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 )
The Life of St. Seraphim of Sarov
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
June 4, 1970
I think this is one of the most difficult subjects I could have chosen. And yet I have done so because St Seraphim is practically a contemporary of ours: he died in 1833. He belongs to the 19th century. He is a man who is not so remote from us, and yet who has expressed in all his spiritual endeavour the traditional ways of monasticism, gone through the total experience of the ascetic way of life, and in the end come back. And this is the second reason why I mentioned him. Very often when we read lives of saints, we see men who after a period of disillusionment, abandon the world altogether, who go into whatever wilderness offers itself to them. It may be the physical desert. It may be another kind of desert, that of the great or small city. But there is a moment of withdrawal which at times is both the beginning and also the fulfillment of their lives.
St Arsenius the Great is a man who belonged to this type. He was one of the great men of the court of Constantinople, discovered and perceived the emptiness of the life which was his, abandoned everything and went into the desert to become the disciple of a completely illiterate monk, yet of one who was one of the great spiritual guides of his time. Being asked how it was that he, with all his culture, all his education, all the refinement of thought and life to which he was accustomed, had chosen that particular teacher, he said, `I cannot yet spell the book he is reading freely.’ The world of the spirit was open to the one, the world of human knowledge was open to the other. And later on he remained in the desert, fleeing from human contact, avoiding even chance meetings. Being asked again once why he behaved in this way, he said, `In heaven myriads of angels are in perfect harmony among themselves. On earth the wills of men are in discordant disharmony. I cannot leave the harmony even for the sake of human relationships and charity.’
Side by side with him lived another monk who, on the contrary, because of charity was prepared at times to abandon his isolation, to forsake the outer peace of the desert, to look after pilgrims. He also did that in the name of God. St Seraphim, in his life, seems to me to be a revelation of a more complete way than these two. He is a man who did not abandon the world because he was disillusioned. He never suffered from the world, except in that it was, as it always is, an ambiguous world, a world of twilight where God is present but also darkness is heavy, and the light shines and cannot be quenched, and yet in which the light does not pervade all things. He did not abandon the world either for personal reasons like some failure of his life. In every respect he was gifted. He was handsome, strong, vigorous. He was intelligent. He was successful in whatever studies he undertook – and of course in his time and under the circumstances of his life he did not go very far. But he was up to anything he attempted. He was loved and respected. He was not drawn out of the world for that kind of reason, but simply because, very soon in life – very soon indeed when he was still a small child – he perceived the beauty, the harmony, the depth of the divine, and he longed to establish himself within this harmony so that he no longer could be torn away from it. He set out to do it with ruthlessness and incredible courage, but when he had done it, by the will of God, commanded indeed by the Mother of God to do so, he came back, and for the last five years or so of his life he was, perhaps what John Robinson would call ‘the man for others’. He lived in his monastery, and he met up to 2000 people a day, who came to see him.
When I use the word ‘see’, I do it advisedly. He did not preach or make discourses. He was not surrounded by disciples who would screen his visitors and bring to him those who were in real need. He never had any disciples in that sense. But he was in himself a vision and a revelation. People came in crowds to surround him, and to see what an old monastic saying expresses by saying `no one can abandon the world unless he has seen on the face of a man the splendour of eternal life, the light of eternity.’ This is what people seemed to see. He called out of the crowd the few, those for whom he had a message, those to whom he had something to impart from God, but he did not leave the others hungry and athirst. They had seen. They had seen serenity. They had seen greatness. They had seen joy. They had seen love. And all this in a context that was not the natural context for human rejoicing or for ordinary serenity of peace. They had seen it on the face of one who was engaged in a ruthless fight for integrity of his whole person and also for the integrity of others. And this integrity is costly.
In the life of St Seraphim we find a passage which tells us that he was once with a visitor. The visitor was silently sitting in his cell, and St Seraphim was praying. Suddenly the whole cell became dark, and terror fell upon the visitor. It lasted a while. St Seraphim continued steadily to pray. Then the darkness and the terror dispersed. The visitor asked him then, `What happened, Father?’ And St Seraphim answered, `I have been praying for the salvation of a soul, and all the darkness of hell came upon us to prevent this prayer and to prevent his salvation.’ He was a man who knew how to rejoice where humanly speaking others would not have found the strength even to survive, to smile. He met every person with words of love: `My joy’, he called them. Or he greeted them with those words which sum up the whole of the gospel: `Christ is risen!’ He was not a sentimental man. There was no sentimental warmth in him, in his greetings, in his manner. The more you read about him, the more you try to perceive the peculiar qualities of his saintliness, the more you find him in a way frightening – frightening in the way things too great for us may frighten us. He was not cold, but he was like the air of the mountain-tops, bracing and indeed cold, and at the same time this coldness was fiery with light and with a warmth that was that of God, not human warmth.
