Iconography and Hand painted icons

St. Seraphim the Wonderworker, the Hermit of Sarov

Σεραφείμ Σάρωφ_St. Seraphim of Sarov_ Преподобный Серафим Саровский_sarovsky_620

St. Seraphim of Sarov the Wonderworker

Commemorated on January 2 and on July 19/August 1 (The translation of the Saint’s holy relics)

“Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a Thousand Souls Around You Shall Be Saved”
( St. Seraphim of Sarov )


Άγιος Σεραφείμ Σάρωφ_St. Seraphim of Sarov_ Преподобный Серафим Саровский_ 2167Abbot Pachomius died on 06 November 1794, and so St. Seraphim lost another staretz. St. Seraphim said “Joseph [his first staretz] and Pachomius were two pillars of fire with their flames leaping up to heaven.” The Elder Isaiah became his new staretz, and also took over as abbot of the monastery. The death of Pachomius was to be a mile marker or turning point in St. Seraphim’s life, for in just two weeks he was to leave the enclosure of the monastery to live as a hermit in the dense woods that surrounded Sarov. From the available biographical material, it is not clear just what the underlying motivation was. It has been variously suggested that St. Seraphim’s desire was because he was a “‘heavenly man’ [who] flew away to solitude ‘for God’s sake’,” because he “bitterly lamented” the loss of Pachomius, because he desired to move “deep into the desert,” because he “felt free to request permission to withdraw to a deserted part of the forest” (as if he had been longing to do this for some time but was unwilling to leave Pachomius), or it was because he had lost “the spiritual help which he still needed” and “was earnestly seeking for prayer and the increasing pilgrimages to the monastery were a hindrance to the life of silence which he loved.” It has also been suggested that he wanted to separate himself from strife within the monastery. This last interpretation comes from advice given later by St. Seraphim to a monk who had asked: “‘Father… people say that retirement from a community into solitude is pharisaism and that such a change of life means disparagement of the brethren or else their condemnation.’ To this Father Seraphim replied: ‘It is not our business to condemn others. And we leave the Brotherhood not out of hatred for them, but chiefly because we have accepted and wear the habit of Angels, for whom it is unbearable to be where the Lord God is offended by word and deed. And therefore when we separate ourselves from the Brotherhood, we only avoid hearing and seeing what is repugnant to God’s commandments which may happen in a multitude of brethren. We do not run away from men who are of the same nature as we are and who bear the name of Christ, but from the sins which they commit. As it was said to the Great Arsenius: ‘Flee from men, and thou wilt be saved.’” The apparent motivation was due to St. Seraphim’s poor health, for the note giving him permission to leave read “…on account of his unfitness for life in community, owing to his illness… .”[1] However, St. Seraphim was very far from willful; it is better stated that the true motivations were spiritual, and for him to make the radical shift from life as a cenobite to that of an eremite could have only come as an obedience—as formerly to his mother, Elder Dositheus, Elder Joseph, and Abbot Pachomius—to his new spiritual father, Abbot Isaiah, as he, in turn, would have been obedient to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It should also be noted that, in the physical realm, this was apparently somewhat “risky” for Father Isaiah, as hermitages and sketes had been banned under Peter the so-called “Great,” a ban that would not be lifted until 1822. (Nor was St. Seraphim the only hermit permitted to live in the woods around Sarov.)
Thus it came about that on 20 November 1794, sixteen years to the day after he had first passed in through the gates of the Sarov “Desert” bell tower, St. Seraphim passed through the gates into a deeper “desert” and the life of a solitary. The monastery’s “summer house” (later known as the far hermitage) into which he settled was located some five versts (5.3 km or 3.3 miles) away along the Sarovka River. The hermitage was a small, one-room log cabin with a porch, anteroom, and celler. It was furnished only with stove, a wooden chopping block which served as a chair and table, and a sack of stones for a bed.

In the corner opposite the stove, St. Seraphim hung an “Umilienie” icon [2] of the Theotokos—an icon he was to keep with him throughout his life (he died before it while kneeling in prayer)—and to who he dedicated the hermitage. Outside of the cabin St. Seraphim maintained a vegetable garden which, other than bread from the monastery, provided all his food. He named his new home “Mount Athos” and gave Biblical names to the surroundings.

