St Seraphim of Sarov


I meant to write something for All Saints’ Day. Then, since time was short, I intended to post an excerpt (here, in any case, is an excerpt from a Theological Studies article on the saints and intercession that I put up last year). But, of course, I didn’t have the time to do anything at all. I only have a few minutes today, so I would like to draw your attention to a 2002 book by Michael Plekon, an Orthodox priest and professor of sociology at Baruch College, entitled Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church. Fr Plekon reminds us of Tertullian’s claim, Solus christianus, nullus christianus. He then goes on to say -

The one who thinks he or she can alone be saved is deluded. We are saved together with the rest of our brothers and sisters in the faith, our fellow saints. It is only in our sin and its condemnation that each of us is alone and makes a choice to cut ourselves off from “the One who is the very source of life.

Fr Plekon’s book is perhaps most valuable for his accounts of recent figures such as Frs Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, and Alexander Men. But I would like to excerpt part of an earlier chapter on St Seraphim of Sarov that came to my mind yesterday evening. In the paragraph immediately before this excerpt, Fr Plekon explains how Seraphim retreated to a hermitage a few miles from his monastery in 1794. There he prayed, read through the Gospels, and kept a vegetable garden. According to a popular lithograph, he shared his bread with a very large black bear. He was also injured by three robbers (there is no escape from evil).

Fr Plekon then tells us how Seraphim challenges our “stereotypes of what holiness looks like”:

In spring 1810 the monastery’s ruling council and new abbot ordered him to return to community life. This he did, but his manner of living the common life was once again a break from the ordinary. He became a solitary within his cell, in the midst of the monastery buildings, venturing out only at night to the church; his meals and even Holy Communion were brought to him. He communicated with no one and was not seen except at a distance on his evening walks. This isolation was extreme even for monastic life. Just as suddenly, in summer 1815, after the local bishop’s futile attempt to visit him, he opened the door of his cell to a young couple, the local governor and his wife. From that day until his death on January 1, 1832, his door was constantly open, his life transformed into a nonstop ministry of counseling, prayer, and healing for thousands of people who flocked to Sarov – Orthodox Christians and non-Orthodox from all over the country. But even here there were unusual elements. His monastic cell was filled with candles lit as prayers for many who visited and wrote to him. He dispensed pieces of blessed bread, almost a reenactment of the Lord’s feeding of the crowds by the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, a vivid testimony to the “bread of life” of the Eucharist, as [Paul] Evdokimov observes.

Seraphim seemed to straddle modern times and the ancient days of the desert fathers. Seraphim appears to have discerned the complex psychosomatic causes of the sicknesses of Michael Manturov and Nicholas Motovilov, both of whom became his close friends and his assistants. He proceeded to heal both of them only after a therapeutic dialogue in which he evoked, or better, provoked, from them a confession of faith in the power of God to heal their diseases. Motivilov, who later would be the confidant of a theophanic revelation with Seraphim, was commanded by Seraphim to stand on his paralyzed legs and walk. In a kind of spiritual psychotherapy, Seraphim cut through all the denials and defense mechanisms of these two, insisting, though, that he was but an instrument, a medium through which the healing power of God was revealed at work in their sufferings. As in the Gospels, having been healed, Manturov and Motovilov were quickly put to work by Seraphim, who had a healthy sense of the sacredness of labor. They became coworkers in many aspects of Seraphim’s ministry, taking charge of building a mill and the churches of the Diveyevo convent.

With many others who came to him suffering either from physical diseases or from a wide range of emotional disturbances such as depression, guilt, or delusion, Seraphim displayed a marvelous gift of discernment. He could very quickly “read” through the accounts the suffering person presented, finding the deeper roots of their maladies and inviting them to face them to be forgiven and thus healed by God. Even when people were unable or unwilling to tell him their troubles, he could see within their hearts and relate to their situations without their uttering a word. A monk visiting and observing this was amazed and recorded Seraphim’s gift of discernment of souls. Throughout the years of his ministry to the suffering, Seraphim never stopped his ministry of prayer. Regularly visitors would have to wait hours and occasionally a day or more until Seraphim opened the door of his cell after a marathon of intercession.

… Healed miraculously by the Mother of God in his childhood, the recipient of numerous visits by her and other saints, the seer of visions of Christ at the liturgy, St Seraphim at first appears to conform quite neatly to the category of monastic saint. But on closer inspection, the categories of priest, monastic ascetic, even staretz, or spiritual father, are all transcended and transformed. Though he never left the monastic life, he became a hermit, a mystic, a recluse, and the target of much misunderstanding, hostility, and abuse by members of his own monastic community. Then his interior transformation became visible. The door of his cell was open to all, and every day many visited for his blessing, for his counsel, for the pieces of blessed bread he offered. He listened, counseled them, gave them holy water, and anointed and laid his hands on them in blessing. Although still a monastic, he no longer wore the formal habit but a simple peasant smock and bark shoes. His isolation from others ended, he belonged to the world. Through him the monastery opened to the world, a prefiguring of the wonderful openness of the monks of the Optina monastery to so many, including Dostoyevsky. Though still a priest, no special treatment was demanded, and he communed with everyone else at the monastery’s liturgy.

Although he was rooted in the customs of the Russian Church and monastic life, St Seraphim was a model of holiness, a living icon in his own time, who extends the possibility of communion in the Lord to every person in every situation in society. Any prestige accruing from status, ordained or monastic, is obliterated. Also demolished are any stereotypes of what holiness looks like, of what ascetic practices are necessary. He fasts, reads the daily offices, attends the services in the monastery church and receives communion, and lights so many candles before his icon that the monks fear he will burn down the monastery. He keeps all the rules. Yet his life and his words make it clear that these are but means to an end and never an end in themselves. When one has recognized the Holy Spirit, one ceases to say prayers or keep the rules, for the Spirit takes over making all of one’s life prayer. “Acquiring the Holy Spirit,” he said, “is the whole point of the Christian life,” and “if one is saved,” becomes holy, “thousands around will also be saved.” These are the most quoted of all St Seraphim’s words, and they contain his amazing openness to God and to all people. St Seraphim welcomed everyone, clergy and law, married or monastic, wealthy or poor. Each person was his “joy,” every being illumined by the Spirit and the Risen Christ.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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