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






Beyond the Beginner’s
Spiritual Way of Saint Jesus
and the
Traditions of Mystical Cosmic Ascent via
Spirit-Breath

By The Avataric Great Sage, Adi Da
Samraj

(this book was later published as
Pneumaton)

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the book




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

by N. A. Motovilov

(translated by A. F. Dobbie-Bateman)

The following document is the record of a conversation
between Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759–1833) and his
disciple Nikolai Aleksandrovich Motovilov—including
Motovilov’s remarkable personal testimony of the
Spiritual Blessing-Transmission He directly experienced in
Saint Seraphim’s company. The event took place in
November 1831, and the record of it was written down
immediately afterwards by Motovilov himself.

 

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 clergy 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. But mark, my son, only the good deed done for
Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
All that is not done for His sake, though it be good, brings
neither reward in the life to come nor in our life here the
grace of God. Wherefore our Lord Jesus Christ has said: He
that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad. Not that a
good deed can be called anything but ‘gathering,’
since even though it be not done for Christ’s sake, yet
it is good. The Scripture says: In every nation he that
feareth God and worketh righteousness is so pleasing to God
that the Angel of the Lord appeared at the hour of prayer to
Cornelius, the God-fearing and righteous centurion, and
said: ‘Go to Joppa to Simon the tanner; there shalt
thou find Peter and he will tell thee the words of
everlasting life, whereby thou shalt be saved and all thy
house.’

“Thus the Lord uses all His Divine means to give
such a man for his good works the opportunity not to lose
his reward in the future life. But to this end we must begin
here by a right faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of
God, who came into the world to save sinners, and by winning
for ourselves the grace of the Holy Spirit, who brings into
our hearts the Kingdom of God and lays for us the path to
win the blessings of the future life. The acceptability to
God of good deeds not done for Christ’s sake is limited
to this, that the Creator gives the means to make them
effective; it rests with man to make them effective or not.
Wherefore the Lord said to the Hebrews: ‘If ye had not
seen, ye would have had no sin; but now ye say, we see, and
your sin remaineth with you.’ A man like Cornelius
finds favor with God for his deeds, though done not for the
sake of Christ; let him then but believe in the Son of God
and all his works will be accounted as done for
Christ’s sake just for faith in Him. But in the
opposite event a man has no right to complain that his good
has had no effect. It never does, unless the good deed be
done for Christ’s sake, since good done for Him both
claims in the life of the world to come a crown of
righteousness and in this present life fills men with the
grace of the Holy Spirit; as it is said: ‘Not by
measure doth God give the Holy Spirit; the Father loveth the
Son and giveth all things into His hands.’

“So it is, my little lordling of God! In acquiring
this Spirit of God consists the true aim of our Christian
life, while prayer, watching, fasting, almsgiving, and other
good works done for Christ’s sake are only the means
for acquiring the Spirit of God.”

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

“To acquire is the same as to gain,” he
answered. “You understand what acquiring money means.
Acquiring God’s Spirit, it’s all the same. You
know well enough what it means in the worldly sense, my son,
to acquire. The aim in life of ordinary people is to acquire
or make money, and for the nobility it is in addition to
receive honors, distinctions and other rewards for their
services to the government. The acquisition of God’s
Spirit is also capital, but grace-giving and eternal, and it
is gained in very similar ways, almost the same ways as
monetary, social, and temporal capital.

“God the Word, the God-Man, our Lord Jesus Christ,
likens our life to a market, and the work of our life on
earth He calls buying, and says to us all: ‘Buy till I
come, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.’
That is to say, economize the time for receiving heavenly
blessings through earthly goods. Earthly goods are virtuous
acts performed for Christ’s sake and conferring on us
the grace of the Holy Spirit, without whom there is not and
cannot be any salvation; for it is written: ‘By the
Holy Spirit is every soul quickened and by purity exalted,
yea, is made bright by the Three in One in holy
mystery.’21 The Holy Spirit itself enters our souls,
and this entrance into our souls of Him the Almighty and
this presence with our spirit of the Triune Majesty is only
granted to us through our own assiduous acquisition of the
Holy Spirit, which prepares in our soul and body a throne
for the all-creative presence of God with our spirit
according to His irrevocable word: I will dwell in them, and
walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My
people.

