Sarovlu Serafim

Seraphim of Sarov is one of the greatest saints of the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity. Born in central Russia during the late 18th century, this spiritually gifted son of a building contractor seemed from an early age to live "in another world". Of "traditional" rather than "modern" temperament the young Seraphim showed rare spiritual gifts (especially visions), including a deep affinity with the ascetic practices of the primitive and medieval Christian monks of Egypt and Greece. At nineteen Seraphim joined the Sarov monastery situated deep in the dense virgin forests of central Russia. Here young Seraphim continued his scriptural studies, now augmented with mystical and ascetic literature. During this period of study and prayer serious illness overtook Seraphim, who refused medical help and devoted himself to spiritual remedies. After three years, the holy "Mother of God" visited and healed him with the touch of her staff. Soon thereafter Seraphim recovered and began serving the monastery with great energy, in a short time being fully ordained as a tonsured monk, deacon and then priest. Here his spiritual pawers manifested in numerous visions, but following the stunning death of his monastery superior, Seraphim removed himself into the solitude ot the wilderness and the ascetic life of a forest hermit. His next thirteen years were spent primarily alone in a hut deep in the Russian forests. Here he created a secret heavenly sanctuary of sacred sites in the forest woodland bearing the names of Nazareth, Golgotha, Mt. Tabor, and other places. Here Seraphim relived the Gospel scenes amongst the foxes, bears, and wolves that thickly populated his sanctuary, once standing in prayer for 1,000 consecutive days and nights in the forest. Toward the end of his forest hermitage period Seraphim was offered the post of superior of the Sarov monastery, which he refused, choosing rather to begin an eighteen year period of isolation and silence. Even when illness forced him to return to the monastery, he locked himself in a cell furnished only with an oil lamp standing before a single icon of the Blessed Virgin. At the age of sixty-six Seraphim of Sarov began his extraordinary career as a spiritual "elder" (or staretz). Emerging from his long trial of prayer and vigil he turned to the suffering world as a healer, visionary, and spiritual Master of unusual vigor and radiance. Seraphim is the first known representative of the Eastern Church's ancient tradition of "elders" (or spiritual Masters) to emerge in Russia. His status as a "staretz" expresses a spiritual authority arising from the saintliness of the old monk himself—who read the minds and hearts of supplicants and performed numerous healings and miracles among the lay peasants, monks, and nuns who sought his spiritual graces. He was known as a hard but compassionate taskmaster who taught that every layman could achieve Christian perfection in his ordinary life through the practice of prayer, especially the "Jesus Prayer" of the Desert Fathers of Egypt—"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Seraphim "was himself a living prayer." He was buoyantly happy, simultaneously spending his time in the company of his "heavenly visitors" and the "poor in spirit" who came to seek his guidance. Such mystical spirituality of Seraphim's was hardly understood by his fellow monks, and Seraphim found his greatest joy in expressing the intimate details of his revelations during spiritual instruction of the nuns of the nearby Diveyev Convent. This was a duty he deeply loved. Early one morning a mysterious fire broke out in his cell from an overturned candle. Seraphim of Sarov was found kneeling before his favorite icon of the tender Mary; death had frozen him in prayer. Behind him he left a great and inspiring legend, and the promise of a joyous and everlasting life in the Holy Spirit of God: "When I am no more, come to my grave. As you have time, come. The oftener the better! All that is on your soul, whatever may have befallen you, come to me and bring all your grief to my grave. Bending to earth, as to a living thing, tell all and I shall hear you. All your sorrow will fly away and pass! As you ever spoke with the living, speak here! For you I live and shall live for ever!" Seraphim's profound submission and devotion to God through heartfelt prayer manifested in extraordinary gifts of spiritual power of an initiatory kind, as is evident in the extraordinary account of "Spirit-baptism" which follows. For Seraphim, like the ancient desert fathers, the only aim of the Christian life "is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit." In this story, one of Seraphim's students tells, with remarkable clarity, of an instance in which Seraphim directly transmitted spiritually illumined consciousness and life-energy to him, after praying silently to God to grace this disciple with a living experience of what it means to be acquired by the "Spirit of God." Along with the greatest teachings of the early Desert Fathers, the accounts of the life and teaching of Seraphim of Sarov represent the fruit of the enlightened life of Spirit-worship proven in the desert and forest monasteries of the Eastern Church. A Conversation of St. Seraphim of Sarov with Nicholas Motovilov Concerning the Aim of a Christian Life: 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 clergymen 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...." "How do you mean acquire?" l asked Father Seraphim. "l do not somehow understand...." "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 glistening 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. 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 vouchsafes" 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.... 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!" l 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.... 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 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 fragance 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 maks 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?"

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