St. Seraphim of Sarov the Wonderworker
Commemorated on January 2 and on July 19/August 1
St. Seraphim’s “Far Hermitage”.
Two and a half miles from the monastery, on the shore of the Sarovka River, in a dense pine forest, there stood a wooden one-room cell with a porch and a small wing—this was the Saint’s hermitage. He had a small garden where he grew potatoes, cabbage, onions, beets, etc. He lived there nearly sixteen years. “Having tasted of God’s sweetness, one longs for silence,” said St. John of the Well, “in order to partake of it tirelessly without impediment.” The holy Elder’s soul lived in a state of prayer that had long since become ceaseless. He performed all the church services except the Liturgy, according to the monastic rule. As before, reading the Word of God occupied much of his time, but now, in the desert, it became for him the only way to reach his one goal—the vision of another world: “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.”
He was many times found in a state of wonder and reverential awe. Sometimes, doing some kind of work in the garden, his hoe would drop from his hand unnoticed even by him, and he would be carried in spirit to a higher world. The soul is a great mystery, and the ascetic’s life is entirely hidden in God. Not in vain was Fr. Seraphim’s goal the higher world, even during ordinary work. At first he worked the in garden, prepared the grass and stabilized the river banks. Later he also began to carry a sack on his shoulder filled with sand and stones. “I am tormenting my tormentor,” he would say of the enemy who attacks the ascetic. In the same way, he also gave himself over to the mosquitos.
This is how the Saint spent his day. On feast days he would walk to the monastery to attend the services, and in the morning he received Communion of the Holy Mysteries. He would remain in the monastery until evening, receiving those who came to him for advice or consolation. Then he would head back to the desert. During the first week of Great Lent he would stay in the monastery, not taking food until Saturday. Elder Isaiah was his confessor.
The Saint’s austere life became well-known, and in 1796 he was offered the abbacy of the Alaterinsky Monastery, and, not long afterwards, of the Krasnoslobodsky Monastery.
Later, the first refusal became associated with the beginning of his extraordinary ascetic feat of standing 1001 days and nights on a rock. Some authors of his Life supposed that deep in his heart he was tempted by the thought of abbatial authority and that this superhuman labor was undertaken as a result of temptations by his supposed ambitious thought.
However, it is hard to believe that such a base thought could have touched the heart of the ascetic, who had already attained communion with God. This lofty spiritual accomplishment was made at the price of a most cruel self-crucifixion. Could it be possible to suppose that even for an instant he could entertain a desire to descend from the heights to the everyday thrall of the world, and lose his “acquisition of the Holy Spirit,” obtained through his lifelong labor?
It is impossible to describe this tremendous podvig—kneeling on the rock—in simple terms. One must bow down before the mystery. It is beyond our comprehension. We only know from the words of N. A. Motovilov what the Saint himself related to him—that during the 1001 nights and 1001 days he was praying on the rock he was warring with the powers of hell. In his own words, the Saint convinced Motovilov of the existence of demons, not as apparitions or in dreams, but in bitter reality. We also know from the words of Akulina Malishevaya: “He lead me,” she says, “past his rock and by the place where Mark the Hermit lived, and described how the enemies tempted him, and how he battled with them there.” Before he died, Fr. Seraphim revealed his ascetic struggle to several of the brothers. One of them said in his amazement: “That is beyond human strength.” Fr. Seraphim answered him: “Saint Simeon the Stylite stood on a rock for forty-seven years; does my labor compare to his?” The other remarked that most likely he was helped by grace. “Yes,” the Elder replied, “otherwise human strength would not have been sufficient.” We are reminded of the ascetics’ struggles with the powers of hell in their Lives, and we recall the life of St. Anthony the Great.
During the time of reclusion he had a wondrous vision, when, like the Apostle Paul, whether in the body or out of the body, he was taken up to the heavenly realm. This is how he described it to the novice John Tikhonov: “Now I will tell you about poor Seraphim! One time, while reading in the Gospels of John the words of the Savior that in His Father’s house are many mansions (Jn. 14:2), I, a poor one, stopped at this thought and wished I could see the heavenly dwellings. Five days and nights I spent in vigil and prayer, asking the Lord to bless me with that vision. And the Lord, truly, in his great mercy did not withhold the consolation of my faith, and showed me those eternal shelters to which I, a poor wanderer upon the earth, momentarily ascended, (in the body or out of the body I do not know). I beheld inscrutable heavenly beauty, and those who lived there. John the Great Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord, the apostles, saints, martyrs and holy fathers, Anthony the Great, Paul of Thebes, Sabbas the Sanctified, Onuphrius the Great, Mark of Ephesus and all the saints dwelling in unspeakable glory and joy, which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him (I Cor. 2:9).”
“With these words,” writes Tikhonov, “Fr. Seraphim became silent.”
