The Teaching of Elder Aimilinos on the Monastic life: Conclusion

The roles of the Geronta (Elder) and Gerontissa (Eldress) in a women’s monastery

One Sister related, “Geronta says as man is the head of woman, so too, the Geronta is the head of the Gerontissa; and behind every women’s monastery there should be a men’s monastery. Gerontissa says this even more and that they need a manly backup just as a woman needs a man. However Geronta stresses that we need to confess fully to Gerontissa and then go to him afterwards because women tend to turn to men and open more fully to them. It is harder for a woman to be under another woman , but he says that in a woman’s monastery all should be done under that authority of a woman. Of course the spiritual father is necessary; only he can absolve sins. Both are necessary but the nuns have to learn to be under the authority of a woman because they are in a woman’s monastery.” The Sister concluded, “We go to Gerontissa and she helps us. We confess everything to her and she will say, ‘You really should tell Geronta.’”

The same topic came up in the conversation of an American nun with the abbess, Gerontissa Nikodimi, and she expressed the following: “Has it ever happened that a woman’s monastery is goverened by an abbott? No, a women’s monastery has an abbess, a Gerontissa. The spiritual father
is necessary, but he should have nothing to do with the administration of the monastery. His role is only to give spiritual guidance. The Geronta gives a word to the Gerontissa and she puts it into action in the community as she sees fit. St. Pachomius had a woman’s monastery across the river from the men, and the women were completely independent. He only sent a monk across (an experienced spiritual father), to give spiritual guidance, to serve Liturgy and to help the sisters with heavy work they could not do alone. The Gerontissa has to be free to raise her children as she sees best, but in order to guide and confess the sisters she must herself confess thoroughly to the Geronta.”

The Sister then gave her own reflections on the relation of a Geronta and Gerontissa, according to what she has seen in her spiritual father and mother: “Usually it begins with the Gerontissa completely subjected to the Geronta, but because of that obedience, and because she is in a position of authority, God grants her grace herself. She will herself be filled with the spirit and can speak. Geronta says, “A father is a father and a mother is a mother”—he is really strong on the position of a mother. Gerontissa Nikodimi would say that she has nothing of her own, she is only a tool in the hands of the Geronta. However he would not say that of her, he recognizes her as a spiritual person in her own right. It is edifying to see how they both humble themselves before each other.”

The Sister ended by saying, “A good spiritual mother is the reflection of a good spiritual father. She will become a holy person herself but it is because of him; just the same as if any of us becomes holy, it will be because of both our spiritual father and our spiritual mother, because we submit to both.”

May God give rest to the newly departed Elder Aimilianos!

The Teaching of Elder Aimilianos on Monastic Life: Part II

Holy Communion

At Ormilia, Divine Liturgy is served daily and many nuns are blessed to receive every day, others several times a week, a few times, or once a week. I asked: “What criteria Geronta Aimilianos (Geronta is Greek for Elder) uses to decide who can receive frequently or daily?” Sister answered: “In general, if you are careful about your speech, if you keep your personal cell rule, you can receive frequently. But if you are careless in speech–gossiping or being over curious, for instance, about what others are doing; Geronta prevents you from receiving.”

The personal cell rule

The Sisters are free from after Compline until Matins the next morning (in Winter from about 4:30 PM until 3 AM, in summer it is shorter). Many go to bed immediately and get up in the night for their personal rule: prostrations, the Jesus prayer, and reading the Old Testament, the Psalter, the New Testament, an ascetic book, and a patristic book. These are all “musts”; all these are done by all the sisters in their rule, but the exact amount of each is determined by Geronta, they can also read other things: the Paraklisis, the life of the saint of the day and so forth. This is their personal rule. Reading is to work up to prayer but we also read because it is important to know.

The personal cell rule can be from up to one hour long to all night long–it depends on the stamina of the sister and her spiritual hunger. Each has a different rule, depending on what she wants to do and can do. She might have a lot of spiritual hunger but not the stamina for a long rule. Geronda says you must do something even if it is only five minutes.

The ideal which Geronda and the Fathers prefer is to get up at, or a little before, midnight to read and pray during the midnight and early morning hours because that is when the devil is most active in the world. Sin usually happens mostly around midnight, so that’s when monastics have to fight. Geronda says that it is a worldly habit to read and do the rule of prayer before going to sleep. However, if they cannot get up he allows them to do their rule before sleeping, and then to get up only an hour before Matins, or 45 minutes before, or at the very least half an hour, when the first bell for the service sounds. But he says you should be awake before the bell goes, so as to be awake when the service starts. If you get up just before the service, you are still asleep when it begins, and by the time you wake up it is over.

Praying throughout the day

Geronda says, “Don’t pray during the day in such a way that it interferes with your work.” Sister demonstrated someone saying the prayer very slowly and languidly and sewing in slow motion. Geronda hates that. Prayer should be quick; he stresses not to go slowly at prayer. All his teaching is dynamic, in singing, in prayer, and in the reading in church, which is done fast on purpose–quick reading, singing and prayer keeps you awake.

About Women

I said that in America there is a lot of pressure on women to be like men, to lose the feminine character that God has given them. I asked what Geronta says about women’s monasticism and the different characters os women and men.

Sister answered: “Geronta actually wants women in a certain sense to be manly. Women should be strong like men, and get away from feminine sensitivities—as women are more likely to be sensitive they can be sentimental and weak. Geronta says, ‘Be sensitive to someone else and not to yourself. Be tender for someone else but for yourself you need to be really strong, like a man.’ This is why the singing is strong here; he likes us to be strong, to show power, to be able to fight. To be frail, sensitive, or emotional is very bad especially for nuns. ‘How can one be the bride of Christ and be frail?’–Geronta asks us.”

He wants them to stand on their own feet (that is, not to cling to others in an unhealthy way, trying to rely on others to do for them what they should be doing) and to be bold, but at the same time to be obedient, and submissive to those over them. It takes strength to be humble: a man can stand up to accusations thrown at him but a woman is likely to start crying and feeling sorry for herself etc….to be continued

The First Ecumenical Council and Who can interpret Scripture

The First Ecumenical Council and who can interpret Scripture

This past Sunday we commemorated the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, and so, I will be publishing now a sermon for that day.  The teachings of Elder AImilianos will continue in the next post.

Beloved of God, today, as we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, let us consider Scripture interpretation, and specifically ponder the question: Who is trustworthy to interpret the Holy Scriptures?  I pose this question because Arius, whom our Holy Fathers withstood, based his heretical teaching upon his personal interpretation of the Scriptures.  So let me ask again: Who is trustworthy to interpret the Holy Scriptures?

I would like to begin answering by bringing forward a comment of the contemporary monk Theocletos of Dionisiou Monastery on the Holy Mountain.  Father Theocletos is mentioned in the book “Anchored in God” as a noteworthy monk of the Holy Mountain.  This book is authored by Constantine Cavarnos who visited Athos in the 1950’s and wrote of his experiences there.  When I visited the Holy Mountain in 1986 I heard about Father Theocletos as a monk who is both spiritual and scholarly.  At that time he was living a semi-reclused life, residing in a house just outside the monastery.  I visited him and asked a number of questions.  One, which I had often been asked by Protestants, was, “Why is it that we Orthodox have so little of the New Testament in our services?”    So Father answered: “It is Protestantism to read the Scriptures and interpret them.  In the Orthodox Church we go by the writings of the Holy Fathers.  The Holy Fathers lived the Gospel commandments, they were purified, they were illumined by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and their writings proceeded from the illumination they received.”  He then encouraged me to read the Holy Fathers.

In addition to this we could also make reference to St. John Cassian.  Somewhere in his writings he poses the question, “Why is it that we find variant opinion among commentators of the Holy Scriptures?”  And he answers, “Because before being purified from the passions they rush into the work of interpreting the Scriptures.”

So, for us, our Holy Fathers, such as those we commemorate today, are the interpreters of the Holy Scriptures and they are our theologians; they set down doctrine for us.  Let us also consider what theology is, since this also speaks of the state of grace acquired by the Saints which enabled them to interpret the Scriptures.  Archimandrite Zachariah explains this well in relating how his spiritual father, Elder Sophrony defines theology.  He writes:

For Elder Sophrony, theology is above all an abiding in God.  It is accompanied by the saving and regenerating power of the Spirit, Whose nature although it cannot be declared, nevertheless conveys an illuminating revelation.  The man who bears this state bears ‘the word of life’ (Phil. 2:16)….

In his book on Saint Silouan, Elder Sophrony confirms that true theology is neither the fruit of intellectual erudition, nor the conjecturing of man’s reason, but rather the narration of an important occurrence which is the encounter between the spirit of man and the Living God. (Man the Target of God, pp. 101-2)

And Father Sophrony compares the rational approach of man to theology with that which is the fruit of man’s experience of grace as follows:

With iron drills men drill the earth’s crust for oil, and are successful.  With their intellectual powers they drill heaven for the fire of Divinity but are rejected of God because of their pride.