In him we see resolved the problem which throughout the centuries we all have from generation to generation, that of action and contemplation. In the beginning we could be mistaken and imagine that his life was an effort at nothing but contemplation, if such a phrase makes any sense. But when we read of the way he filled the time of his contemplative years with a rule of prayer which no one of us could bear for a day, with an amount of work which few peasants could have borne, when we think that for all the years of his monastic life the only heating he had in the Russian winter was the little lamp that burnt in front of his icon, we realise all the physical, intellectual and moral effort that was involved. We will understand what our Orthodox tradition means by saying that in the beginning until God himself has come, conquered, taken possession of a man, the contemplative life is active, action, endeavour, is fight. It has nothing to do with a passive expectation of the divine mercy. It is an alert, intense striving involving the man in all possible ways.
He read extensively. He read the Bible, meditated on it deeply. He read the writings of the great spiritual masters and tried to apply them in order to understand them. He had a deep knowledge of the ascetical and mystical tradition of Orthodoxy. And then in the period which we might call the active years of his life we discover that this active life itself was perhaps a more contemplative period than it ever had been, – not only because he came out of his solitude when he had already established himself in the presence of God, in the awareness of God, in continuous prayer, but also because the way he dealt with situations and problems was typically that of a contemplative.
He was asked once how it was that whenever a person came, in the few words he spoke he said what this person needed, as though he knew all the past and the present of this person’s life, all the concrete needs and circumstances. And St Seraphim said that he prays, he prays all the time, and when someone presents himself, he asks God to bless their meeting, and then he speaks the first words which God gives him to speak. This is action and contemplation bound together, interwoven into oneness, and indeed this is the only form of action which is truly the action of the Christian. The Christian is not one who applies attentively, soberly, passionately the commandments of Christ as though they were outer rules of behaviour. He is not one whose efficiency in God’s name is particularly good. What is characteristic of the Christian’s action is that every act, every word of a Christian saint is an act of God performed through a man by a man who becomes a co-worker of God. And this is possible only through a contemplative situation in life. If you remember, the Lord Jesus Christ in a few of his sayings, `I judge as I hear, and my judgment is true, because I do not aim at fulfilling my will, but the will of him who sent me’. He listens and he articulates God’s will. What he has heard from the Father he speaks aloud in the world in which he lives. In a few other passages we find that he says that his Father is still at work. He shows him what he is doing, and Christ, the Son, fulfills the action, articulates the action on earth. This is the way in which the saints act, the saints speak. They pronounce words which are God’s, they perform actions which are also God’s.
Remember the remarkable way in which St John the Baptist, the Forerunner, is defined: a voice that speaks in the wilderness. He has become so perfectly one with the divine will and with the divine message that one can’t even say of him that he is a prophet proclaiming what God says. It is God speaking through a man even more than a man speaking for God. And in the last years of St. Seraphim this is what is so striking – a man so deeply and perfectly ingrained in contemplation, so completely at one with the Lord, that he can act, or rather, that God acts in him and through him , far beyond human capabilities, not only by the words spoken, not only by the healing bestowed, not only by the advice given, not only by the many and many ways in which St Seraphim expressed his evangelical charity , but simply through his being, through the vision of a man so integrated, not only in himself, but in God, that the vision of the man was a vision of God. This is why I felt that to speak of him was worth the attempt in spite of the fact that it is impossible to do him justice.
St Seraphim was born in Kursk, which is a city of central Russia, on the 19th of July, 1759. His father and mother were builders. He was given the name of Prokhor. His father died when the boy was only 5, and his mother undertook his education. Very soon it was quite clear that in spite of his gifts for learning and for work, his heart was elsewhere. Indeed he studied, indeed he worked, but prayer was at the root of his being, and although we know nothing about his life of prayer, because he was not one to speak of himself, it is clear that there was nothing that mattered to him more, or equally. When he was 17 he asked his mother to let him go. His mother gave him her blessing and with it a cross, which he wore all his life openly on his chest.