“At this he leaned forward a little, his eyes closed and his head inclined to one side, and raised the palm of his right hand to his heart. His face gradually changed and gave forth a wondrous light, and finally became so bright that it was impossible to look at him. On his lips and in his entire expression was such a heavenly joy and ecstasy that truly he could be called an earthly angel and heavenly man. During his mysterious silence, he, as though contemplating something with tender feeling, listened to something with awe. But what exactly uplifted and sweetly filled the soul of the righteous one, only God knows.
“After a prolonged silence, Fr. Seraphim resumed speaking. Sighing from deep within his soul, with a feeling of inexplicable joy, he said to me:
“Ah, if you only knew what joy, what sweetness awaits the souls of the righteous in heaven, you would be determined during your life to bear any offenses, persecutions or slanders thankfully. If this entire cell were filled with worms, and if these worms ate our flesh throughout our entire lives, then with all our desire would we consent to bear it, just so that we were not excluded from the heavenly joys that God has prepared for those who love Him. There is no sickness nor sorrow, nor sighing; there is sweetness and joy unutterable, there the righteous shine like suns.… But if the Apostle Paul himself could not describe heavenly glory and joy, then what other human tongue could describe the beauty of the dwelling place wherein are established the souls of the righteous?’”
He told the same thing to A. P. Europkina, recalling to her the holy martyrs, the beauty of St. Theodosia and many others who dwell in unspeakable glory.
“Ah, my joy,” he exclaimed, “there is such blessedness that it is impossible to describe it.”
“His face,” she wrote later, “was uncanny … through his skin penetrated abundant light … his eyes expressed not only peace, but also a sort of extraordinary ecstasy. One can only suppose that even while speaking of this contemplation, he was in a state outside of visible nature—in heavenly realms.”
But now the time of reclusion was running out and nearing its end. The time had come for him to embark upon a new, higher ascetic labor—higher than anything else in the world—the labor of love, the service of saving human souls.
As soon as access was opened to the extraordinary God-pleaser, the crowds poured in.
According to the words of the Savior: Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house (Matt. 5:14). It was impossible to restrain the flood of people who came. Everyday there appeared in Sarov from 1,000 to 2,000 pilgrims.
Such a state of affairs could not but frustrate Abbot Niphon. “When Fr. Seraphim lived in the desert,” he said, “he closed off all access to himself by means of the forest, but now he is receiving everyone, so that I can’t even close the monastery gates until midnight.”
Many said to Fr. Seraphim: “Some are scandalized by you.”
“I am not scandalized, that many are helped, while others are scandalized,” the Elder responded calmly.
From St. Seraphim Wonderworker of Sarov and His Spiritual Heritage by Helen Kontsevich 5. RECLUSION (St. Xenia Skete)
From an Akathist
Akathist Hymn to Saint Seraphim of Sarov
If Saint Seraphim cannot provide the answers, which he can, then let the seeker turn to this elder’s own teachers: Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Isaac the Syrian, and Saint Simeon the New Theologian to name a few. Saint Seraphim taught nothing new, but only what he learned from his predecessors and what he himself practiced. Let us therefore proceed with humility and sincerity, as we bring praises to the monk who has kindly opened his door to us:
Rejoice, spiritual father who did the will of his Heavenly Father.
Rejoice, devoted priest who always proclaimed, “Christ is Risen.”
Rejoice, man of prayer who acquired the peace of the Holy Spirit.
Rejoice, model of charity who befriended both humans and animals.
Rejoice, faithful monk who worshipped God in both word and deed.
Rejoice, true disciple who learned from the great sources of holiness.
Rejoice, “poor Seraphim” who freely taught the ways of spirituality.
Rejoice, wonderworker who cheerfully gave of his gifts.
Rejoice, revered hermit who prayed on a rock for a thousand days.
Rejoice, venerable recluse who saved a thousand souls around him.
Rejoice, example of earnest commitment to the Mother of God.
Rejoice, humble recipient of aid from the blessed Theotokos.
Rejoice, Saint Seraphim, spiritual father of all the faithful.
Father Seraphim, we place ourselves under your benevolent care, so that we may conquer all temptations and digressions. Strengthen us to remain vigilant in our worship and attentive in our daily tasks. Guard us from succumbing to ideologies and activities which are not fitting for a Christian. Encourage us to read the Bible every day, not as an encumbrance but with a deep longing for union with God. In this way, we shall remain faithful to all that is sanctioned by our Father in Heaven, and we shall likewise bring forth praises to you:
Rejoice, follower of Jesus Christ through pain and joy.
Rejoice, embodiment of the teachings of the Savior.
Rejoice, earthy traveler on the path of prayer.
Rejoice, heavenly beholder of divine truths.
Rejoice, simple monk who trampled the demons.
Rejoice, noble priest who crushed all temptations.
Rejoice, beggar of forgiveness, giver of help.
Rejoice, slave of prayer, ruler of passions.
Rejoice, bearer of offenses, consoler of people.
Rejoice, sufferer of storms, interior of calm.
Rejoice, renouncer of sin, bringer of inspiration.
Rejoice, denouncer of worldliness, receptacle of grace.
Rejoice, Saint Seraphim, spiritual father of all the faithful.