Divine contemplation is accorded to man, not in those precise moments when he seeks it, and it alone, but when his soul descends into the hell of repentance and does really feel that she is the meanest of creatures.  Contemplation forcibly attained, as it were, through the reason is not true but only seemingly contemplation.  To accept such contemplation as truth creates conditions in the soul which may prevent the action of grace and make genuine contemplation impossible.

Knowledge revealed in the contemplation which proceeds from grace surpasses even the most sublime creations of the imagination, as St. Paul affirmed when he said, ‘Eye hat not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.’ (ICor. 2:9)  When man, as happened with the Apostles, has been caught up by grace in to a vision of Divine Light, he afterwards translates into theology the things he has seen and known.  Authentic theology consists, not in the conjecture of man’s reason or the results of critical research but in a statement of the life into which man has been introduced by the action of the Holy Spirit. (Saint Silouan the Athonite, pp. 169-170)

Let us, therefore, put our trust in our Holy Fathers who experienced this state and thank God for the great inheritance of their writings—their expositions of true theology—which He has bequeathed us.  We should not expect to acquire the state of grace nor illumination they experienced.  However we should be grateful to God for their teachings.  This is also a reason to grow in our love for our Lord, since He has not left us orphaned but has raised up the Holy Fathers to preserve the Faith for us.  Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers may our Lord Jesus Christ hold us fast in the true faith and save us.  Amen.

Teaching of Elder Aimilianos on the monastic life

Teaching of Elder Aimilianos on the Monastic Life

The contemporary respected Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra Monastery on the Holy Mountain reposed last month.* He was the founder and spiritual father of the Convent of the Annunciation near Ormylia, Halkidiki in Greece. What follows here are notes of conversations of an American nun with a sister of the above mentioned convent.

I asked sister what Elder Aimilianos emphasizes most in his teaching on monastic life. She immediately said, “Joy. For Geronta (Geronta is Greek for Elder) this is the most vital thing. Whenever he gives a talk, whether in Thessalonika or just for the nuns, no matter what the subject, he always brings this in. If one is joyful, then no matter what happens, he will not fall. If we are joyful we have an open heart, and God can enter. If we are unhappy, our heart is locked and He can’t enter. If we are free, joyful and accept everything, then God continuously blesses. Geronta says, ‘Even if you sin, stay happy and repent but don’t despair.’”

I asked, “How to acquire joy?”

Sister answered, “Don’t think about yourself. The more we are wrapped in ourselves and our troubles, the more we lose joy. If we don’t think about God or the other sisters it follows that joy will depart from us for we are wrapped up in ourselves. Geronda gives examples—if an earthquake happens, or the Turks or Communists invade, so what remain joyful! When we were putting up new buildings Geronta told us, ‘Suppose we finish the building and then an earthquake occurs and knocks it all down—so what! We start over again. Suppose a persecution comes—isn’t God above everything? Doesn’t God know what is happening? He could have stopped it, but He didn’t. Suppose all the sisters are called together for something and only you area forgotten, no one calls you. So what! God could have caused one sister to remember you and call you but He didn’t. So you went to your cell, said your prayers and you were with God.’”
On illnesses

“If we get a serious illness, we should be grateful that God gave the illness to us rather than someone outside the monastery who has a family—a cross would be greater for that one. Illness is a great blessing, but we do not ask for it because we don’t know if we could bear it. Illness brings you closer to God because you are humbled and think more of God. Geronta Aimilianos has always been sick, ever since childhood, but he never said, ‘Why God?’ Spiritual people never ask that their illness leave them but they thank God for it. God gives us only what we can bear; God wouldn’t have given it if we couldn’t bear it, so why be upset? This is another reason for joy.”
Standing in church

Geronta tells them always to stand in church and only sit if they really have a health problem. He tells them to be like burning lamps in church. So most of the sisters stand—it’s a spiritual fight in church. He tells them if you train yourself to stand all the time, and to be still—not to go in and out—you will be able to; it’s a matter of training.

In vigils (vigils are between 5 and 6 hours) Geronta has set a rule of two times that they can leave if they need to go to the restroom, but he doesn’t like it. He says, “Make a decision that you don’t need to go.” He stresses making decisions decisively. If they leave church, they tell Gerontissa (Greek for Eldress), or the second in charge, or the sister in charge of seating, why they are leaving, and they don’t leave without a blessing. At first they had only a small chapel—most of them stood in the corridor—and there was a lot of movement in and out, so after a while he laid down the law. Sister said, “He educates us gradually. But even when he makes a law there is flexibility to it—he states things in an absolute way, to impress upon them the importance of his point, but in actuality he is flexible.”…to be continued

*Brief biographical information can be found on

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life: Instructions Conclusion

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life: Instructions Conclusion

 Concerning prayer

Those who are truly resolved to serve the Lord God must exercise themselves in the remembrance of God and unceasing prayer to Jesus Christ, saying in their minds: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” By guarding oneself from dispersion through such an exercise and by preserving peace of conscience, it is possible to draw near to God and to unite oneself with Him. For according to the word of St. Isaac of Syria we are not able to draw near to God except by unceasing prayer (Homily 69).
Therefore it is necessary to always strive not to give oneself to a dispersed mind. For through a dispersed mind the soul strays from the remembrance of God and from love of Him, according to the working of the devil. As St. Macarius says, the whole concern of our adversary is to turn our mind from the remembrance of God, and from fear and love (Homily 2).
When the mind and the heart are united in prayer and the thoughts of the soul are not dispersed, then the heart is kindled with a spiritual warmth in which the light of Christ shines, filling the whole inner man with peace and joy. We should give thanks to God for everything and be delivered up to His will. Likewise we should lay before Him all our thoughts, words, and deeds, and we ourselves should strive so that all things will be pleasing to God.

Concerning Talkativeness

By itself too much talking with those whose habits of life are contrary to ours is sufficient to unsettle the inward state of a heedful man. But most lamentable of all is the fact that it can quench the fire which our Lord Jesus Christ came to implant on the earth in the heart of man. For nothing so cools the fire of the Holy Spirit which He breathes into the heart of a monk for the sanctification of the soul as communication, talkativeness, and conversations (Isaac the Syrian, Homily 8).
It is especially needful to keep oneself from dealings with the female sex. For as an unlit wax candle melts if it is placed in the midst of burning candles, so also the heart of a monk, from conversations with the female sex, imperceptibly grows weak. Concerning this, St. Isidor of Pelusium (Lives of Saints February 4th) states in letters: “If there are any conversations which corrupt good habits, conversations with women, even though they be good, still have the power to secretly corrupt the interior man with defiling thoughts, and though the body remains pure the soul becomes defiled. For what is more firm than stone and what is softer than water? – yet through continual application nature prevails.” Therefore, for the preservation of the inner man, it befits one to strive to restrain the tongue from talkativeness: “For the wise man enters stillness” (Proverbs 11:12). (1)

Concerning thoughts and desires of the flesh

We should always be pure from unclean thoughts, especially when we offer prayer, for there is no harmony between foul odor and fragrance. When thoughts occur, there is also coupling with them, so we must repulse the first onslaught of sinful thoughts and disperse them from the land of our heart. While the children of Babylon – that is, evil thoughts – are yet infants, we must break them to pieces and crush them on the rock that is Christ (Ps. 137:8-9) – especially the three foremost of them – gluttony, covetousness and vainglory – through which the devil strove to tempt even our Lord Himself at the end of His struggles (Mat 4:1-11). The devil as a lion hides in his den (Is. 9:30), secretly setting for us snares of impure and impious thoughts. And so immediately, as soon as we see them, we should break them off by means of godly reflection and prayer.

Concerning the duties of subordinates in relation to Superiors

Acquire humility, obedience, and submissiveness, and you shall save yourself, says the Venerable Barsanuphius. And by no means talk back saying: “What is this?” and “To what purpose is this?” But be fully submissive, above all to your Abba, who for the sake of God takes care of you and to whom you have entrusted your soul (Questions and answers of Barsanuphius and John, answer 242).
Whosoever desires to be a true disciple of Christ should not have authority over himself in anything, so that he does nothing by himself but only that which his teacher says. For whatever he does according to his own mind is not pleasing to God, although to himself it seems to be good. If anyone thinks he knows better than his Abba what is good for himself, why then does he call himself his disciple?
Cast your will behind yourself and preserve humility in all your life and then you will save yourself. Humility and obedience can effect the uprooting of every passion and the planting of all virtues (Bars., answers 309, 359, 351, 618, 68, 226).
The subordinate must be dead to himself during this life in order to possess eternal life. He must be like a cloth in a textile mill, according to the word of Venerable Antiochus. For as cloth, through being bleached, beaten, ground, washed, and rinsed, is made white like snow, likewise the novice bears degradation, offense, and reproach, which cleanse him and make him as purified as glistening silver refined by fire (Ant., Word 113).
One must not meddle in the affairs of one’s superiors and judge them, for by this one offends the greatness of God from Whom every authority is appointed: “For there is no power but of God and the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1).
As is good, one should not oppose authorities in order not to sin before God and be subjected to His righteous chastisement. “He who resists the authorities resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist shall have sin imputed to themselves” (Rom. 13:2). (2)
He who is obedient prospers considerably in the formation of his soul, and in addition he obtains through this an understanding of things and comes to tender feeling.