“Of course, every virtuous act done for
Christ’s sake gives us the grace of the Holy Spirit,
but most of all is this given through prayer; for prayer is
somehow always in our hands as an instrument for acquiring
the grace of the Spirit. You wish, for instance, to go to
church and there is no church near or the service is over;
or you wish to give to the poor and there is none by or you
have nothing to give; you want to preserve your purity and
there is not the strength in you to succeed because of your
own constitution or because of the insistent snares of the
enemy, which on account of your human weakness you cannot
withstand; you wish to perform some other virtuous act for
Christ’s sake and the strength or the opportunity is
lacking. This in no way affects prayer; prayer is always
possible for everyone, rich and poor, noble and simple,
strong and weak, healthy and suffering, righteous and
sinful. Great is the power of prayer; most of all does it
bring the Spirit of God and easiest of all is it to
exercise. Truly, in prayer it is vouchsafed to us to
converse with our Good and Life-giving God and Savior, but
even here we must pray only until God the Holy Spirit
descends on us in measures of His heavenly grace known to
Him. When He comes to visit us, we must cease to pray. How
can we pray to Him, ‘come and abide in us, cleanse us
from all evil, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord,’22
when He has already come to us to save us, who trust in Him
and call on His holy name in truth, that humbly and with
love we may receive Him, the Comforter, in the chamber of
our souls, hungering and thirsting for His coming?”

“Yes, father, but what about other virtuous acts
done for Christ’s sake in order to acquire the grace of
the Holy Spirit? You speak of prayer alone.”

“Acquire, my son, the grace of the Holy Spirit by
all the other virtues in Christ; trade in those that are
most profitable to you. Accumulate the capital of the
grace-giving abundance of God’s mercy. Deposit it in
God’s eternal bank, which brings you unearthly
interest, not four or six per cent, but one hundred per
cent, for one spiritual shilling and even more, infinitely
more. Thus, if prayer and watching give you more of
God’s grace, pray and watch; if fasting gives much of
God’s Spirit, fast; if almsgiving gives more, give
alms. In such manner decide about every virtue in
Christ.

“Trade thus spiritually in virtue. Distribute the
gifts of the grace of the Holy Spirit to them that ask, as a
candle, burning with earthly fire, lights other candles for
the illumining of all in other places, but diminishes not
its own light. If it be so with earthly fire, what shall we
say about the fire of the grace of God’s Holy
Spirit?”

“But, father,” said I, “you continue to
dwell on the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit as
the aim of the Christian life. How and where can I see it?
Good deeds are visible. Is the Holy Spirit then to be seen?
How am I going to know whether He is with me or
not?”

“At the present time,” the elder replied,
“thanks to our almost universal indifference to the
holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and thanks to our
inattentiveness to the working of His Divine purpose in us
and of the communion between man and God, we have come to
this, that one might say we have almost entirely departed
from the true Christian life. These words seem strange to us
now that the Spirit of God spake by the lips of Moses:
‘And Adam saw the Lord walking in paradise’; or
those words which we read in the Apostle Paul: ‘We went
to Achaia and the Spirit of God came not with us, we
returned to Macedonia and the Spirit of God came with
us.’ More than once in other passages of Holy Scripture
is told the story of God’s appearance to men. Some
people say these passages are incomprehensible; could men
really see God? But there is nothing incomprehensible here.
This failure to understand comes about because we have
wandered from the spacious vision of early Christians. Under
the pretext of education we have reached such a darkness of
ignorance that now to us seems inconceivable what the
ancients saw so clearly that even in ordinary conversation
the notion of God’s appearance did not seem strange to
them. Men saw God and the grace of His Holy Spirit, not in
sleep or in a dream, or in the excitement of a disordered
imagination, but truly, in the light of day. We have become
very inattentive to the work of our salvation, whence it
comes about that many other words also in the Holy
Scriptures we do not take in the proper sense; and all
because we do not seek the grace of God, because in the
pride of our minds we do not allow it to enter our souls,
and therefore we have no true enlightenment from the Lord,
which is sent into the hearts of men, to all who hunger and
thirst in heart for God’s truth.

“When our Lord Jesus Christ had accomplished the
whole work of salvation, after His resurrection, He breathed
on the Apostles to restore the breath of life which had been
lost by Adam, and gave them that same grace of the Holy
Spirit of God which had been Adam’s. On the day of
Pentecost He triumphantly sent down on them the Holy Spirit
in the rushing of a mighty wind like tongues of fire, which
sat upon each one of them and entered in and filled them
with the strength of Divine flame-like grace; whose breath
is laden with dew, and it creates joy in the souls partaking
of its power and influence. And, when this same
fire-inspired grace of the Holy Spirit is given to all the
faithful in Christ in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, they
seal it in the chief places appointed by the Holy Church on
our flesh, as the eternal vessel of this grace. The words
are: ‘The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.’23
On what do we miserable creatures set our seal except on the
vessels which preserve some precious treasure? But what can
be higher and more precious in the world than the gifts of
the Holy Spirit sent us from above in the sacrament of
Baptism? For this baptismal grace is so great, so necessary,
so life-giving for man, that it will never be taken away
even from the heretic until his very death; that is, until
the term which has been set by the Providence of God to
man’s earthly trial—for what will he be of use and
what will he accomplish in the time and with the grace given
him by God? If we were never to sin after our baptism, we
should remain forever holy, spotless, exempt from all
foulness of flesh and spirit, like the saints of God. But
the trouble is that, though we increase in stature, we do
not increase in the grace and mind of God, as our Lord Jesus
Christ increased; but on the contrary, growing dissipated
bit by bit, we are deprived of the grace of God’s Holy
Spirit and become sinners of many degrees and many sins.
But, when a man, stirred by the Divine Wisdom which seeks
our salvation, is resolved for her sake to rise early before
God and keep watch for the attainment of his eternal
salvation, then must he in obedience to her voice hasten to
repent truly of all his sins and to perfect the virtues that
are their contrary, and thus by virtuous acts done for
Christ’s sake to acquire the Holy Spirit, which works
in us and sets up in us the kingdom of God. Notwith-standing
man’s repeated falls, notwithstanding the darkness
around the soul, the grace of the Holy Spirit which is given
at our baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and
of the Holy Spirit shines still in the heart with the Divine
immemorial light of the precious merits of Christ. When the
sinner turns to the way of repentance, this Christ-Light
smooths out all trace of past sin and clothes the former
sinner once more in a robe of incorruption woven from the
grace of the Holy Spirit about the acquisition of which, as
the aim of the Christian life, I have been speaking so
long.

