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.