Concerning not judging one’s neighbor and forgiving offences

One must not judge anyone, although with one’s own eyes one may see someone sin or wallow in transgression of the commandments of God; according to the word of God: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Mat. 7:1). One must not nourish in the heart evil or hatred towards one’s neighbor who is hostile. Rather, one must love him, and as much as one is able, do him good, following the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you” (Mat. 5:44).
And so, if we would strive as much as we are able to fulfill all this, then we can have the hope that in our hearts shall shine the Divine light, revealing to us the way to the Jerusalem above.
Why do we judge our brethren? Because we do not strive to know ourselves. Whoever occupies himself with self-knowledge never notices others; judge yourself, and you will stop judging others. And so, beloved, let us not observe the sins of others and judge them, so as not to hear: “The sons of men, their teeth are weapons and arrows, and their tongue is a sharp sword” (Ps. 56:5). For when the Lord leaves a man to himself, then the devil gets ready to crush him, as a millstone does a grain of wheat.

Concerning solitude and silence

Ambrose of Milan says, “Through silence I have seen many saved, but through talkativeness not one.” And again one of the Fathers has said that silence is the mystery of the age to come, while words are the implement of this present world (Philokalia, Callistus and Ignatius, section 16.11).
Simply sit in your cell in heedfulness and silence, and by every means strive to bring yourself near to the Lord; and the Lord will make ready to transform such a man into an angel: “For upon whom,” He says, “shall I look but upon him that is meek and silent and trembles at My word?” (Is. 66:2). When we abide in silence, then our enemy, the devil, is unable to gain any advantage with respect to the hidden man of the heart. By this one must understand silence of mind.
If you are not able always to abide in solitude and silence, live in the monastery and occupy yourself with the obediences that are laid upon you by the Superior. Then whatever time remaining from your obediences should be devoted to solitude and silence. For this little bit, the Lord God will not refrain from sending His rich mercy upon you.
From solitude and silence, tender feeling and meekness are born. The
action of the latter in the heart of man can be likened to the calm water of Siloam that runs without noise or sound. As the prophet Isaiah speaks of it, “the waters of Shiloah that go softly” (Is. 8:6).
Abiding in the cell in silence, the practice of prayer and the study day and night of the law of God make a man pious. For according to the words of the Holy Fathers, the cell of a monk is the Babylonian furnace, in which the three youths found the Son of God (Philokalia, St. Peter of Damascus, Book 1, section 114). “A monk,” according to the words of Ephraim the Syrian, “cannot stay long in one place if he does not beforehand love silence and temperance. For silence teaches stillness and continual prayer, while temperance renders the thought undistracted. So at last one may find this desired peaceful state” (Book 2, section 59).

Concerning Sorrow

When the evil spirit of sorrow seizes the soul, then it fills her with bitterness and unpleasantness. It does not allow her to complete prayer with the necessary earnestness, and it hinders the reading of Scriptures with the attention that is proper. It makes the soul devoid of meekness and a good-natured manner in relations with the brethren, and it gives birth to aversion for every conversation. For the soul, when filled with sorrow, acts as one who is senseless and delirious; she is not able to calmly receive good counsel or to meekly answer questions laid before her. She flees people as though they were the cause of her disturbance, and does not understand that the reason for her illness lies within. Sorrow is the worm of the heart that gnaws at the mother who gave her birth.
The sorrowful monk is not able to move his mind towards contemplation and he is never able to complete his prayer purely.
He who has been victorious over the passions has been victorious over sorrow. But he who is a victim of the passions cannot avoid the chains of sorrow. As the sick man is known by the color of his face, so he who is ruled by the passions is detected by his sorrow. It is impossible for one who loves the world not to be sorrowful, but he who has contempt for the world is always joyful.
As fire purifies gold, so sorrowful longing for God cleanses the heart of sin (Ant., Word 25).

Instruction to a beginning monk

As you live in the cloister observe the following: as you stand in the Church, attend to everything without overlooking anything. If you happen to be in your cell and do not have handiwork, show all diligence to reading, and above all read the Psalter. Make an effort to read through each stasis many times in order that you may contain everything in your mind. If you have handiwork, apply yourself to it; if you are called to an obedience, go to it. During handiwork, or wherever you may be at an obedience, unceasingly say the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In prayer take heed to yourself – that is, gather your mind and unite it with the subject of the prayer, and do not turn to any other thing. When the Lord kindles your heart by the warmth of His grace, then the prayer shall flow in it unceasingly and always be with you, delighting and nourishing you.
When you shall hold within yourself this food of the soul – that is, conversation with our Lord Himself – why should you go to the cells of the brethren even though someone should call upon you? Truly I tell you that this is idle talk and love of idleness. If you do not understand yourself, how then are you able to discern that which concerns others and teach them? Be silent; remember always the presence of God and His name. Enter into discussions with no one, but by every means guard yourself against judging those who converse much, or who laugh. Be in this case deaf and dumb, so that whatever they say about you, you will let it all pass by your ears.
As an example for yourself, you can take Stephen the New (Lives of Saints, Nov. 28th), who was unceasing in prayer, meek in character, silent, humble in heart, compunctionate in spirit, pure in body and soul, irreproachable in virginity, in poverty true, in non-acquisitiveness like a desert dweller. He was unmurmuring in obedience, thorough in his duties, patient and earnest in his labors.
Sitting at table, do not look or judge how much anyone eats, but attend to yourself and nourish your soul with prayer. For dinner eat what is sufficient, and at supper restrain yourself. On Wednesday and Friday, if possible eat only once. Every day without fail, in the evening sleep four hours: the 10th, 11th, 12th, and the hour past midnight; if you become weak, you can sleep in the afternoon. Hold to this constantly until the end of your life, for it is necessary to calm your head. I, from my early years, have kept such a way. And we always beg the Lord God to give us rest at nighttime. (3) If you shall thus keep yourself, then you will not be despondent, but healthy and joyful.

(1)Here the Septuagint translation, as in other quotes in this article, is rendered and may differ from other texts familiar to the reader.
(2)Here we have translated directly from the Slavonic text.
(3)This is a reference to the Compline service of the Orthodox Church.

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life: Instructions Part I


Concerning Renunciation of the World

The fear of God is obtained at the time when a man, having renounced the world and all that is in the world, focuses all his thoughts and feelings on the one notion of the law of God, wholly immersing himself in contemplation of God and in perceptions of the blessedness promised by the Saints.

It is impossible to renounce the world and come to a state of spiritual contemplation while remaining in the world.  For as long as the passions are not calmed it is impossible to acquire peace of soul; and the passions are not quieted as long as we are surrounded with things that arouse the passions.  In order to come to perfect passionlessness and attain perfect stillness of soul, it is necessary to struggle much in spiritual reflection and prayer.  But how is it possible to wholly and serenely immerse oneself in the contemplation of God and instruction in His law, and to lift one’s whole soul to Him in ardent prayer, while remaining amidst the incessant noise of the passions warring in the world?  The world lies in evil.  The soul cannot love God sincerely without having freed itself from the world.

Concerning Stillness

The venerable Barsanuphius teaches: As long as a ship is at sea it endures perils and the onslaught of winds, but once it reaches a tranquil and peaceful harbor it remains calm and no longer fears perils and afflictions and the onslaughts of winds.  And so you, monk, as long as you remain among people, expect afflictions and perils and the onslaughts of mental storms, but when you enter into stillness you will have nothing to fear (Bars., Answer 8,9).  Perfect stillness is a cross upon which a man must crucify himself with all his passions and lusts.  Just think how much abuse and how many insults our Master Christ endured at first before He ascended upon the cross.  It is the same with us; we are not able to come to perfect stillness and hope for holy perfection if we do not suffer with Christ.  For the Apostle says, “If we suffer with Him we shall also be glorified with Him” (Rom. 8:17).  There is no other way (Bars., Answer 346).

He who has come to stillness must unceasingly remember why he has come, so that his heart does not turn to anything else whatsoever.