He went first to Kiev to see one of the startzi of Kiev renowned for his life of prayer and a spiritual director. Dosifei did not allow him to stay in Kiev but taught him the Jesus prayer: `Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ and sent him to the centre of Russia to the monastery of Sarov – the name is derived from that of a small river that runs through the thick woods. First he returned for a while to see his mother, and then with the Jesus prayer on his lips, attentive to the words and to its effect, he made the journey of about 300 miles on foot to Sarov. He arrived there on the 20th of November,1776, on the eve of the Presentation of the Mother of God to the Temple. He walked straight from his journey into the church, obtained permission to stay, and became a novice.
He was appointed to a variety of functions, and what impressed the monks was his skill at whatever he turned his hands to, his obedience and his stability. He seems to have been a man of rare strength of will and determination. He took upon himself in all simplicity all the common life of the monastery, worked in the kitchen, and particularly excelled in the work of a builder. After a while he was sent to collect money for the monastery. Again we know little about this period of his life. All we know is that he went alone throughout Russia from village to village with nothing but his prayer to accompany him, collecting money in isolation. This experience of pilgrimage, of uprootedness, was probably important in his life. The silence of the woods, the loneliness, the aloneness and the prayer.
But he returned to this life of obedience. We usually think of obedience in terms of subjection, of enslavement. Obedience, basically is the attitude of mind of one who has understood that the human vocation is so great, is such that he cannot achieve it without help, guidance, advice. Ultimately the aim of obedience is to teach us so to listen to God’s own word as to hear, and so to hear as to fulfil it. But before we can hear and understand the word of God spoken to us in the Scriptures or in our conscience and so disentangle ourselves from our own self-will, there is a whole school that must free us from ourselves. Obedience is the situation of the disciple who wants to learn, who wants to understand not only the words spoken but the mind that has given shape to the words, the intention that has given birth to them, a will which is not his but which is a greater will than his own. And if this will is not greater, if the man who commands is even a lesser man than he who obeys, it still frees him to accept obedience. From relying upon himself it teaches him to do, inwardly and outwardly, what he has not chosen. And obedience, brought to the absurd as we see it in the writings of the early ascetics, in the end teaches us to accept the supreme absurdity of the Gospel, the folly of the Cross, the unpredictable commandments and acts of will of God himself.
He set out to listen. He set out to outgrow his own will and his own limitations, to become free. He took part in the common worship of the monastery, and what the brothers remembered about him later was the joy and peace which he radiated. He was free from self-centredness and from self-will. Everything that happened was a gift of God for him, a new situation in which he could grow into the knowledge of God and the fulfilment of his own growth. He was at peace. In that period he read a great deal: the Scriptures and also ascetic literature. After 8 years of noviciate, on the first of August, 1786, 3 years before the French Revolution, be became a monk. He was given the name of Seraphim, which means the burning, the shining, the fiery, and a year later, in 1787 he became a deacon. From that time onwards in the course of six years, almost daily he celebrated the liturgy and other services.
To this period belongs a vision he had of the Lord Christ. One day when he was celebrating he came out during the liturgy to say `Oh God save thy people’, and when he moved his arm to say `and world without end’, he suddenly was struck by a light shining in the church. He looked towards the west door and he saw Christ surrounded by angels and saints coming through the church straight towards him. He turned and blessed the people, then blessed Him and then, as St Seraphim puts it, He entered into the icon of Christ that was on the right side of the Holy Doors, and this icon appeared to him in the glory of the Transfiguration. St Seraphim stood mute, incapable of speech and of movement. He was taken into the sanctuary. He stood there three hours, and he related his experience to his superior and to his spiritual father.
On the 2nd of September 1793 he became a priest. And immediately he decided to leave the monastery and to retire into the wilderness. He received the blessing of his spiritual father, and in ’94 on the 20th of November, on the 16th anniversary of the day when he had come to Sarov, he established himself at a distance of 3 or 4 miles in the wood. We know a few things about his life there. We know, as I said already, that he never heated his cell. We know also the rule of prayer he used. We know that he had a kitchen garden which was his only food for a while and then he abandoned even that and began to eat some of the plants that grow in the woods, boiling them.
