St Seraphim of Sarov

To the degree that love for the Lord warms the human heart, one finds in the Name of Jesus a sweetness that is the source of abiding peace.— Saint Seraphim of Sarov

It was Father Germann, a monk I met in the Russian city of Vladimir in 1987, who introduced me to Saint Seraphim of Sarov. He was showing me the local cathedral, still a museum in those days of Soviet rule. The tourists in the church were startled to see a living monk complete with long hair, full black beard and black monk’s cap — they couldn’t stop staring. It wasn’t only his appearance that attracted attention. He possessed a contagious joy and freedom. I mentioned to him that this church must have wonderful acoustics. Immediately he sang an unrestrained, banner-like, “Amen.” The church reverberated in an astonishing way.

I had traveled enough in Russia to be vaguely aware of Saint Seraphim, the icon of whose compassionate face seemed to grace the walls of every parish church and to have a place in many homes, but Father Germann was the first to tell me the saint’s life story.

“Saint Seraphim helped me to become a believer,” he said. Reaching into his pocket, he showed me a fragment of a large rock on which Saint Seraphim prayed for a thousand days. It was a gift from an old nun who knew a nun who knew a nun who had been in the Diveyevo convent near Sarov, a community closely linked with Saint Seraphim. The saint’s few possessions, among them the heavy cross he wore, were kept in the custody of the sisters at Diveyevo.

Father Germann explained that Seraphim was born in 1759, the son of a builder. He was still a baby when his Father died. His mother took over the business while raising her children. While still a boy, he had what should have been a fatal fall from scaffolding. Miraculously, he was unharmed, an event which prompted a local “holy fool” to say the boy must surely be “one of God’s elect.”

When Seraphim was ten, he had his first vision of the Mother of God. Nine years later he entered monastic life where he began the regular recitation of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Later, following his ordination as priest in 1793, he was led to seek a hermit’s vocation in the forest, or, as he regarded it, his “Holy Land.” Here he lived alone, devoting himself to prayer, study and tending his small garden, with few aware he was alive apart from the community of nuns living nearby and the wild animals he befriended with gifts of food. The nuns who baked bread for Seraphim admonished him for sharing so much of his bread with a bear. Seraphim explained that, while he understood fasting, bears do not.

During this period of social withdrawal, he was nearly beaten to death by robbers who had heard there was a treasure hidden in his cabin. The injuries he suffered made him walk with a bent back for the rest of his life, a stance occasionally shown in icons. After recovering from his injuries, he spent a thousand days and nights in prayer on a large rock in the forest, sometimes standing, other times kneeling, leaving the rock only for brief periods.

After his long apprenticeship in solitude, people began coming to Staretz[i] Seraphim for confession and advice, a few at first, but finally they came in floods. One of the first pilgrims was a rich man, gravely ill, who was healed by Seraphim, so healed that he gave up all his wealth and embraced holy poverty.

During the last eight years of his life, Saint Seraphim spent many hours each day talking with those in need, some of whom had walked for weeks to reach him. Others came by carriage, among them Tsar Alexander I, who later gave up the throne and lived a pious life in Siberia — some say under the influence of Saint Seraphim.

Among many remarkable stories left to us about Seraphim’s life, one of the most impressive comes from the diary of Nicholas Motovilov, who as a young man came to Sarov seeking advice. At a certain point in their conversation, Seraphim said to his guest, “Look at me.” Motovilov replied, “I am not able, Father, for there is lightning flashing in your eyes. Your face has grown more radiant than the sun and my eyes cannot bear the pain.” The staretz answered, “Do not be afraid, my dear lover of God, you have also now become as radiant as I. You yourself are now in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise you would not be able to perceive me in the exact same state.” Saint Seraphim asked him how he felt. “I feel a great calm in my soul, a peace which no words can express,” Motovilov replied. “I feel an amazing happiness.”[ii]

At the heart of Saint Seraphim’s teaching was use of the Jesus Prayer and continuing inner struggle to “acquire the Holy Spirit, the one eternal treasure which will never pass away.” He reassured those who came to him that there is nothing selfish about seeking to save your soul. “Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands of souls around you will be saved.”

Without a vital spiritual life, he said, we cannot love. “God is fire that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts. And so, if we feel in our hearts coldness, which is from the devil — for the devil is cold — then let us call upon the Lord and He will come and warm our hearts with perfect love not only for Him but for our neighbor as well.”

He was an apostle of the way of love and kindness. “You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.”

No matter what season of the year it was, he greeted visitors with the paschal salutation, “Christ is risen!” As another paschal gesture, he always wore a white robe.

Before his death, Saint Seraphim said to the sisters: “My joys, come as often as you can to my grave. Come to me as if I’m alive and tell me everything, and I will always help you.”

On January 2, 1833, Saint Seraphim was found dead in his cell, kneeling with hands crossed before an icon of Mary.

“Saint Seraphim is a unique saint,” Father Germann told me. “In him and his character, in his spirituality, we find the principal Christian characteristics — love for all people without exception, and a readiness to sacrifice. That’s why people love him so much.”

“We live in a time that pays special homage to advanced education and intellectual brilliance,” Father Germann added. “But faith isn’t just for the clever. Seraphim didn’t graduate either from university or seminary. All his ideals were gifts from God revealed through prayer and deeds. And so through Saint Seraphim many different people are drawn to belief — the intellectuals, the simple, and now not only people in the Russian Orthodox Church but other churches.”

“Saint Seraphim is the face of the Church,” said Father Germann.

Living in a period in which iconography had been influenced by western art, old icons of Saint Seraphim often resemble portraits while more recently made icons are usually in the simpler, more symbolic Byzantine style. The one reproduced here, showing Saint Seraphim praying on the rock, was made in 1992 by the iconographer Philip Zimmerman closely following an icon made earlier in the century in France by the monk Gregory Kroug. In all icons of Saint Seraphim, there is a prayer rope in his hands, a reminder of his devotion to the Jesus Prayer.]

 [a chapter from “Praying With Icons” by Jim Forest (Orbis Books)]

[i]. Staretz, the Russian word for elder, has come to mean a person with a rare spiritual authority arising from the inner life of the elder himself, enabling him to provide spiritual direction to many people, even though they may be strangers. Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, portrays such a person in the character of Father Zosima.

[ii]. The full text of Motovilov’s conversation with Saint Seraphim, found and published only after Saint Seraphim’s canonization in 1903, is included in A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, compiled and edited by George Fedotov, first published in 1950 by Sheed & Ward and reissued in 1975 by Nordland. I am aware of three biographies of the staretz in English: Saint Seraphim of Sarov by Valentine Zander (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975); St. Seraphim of Sarov: A Spiritual Biography by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore (Blanco TX: New Sarov Press, 1994); and Flame in the Snow by Iulia de Beausobre (London: Collins, 1945, reissued in as a Fount paperback in 1979). A collection of the saint’s writings has been published in English as the first volume of The Little Russian Philokalia: Saint Seraphim (Platina, CA 96076: Saint Herman of Alaska Monastery Press, 1991).