Concerning heedfulness of oneself

He who walks upon this path must not pay attention to extraneous rumors through which the head can be filled with idle and vain thoughts and recollections, but he must attend to himself.

It is especially necessary for one on this path to be watchful so as not to let himself turn to the affairs of others, neither to think nor speak of them – as the Psalmist says: “that my mouth might not speak of the works of men” (16:4) (27) – but rather he should pray to the Lord: “From my secret sins do Thou cleanse me, and from those of strangers spare Thy servant” (Ps. 18:13,14).

A man must direct attention to the beginning and end of his life.  In the middle, where fortunate or unfortunate happenings occur, one should be indifferent.

In order to preserve heedfulness, one needs to be withdrawn within oneself, according to the saying of the Lord: “Salute no man by the way” (Luke 10:4) – that is, do not speak unnecessarily.

On meeting the elders or brethren, one ought to honor them with a bow, having one’s eyes always closed.

Concerning care for the soul

Man, in reference to the body, is like a candle that is lit; it must burn down and the body must die.  But the soul is immortal; therefore our care for the soul must be greater than that for the body: “For what will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul, or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mat. 16:26).

Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan and others were virgins from their youth until the end of their lives.  They directed their entire lives to caring for the soul and not for the body.  And so it is necessary for us to focus entirely on the soul. The body should be strengthened only for this: that it may aid in the strengthening of the spirit.

If we willfully exhaust our body to the point that the soul also is exhausted, then such an oppression would be indiscreet even though it may be done to gain virtue.

Should it be pleasing to the Lord to lay sickness on a man in order to test him, then He will grant him the power to endure.

With what one should nourish the soul

It befits one to nourish the soul with the word of God; for the word of God, as Gregory the Theologian says, is angelic bread, through which souls that hunger for God are fed.  Above all, one needs to exercise oneself in the reading of the New Testament and the Psalter, and this should be done standing. Through this the mind is enlightened and is in turn changed with a divine change.

A man should accustom himself to having his mind as if swimming in the law of God, which should be a guide in the ordering of his life.

Once a man has nourished his soul with the word of God, then he is filled with the understanding of what is good and what is evil.

The reading of the word of God should be conducted in solitude so that the mind of the reader may be totally immersed in the truth of the Holy Scriptures, and receive from God a warmth in himself which in solitude produces tears, which cause the whole man to be kindled and filled with spiritual gifts that delight the mind and heart more than any word.

Concerning peace of soul

If a man does not abandon worldly concerns he cannot have peace of soul.  Peace of soul is obtained through afflictions.  The Scriptures say, “We have gone through fire and water and Thou hast led us to rest” (Ps. 65:12).  He who desires to be pleasing to God must pass through many afflictions.  How can we extol the holy martyrs for the suffering that they endured for the sake of God if we are not able to endure a little fever?

Nothing is so helpful in the acquisition of interior peace as silence, and to keep conversations with others as short as possible; but one should converse with oneself unceasingly.

Nothing is better than peace in Christ, for in it every warfare of the spirits of the air and earth is destroyed.  “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph. 6:12).

The sign of a wise soul is when a man has his mind descend within himself and has activity in his heart.  Then the grace of God envelops him and he abides in a peaceful state and through it in the most peaceful state.  In peaceful state, that is, with a good conscience.  In the most peaceful state since the mind contemplates within itself the grace of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the word of God: “His place is in peace” (Ps. 75:3).

On preserving peace of soul

One should try by every means to preserve peace of soul and not to be disturbed by insults from others.  Therefore it is necessary to strive to contain anger in every way, and through heedfulness of the mind and heart to restrain from unbecoming impulses.

So then, we must bear insults from others with indifference, and accustom ourselves to having such a disposition of spirit as to feel that their insult did not have to do with us but with others.  Such an exercise can bring quietness to our heart and make it a dwelling place of God Himself.

We see an example of such freedom from anger in Gregory the Wonderworker, from whom a prostitute in a certain public place demanded a reward as though he had committed a sin with her.  But he, being not the least bit angry with her, meekly told a certain friend of his, “Quickly give her the price, as much as she demands.”  As soon as the woman received that unrighteous reward she was subjected to an assault by a demon.  The saint drove the demon away from her by prayer (Lives of Saints, Nov. 17).

If it is not possible to be undisturbed then one should at least try to restrain the tongue, in accord with the words of the Psalmist: “I was troubled and spake not” (Ps. 76:5).  For preserving peace of soul one must also flee from every judgment of others.  Silence and lack of judgment preserve peace of soul.  When a man is in such an orderly state, he receives divine revelations.

In order to be delivered from judging, one must take heed to oneself, not accepting extraneous thoughts from anyone, and be dead to everything.  For the preservation of peace of soul, it befits one to enter into oneself more frequently and ask: “Where am I?”

At the same time, one must watch in order that the bodily senses, especially sight, serve the inner man, and that they do not distract the soul through sensual objects; for gifts of grace are received only by those who have interior activity, and are vigilant over their souls.


Sunday of Orthodoxy

In this post I am going off from the serializing of St. Seraphim’s life and teaching in order to post a sermon on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

Sunday of Orthodoxy

Beloved of God, we are all aware, that on this Sunday of Orthodoxy, we celebrate the restoration of the veneration of icons in the Church. But what is the meaning of icons? Well, one thing we could say is that icons are a proclamation of the meaning and purpose of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. In short, it is deification of man. From the moment of conception in the womb of the young girl, Mary, whom we know as Theotokos, the human nature which Christ assumed was deified. Therefore we can now become partakers of the divine nature.

With this triumph of Orthodoxy we have an affirmation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and so we have the fullness of the true faith confirmed. The Church, as the Apostle Paul writes, “is the pillar and bulwark of truth.” So we should rejoice in that the true faith has been preserved for us. However, as of old, so also today we see many tangents creeping into the Church. Therefore we need to be careful to preserve the truth that has been handed down and really be Orthodox.

Yet it is possible to be very exact in our understanding of the faith and to be well read and to be very strict in our life style by holding precisely to the ascetical tradition of the Church, yet still be lacking something. For those of us who are struggling to hold on to the fullness of the faith there is something else to consider. We must ponder the question; are we bearing the proper fruit? Since it is possible to be very Orthodox yet not very Christian; although we may be Orthodox in doctrine are we Christ-like in life? Yes, are we living icons of Christ?

So now, another question arises which is: What is criteria for truth? Who can we trust to answer this question? I believe the spiritual children in the line of Saint Silouan the Athonite are trustworthy and sufficient for this. Archimandrite Zacharias1 of St. John the Baptist Monastery in England has stated that one topic that his spiritual father, Archimandrite Sophrony asked his spiritual children to write or speak about is prayer for enemies as criteria for truth. When Father Zacharias was asked, “How is prayer for enemies criteria for truth?” He replied, “If one is developing this, it shows that one is progressing properly in spiritual life.” And he added, “A heretic cannot attain this.” In his book, “Remember Thy First Love”, Father writes:

We know the greatest of God’s commandments is that of love—love towards God and love towards man: on these two commandments hang the law and the Prophets, all heaven and earth. More particularly, the summit of the commandments to love our neighbor is to love and pray for our enemies. For he who loves his enemies loves his neighbor perfectly and loves God perfectly, being conformed to the Spirit of the Saviour-God Who stretched out His arms on the Cross and embraced all, friends and enemies alike, those far from Him and those near to Him those who know Him and those who do not. So the man who loves his enemies and does good to them that hate him has fulfilled the two great commandments to the utmost and knows God as He is.

According to Father Sophrony’s teaching, the commandment to love our enemies kills every trace of pride in us. In order to fulfill it we must humble ourselves utterly so as to make way for the Holy Spirit. St. Silouan said that love for our enemies is the surest criterion of the presence of the Holy Spirit in us: whosoever loves his enemies possesses the Holy Spirit in great measure.2

Before continuing with Father Zacharias let us look at a few sayings of Saint Silouan:

The Holy Spirit is love, and He gives the soul strength to love her enemies. And he who does not love his enemies does not know God….
The Lord is a merciful Creator, having compassion for all. The Lord pities all sinners as a mother is compassionate with her children even when they take the wrong path. Where there is no love for enemies and sinners, the Spirit of the Lord is missing.3

Now back to Father Zacharias:

And the presence of the Spirit of God is also the presence of truth in us, for the Holy Spirit, the Heavenly King and Comforter, is also the Spirit of Truth, and He guides us into all truth. Love for one’s enemies is therefore the best way to authentic knowledge of God: the Spirit leads us to ‘the knowledge of the Son of God’ and ‘unto the measure and stature of the fullness of Christ.’4

So then, in this fashion, this trinity of fathers: Saint Silouan, Father Sophrony, and Father Zacharias reveal to us criteria for truth and how to grow into the likeness of God—living icons of Christ. Through their prayers for the whole world may we also attain this. Amen.