We know that he read the Scriptures a great deal, and something which is characteristic of him and of two other ascetics of Russia, he named the various places around his hut by the names of places in Palestine: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Bethany, Jerusalem, etc. And he used daily to go from place to place to read the corresponding passages of the Scriptures, to meditate on them, and to stay there, as though he was in the holy land. And indeed he made it into a Holy Land. He was a man without fear, but he had to stand what so many ascetics had to stand, the fear of the night, the fear of the beasts, the wolves, the bears, the fear which the powers of darkness provoke in the soul of those who lead a lonely life. He fought for a life that would be completely inward, i.e. to escape the situation in which we are so permanently, being beside ourselves. It is very rare that we are within ourselves, so collected, so completely established inside, that we act freely because we choose to, we speak freely because we choose to. Most of the time we react rather than act, we reflect light rather than we shine.
A French scientist of this century suggested that the majority of us who imagine that the personality ends where their body is in reality are much more like an octopus with an inner emptiness and tentacles cast out all around. The digestive system, he says, of the greedy person is not in him, it reaches out towards all the edibles of the world; the five senses of the curious person are not openings that will allow him to perceive what is around. Like tentacles they cling to all objects of curiosity. And the first thing which the ascetic has to do is to draw all these tentacles in, to free himself from the enslavement of possession, the illusion that he possesses, while in reality he is being possessed, and to discover his inner self.
This journey inwards St Seraphim continued by cutting and cutting and cutting everything that linked him outwardly not only to what was wrong but to what was human and normal, until he was a free man. After a while and a struggle in which he spent the days in his cell and the nights outside he decided no longer to speak to anyone, to cast out this link between people and himself. When people met him in the wood he would kneel down or lie flat on his face or simply pass by, answering nothing. He never described the difficulties of this fight and what it corresponded to, but in the same 19th cent., some 50 years later, Theophan the Recluse, one of our great ascetics and spiritual guides, describes the way in which he gradually learned aloneness and seclusion. He had been a professor of philosophy. Then he became a bishop. Then he abandoned his see in order to go into a monastery. To begin with he allowed himself full freedom to go about wherever he chose. Then, when he had got accustomed to the place, he allowed himself only those journeys across the monastery that were purposeful: to church, to see someone. Then he reduced even that, and he decided not to go out of his cell except to go to church daily. And of a sudden he felt how much seeing the world around him meant to him. The day he ceased to go up to the walls of the monastery in order to see the countryside, he suddenly felt a prisoner, and it took him a long time no longer to be a prisoner, in spite of the fact that he did not see anything except the inside of the monastery.
Then he reduced his movements more and more, and in the end after several years he could stay in his cell because he was already in the inner cell of his soul. He had come back inwards and therefore the outer limitations no longer limited him. I mention this experience because St Seraphim never talked about himself. But we see in others the way in which this outer struggle corresponds to a movement inwards of the human soul. It is not asceticism in the sense of trying to achieve something extraordinary. It was simply an effort to acquire stability, to become autonomous, to become free, to be able to stand himself before God whatever the outer circumstances.
A certain number of things could be mentioned for this period. First of all, you must have seen images of St Seraphim walking bent and leaning on an axe or on a rod. This was the result of an attack of robbers. He was met by a group of men who asked for money. He said he had none. And then he, who was tall, vigorous, courageous, just dropped his axe, folded his arms, and waited. They beat him almost to death, and it is only after several days that he was able to crawl to the monastery. And there he stayed still for a long time. Two things happened in connection with this illness and this attack. When he was cured the men who had attacked him were discovered. And he was their advocate and maintained that they should not be punished. In this he had shown not only his ability to forgive, but his ability to make his own both the suffering and the sins of man. During his long illness the Mother of God appeared to him. He did not want to be treated. He asked for permission to pray. And one night the Mother of God appeared to him with several saints, St Peter and St John, and she said about him, `He is one of ours’. She touched him and he soon recovered.
47 years he spent in this endeavour, first in the monastery, then in the wood, and one day the Mother of God appeared to him and commanded him to go back. After these 47 years he was commanded to go back to the monastery. He lived there the life of a recluse in his cell, completely alone, silent, praying. Then the Mother of God commanded him to open his doors. And people began to come. For a while he did not speak to them. Later he began to receive his visitors and to speak to those for whom God had given him a message.