“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 glistering 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.”

“How then,” I asked Father Seraphim, “am I
to know that I am in the grace of the Holy Spirit?”

“It is very simple, my son,” he replied;
“wherefore the Lord says: ‘All things are simple
to them that get understanding.’ Being in that
understanding, the Apostles always perceived whether the
Spirit of God abided in them or not; and, being filled with
understanding and seeing the presence of God’s Spirit
with them, they affirmed that their work was holy and
pleasing to God. By this is explained why they wrote in
their epistles: ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and
to us.’ Only on these grounds did they offer their
epistles as immutable truth for the good of all the
faithful. Thus the Holy Apostles were consciously aware of
the presence in themselves of God’s Spirit. And so you
see, my son, how simple it is!”

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
vouchsafest 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. See, the
grace of God has come to comfort your contrite heart, as a
loving mother, at the intercession of the Mother of God
herself. 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!” I 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. This is that joy of which the Lord speaks in His
Gospel: ‘A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow,
because her hour is come; but when she is delivered of the
child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for the joy that
a man is born into the world. 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 a 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 fragrance 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 makes 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?”

“I know not, father,” I said, “whether the
Lord will grant me always to remember this mercy of God as
vividly and clearly as now I feel it.”

“I think,” Father Seraphim answered me,
“that the Lord will help you always to retain it in
your memory, since otherwise His goodness would not have
bowed so instantly to my humble prayer and would not so
readily have anticipated hearkening to poor Seraphim; the
more so that not for you alone is it given to understand
this, but through you to the whole world in order that you
yourself might be confirmed in God’s work and might be
useful to others. The fact, my son, that I am a monk and you
are a layman need not keep us. God requires a right faith in
Himself and His Only-begotten Son. For this the grace of the
Holy Spirit is given abundantly from above. The Lord seeks a
heart filled with love of God and neighbor: this is the
throne whereon He loves to sit and whereon He appears in the
fullness of His heavenly glory. ‘My son, give me thine
heart,’ He says, ‘and all the rest I Myself will
add unto you.’ For the Kingdom of God is in the human
heart. The Lord is nigh unto them that call upon Him in
truth, and there is in Him no respect of persons; for the
Father loveth the Son and will give all things into His
hands, if only we too love our Heavenly Father truly as
sons. The Lord hears equally the monk and the simple
Christian layman, so be they are both right believers, and
both love God from the depth of their soul, and both have
faith in Him, if only as a grain of mustard-seed; and they
both shall move mountains. One shall move thousands and two
shall move multitudes. The Lord Himself says: ‘All
things are possible to him that believeth.’ Father Paul
the Apostle exclaims with his whole voice: ‘I can do
all things in Christ who strengtheneth me.’ But surely
more wonderfully even than this does our Lord Jesus Christ
speak of them that believe in Him: ‘He that believeth
on Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater
works than these shall he do; because I go unto My Father
and will pray to Him for you, that your joy may be
fulfilled. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in My Name; ask
and ye shall receive.’ Thus, my son, whatever you may
ask of the Lord God, you will receive all, provided only
that it were for the glory of God or the good of your
neighbor; for He relates the good of a neighbor to His
glory, wherefore He says: ‘All that ye have done unto
one of the least of these, ye have done unto Me.’ Then
have no doubt that the Lord God will fulfill your petitions,
if only they are to God’s glory and the good and
edification of your neighbors. But, even if something were
necessary for your own need or good or profit, that too just
as quickly and graciously will the Lord God send you, so be
that extreme need and necessity insist. For the Lord loves
them that love Him; the Lord is good to all men and will do
the will of them that fear Him and will hear their
prayer.”

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