1. Father Zacharias is a spiritual child of Father Sophrony, who is the biographer and the closest spiritual child of Saint Silouan.
2. p. 318
3. p. 105
4. pp.318-9

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life: Part III, The Life (continued)

In the year 1807, the Abbot of the Monastery, the kind and meek Isaiah passed away. His death had a deep effect on the subsequent life of Elder Seraphim. When he was tonsured a monk, Isaiah was the sponsor who received him from the Gospel. (1) He was Fr. Seraphim’s spiritual father, and his favorite partner in conversation. Abbot Isaiah revered Father Seraphim so much and loved to talk with him so much that he often visited him even while ill, with the help of zealous brethren. When the severe illness that lead to his death prevented him from going by himself to the Elder, who was then living in his remote hermitage in the dense forest that was difficult to pass through, the brethren with their own hands transported him to the elder in a small cart. So the last days of his earthly life were brightened through conversation with Father Seraphim.

Father Seraphim was struck with deep grief at the loss of this partner in conversation, his Superior and mentor. Thoughts of the transience of the present life, the hour of death, and the last judgment of God began to fall deeply into his soul. From this time on he gave himself over to complete stillness, so that he avoided all visitors, in imitation of Arsenius the Great. On meeting anyone he would fall with his face to the ground, and would not stand up until whomever he met departed. He kept such silence and solitude for about three years.

The elder, weighed down by the years and exhausted from prolonged ascetic labors, gradually weakened. Thus he was unable to come to the Monastery on Feast Days for communion of the Holy Mysteries, according to his former custom. This prompted him to give up the eremitical life. In the year 1810 he moved back into the monastery with the blessing of Abbot Niphont, after having lived in the wilderness for more than 15 years. The Abbot and brethren greatly rejoiced at his resettlement, for they expected to always see him and to profit from the example of his reverent life.

Always having kept the thought of death at the forefront of his mind – according to the teaching of Jesus the son of Sirach: “Remember your latter days and you will never sin” (Sir. 7:39) (2) – he asked that an oak coffin be made for him and set at the entryway of his cell. He often prayed beside this coffin. In this way, in his solitude he was always preparing himself to depart from this earthly place to eternity. He sat in his cell as in a grave, like a person living yet dead. Only a few of the brethren were able to see him or speak with him.

All those who came to him from the brethren he greeted with a bow to the ground. Especially those who were devoted to him he taught to go to Church unfailingly; to unceasingly engage in mental prayer; to zealously get through their obedience, whatever the Superior might lay upon them; not to taste food until the appointed time, according to the rubrics; (3) and at mealtime to sit with reverence and the fear of God and consume whatever was offered with gratefulness.

Concerning this last point, he recounted the following story: Among the brethren was one discerning Elder, who beheld through the spirit the state of those who were sitting and eating at meal time. He saw that one ate honey, and another bread, but another mosquito grub. The Elder was amazed at this and prayed to God, saying: “O Lord, reveal to me this mystery. At the meals there was set the one and the same food for all; how then was it changed? One ate honey, another bread, while another mosquito grub.” There came to him a voice from above, saying: “Those who eat honey are those who sit at meals with fear and trembling, with spiritual joy and unceasing prayer. Their prayer arises as incense to God and therefore they eat honey. Those that eat bread are those who take pleasure in the taste of what God has given them. Those who eat mosquito grub are those ones who complain and say: ‘This is good, but this is rotten'” (Prologue, Aug. 7).

Fr. Seraphim also advised no one venture out from the monastery without a reason worthy of a blessing. He taught all to patiently bear the onslaught of temptations that come, according to the word of the Lord: “He that endureth to the end shall be saved” (Mat. 10:22). He especially taught everyone to mutually preserve peace, because God dwells only in a place of peace; as it is said, “His place is in peace” (Ps. 75:3). (4)

With the blessing of the Superior, the Holy Mysteries from the early Liturgy on Sundays and Feast Days were brought to him for his communion in his cell. He regarded communing of the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of the Lord to be such a desirable, essential, and saving obligation that he never skipped one Feast Day or Sunday without being vouchsafed these Holy Things. He urged the others to do the same, so that they would not let any of the 12 Feasts pass by without cleansing their conscience through confession and having their sins washed by the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. He advised every Christian unfailingly to fast (5) during the four fasts of the Church for this reason.

After another 5 years (6) of a life of stillness, being convinced through the requests of certain visitors, Fr. Seraphim began to receive outsiders. He no longer refused anyone who wanted to receive from him a blessing and be profited by his counsel. For this reason, in time the number of visitors greatly increased, and many began to come to him from far-off places. He blessed those who came, and depending on the needs of each soul, gave them a brief exhortation. He had the habit of giving antidoron or blessed bread broken in small pieces to all who came to him. All received these from him with reverence, respect, and love. He had remained in reclusion for about 17 years. (7)

Because of the great distance to his first cell he constructed another one closer, near the same river of Sarov, at a distance of about two versts (8) from the Cloister. There he had rest from his labors and offered prayers to the Most High. (9) From this time, except for Sundays and Feast Days, he went to the forest almost every day. He occupied himself sometimes with preparing firewood for heating his cell, and sometimes with the cultivating of beds for planting potatoes. But always, as the evening drew near, he returned to the Cloister. He had the habit of carrying on his back a sack with rocks in it. On being asked why he did this, he answered, “I, according to St. Ephraim the Syrian, am troubling him who troubles me.” When he was withdrawn, the brethren would often hear him singing the antiphon, “Unceasing divine desire continues with those in the wilderness who are beyond this vain world.” (10) This hymn was not simply a beating of the air, but an expression of heartfelt feeling, for he sang in ecstasy of spirit, filled with heavenly joy.

When he came out of seclusion he began to go to the early Liturgy in the infirmary church for communion of the Holy Mysteries. After Liturgy he again would return to his cell, accompanied by many visitors desiring to receive his blessing and profit for their souls. From this time, those desiring to come to him were so many that every day, especially during the summer, some of them came to his hermitage cell while others would wait at the Monastery to see him, to get his blessing and to hear an edifying word.
His memory was solid, his mind bright, and his gift of speaking abundant. His conversation was so effective and comforting that everyone hearing him found benefit for his soul. Some of those gathered acknowledged that the conversation warmed their hearts, as if a veil had been removed from their inner eye. It illumined their minds with the light of spiritual enlightenment. It aroused in the soul resolution to change and strength to improve for the better. All his words and reasoning he based on the Word of God and on the traditions of the Fathers, and he confirmed most of it with excerpts from the New Testament. Through the purity of his spirit he had the gift of discernment. He gave instruction to some before they explained their circumstances, touching directly upon the interior feelings and thoughts of their hearts. The special qualities of his conversation and conduct were love and wisdom that proceeds from humility. Whosoever it might be that came to him – a poor man in rags, or a rich man in fine apparel, and regardless of the sins they were burdened with – he embraced all with love. He bowed to the ground before all, gave blessings, and kissed the hands of many who were not ordained. He never admonished anyone with a severe reprimand or a harsh reproach, nor did he lay a heavy burden on anyone. He himself bore the Cross of Christ with all its afflictions. In his speaking he convicted some – but gently, softening his words with humility and love. He strove to awaken the conscience through his counsel, indicating the way of salvation in such a manner that the listener at first would not even understand that the matter concerned his own soul. Afterwards, the power of his words, full of grace, inevitably produced results. None departed from him without direction – neither rich, nor poor, nor the simple, nor the learned, nor the dignified, nor the ordinary folk. There was enough living water for all, flowing from the mouth of the humble and poor Elder. All felt his affable love, and its power. Floods of tears broke forth at times even from those with hard and stony hearts. He went to great lengths to take care of those in whom he saw a disposition for good. He fortified them with counsels and instructions, indicating the way of salvation and rousing them to love through his own love.

A short time before his end, a certain brother asked Father Seraphim, for his own edification, “Batushka , (11) why do we not lead such an austere life as the great pious ascetics of old?” To this he replied: “We do not go through such a life because we do not have the determination for it. If, however, we would have the determination, then we would live as those Fathers of old who shone in asceticism and piety, because the grace and help of God to the faithful and to all those who seek the Lord with all their heart are the same at the present as they were before. For, according to the word of God: ‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever’” (Heb. 13:8).

Approaching deep old age, in the year before his death, the Elder started to feel that his body was unusually weak. So he began going to his desert cell less often, and he did not always receive visitors in the monastery. This saddened some, but those earnestly wishing to see him and profit from his instructions would stay at the Monastery for quite some time, waiting for him.

