senses with heavenly delight,
as it fills our hearts with joy inexpressible. Our present
state is that of which the Apostle says: The Kingdom of God
is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace in the
Holy Spirit. Our faith consists not in persuasive words of
human wisdom, but in the demonstration of the Spirit and of
power. In this condition we now find ourselves together. Of
this condition the Lord said: There are some of them that
stand here, which shall in no wise taste of death, till they
see the Kingdom of God coming in power. Of such unspeakable
joy, my son, the Lord God has now thought us worthy! This is
what it means to be in the fullness of the Holy Spirit,
about which St. Macarius of Egypt writes: I too was in the
fullness of the Holy Spirit. With this fullness of the Holy
Spirit the Lord now has filled us to overflowing, poor as we
are. Come now, there is no more need to ask, my son, how men
may be in the grace of the Holy Spirit! Will you remember
this manifestation of God’s ineffable mercy which has
visited us?”