And this is the period of fulfillment of which I spoke in the beginning, A man who left the world, not because the world was repugnant, but because he had discovered at the heart of the world the divine presence, because he had been wounded with this desire to live the fulness of life. This man who had accepted 40 years of the hardest struggle now was in the midst of the people of God. People came and came. He healed, he blessed, he taught, he advised, he helped in all possible ways. Nothing was too small for him. One could say about him a phrase which I have heard, that only the Holy Spirit can see the significance of things too small for us to notice.
Before his death he come to church, prayed in the sanctuary, kissed all the icons, took farewell from the other monks, and then retired to prayer. He had said in the past that his death would be made manifest by a fire. Early in the morning his neighbour came out of his cell and smelt a fire in Father Seraphim’s. They broke in and they found him kneeling before the image of the Mother of God with his arms folded to his chest, his head bowed to the ground, and something was burning on which a candle had fallen.
I would like now, to conclude, to come back to the beginning. In him we see the life of a man who has gone all the way which we are called to go, a man who discovered God in the purity of his heart, but who knew and who had to conquer him by a long ruthless struggle, a man who never ceased to love his neighbours, who never turned away from them because they were sinners or unworthy of God, who knew how to respect and love them. We are told that so often when people came he received them kneeling – peasants came and he kissed their hands. He gave them his seat. He looked after them, because he had this vision of the dignity of man, the sanctity of man. And yet for a long time he struggled to become himself a man, i.e. all that a man is called to be, partaker of the divine nature, the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit, a living revelation of Christ. In a very daring way, speaking of prayer, he says to someone: `We must pray for the Holy Spirit to come and dwell in us. But when He has come, don’t continue to pray “Come and abide in us” – that would mean that you doubt that the gift you have received is true. Let then the Holy Spirit pray and act in you.’
Before his death he said to someone, `My body is almost dead, and yet I feel in my soul as if I was just born now.’ Life, the life of God, united with the life of man. A true vision of a true man. And this is why so many people came, so many people saw him, and so many people felt they were in no need of speech. Centuries before that, an ascetic of the Egyptian desert who was asked to make a welcome speech for a visiting bishop said `I will say nothing.’ And when they insisted, he said to his brothers, `If this man cannot understand my silence, he can never understand my words.’
And the thousands who came to see him were in no need of words. His silence, the vision of this man, was enough. Isn’t this an inspiration for our times in a variety of ways? First of all, we are so passionately aware that the world which surrounds us is our world, that we do not want to turn away from it. We do not want to reject it. And indeed God so loved the world that he gave his Only-begotten Son for it. This St Seraphim also knew. But what he knew, what we forget easily, is that in order to bring into this world an action which is our vocation, an action which is God’s act through us, we must struggle without any mercy for ourselves, ruthlessly, joyfully, in order to become alive in a world which is not quite alive, to become a light in the twilight, to become warmth where there is cold. We see then Christ in action in his saints. I have had no time to speak of the outer events of his life, of his meetings, of the people he met, of the circumstances of healing and of conversions. What I wanted to show if I could, was this man and his way and his final return fulfilled both for the sake of himself and for the sake of others.
The grace of the Holy Spirit in spite of man’s fall into sin, nevertheless shines in our hearts with the divine light. Saint Seraphim of Sarov
Saint Seraphim of Sarov, The Saint of heavenly Joy and of Peace.
My joy, I beg you, acquire the Spirit of Peace. St. Seraphim of Sarov
The prophetic letter of St. Seraphim for to St.Tsar Martyr Nicholas II of Russia
The Kingdom of God awaits those who have patiently endured.St. Seraphim of Sarov
The prayer rule of St. Seraphim of Sarov
Condescension towards your neighbor and silence protect spiritual peace.St. Seraphim of Sarov
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.
O great Saint of God, our venerable and God-bearing Father, Seraphim! Look down from the glory that is above, upon us who are humble and weak, burdened with our many sins, and ask thy help and consolation. Bend down to us in thy loving kindness, and help us to carry out God’s commandments without stain… Yea, O Saint of God, hearken unto us, who pray to thee in faith and love… For we place our hope in thee, O kind-hearted father: be thou indeed our guide to salvation, and bring us to the unwaning light of eternal life, by thy good intercession before the throne of the Most Holy Trinity, so that we may glorify and hymn with all the Saints, the name worthy of adoration, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, for ages of ages.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom – St Seraphim Of Sarov