In the year of 1832, on the Nativity of Christ, a week before his end, the Elder came unexpectedly to the late Liturgy that was served by Igumen Niphont. Father Seraphim communed of the Holy Mysteries, and after the Liturgy he conversed with the Igumen. Having bid farewell to the Igumen, the Elder returned to his cell and entrusted to one of the monks, named Joseph, an icon depicting in enamel the visitation of the Mother of God to Venerable Sergius, and he said to Fr. Joseph, “Put this icon upon me when I die and with it place me into the grave. This icon,” Father Seraphim continued, “was sent to me by the honorable Father Archimandrite Anthony, the Superior of the Holy Lavra, (12) from the reliquary of Venerable Sergius.” Father Seraphim had maintained a special love for Father Archimandrite Anthony.

Before the New Year he left his cell and went to the Dormition Cathedral. The Elder went about taking measurements, and designated the place for his grave on the altar side of the building.
January 1st of 1833 was the last time he came to the infirmary Church to the early Liturgy to commune of the holy Mysteries. It was noted on this day that his bodily strength was extremely weak; however he appeared to be in a tranquil and joyful in spirit. On the next day, that is, on the second of January, at the time of Matins, he gave up his spirit to God during prayer. This news struck a blow to all. The mourning was shared by all, expressing the immense grief over the parting with the valiant ascetic. The body of the honored one remained in the coffin for eight days and nights, as it lay in the Dormition Cathedral. During this period, multitudes from the surrounding provinces gathered for the last time to give due respect to the great Elder – now their fervent intercessor in the unending ages.

Inasmuch as during his life Father Seraphim edified, enlightened, comforted, and healed many by word, deed, example and prayer, after his end the memory of this great ascetic of Christ is blessed to this day – not only in the desert of Sarov and in the adjoining provinces, but also to the furthermost boundaries of the Russian Orthodox Church, and beyond. His words and the glory of his virtues have spread everywhere, so that many from far-off lands come with reverence to the Sarov cloister, in order to worship before his grave and to pray to the Lord for the rest of his soul, beseeching also his prayers that their hearts may find rest from the turmoil of the world.

1. Here reference is made to the following tradition found in Russian monasticism: At the end of the tonsuring service, the newly tonsured puts his hands upon the Gospel and the spiritual father places his hands over the neophyte. This is symbolic of the spiritual father giving birth to the spiritual child through the monastic tonsure. In a convent, the spiritual father first places his hands on the Gospel, then the newly tonsured nun upon his hands, and next the abbess upon hers.
2. Translation from the Slavonic Septuagint. This is the standard Old Testament text used in the Russian Orthodox Church; it is a translation from the Greek Septuagint.
3. Rubrics are sets of rules established to promote good order in church institutions.
4. Translation from the Slavonic Septuagint
5. There are two words in Russian which can be translated “fast.” One is “post,” the other is “govet”; it is the latter which is used in this case. “Post” is restricted to temperance or abstinence in food, whereas “govet” includes the whole of the preparation for Holy Communion. In its original usage, govet implied one would be withdrawing to a monastery for a time of retreat for the purpose of preparation for the Sacrament.
6. These years refer to the time he spent in reclusion in his cell at the monastery.
7. These years are inclusive of the period from the death of Abbott Isaiah until the time St. Seraphim began to receive visitors.
8. This is a unit of measure equal to 3500 feet.
9. It was after an appearance of the Mother of God together with Saints Clement of Rome and Peter of Alexandria in a dream on the night of November 25th that St. Seraphim began to visit his hermitage again. November 25th is the day the Orthodox Church commemorates the aforementioned saints.
10. The Octoechos, The Hymns of the Cycle of the Eight Tones for Sundays and Weekdays, Volume I, pg. 12, The St. John of Kronstadt Press, translation, Reader Isaac Lambertsen
11. This is a term of affection used for priests among Russian Orthodox Christians.
12. It is the Trinity-Sergius Lavra that is being referred to here.

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life: Part II, His Life

St. Seraphim and the Sea of life: Part II, The Life


In honor of the memory of the deeply revered and unforgettable staretz, who struggled tirelessly for 50 years in the Sarov Hermitage, we adjoin a brief account (2) of this ever-memorable ascetic, Hieromonk Seraphim. He was born in Kursk on the 19th of July in the year 1759. His father, Isidor Moshkin, was a Kursk merchant, and his mother was called Agaphia. At holy baptism he was given the name Prokhor. He was three years old when he lost his father. His father had been a church building contractor, who at the end of his life had commenced the construction of a stone temple in Kursk in honor of St. Sergius of Radonezh. But, as he was overtaken by death, he left the completion of the temple in the care of his wife Agaphia, under whose supervision it was completed in the passage of time.

Once, during the construction of this temple, Agaphia went to the top of the building, taking along her son who was then 7 years old. When she reached the top of the church, the child Prokhor withdrew from his mother, and not being careful, he fell from the height of the structure to the ground. His mother ran down in fear, thinking she would find him already dead. But to her amazement and joy, she found him standing on the ground entirely unharmed. In this, the pious mother recognized a special action of the foreknowledge of God that had preserved the child. And with tears she gave thanks for this to the Lord God.

At the age of 10 the child Prokhor was given over to instruction in grammar, reading and writing. He was diligent and showed a keen mind. A burning desire was kindled in Prokhor to devote himself to the struggles of the monastic life. Thus, in the 18th year from his birth, having obtained an official discharge, (3) he left his home, possessions, and mother, and set out on his way. Before choosing a monastery for himself, he went to Kiev in order to venerate the relics of the God-pleasers. Upon entering the holy Pechersk Lavra he fell to the ground with tears before the sacred miraculous icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Likewise with fervent prayer, he prostrated himself at the shrines of Saint Anthony, Saint Theodosius, and the remainder of the God-pleasers who rest there. He begged them to please guide him on the way to salvation and to point out the place where he should conduct his monastic life. As he prepared to fast, (4) Prokhor partook of the holy, Divine Mysteries of Christ.

Upon learning that not far from the Lavra, in the Kitaevski Monastery, there was a Recluse named Dositheus, leading a God-pleasing life, who had the gift of insight, he immediately hastened there. Having been given access to the blessed recluse, he fell at the feet of the elder-ascetic and kissed them. Prokhor revealed to him his burning desire for the monastic life and begged a blessing. The discerning elder perceiving in him the grace of God, extolled his intention, blessed him, and indicated the place for him to reside – the Sarov Hermitage. He said to him, “Child of God, go and abide there! This place will be your salvation.” The young Prokhor was consoled by this counsel. His soul burned with heavenly rapture before beginning the monastic life. Upon receiving the blessing of the Elder Dositheus he left the Lavra. Having placed all his hope on the saving will of God and on the protection of the Mother of God, he safely reached the God-preserved Sarov Hermitage, as if God Himself had designated for him to pursue the monastic life.

In the year 1778, with the help of God, he arrived at this Habitation. He entered its gates with joy, as though the finger of God had pointed it out to him. The elder-abbot, Pachomius, received him there with love and enrolled him among the novices. He passed through diverse obediences, and he would arrive earlier than all at the church services. In the year 1786, on August 13th, the Abbot Pachomius tonsured him into monasticism; he was given the name Seraphim.

Having received this new, Angelic name, he turned his eyes away so as not to look upon anything vain. Through love, with a most ardent flame of zeal he began to concern himself with drawing nearer to the Lord Whose name was unceasingly in his heart and upon his lips. In December of the year 1786 he was ordained hierodeacon by the Right Reverend Victor, Bishop of Vladimir and Murom. Having received this order, as a servant of the altar he carefully pursued perfect purity in soul and body by increasing his zeal and earnestness for the Lord God and His Holy Church. Thus he continued to serve at Liturgy daily for five years, communing of the Holy Mysteries every day. Being fortified by this sanctification, he strained every nerve to contend in further struggles. He exercised himself in contemplation of God, unceasing glorification of God, and reading Divine books. Thereby having his mind cleansed of passions, he repeatedly was deemed worthy of spiritual visions. (5) His whole life was consecrated to prayer for the salvation of his neighbor. On September 2nd of the year 1793, under Abbot Pachomius, the Right Reverend Theophile, Bishop of Tambov and Penzen, ordained him a hieromonk. Receiving this increase of the grace of the Holy Spirit with yet greater love and burning faith, he set himself to struggle for the sake of the Lord God, making an ascent to Him in his heart.