Άγιος Σεραφείμ Σάρωφ_St. Seraphim of Sarov_ Преподобный Серафим Саровский_ 2167Image-71_tnIn hermitage, St. Seraphim’s life consisted chiefly of prayer. He usually said the Divine Office in the customary order. He arose about midnight and recited the Midnight Service, the Orthros, and read the First Hour. Before ten in the morning he began his reading of the Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hours, and the Typical Psalms. The afternoon was followed by recitation of Vespers, and after his evening meal, the Prayers after Supper (Compline). Before retiring he said the Prayers before Sleep. St. Seraphim also intoned the Psalms appointed by the Rule of St. Pachomius, and read the Scriptures—especially the Gospels. “Holy writings,” he said later, “should be read in order to free the soul to rise to the heavenly realms and partake of the sweetest discourse with the Lord.” At all other times he continuously repeated the hesychast silent Prayer of the Heart. His daily work consisted of tasks such as gathering moss for fertilizer and tending his garden, chopping wood, and strengthening the banks of the river. Later he began to carry a heavy sack filled with earth and stones, and in which lay the Holy Gospel; St. Seraphim said that he did this, using the words of St. Ephrem the Syrian, in order to “oppress him who oppressed me.”

While he was generally separated from people during his stay in the hermitage—only occasionally receiving visitors such as other nearby hermits—the animals of the forest became his friends. Father Joseph related, as an eye-witness, that rabbits, foxes, lynx, lizards, bears, and even wolves would gather at midnight at the door of the cabin and wait for St. Seraphim to finish his prayers and come out to feed them with bread. It has also been related by several people that a bear would take bread from his hands, as well as obey his orders by, for example, fetching honey when there was a visitor.

On Saturdays and on the eve of feast days, St. Seraphim would walk to the monastery to take part in corporate worship, including Vespers, Orthros, and Divine Liturgy. (Although he always wore his vestments when he partook of the Eucharist, he no longer celebrated, considering himself unworthy.) He also spent the first week of the Great Fast at the monastery, joining his fellow monks in prayer and in abstaining from all food. After Communion on Sundays he would remain in the monastery until evening, receiving those who came to visit seeking advice or consolation. He would then return to his hermitage, bringing bread for the week.

On 09 September 1804, three men in search of money or other valuables attacked St. Seraphim. In their rage of not finding anything worthwhile, they beat him severely and left him for dead. While he could have defended himself—he was carrying an axe and was known at the time to have been a powerful man—he did not resist.

Over the course of the next day he managed to drag himself to the monastery, suffering from multiple injuries to his head, chest, ribs, and back. While doctors were called for, St. Seraphim refused treatment, and fell into a semi-coma. At some point he had another vision of the Theotokos, accompanied by the Apostles Peter and John. “What is the use of doctors?” she said. “He is of our family.” Eight days after the attack and a few hours after this vision, he was able to get up, walk a little, and take some nourishment. But only after five months had passed was St. Seraphim able to return to his hermitage (ca. February 1804), although physically he was to remain crippled and bent over throughout the rest of his life (as often seen in icons of the saint), which was taken as a sign of his humility. 

Άγιος Σεραφείμ Σάρωφ_St. Seraphim of Sarov_ Преподобный Серафим Саровский_ 2pic0018What can be said of this attack? The devil, in his inability to conquer the saint through the spiritual attacks and temptations that faced him in the preceding years, tried to overcome him in the physical realm. When St. Seraphim was asked if he had seen demons, he was silent and then simply said “they are despicable.” At another time St. Seraphim related that “He who has chosen the hermit life must feel himself constantly crucified… The hermit, tempted by the spirit of darkness, is like dead leaves chased by the wind, like clouds driven by the storm; the demon of the desert bears down on the hermit at about mid-day and sows restless worries in him, distressing desires as well. These temptations can only be overcome by prayer.”

In apparent response to the physical attack, however, at some point during the year after his return to the hermitage (ca. March 1804 to March 1805), St. Seraphim undertook what was to become his most challenging podvig: although it was only to become known at the end of his life, he chose to undertake a stylite-like contest, even as crippled as he was, by spending one-thousand days and nights in prayer on a granite rock (some say 1001), only interrupting the task for necessary care of the body (rest and food[3]); by night he prayed on a bolder located in the forest about halfway between his cell and the monastery, and by day on another stone that he had dragged into his cell so as not to be seen by people. When this feat was revealed at the end of the saint’s life, one of the brethren said in astonishment: “This is above human strength.” St. Seraphim replied: “St. Simeon the Stylite stood for forty-seven years on a pillar. Are my labors comparable to this?” The brother responded that he must have been helped by grace. St. Seraphim agreed saying, “Yes, otherwise human strength would not have been sufficient. When there is contrition in the heart, then God is also with us.” St. Seraphim completed his work as a “stylite” at some point not too long before Abbot Isaiah died on 04 December 1807.[4]

