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.