Since he had had an inclination for the solitary life and a love of perfect stillness from the time of his entrance into the monastery, his longing was to devote himself entirely to the anchoretic life. Therefore he began to ask the Superior, Hieromonk Isaiah, to bless him for the desert life and solitude, in imitation of the hermits of old. (6) Once he received the blessing from the Superior, in the year 1794, with unutterable zeal and joy he withdrew to a desert cell. It was located about 5 versts (7) from the monastery, in the forest near the River Sarov, on a hill. Upon entering the eremitical life, his bodily exercises consisted of the cultivation of beds for planting potatoes and other vegetables, and in the preparation of firewood to warm his cell. He saturated his soul with the reading of the Holy Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments, and the works of John Climacus, Ephraim the Syrian, and Isaac the Syrian, and the Philokalia. His rule in the wilderness was such that every day he would read several sections from the Gospel and Apostle. (8) He did not neglect to serve by himself any of the services, except the Divine Liturgy, according to the Church rubrics, (9) without any altering. In addition to this, he said prayers and read the Psalter in strict accordance with the rule bequeathed by an angel to Pachomius the Great. His sleep was very brief. The brethren would often find him deep in the thought of God. He would meet them with merely one bow, preserving strict stillness.

Father Seraphim always came to the monastery on the eves of Sundays and Feast Days. Here he attended Vespers and the All-night Vigil, and communed of the Holy Mysteries at the early Liturgy. After Liturgy, until Vespers, he received in his monastery cell the brethren who came to him for the profit of their souls. He gave profitable counsel
to the elders, but to the younger ones he gave fatherly instruction. At the time of Vespers he took bread for the week and returned to his hermitage cell. He had the custom to always come to the Cloister for the first week of the Holy Great Fast. For the whole week until Saturday he would taste nothing; he did not ask that food should be brought to him.

While living in the desert he was gripped by such a love for self-restraint that he asked the Superior for a blessing to be nourished only with the potatoes and the other vegetables that he cultivated near his cell. Since then he fed himself for three years with only potatoes, vegetables, and herbs. Certain brothers of the Cloister wanted to live together with him, but being unable to bear the burden of the desert life and his great labors, they returned again to the Monastery. During his desert life, to those brethren from the monastery who came to visit him and receive profitable counsels from him, he gave instruction in conformity to the needs of each. But at other times, desiring to preserve stillness, he withdrew from those who came.

The enemy from time immemorial, the devil, could not bear to see the valiant labors of the elder and made various temptations for him – by day, and especially at night, during the hours he stood for prayer. It would visibly appear to him that the four sides of his cell would completely fall apart, and wild beasts with a fearful roar would approach him from all sides. At times an open coffin would appear before him with the dead rising from it. At other times the enemy so terribly attacked him that he would lift him up in the air and so powerfully throw him to the ground that if it were not for the help of God his bones would have been broken from these blows. He always defeated such temptations and onslaughts of the enemy through the power and sign of the precious and Life-creating Cross of the Lord. Finally, through the help of God, he utterly prevailed, so that in his stillness he was at peace. Therefore, to those who asked his advice on passing through the desert life he would say that the one living in the desert must be as though crucified on the cross. He said that those living in the monastery oppose adversarial forces as if they were pigeons, but in the desert as if lions and leopards. He blessed no one to be secluded in the desert alone, but he recommended to some to depart to the desert struggles with two or three like-minded brothers. Thus they would be able to strengthen one another with counsels, and mutually comfort themselves through saving conversation.

In how many ways did the devil not strive to hinder this valiant ascetic in his course and to drive him away from his life of solitude! Nevertheless, all of the devil’s efforts remained in vain; by using such temptations he was not able to succeed at all. On the contrary, being himself vanquished by the hermit, the devil departed in shame. When the devil himself was not able to cause damage to the steadfast hermit in any way, he used against him the instrument of evil people. In the year 1804, three neighboring peasants came to the elder. He was in the forest chopping firewood. They came near to him and demanded money, saying that the people who come to him bring money. He answered them, “I do not take anything from anyone.” But not believing his words, they set out to forcibly seize from him what they had asked. At first one of them struck the Elder on the head so hard that blood flowed from his mouth and ears. Then they beat him with fierce blows, each in whatever way he could – one with the butt of an ax, another with a log, and the third kicked with his feet, until they counted him as already dead. After this inhuman deed they searched everywhere in the cell, but finding nothing they departed.

From these vicious blows the Elder was barely able to come to his senses. On the following day, with great effort he came to the Cloister all covered with wounds. He was all bloodstained, his hair was ruffled and mixed with dirt, his hands bruised, his mouth clotted with blood, and a few of his teeth were broken. The brethren, shocked to see him in such a pitiful condition, asked what had happened to him. He asked them to call the Abbot to come, and to him Fr. Seraphim explained everything that had happened. This unfortunate event brought the Abbot as well as the brethren to sadness. While recovering from his wounds Father Seraphim remained in the Cloister, taking advantage of the earnestness of the brethren. The peasants who pummeled him were soon discovered, but the good-natured Elder having forgiven them, begged the Superior that he not at all call them to account. He argued that it would be better to expel him from the monastery rather than to bring upon them any offense. Thus he was propitious, pardoning his enemies who wronged him. But the righteousness of God did not delay to visit and overtake the evildoers. Fire soon destroyed their dwellings, and being brought to their senses by this, on their own they came to Father Seraphim with remorse for the evil they had done, and with tears begged of him forgiveness and prayers.

As he revealed to one of the brethren after some time, he received healing from the blows through the intercession of the Mother of God. With the return of his bodily strength he asked the Superior permission to return to his hermitage cell. The Superior, in accordance with the counsel of the brethren, tried to persuade him to always remain in the monastery, fearing further similar incidents. But he answered that he was not afraid of such attacks. For he had made up his mind to endure every affront, whatsoever might happen, in imitation of the martyrs who suffered for our Lord Jesus Christ. Fearing only the spiritual bandits, he unceasingly held in remembrance the words of the Savior: “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mat. 10:28). The Superior, seeing the firmness of his soul, let him go to pursue his desire and he returned to his desert cell.
(to be continued)

1. This text was published in 1884, nineteen years before the canonization of St. Seraphim.
2. This text is the final section of a book entitled The Community of the Sarov Hermitage and the Memorable Monks that Struggled Therein.
3. This was a governmental exemption from all social responsibilities to the country, which was a prerequisite for one pursuing the monastic life.
4. There are two words in Russian which can be translated “fast.” One is “post,” the other is “govet”; it is the latter which is used in this case. “Post” is restricted to temperance or abstinence in food, whereas “govet” includes the whole of the preparation for Holy Communion. In its original usage, govet implied one would be withdrawing to a monastery for a time of retreat for the purpose of preparation for the Sacrament.
5. This does not necessarily mean that the saint was actually seeing something with his physical eyes. The Russian word here for “visions” is “videnii,” which is equivalent to the Greek, “theoria.” Concerning “theoria” a prominent Athonite elder of the 20th century, Joseph the Heyschast, has written: “This does not mean seeing lights, phantasies, and images, but it means clarity of the nous [mind] , clearness of thoughts, and depth of cognition” (Monastic Wisdom, The Letters of Joseph the Hesychast, [Florence, Arizona: St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, 1998], pg.45).
6. This was after the death of Abbot Pachomius, a mentor whom St. Seraphim had greatly respected and loved.
7. This is a unit of measure equal to 3500 feet.
8. These are daily readings from the Gospels and Acts or Epistles as set by the Orthodox Church.
9. Rubrics are sets of rules established to promote good order in church institutions.

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life

There is a hymn of the Orthodox Church which begins: “Beholding the sea of life surging with the storm of temptations, I run to Thy calm haven”. This hymn has perhaps been quite applicable to mankind throughout the history of the Church; however, today it seems more applicable than ever. As a priest-monk, lately, all I seem to be hearing from people is turbulence, whether it is in their personal lives, or the world at large, or even in the Orthodox Church itself. St. Seraphim of Sarov (who was commemorated earlier this month, January 2nd /15th Old Calendar) is a prime example among the saints of one who ran to the calm haven of rest in God. How did he find this “rest in God”?

About fifteen years ago I helped to translate a brief life of the saint and a collection of his instructions on the spiritual life. These comprised one section of a book of a collection of the lives and teachings of Elders of the Sarov Monastery. In stumbling through the Russian original I believed I had chanced upon something of great value. It appeared to clearly emphasize the prime ascetic tools employed by St. Seraphim and which, in turn, brought him abundant grace of the Holy Spirit: separation from the world, prayer, silence, heedfulness to oneself, stillness, and – in short – interior work. This is how he found “rest in God”. I spoke to resident bishop about the book, and he gave his blessing for the translation. It was published at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in a small pamphlet entitled, In the Footsteps of a Saint. It is now out of print and, being the copyright holder, I will, over the next few months, be serializing the publication here. We will follow the order of the pamphlet beginning with the Introduction, then the Life, and conclude with the Instructions. Through the prayers of St. Seraphim may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us.