St. Seraphim next undertook another ascetical work: that of silence. He remained completely cutoff from the world except for the weekly visit of a monk who began to bring him some bread and boiled cabbage. This mode of life in the hermitage continued until the new abbot, Niphont, decided he would not continue to support St. Seraphim in his isolation, but rather demanded that he resume attending services on Sundays and feast days, or else return to Σεραφείμ Σάρωφ_St. Seraphim of Sarov_ Преподобный Серафим Саровский_86f0628c_XLthe monastery. So it was that on 08 May 1810 St. Seraphim returned from the hermitage to the monastery. However, he continued his practice of silence and shut himself up, with permission, in his cell, only coming out at night for short walks, and he received no visitors. Holy Communion and food was brought to him in his cell, which he received on his knees with his face covered with a piece of linen. The furnishings of his cell were not unlike those of the hermitage, except for the addition of a coffin that the saint had made for himself. As before, St. Seraphim continued to occupy himself with internal (hesychast or Jesus) prayer and reading. To his silence he also added the additional podvig of wearing a heavy iron cross. He was not alone, however; the Theotokos was always present through her icon, and angels began to appear and converse with him.
Ca. 1813 St. Seraphim began to relax his reclusion by occasionally receiving some people whom he would hear and instruct; for example, on 13 September that year the Tambov Governor A.M. Bezobrazov and his wife came, and the Elder opened his door to them himself and silently blessed them. In 1815, St. Seraphim brought an end to his isolation; monks could now enter his cell to visit, and on occasion he would receive other visitors (although, in general, he continued to practice silence); he was even visited in 1825 by Tsar Alexander I.[5]
Finally, on 25 November 1825, the Theotokos again appeared to St. Seraphim in a vision, accompanied by St. Onuphrius the Great and St. Peter of Athos (both 12 June), and told him he was now ready to devote himself in ministering to others.

[1] The full text reads: “The bearer of this, Hieromonk Seraphim of the Sarov Monastery, is given leave to remain in solitude in his (i.e., the Monastery’s) summer-house, on account of his unfitness for life in community, owing to his illness, and in accordance with his zeal, after a trial of many years in the monastery; and he is allowed to go into solitude solely for the sake of peace of spirit, for God’s sake, and with a rule given to him according to the regulations of the Holy Fathers; and in the future let no one hinder him from remaining in that place; and this I confirm. (signed) Hieromonk Isaiah. In witness of which, I hereby affix a seal.” Ibid., p. 81.
[2] The original Umilienie (generally interpreted as “Tender Feeling”) icon of St. Seraphim is reportedly kept in the patriarch’s residence in Moscow. A replica stands in the Holy Trinity Church at Diveyevo. (Mother Nectaria McLees, “Diveyevo: A Pilgrim’s Chronicle, 1993-2003,” Road to Emmaus, Vol. IV, No. 3 (#14), p.14.) In this icon “The Virgin Mary is represented at the moment of uttering her Fiat; with lowered eyes she is very humbly listening to the archangel’s words.” (Zander, p. 24.) A picture of this icon can be found on the Diveyevo Convent web site (http://www.diveevo.ru/ last accessed 24 February 2008).
[3] St. Seraphim gave up tending his garden. Nor did he go to the monastery to take part in common worship or to bring back food. He subsisted solely on a soup he made of water and wild aeropodium, which he collected in summer and dried for winter use. (Cavarnos and Zeldin, p. 67.)
[4] http://btv.ru/LetopisSerafima/letopis-sarov-hronika.html accessed 29DEC07. St. Seraphim was offered the position of abbot, but he refused saying he lacked the special gift required. (Cavarnos and Zeldin, p. 70.) This was not the first time that St. Seraphim was offered such a position. In 1796 he was asked to serve as abbot of the Alateer Monastery in the province of Samara along with a promotion to Archimandrite. (Moore, p. 89.) At some point he was also asked to serve as the abbot of the Krasno Slobodsky Spassky Monastery. (Moore, p. 93.)
[5] While it is reported by some that Tsar Alexander I died later that year of 1825, on November 19, many people—especially the Orthodox and including some historians—believe that the hermit Feodor Kuzmich (aka Kozmich or Kusmitch) who emerged in Siberia in 1836 and died in the vicinity of Tomsk in 1864 was in fact Alexander I under an assumed identity. It has been suggested that it was under St. Seraphim’s influence that Alexander left his throne. (Zander, p. 26) It is also of interest to note that when the Soviets opened Alexander’s supposed tomb they did not find a body, only rocks.

Troparion of St. Seraphim of Sarov, Tone 4

Thou didst love Christ from thy youth, O blessed one, and longing to work for Him alone thou didst struggle in the wilderness with constant prayer and labor. With penitent heart and great love for Christ thou wast favored by the Mother of God. Wherefore we cry to thee: Save us by thy prayers, O Seraphim our righteous Father.


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