St. Seraphim and the Sea of life: Part II, The Life
A BRIEF NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE AND STRUGGLES OF THE SAROV HERMITAGE ELDER, HIEROMONK SERAPHIM, (1) WITH AN APPENDIX OF HIS INSTRUCTIONS.
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.