Our venerable father, St. Seraphim of Sarov, is probably the most beloved saint in the Russian Church, and one of the most widely known and loved in the Orthodox world. Why is this so? What qualities did he possess that have made him so prominent? More precisely, what made St. Seraphim a saint? What was his way? These are some of the questions we hope to address in this introduction. We will start by asking some more questions: What is a saint? What did a saint offer to those who lived in his time and knew him personally? Even more, what does a saint transmit to those who come after him – those who partake of the legacy of his life and teachings? A saint is a divine revelation; a saint is a manifestation of divinity. In a saint we have something of an encounter with God. Yet how can this be? It is because, by virtue of the Incarnation, God has made our human nature a vessel of his divinity, we have the ability “of experiencing the energies of divine influences organically.” (1) In his epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul writes of our Lord Jesus Christ: “For it pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell” (Col. 1:19). (2) Again, a little further on in the same epistle, he says more explicitly: “For in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9).

In the person of our Lord Jesus Christ the fullness of the divine nature dwelt in the earthen vessel of our humanity. He has united our feeble, created human nature to His omnipotent, uncreated Divine nature – a union of the two natures in the one Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because we possess the same human nature that the Son of God assimilated and deified, a similar union takes places in us; it is that our human nature has been given, as a gift of grace, the capability to participate in the Divine nature (II Pet. 1:4). It is in this process of deification that man has been given the possibility “of experiencing the energies of divine influences organically.” A saint, then, is one who develops this capacity of human nature to its utmost, becoming a pure vessel of Divine grace. The Holy Spirit dwells abundantly in him, and being thus inwardly united with God, the saint lives by the Spirit of God. He thinks, speaks, and acts in conformity and unity with the Holy Spirit of God that dwells within him. His being exists in synergy with God; “in the whole of their being they bear – dwelling and abiding within them – the God in Whom they believe.” (3) Therefore as stated above, a saint is a divine revelation, a saint is a manifestation of divinity.

This is all a gift of God that becomes accessible to all of us beginning with the sacrament of Baptism. This grace that we receive at our Baptism continues to abide in us, yet it often lies dormant within us because of sin. Through repentance, however, this grace becomes active and living within us in proportion to the degree of purification from the effects of sin upon their human nature. The action of the grace of God can become so powerful within a person that it becomes the primary condition of his or her soul. Abiding in the grace of God becomes a permanent state of existence, with the only exception being a temporary withdrawal by God of His grace as a test – that is, as a means of instruction. The working of the Holy Spirit becomes so strong that His action is clearly manifest even to others. Such is the state that the saints have attained, and this is why numberless multitudes have flocked to them.

The Church services often describe the saints as radiant beams of light illumining the world – for they were pure vessels through which divine grace brightly shone like beams of light. In them something of the invisible God was clearly seen. They breathed the Spirit of God and shone with divine virtues, deeply touching the hearts of the faithful. Indeed, they radiated divine virtues to the souls of those who came in contact with them. To encounter a saint is to enter into an experience of the grace of God. St. Seraphim of Sarov was an extraordinary example of such a person. In the gospel we read: “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 gives light unto all that are in the house” (Mat. 5:14-15). This is what the saints achieve. This is what comes to pass when one lives the ascetical tradition of the Church in its fullness.

Central to the Christian life is ongoing repentance, and the saints are those who repent thoroughly and completely. Repentance in the Orthodox Church has various shades of meanings. The Greek word “metanoia” literally means a change of mind, implying what the holy Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: “be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The equivalent word in Slavonic – “pokaianie” – implies to be wretched, to mourn and lament – to be filled with tears. In conjunction with the disposition of one’s heart, and effort of free will, this “spirit of repentance” acts in varying degrees. In some people it acts temporarily according to the sins they have committed. There is confession, the resolve to change, remorse, and maybe some act of penance. However, in others this “spirit of repentance” acts systematically, remaining upon one, leading him from one degree of purification to another. Then, continuing on, this “spirit” – which is an action of the grace of God – leads one from one degree of enlightenment to another. Perhaps we could presume to say that the latter is what the Apostle Paul wrote of to the Corinthians: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord” (IICor. 3:18). This is what the whole of the monastic life is geared to; this is the process which the monastic saints undergo. This was the experience of St. Seraphim.

In the lives of saints we read how a number of them in their early years of ascetic training and upbringing visited various elders, seeking to learn their ascetic practices and in what virtues they abounded, so as to absorb from them personally what they could to assist themselves in the acquisition of these virtues. They did not seek to excel in every virtue but rather to apply to themselves the knowledge they acquired to help them pursue the virtues to which they were naturally inclined. It is this example we must follow as we look at the life and teaching of St. Seraphim. What do we see specifically in St. Seraphim? What can we learn from his experience and his particular path to holiness? Today St. Seraphim is especially remembered for the manner in which he has been said to have often greeted those who came to him – that is, with the Paschal greeting: “My joy! Christ is risen!” His renowned conversation with Nicholas Motovilov is also often in the forefront of our minds when we think of this saint. It is in this exchange – which was made public only around the time of his canonization – that he explains the aim of the Christian life: the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. (4)

Yet for the monks who lived with him, and the multitudes who saw him at the Sarov Hermitage, what was he like? His biographer notes, “The special qualities of his conversation and conduct were love and wisdom that proceeds from humility…he embraced all with love. He bowed to the ground before all.” Again the peace he acquired is often referred to and this he also urged others to seek, as he was know to say: “Acquire the spirit of peace and thousands round you will be saved.” So then, humility, peace, love, and resurrectional joy – these are the spiritual fruits that shone forth especially clearly in our beloved and venerable Father Seraphim.

The lives of the saints and their teachings are a guide and rule for us by which we can order our own lives. As we observe the path to holiness trod by different saints, we can use the same ascetic practices or tools which they made use of on their particular path. We can employ those we are moved to follow according to the measure of our ability. We can implement the same tools the saints employed in order to reach the aim of our Christian life – which is, as St. Seraphim tells us, the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit. In addition, we can say that in the end it is divine virtues or the fruits of the Spirit that we hope for. The Apostle Paul writes of these in his epistle to the Galatians, in a passage which is read in the Church services for most of the monastic saints: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (5:22-23).

So now, for us, in our day and age, what can we learn from the way of St. Seraphim, from his path to holiness? Today’s world, more than ever, is full of noise, entertainment, and seemingly endless distractions which, although they may not bring any acute, immediate harm, deaden the soul little by little. Therefore they are often unnoticed, imperceptibly rendering the soul cold towards God, and this state comes to be accepted as the norm. We need to be concentrated within, but these things disperse us outside ourselves; yet most people in this state are ignorant of the fact that they have been thrown off track. Because of this, such distracting temptations are more dangerous than those which are more obviously sinful.

In his long years of solitude and silence St. Seraphim was enkindled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Then the Mother of God Herself called him out of this solitude, so that the light of Christ in him might shine upon others. And indeed, he radiated a divine peace into the souls of others like beams of light, bringing warmth and comfort. It is St. Seraphim’s inner peace and stillness that would seem to be most needful for us today. As we have already mentioned, we live in a world that is generally high-paced, and permeated with constant noise. The distractions with which Christians are bombarded in a normal day from the surrounding society – especially the media – are numerous, and most of them are outright evil. All these destroy one’s ability to keep watch over oneself and to keep God in mind. To help us in our struggles in such an environment our Venerable Father Seraphim bequeaths to us these prime ascetic tools: separation from the world, prayer, silence, heedfulness to oneself, stillness, and in short, interior work. These exercises are what the saint himself practiced diligently and exemplified par excellence in his path to holiness, and his instructions bear witness to his manner of life. We too, in order to step back from the flood of the temptations of today’s world, in his our measure and according to our life’s circumstances need to implement these tools.

Here is offered the first English translation of a brief life of St. Seraphim along with a short collection of his spiritual instructions, as they appear in the book entitled The Community of the Sarov Hermitage and the Memorable Monks that Struggled Therein, published in Russian in 1884 by the Sarov Hermitage. This was the fourth edition of this work – an expansion and revision of earlier versions. Although this life and this collection of spiritual instructions are both quite brief, they make quite clear the path to holiness that St. Seraphim followed, and they reveal the core of his teachings to monastics, and to all those who seek to tread upon his path. May they inspire and aid us as we seek to follow in his footsteps, and so, through the prayers of our Venerable and God-bearing Father, St. Seraphim, may we “become still and know God” (Psalm 45:11).

1. The Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Struggles – Experiences – Teachings, Elder Joseph, trans. Elizabeth Theokritoff, (Mount Athos:The Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopedi, 1999), pg. 204.
2. King James Version; with the exception of the Psalter this version will be used for Scriptural quotations unless otherwise indicated.
3. The Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Struggles – Experiences – Teachings, pg. 204
4. An English translation of this conversation by Sergei Arhipov is found in The Joy of the Holy, Saint Seraphim and Orthodox Spiritual Life, Harry M. Boosalis, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1993.